From March of the Volunteers to Amazing Grace: the death of China’s Main Melody movie in the 21st centuy

by Shuk-ting Kinnia Yau

Numerous Main Melody movies released in China since the millennium fall far short of achieving their original purpose as promoted by Deng Xiaoping. His idea of “the true, the good and the beautiful” has turned into a “golden goose” and “ecstasy pill” targeted for criticism by Xi Jinping in his 2014 Talk on Literature and Art. This paper discusses some of the most well-known Main Melody movies produced since 2000 and audience reception of these films, demonstrating how “party-state ideology” in them has either become the target of laughter and criticism or has been replaced or drowned out by commercial elements. Such elements have sometimes even transformed them into “anti-Main Melody” works, effectively signifying the death of the Main Melody as an ideal in the 21st century.

Some history

In the early 80s, China embarked on a policy of reform and liberalization in reaction to the repression that had dominated policy over the previous two decades; newer leaders who came to power such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang advocated a more enlightened and open approach to government. Under the leadership of Hu as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC)[1] [open endnotes in new window] from September 1982 to January 1987, people experienced a relatively higher degree of freedom and liberty in China. In cinema, films emerged that took a critical stance toward the CCP of the past, such as Yellow Earth (Chan Kaige, 1984) and Hibiscus Town (Xie Jin, 1986). However, within this atmosphere of expanded freedom of expression, massive student demonstrations broke out in seventeen large and medium-sized Chinese cities from late 1986 through early 1987. Protesters’ demands for “democracy, freedom, and human rights” and “no official profiteering or corruption” shocked the Beijing government.

On January 16, 1987, Hu was forced to resign from his position as Party General Secretary after holding his post for a mere four years. He was accused of preaching “bourgeois liberalization.” In the midst of the political struggle that followed, Deng Xiaoping, China’s de facto ruler, in 1987 called for adopting a policy of official support for wenyi (literature and art) that he characterized as “Main Melody” (zhu xuanlü). This art had to promote government-supported themes—in reaction to Hu’s perceived liberal excesses.[2] As noted by Yu (2013), “Main Melody” is a term that originates in music, corresponding closely to the notion of “leitmotif” in western classical music; it refers to a short, recurring theme that lends a musical composition its identity and character.[3] For Deng, this term indicated the didactic role that literature and art in general should play to support CCP “party-state ideology.”[4]

The correlation between the birth of Main Melody cinema and Hu’s “resignation” has rarely been noted by scholars or critics. Instead they have tended to see this trend as simply following from China’s policy of curbing the proliferation of entertainment films.[5]

Starring Tanaka Kinuyo and Kurihara Komaki, Sandakan No. 8 (Kumai Kei, 1974), a Japanese drama portraying the life of a Japanese prostitute in Sandakan (today’s Sabah, Malaysia), was also released in China in 1978 and enjoyed huge popularity among Chinese audiences. Subsequent to Kurihara Komaki’s rise to fame in China, Love and Death (Nakamura Noboru, 1971), a Japanese romantic film starring Kurihara, was released in China in 1979.

In March 1987, a mere two months following the Hu’s downfall, the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) issued a pronouncement that Chinese film production teams should “promote the Main Melody while encouraging diversity.” According to Deng, “every film that promotes the true, the good and the beautiful is a Main Melody film.”[6] And Lian (2015) has even described Main Melody movies as “weapons” and “speakers” that “transmit the ideologies and values acknowledged by the CCP and the country in order to educate the public.”[7] Considered, however, in its contemporary political context, the whole idea of “Main Melody” can in fact be understood as initially constraining freedom of expression in reaction to the commercial liberalism that had developed in China in the wake of the neoliberal reforms promoted by Deng in the early 80s. Later, the concept was part of the CCP’s attempt to re-legitimize its authority following the 1989 crackdown. After the reunification of East and West Germany in November of that same year and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the CCP regime was caught in an ever-tightening deadlock. At that point, its leaders increasingly viewed promoting Main Melody as an imperative for political survival.

Against this political and historical context mainland Chinese cinema over the past quarter century has been dominated by Main Melody genre. Films produced in this genre have attracted substantial scholarly attention both in China and in the West. [8] Films produced in this genre have attracted substantial scholarly attention, both in China and in the West. Many scholars of Chinese cinema have also agreed that Hollywood’s influence has dominated China’s market-driven film industry in the new millennium.

Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode 4- A New Hope) (George Lucas, 1977) was released in China in 1985, one of the earliest Hollywood SF fantasies seen by Chinese audiences. First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) was released in China in 1985 and shocked Chinese audiences with its vivid and brutal depictions of violence.

With such a shift in the national market, Main Melody movies underwent a transformation, becoming “commercialized Main Melody films” or “commercial films with Main Melody characteristics,”[9] some writers praising such marketization in an era of worldwide economic recession.[10] These studies have without doubt contributed major insights into the historical development of the Chinese film industry; they usually begin with the Reform and Opening 40 years ago and extend through the period of the late 20th century continuing into the new millennium. This is the period of the marketization and globalization of Main Melody movies and of the Chinese film industry at large.

Some film scholars maintain that serving the state and integrating entertainment with Party ideology continue to constitute the main purpose of Main Melody movies in the contemporary period.[11] I argue to the contrary: no matter how marketized Main Melody movies have become or how “main-melodized” commercialized films have become, Main Melody movies have in effect lost their capacity to promote “party-state ideology” in the way the CCP originally envisioned. In fact, the emergence of Main Melody characteristics in commercial films has even had the opposite effect, typified by the negative reception and poor box office performance that such films have seen in regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.[12] These trends are symptoms, in my view, of none other than the demise and death of the Main Melody genre.

Here I attempt to address these gaps in previous scholarship in the hopes of offering a more broadly accurate and comprehensive analysis of the current state of Main Melody movies—most importantly to explain what I view as their death. In sections that follow, I will first trace the origin and early development of Main Melody films to set the stage for the analysis I present in the subsequent main sections of the paper about such films’ eventual demise in the new millennium, with “party-state ideology” either becoming an element that turns off audiences—in some cases becoming a target for ridicule—or an aspect of the script that is replaced and ultimately drowned out by commercial elements and ideologies foreign to such ideology. Ironically, this latter development has been symbolized most potently by the appearance of a Christian narrative theme that structures the climax of the most commercially successful Main Melody film.

Origins of the Main Melody movie genre

Upon becoming president in March, 2013, Xi Jinping announced his ambition to realize the dream of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Since taking office Xi has repeatedly appealed to CCP members “not to forget our original intentions” (buwang chuxin). The phrase “original intentions” (chuxin), for example, appeared prominently in a recent speech delivered by him at the 19th National Congress of the CPC in October, 2017, where he argued for a “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” that will “help improve the livelihood of the Chinese people and bring about rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” A news article that appeared subsequently in the Hong Kong Oriental Daily News predicted that

“with the inauguration of the 19th National Congress of the CPC, there is no doubt that the Thought of Xi Jinping will be incorporated into the Party Constitution, officially empowering Xi as the ‘core’ of the CCP and elevating him to the same position of leadership in the CCP as [had been held by] Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.”[13]

And in the United States, according to the list of the World’s Most Powerful People released by Forbes in 2018, Xi has surpassed Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to become the most powerful person in the world.[14] That the influence of his thought would figure centrally in the evolution of China’s Main Melody policy is not a surprise.

An accurate understanding of the transformations that have taken place in China’s current Main Melody policy requires going back to a two-hour speech on literature and art delivered by Xi at the Beijing Forum on October 15, 2014.[15] Inheriting the spirit of Marxist–Leninism, particularly as manifested in a 1942 speech by Mao, “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” Xi assumed without question that literature and art should aim to promote the core values of socialism. However, he argues, after China implemented a policy of openness, literary works have come to be exploited as a “golden goose” for profit and success and an “ecstasy pill” for sensual stimulation, thereby ruining society with “cultural garbage” that is “shoddy,” “strained,” “obsequious to foreign cultures,” and “lacking in positive energy.” Xi emphasizes that literature and art should pursue “the true, the good, and the beautiful” instead of “renminbi (RMB),” and that the “Main Melody” character of literature and art should lie in “patriotism” more than in “economic benefit.” Such words clearly express Xi’s strong concern with a tendency toward over-commercialization[16] in current literature and art whereby the narrative arts have lost their function of “conveying truth through words,” and he calls for this situation to be remedied.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok, 2013) and Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 2015) are frowned upon for challenging the official, traditional taboo against “promoting cults and superstition” (Pang 2011).

If the “Talk[s] on Literature and Art,” delivered by both Mao and Xi 72 years apart, emphasize written and visual art’s political rather than cultural significance, aimed at showcasing the might of ideology,[17] the “Main Melody movie” policy advocated by Deng in 1987 can be considered a follow-up measure aimed at “clarifying mastership [of literature and art]” and “securing governing power [through them].” Xi’s conception of literature and art as a tool for pursuing “the true, the good, and the beautiful” inherits Deng’s understanding of Main Melody: “every film that promotes the true, the good, and the beautiful is a Main Melody film.”

Widely regarded as the curtain-raiser of the Main Melody movement in cinema[18] is The Birth of New China (Li Qiankuan and Xiao Guiyun, 1989), produced by Changchun Film Studio, the first movie studio recognized by the PRC since its founding in 1949. That film was released nationwide on October 1, 1989, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.[19] Not surprisingly, the movie features as its climax a scene where Mao and his fellows declare the founding of the PRC at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, followed by a scene prominently displaying a soaring five-star Red Flag against the background of the music of March of the Volunteers. Written by Tian Han and set to music by Nie Er, this was originally the theme song of the anti-Japanese film Children of Troubled Times (Xu Xingzhi, 1935) and was later selected as the national anthem of the PRC on September 25, 1949.[20]

The Main Melody movie in the 90s

In May 1990, Jiang Zemin, General Secretary of the CPC, issued a statement in a letter to the Education Minister emphasizing the need to teach respect for the country and an understanding of contemporary Chinese history. The Ministry of Education immediately announced that schools would expand their teaching of Chinese history and Chinese. That same year, E’mei Film Studio produced the biographical film Jiao Yulu (Li Wenqi, 1990) commemorating Jiao Yulu, a communist revolutionary martyr considered a role model for all members of the CCP. In 1991, following efforts by Jiang to promote patriotism among Chinese youth, the August First Film Studio released the epic trilogy Decisive Engagement (Li Jun and Yang Guangyuan, 1991) portraying three critical battles in the Civil War between the KMT (Kuomintang)[21] and the CCP. This trilogy consists of The Liaoxi Shenyang Campaign, The Wei Hai Campaign and The Beiping Tianjin Campaign. Following up on this historical emphasis, 1992 saw The Story of Mao Zedong (Mao Mao, Han Sanping and Luo Xing, 1992) and Zhou Enlai (Ding Yinnan, 1992) released, both films praising the glory of the CCP’s two top leaders. Beginning in 1993, patriotic education was vigorously promoted as a national policy, and all primary and secondary school students were required to watch patriotic movies as designated by the Minister of Education.

Movie poster depicting Deng Xiaoping as one of the top leaders in the Chinese Civil War (Decisive Engagement). Film title written by Jiang Zemin in calligraphy(Decisive Engagement).
The Story of Mao Zedong, a main melody film glorifying a top leader of the CCP. Zhou Enlai, another main melody film glorifying a top leader of the CCP.

In January 1994, Jiang, who by then had become President of the PRC, in a speech on the direction of literature and art delivered at the National Conference on Propaganda Work, reiterated the need to “promote the Main Melody while encouraging diversity” in a speech on the direction of literature and art delivered at the National Conference on Propaganda Work. Around the same time Hollywood blockbusters were let into the Chinese market for the purpose of improving declining audience numbers at domestic cinemas. In the mid-80s, television, pirated DVDs, and karaoke had become increasingly popular with a corresponding decrease annually in viewership of domestic films. By the early 90s, half of the national film production companies were in financial difficulty resulting in a 50% drop of mainland film productions. Beginning in November 1994, the Chinese government adopted an independent accounting system by which 10 foreign blockbuster films, most of which were Hollywood movies, could enter the Chinese market each year in order to boost box office income.[22]

In 1995 the patriotic education campaign was escalated. The political context then derived from a number of factors. There was widespread international criticism resulting from China’s decision to proceed with another nuclear test four days after 170 countries had agreed to the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In June of that year, former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui had visited the U.S. on a “personal trip” during which he delivered a speech at Cornell University in which he allegedly advocated Taiwan's separation from the motherland, causing an abrupt souring in cross-Strait relations that brought China and Taiwan to the brink of war.

Furthermore, relations with Japan were strained. On August 15, the Murayama Statement was released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end in which Murayama Tomiichi, former Prime Minister of Japan ostensibly apologized to various countries in Asia for Japan’s actions in World War II. The key points of this statement lie, however, in the part of the statement that followed the apology: Murayama advocated “the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons,” “strengthening of the nuclear non-proliferation regime” and “actively striving to further global disarmament.”[23] This was an obvious warning to China, which was pursuing nuclear development at the time. In the same month that this statement was published Japan for the first time suspended its program of financial aid to China (known as Official Development Assistance, ODA) in response to China’s aggressive nuclear testing. As a result, Japan’s grant aid to China dropped to 480 million yen in 1995 from a high of 7.79 billion yen in 1994.[24] In a related development, Qian Qichen, China’s former foreign minister and vice-premier, had announced to the public in March 1995 that although China would not formally charge Japan for war crimes at the national level, the public could still file lawsuits against Japan seeking personal compensation. These actions negatively impacted the stable and friendly relations between China and Japan that had been in place since normalization of diplomatic relations in 1972.[25] In the face of various such internal and external political issues, subtle changes occurred in China’s patriotic education program. Correspondingly, Main Melody films, which already placed an emphasis on the Party’s historical contributions, began to highlight China’s past as a victim of imperialism and the country’s consequent need to “be armed” in preparation for any future foreign aggression.

In 1995 the PRC State Education Commission issued a list of 100 patriotic films that primary and secondary school students in China must watch.[26] Most of these critically depict China’s invasion by the Great Powers or glorify CCP history. Examples include The Naval Battle of 1894 (Nong Lin, 1962), a narrative of the First Sino-Japanese War, Guerrillas on the Plain (Su Li and Wu Zhaodi, 1955), describing the Anti-Japanese War, Liu Hulan (Feng Bailu, 1950), portraying the Chinese Civil War, Shangganling (Sha Meng and Lin Shan, 1956) and Heroic Sons and Daughters (Wu Zhaodi, 1964), both depicting the Korean War (called in China the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea”). In the same year several film premiered that mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Anti-Japanese War, including The July Seventh Incident (Li Qiankuan and Xiao Guiyun, 1995), Don’t Cry, Nanking (Wu Ziniu, 1995), and Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (Mou Tun-fei, 1995), all of which focus on anti-Japanese themes.

Unlike previous Main Melody films that had focused on CCP revolutionary struggles and victories or on biographies of great leaders, these movies fully cooperated with the patriotic education campaign underway at that time. They emphasize a spirit of nationalism embodied in mottoes such as, “never forget the national humiliation,” “put aside hatred but remember history,” and “take history as a mirror.” Exemplifying this is the long intertitle appearing at the beginning of the film The July Seventh Incident:

“The July Seventh Incident was an epoch-making historical event. The sounds of gunshots by the Japanese invaders at Lugou Bridge announced that the Chinese nation was facing the most dangerous period [of its history]. The great resistance effort against the occupiers at Lugou Bridge became a holy fire that ignited the spirit of the Chinese people. From that point on, the Chinese people took up the fight in an arduous eight-year war of resistance."

At the same time because Hollywood films had gained an overly large share of the domestic market box office revenue, from the mid-90s on, Main Melody films and Chinese films in general began to pay more attention to market considerations.[27] Red Cherry (Ye Daying, 1995) and Kong Fansen (Chen Guoxing, 1995) are two examples of Main Melody films that, rather than preach ideology, seek to move their audience through emotion.

Based on a true story of two Chinese teenagers in Moscow during World War II, Red Cherry became China’s biggest hit in 1995. Kong Fansen, a biographical film about a beloved government official who dies in the line of duty.

Some critics find these films relatively more down-to-earth than Main Melody predecessors such as The Creation of a World (Li Xiepu, 1991) and Decisive Engagement, which more stiffly preach dogma. This new approach to narrative and tone brought about a reversal in fortunes of the Main Melody movies, earning them higher ratings and higher box office revenues.[28]

In 1999, a number of films were produced as part of the CCP’s celebration of the PRC’s 50th anniversary, including The National Anthem (Wu Ziniu, 1999), which narrates the birth of the song March of the Volunteers, later to become the national anthem, and Lover’s Grief over the Yellow River (Feng Xiaoning, 1999), which depicts the resistance of the CCP’s Eighth Route Army against the Japanese alongside the Americans during World War II.

The National Anthem narrates the birth of the song March of the Volunteers, later to become the national anthem. Lover’s Grief over the Yellow River depicts the resistance of the CCP’s Eighth Route Army against the Japanese alongside the Americans during World War II.

Rather than adhere to the CCP’s traditional denunciation of U.S. imperialism, Lover’s Grief over the Yellow River, the second movie of Feng Xiaoning’s “War and Peace” trilogy (the first and the third are Red River Valley in 1996 and Purple Sunset in 2001), goes to great lengths to depict friendly relations between China and the United States, with the script suggesting that differences between the two countries could be overcome by love.[29] In terms of the political background of the time, this film came out when China was attempting to enlist U.S. support to become a member of the WTO. This film was submitted by China to the 72nd Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, where it failed to be nominated in the first stage of competition.

21st century: Main Melody movies in name only

In the early 2000s, together with its accession to the WTO, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased dramatically, highlighting its rise to the status of a great power. In the footsteps of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee in 2000, productions employing acting talent from multiple backgrounds and featuring gorgeous Chinese landscapes became trendy in China’s movie industry.[30] An example of this is Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002), the first domestic film to achieve earnings of over 250 million RMB (US$ 37.78 million) at the box office; it pioneered a category of big-budget blockbuster films that came to be called da pian (big movie).[31] Since entering the new millennium, Main Melody movies have likewise become more commercialized in line with this money making trend. Even in films produced to commemorate national history, the focus has shifted to all-star casts, suspenseful plots with surprising twists, and sex and violence.

Han Sanping—who served as Vice Chairman (since 1999) and Chairman (since 2007) of the China Film Group Corporation (CFGC)[32] and Chairman (since 2000) of China Film Co., Ltd. and who has directed a number of Main Melody movies—commented frankly on this trend:

“Undeniably, nowadays is an era of entertainment for everyone. Those who can entertain the public well are the ones who gain recognition and support from the masses, as well as box office success and positive reception. Similarly, the ones who can entertain the people are the ones capable of educating and guiding the public in an imperceptible way.”[33]

As the Chief Director of The Founding of a Republic (Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin, 2009), a film commemorating the PRC’s 60th anniversary, he continued,

“A good movie should be able to motivate audiences to purchase tickets. Therefore, The Founding of a Republic should operate from a commercialized approach, and its workflow should be integrated on a market-oriented basis. It is not difficult to make a film that political leaders are satisfied with; however, to make audiences feel satisfied, it is the making of an 'enjoyable' film that we will take as our understood goal.”[34]

Han Sanping was the helmsman of the Main Melody initiative. That even he would make such comments bespeaks how completely Main Melody movies produced since the millennium have been transformed into commercial films. In practical terms they are not, as characterized by certain scholars, “commercialized Main Melody films” or “commercial films with Main Melody characteristics” that serve the state by promoting the Party’s ideology.[35] In other words, since the beginning of the 21st century, Main Melody movies have arguably come to exist in name only, given that the “party-state ideology” behind these films has already become a significant foil for entertainment, a stumbling block hindering box office revenues, or even the target of laughter and criticism. Cairo Declaration (Wen Deguang and Hu Minggang, 2015), for example, a film commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II became the target of criticism by netizens in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan because of the appearance of the iconic Mao Zedong on its promotional posters, resulting in a meagre 9 million RMB (US$ 1.36 million) box office. Some even suspected that the movie distorted history in order to please government leaders.[36]

Since the turn of the millennium, one of the motivations behind the production of Main Melody movies has been to attract talented individuals from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the mainland film industry and at the same time to strive for film awards and box office earnings in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Clearly, such talented individuals are not invited to “reform” Main Melody movies; rather, they are part of an effort to convert the entire Chinese film industry to a commercially successful one, more like Hollywood. Thus, directors such as John Woo, Johnnie To and Stephen Chow, who had previously established reputations in Hollywood and the West, are invited from Hong Kong as part of China’s effort to have them direct films in the mainland. This policy has had highly successful results, though their films do not have Main Melody storylines.[37] Furthermore, due to widespread commentary on the Internet, audiences at large have become averse to films that preach political or other propaganda and advise each other which films to watch and which to avoid. As noted by Zhang Dongtian, professor at the Beijing Film Academy, “Nowadays, audiences watch 24 and Prison Break (both U.S. television dramas) almost every day. There are no thrillers that they have not seen before.”[38] That is to say, in contrast to the previous approach of giving first priority to politics, many commercially successful Main Melody movies in recent years have become no different in character from entertainment films in general.[39]