Chinese cinema has played a significant role in exposing China’s political and social situation between 1950 and 1990. This period was characterised mainly by the suppression of dissent by the CPC. During the early years of the PRC, cinema was used as an instrument of propaganda to promote the ideals of the Party and glorify its leaders. Over time, filmmakers began to deploy cinema to expose the harsh realities of life under the Communist regime, particularly for ordinary people.

Early Days: Propaganda and Ideological Controls

In the 1950s, Chinese cinema was primarily used as a tool for propaganda to promote socialist values and encourage support for the government. The most influential film of this period was “The Life of Wu Xun” 《武训传》(1950), which tells the story of a poor and disabled man who devoted his life to helping the disadvantaged and fighting for their rights. The film’s central message is the importance of socialist values such as equality, justice, and selflessness. Over the next decade, cinema in China developed an overt ideological dimension. 

During the 1960s, with the advent of the Cultural Revolution, cinema was subjected to strict ideological control. Filmmakers were persecuted and films were produced solely to glorify Mao Zedong and his cult of personality. Only after Mao’s death in 1974 and the end of the Cultural Revolution did a new generation of filmmakers emerge, seeking to explore more complex and nuanced themes and daring to explore the tragedies of the past. 

In the 1970s, films such as “The Red Detachment of Women” 《红色娘子军》(1961) depicted heroic struggles against feudalism and imperialism, portraying the CPC as the liberator of the people. However, as the political situation in China became more repressive in the late 1980s, the government began to crack down on dissenting voices in cinema once again. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were a landmark moment, and many filmmakers were forced to flee the country or face persecution. Films dealing with sensitive political and social issues were banned or heavily censored, and many talented filmmakers were unable to produce their work.

Opening Up in Chinese Cinema 

In the 1980s, with the arrival of economic reforms and greater openness in Chinese society, filmmakers addressed previously taboo subjects, such as corruption, crime, and the negative aspects of Chinese history. One notable example is the film “Yellow Earth”《黄土地》 (1984) by director Chen Kaige, which depicted the harsh lives of peasants in rural China and the difficulties of modernization. One of the most famous films from this period is “Raise the Red Lantern” 《大红灯笼高高挂》 (1991), directed by Zhang Yimou. The film tells the story of a concubine in a wealthy family in the 1920s, exploring themes of power, control, and gender inequality. The film’s central message is the importance of personal choice and the consequences of societal norms and expectations.

In the 1990s, films such as “To Live”《活着》 (1994) by Zhang Yimou and “The Blue Kite”《蓝风筝》 (1993) by director Tian Zhuangzhuang depicted the struggles of ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Rightist Movement. These films portrayed the devastating effects of the social policies initiated by the Party on ordinary people, including forced labour, political persecution, and social upheaval.

Finally, the film “Back to 1942”《一九四二》 (2012) by director Feng Xiaogang depicted the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous economic policy that led to widespread famine and death in China. The film follows the struggles of a Chinese family during this period and shows how the Party’s policies and propaganda contributed to the disaster.

Navigating Censorship and Suppression

Chinese cinema played a crucial role in reflecting China’s social and political landscape from 1950 to 1990— mainly efforts  by the Communist Party of China to leverage cinema to propagate its ideology and promote its policies. At the same time, many filmmakers worked to subvert these messages by using their art to expose injustices and advocate for reform. Their efforts were often met with resistance and censorship from the government, but they persisted in their quest to share their perspectives with audiences.

Chinese filmmakers made significant contributions to the cinematic arts during this period despite their challenges. Their commercial and underground films captured the spirit of a generation and left a lasting impact on Chinese culture. By telling stories that were often excluded from official narratives, they expanded the scope of Chinese cinema and challenged traditional modes of storytelling. Their work paved the way for future generations of filmmakers and shaped the direction of Chinese cinema for decades to come.

Overall, these films provide potent insights into the political suppression of ordinary people and the policies of the Communist Party from 1950 to 1990. By exploring the Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Rightist Movement, and the Great Leap Forward, they shed light on some of the darkest moments in China’s history and provide important reminders of the importance of protecting human rights and freedoms. Despite the government’s efforts to control and manipulate cinema for its purposes, many filmmakers have used the medium to explore important themes and shed light on the realities of life in China


Bablu Kumar Singh is a research scholar at the Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. His current research focuses on “Perceptions and Images of India in Chinese Discourse: A Study of Select Contemporary Chinese Writings”. His research interests include perceptions and images of China’s Indologists on Contemporary India, India-China civilizational interactions and India-China relations under Xi Jinping.

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