Morning Sun

Morning Sun | Moving Pictures

The East is Red | The Gadfly | Dong Cunrui | Song of Youth | Great Uproar in Heaven | Lenin in 1918 | Lei Feng | Never Forget | Storm of Anger

Socialist-era Feature Films

Morning Sun reviews the psychological terrain of 1950s and 60s China in part by introducing some of the feature films and documentaries that affected the Red Guard generations. Film viewing was not merely a form of entertainment. Many of the films "quoted" in Morning Sun were regarded as being educational, an integral part of healthy political indoctrination. Students and workers were regularly organized to see films with positive revolutionary content. "Learning through entertainment" (yu jiao yu le) was a basic element of the Party’s cultural policy.

Most of these films have become "socialist classics" and are now screened regularly on Chinese TV. (For background information and film clips, see Multimedia and the Movie section of Living Revolution.) Two films in particular feature throughout Morning Sun. One is Chinese, the other from the Soviet Union.

In Morning Sun the shifts in time work from the surreal (that is more than real), spatio-temporal environment of the opening sequence that employs edited material from The East is Red, to the documented moments of real Party history when, for example, Mao, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai meet with the performers of the show to announce the successful detonation of China's first atomic device in 1964.

We use the historical materials to create a mythic time that is threaded through our film via segments of The East is Red and the Russian screen version of The Gadfly. Both films act as a framing and commentary device, used both by our interview subjects, and our narrative structure, to reflect on the actual progress of revolutionary time and counterrevolutionary reflux.

The East is Red (1964), a film version of a musical extravaganza and paean to the revolution, was produced for the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. The film was screened across China as the Mao cult was sweeping the country. It featured Mao as the unique, ever-victorious and unassailable leader of China's 20th-centrury revolutionary struggle, eclipsing other leaders in its colorful narrative. While it was being staged another revolution was getting underway. Young audiences who watched The East is Red—and our interview-participants speak of the profound impact it had on them—would go on to become the first Red Guards. They wanted to re-enact the kind of revolution that was depicted in The East is Red.

The Gadfly (1955), a Soviet film directed by Alexander Faintsimmer and based on the novel of the same name by Ethel Lilian Voynich published in 1897.

The novel The Gadfly enjoyed an unrivalled place in the hearts and minds of the young participants in the Cultural Revolution. A famed bestseller in the socialist bloc for decades, when it was published in China it became a favorite story—and an internalized narrative—for a generation of youthful readers in the 1950s and 60s.

In our film The Gadfly acts as an extended filmic metaphor. We acknowledge the profound influence of the novel and its tragic hero on socialist youth culture, and focus on how our interview-participants understand the changing significance of the Gadfly in their mental and emotional lives over a number of decades.

The Gadfly was a novel (adapted for the screen in the Soviet Union, and the version of the book that we use in Morning Sun) that, anachronistically speaking, combined the combative mythology of a Lord of the Rings with the beguiling élan of a Harry Potter. Tales of individual revolutionary heroism inspired young people; that the revolution had an Angst-ridden and romantic side as expressed in The Gadfly multiplied its appeal many times over.

The complex and tortured figure of a hero like Arthur in The Gadfly struck a profound chord with the adolescents of China. His personal tragedy, his denial and betrayal, his final confrontation with his own past and the father-authority of the cardinal, the story of his ultimate heroic redemption, as well as the raffish humor and swashbuckling daring that he displayed, the understated, even mawkish, dialogue—all of this added to the careful balance of sentiment with steely resolve, and it appealed strongly to the Cultural Revolution generations. Their own youthful yearnings and frustrations, ideals and woolly heroism found a cultural paragon in The Gadfly. For many—as we see from the interview-participants in Morning Sun—the innocent and wide-eyed romantic Arthur who became a battle-scarred vagabond was a psychological exemplar, an idol whose deeds and words resonated with their own actions during the Cultural Revolution itself.

We establish parallels between the Catholic Church (exemplified by the cardinal Montanelli, the closeted and treacherous father of Arthur) and the Communist Party (and the ultimate father figure of the Chinese revolution, Mao Zedong). The search for meaning and the enterprise to realized ideals through action motivates both the religious zealot and the fervent revolutionary, in The Gadfly as well as in the Cultural Revolution. One key element of Morning Sun is to trace the parallel narrative of the personal and the cultural-political trajectories of the Cultural Revolution era, and we do that by tracking the story of The Gadfly and its changing role in the lives of our interview-participants.

For its ambiguity and complexity, readers of The Gadfly kept returning to the story, reading and re-reading it, finding in it as they grew and changed ever-new meanings and layers that they could relate to in their own lives. This is also why the story still moves many Chinese readers, why it is still often mentioned in the mass media, and also why a new Chinese feature film is being made of it.

The Gadfly, by E. L. Voynich - Available at
and online at Project Gutenberg

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