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Smash the Old World! | Jiang Qing Goes to the Movies

The Life of Wu Xun (Wu Xun zhuan)
(Shanghai: Kunlun Film, 1950)
Dir. Sun Yu

The Life of Wu Xun is based on the historical figure, Wu Xun (1838-1896), who promoted free education for peasant children. According to the film, Wu Xun, after enduring numerous personal tragedies from the death of his father to his girlfriend's suicide, concludes that the only way poor people can empower themselves is through education. He attempts to raise funds for free schools by saving, begging, and appealing to wealthy landlords. Meanwhile, Zhou Da, a friend of Wu's, has since become a rebel peasant leader. Zhou Da finds Wu's faith in education to be naive and instead advocates open rebellion. The Emperor learns of Wu's free schools and rewards him with official titles, uniforms, and other awards. But Wu refuses to accept these official honors by pretending to be insane and thus unable to go through with the ceremony. While Wu continues his work in establishing free education for the poor, the peasant rebels led by Zhou sweep across the prairies.

The Life of Wu Xun was widely criticized in the early 1950s. In a People's Daily editorial, Mao Zedong wrote: "The question raised by The Life of Wu Hsun is fundamental in nature. A fellow like Wu Hsun, living as he did towards the end of the Ching Dynasty in an era of great struggle by the Chinese people against foreign aggressors and domestic reactionary feudal rulers, did not lift a finger against the feudal economic base or its superstructure; on the contrary, he strove fanatically to spread feudal culture and, in order to gain a position for this purpose previously beyond his reach, he fawned in every way on the reactionary feudal rulers -- ought we to praise such disgusting behaviour? How can we tolerate praising it to the masses, especially when such praise flaunts the revolutionary banner of 'serving the people' and when the failure of revolutionary peasant struggles is used as a foil to accentuate the praise?" ("Pay Serious Attention to the Discussion of the Film, The Life of Wu Hsun.")

(Film summary adapted from Zhiwei Xiao’s entry on “The Life of Wu Xun”, in Yingjin Zhang and Zhiwei Xiao, eds., Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, London: Routledge, 1998, p. 224.)

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