Socialist Female Authorship, Idolization and Contemporary Reflection: Rethinking The East Is Red (1965)

I.       Introduction

    In 1964, the epical musical called The East Is Red (东方红), made to celebrate the 15th anniversary of PRC's establishment, debuted in The Great Hall Of People in Beijing. In 1965, Wang Ping, considered the first women director in PRC period, produced the film version of the play.

    As a woman director, Is there any female authorship in Wang Ping's films? This question has always been discussed after 1990. Dai Jinhua believes there is no women's cinema during the socialist period of China (1949-1976) because all films were produced to adhere to socialist ideology instead of conducting the "Counter cinema" which is thought to be the most significant feature of women's film ( Dai, 2002). However, some other scholars scrutinize the cinematic text of women directors, ultimately finding a reflection of female authorship in their socialist films, establishing the socialist female authorship.

      The phrase socialist female authorship is the key to understand whether the first generation of PRC's women directors had already made their women's cinema in 1950s-1960s. The phrase was first put forward by Wang Lingzhen, noting in her article that the socialist female authorship is different from "western" female authorship in their essence: in western female cinema, the main quest of the film is to express the true feelings from a woman's point of view, soon turning to focus on the conflicts between women and the patriarchal social orders built by men. However, in Chinese socialist period, the feminist practice is encouraged by CCP, so there is no conflict between female author and the social order. Moreover, the identities of Chinese women directors are complex: they are revolutionary socialists in the first place, so there has to be socialist ideology in their films; secondly, they are women directors who more or less convey female points of view in their cinematic practice. In a word, it is the embedded identities that introduce us to seeing their female authorship from a different angle, instead of understanding it as a failure according to the western feminist films' modality. (Wang Lingzhen, 2015)

      Taking Wang Ping's Story of Liubao Village(柳堡的故事, 1957) as an example, Wang Lingzhen finds that Wang Ping has subtly altered the image of Er Mei from "an absolute victim" to "a minded girl." In the original script, Er Mei is a vulnerable country girl who accidentally falls in love with a revolutionary soldier; while in Wang's edition, Er Mei does not love this soldier simply for "love," but for her intention to struggle out of this village to find new life elsewhere. In other words, she is seeking a way to realize herself, which is what Wang Lingzhen notes as an excellent representative in Wang Ping's female authorship.

My interest lies in the female authorship that’s present in this 1965 film. For one reason, in Wang Lingzhen's opinion, Wang Ping has already shown her potential female authorship in many of her feature films. To further explore her possible female authorship in other forms of cinema, I want to scrutinize the women's image in this epical, historical and musical picture, The East Is Red. Though The East is Red is obtrusively political propaganda as we define it, especially in idolizing Chairman Mao's image, people from my parents’ and grandparents' generations speak highly of the film and remember how they were attracted to its story and songs back then. So my second pursuit in the analysis is to find how Wang Ping manages to deliver the political issue to people in the socialist era and to conclude if it relates to the women's image and female authorship. Last but not least, I observe the conventional activities in contemporary Chinese society with a comparison to The East Is Red, and surprisingly find many similarities between them. In this aspect I would like to link the modality of The East Is Red to present time to see the way it influences all generations born in PRC period and how the female authorship helps.   

II.     Socialist female authorship in collective women's images

      The East Is Red is composed of six chapters,each section focusing on one period of revolutionary phase. It is reported that there were over 3500 actors/actresses in this film, which formed a panorama of composite images of Chinese people. As a result, it is hard to follow one woman's image to see how Wang reflects her identity into the role. On account of that, I will base the analysis on composite pictures of women, as well as the function of the women in planning and joining the plots and chapters. I conclude my observations in two parts as follows:

1)      The significant diversity of collective women images.

Though there is a call for "the absolute equivalence," the amounts of actors and actresses are not equal: there are more actors than actresses. However, the women's images show a more significant diversity than men's perceptions. There are three major types of women in general: armed women who are in the marching army or the ambush,  tender women who prepare food and clothes for the military, and dancing girls who celebrate the victory of the army and party. In contrast, the male image seems to be singular and stereotypical– they are brave fighters. Moreover, some essential roles focus on kinships like mothers and daughters, while we see no image of the father. I think there should be some connections between Wang's female authorship and the various women images because the overall three dominant images of women show  three aspects of women's nature. She makes it clear that women can be both strong and robust, and also tender and attractive; it is her own female experience that enables her setting and portrayal of these women. Also, the image of mother as well as daughter is another reflection of her gender and living experience.

2)      The individual narrative focalization.

      There are three individual narrative parts in the film: first, there is the story of a widow and her daughter in their fight to a ruthless exploitation of the capitals; also, the second narrative depicts an old mother losing her son due to landlord's inhuman exploitation; finally a girl sings a song that tells how cruel the Japanese invader was when they marched in her home in the northeast. It is not hard to find the similarities in these stories. Women are all victims, but not the direct victims of feudal society because, although they do not show up, their passing husbands and sons are. So there are two kinds of victims: the men who die in the fight and the women left in mourning. Director Wang chooses the women to be the narrators,  in such way she highlights how these evil capitalists and invaders ruin China in a more profound sense -- they are not only killing the men but also destroying the families, the fundamental units for the country. Also, the focalization in women helps to arouse empathy in audiences, especially in the form of musical in which songs and actions convey the introvert feelings to others; [delete “and”] it is quite similar to melodrama, which also focuses on the women's emotional storytelling. In all, these applications work together as a strike in audiences' emotion, and as a woman director, Wang echoes  these images and identities so profoundly that the storytelling is fluent and natural.

      Admittedly, the male images take up more than half of the screen, no matter in shot length or shot numbers, especially in the scenes when the Chinese army is fighting with enemies. However, this could be explained by the following reasons: one , the stage play was co-directed by 13 men directors in 1964, so they may not put their focus on the sexual equivalence in the first place; for another reason, the intention of the film is to help to propagate socialism in a public sphere, so it leaves little space for a woman director to fully present her idea. Just as Wang Lingzhen reckons, the socialist female authorship has no doctrine nor pattern in making films; the focus should be achieved on how they choose to present women in their production. In this sense, The East Is Red has indeed shown some shreds of evidence in offering the diversity and emotional struggles of women, thus attributing it to the socialist female authorship.

III.   Idolizing Mao with socialist female authorship

      The East Is Red is produced right on the eve of The Cultural Revolution, so the political environment is complicated. According to the People's Liberation Army Daily published in1965, the red book with Mao's motifs had already widely spread to the masses in 1964, and in 1965 it was reported that throughout the country, everyone had 1.5 copies of the red book on average. The idolization of Chairman Mao had begun. Right before the musical was made, Mao declared in his Two Introductions To Literature And Art Sphere(两个文艺批示,1964) that he had noticed over 15 years the art practice in China showed little respect to CCP's regulations, and it was nearly an evidence of its revisionism. In this extreme political tendency, it is no surprise to find the idolized Mao's image in this film; for example, in the theme song called The East Is Red, Mao is compared to the sun of China and in another song to  the guiding star of the people. What is shocking is that they put his image on the flag, parallel to the flag of CCP. In a sense, he has already won the exclusively prestigious position as a faith but not as a human, and his importance is no less than CCP as a whole party. In all, those designed devices are made to alienate Chairman Mao from the living leader, to the abstracted kind of "God," who people trust merely because he is authorized.

       Interestingly, the female images seem to strengthen the idolization of Mao.  Although women and men all praise Mao in almost ten related songs, there is some difference in use of words and their expression or action. Men tend to admire him as a leader in army for his decisive guidance and selfless devotion, using words like "respectful and loving Chairman"; while women tend to show their attractive dances accompanied by songs, singing "long live Chairman" in some of them, somehow showing a tendency that they would devote themselves to Chairman Mao.  This kind of "devotion" is in many films during that period; in The Song of Youth( 青春之歌,1959)the heroin believes she should devote herself to the construction of new China rather than marriage, and it was also adapted from a novel written by a woman novelist.

However, this love for Mao and CCP could be explained when we put it in the lens of the socialist female authorship. As mentioned above, it is the embedded identities of women directors that make it hard to uncover the "buried" feminist ideas. However, the embedded identities seem to converge when talking about women's love for socialism or Chairman Mao. For woman, the tendency to find some firm "object" to project their feelings and emotions on could be natural, especially for young women; as a socialist, it is inevitable to devote oneself to socialist construction. As a result, women directors may have transplanted some of the romantic feelings into their love for Party, or in this film, for Chairman Mao. It is like a cycle: as the idolized Mao firms his image by propagating the mania and worship among women, their subtly romantic projection on him, in turn, strengthens the idolization of Mao. In all, this particular relationship between the images of women and Mao could be an indirect evidence of the socialist female authorship.

IV.   Contemporary Reflections: a melodramatic convention

      The East Is Red was filmed fifty-two years ago. However, it has dramatically impacted the entertainment and educational activities until now and presumably will still exert its impact for a long run. As a convention, many middle-high schools, during their New Year Chorus Show, perform nearly all the old-timed revolutionary songs that are in this film. Also as a convention, every year the China Central Television makes a show called the Spring Festival Gala Evening on the lunar New Year's Eve; the display composes many collective, revolutionary songs and dances as the main courses. The point is, these collective celebrating shows are similar to The East Is Red, both in form and context. It seems that we have all been involved in these lasting activities of political issues and propaganda for generations, but as students and television viewers, we hardly realize we are participating in these events of political references, nor do we ask why this mode of musical keeps repeating. 

      In fact, there is also a modality of film and play in the western world: melodrama. If we scrutinize these two modes, many similarities emerge. For example, they are both clear about the moral standard concerning what is right and what is wrong, they both focus on the emotional expression of women (singers and dancers); and they are all open to converging many kinds of media and arts to obtain a high diversity. As Linda Williams noted in her article, melodrama connects to the essence of American value so it would always keep influencing American. (Williams, 1998) The mode of the East Is Red also relates to the substantial need of Chinese value, or, the need of CCP's governance.

The reason why we accept this political propagating mode has something to do with the socialist female authorship. Female authors, like Wang Ping, focused on the theatrical aesthetic presentation and emotional impact. By singing and dancing in large groups, the actors, as well as audiences, are experiencing the "spectacle" together; it is an extraordinary attraction already. Then tenderly, the film starts to tell touching or soul-stirring stories in the long revolutionary process, and people's strong empathies become the second attraction. These attractions ensure the acceptances; it is quite the opposite to the propaganda form of declaring or authorizing. If the latter forms belong to the masculine world where people have to behave and obey the rules, the mode of The East Is Red is gentler: it attracts instead of conquers, and people accept instead of receive. To sum up, the traits of feminism help to form and keep it as a modality in contemporary China.

V.     Conclusion

As Wang Lingzhen firstly introduced the socialist female authorship, she has clarified its diversity: because there are no particular styles in it, we need to scrutinize the specific texts or images to find if there is some feminist idea within. Guided by her frame and introduction, I observedThe East is Red and found that the socialist female authorship could be concluded in the composite images of women, the idolizing process of Chairman Mao, and its special modality of the film. Even though Wang Ping did not exactly create The East Is Red, in her adaptation we can still see the early feminist ideas, consciously or subconsciously, marked in her film.


Wang, Lingzhen. "Socialist Cinema and Female Authorship: Overdetermination and Subjective Revisions in Dong Kena’s Small Grass Grows on the Kunlun Mountain (1962)." Chinese Women’s Cinema: Transnational Contexts (2011): 47-65.
Wang, Lingzhen. "Wang Ping and Women’s Cinema in Socialist China: Institutional Practice, Feminist Cultures, and Embedded Authorship." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 40.3 (2015): 589-622.
Dai, Jinhua. Cinema and desire: Feminist Marxism and cultural politics in the work of Dai Jinhua. Verso, 2002.
Williams, Linda. Melodrama revised. na, 1998.
Cui, Shuqin. Women through the lens: gender and nation in a century of Chinese cinema. University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
王玲珍, 肖画. "中国社会主义女性主义实践再思考——兼论美国冷战思潮, 自由/本质女性主义对社会主义妇女研究的持续影响." 妇女研究论丛 3 (2015): 5-19.

Film references:
The East Is Red(东方红,1965)
Story of Liubao Village (柳堡的故事, 1957)
The Song of Youth (青春之歌,1959)