News / Asia

Historic Chinese Drama Sparks Debate About More Recent Past

Adrian Brody in
Adrian Brody in "Back to 1942" (Photo Courtesy China Lion Film Distribution)
VOA News
A recently released movie in China that focuses on a devastating famine the country experienced before the Communist Party came to power is triggering discussions online about a more recent tragedy.

Back to 1942, a grim film by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, tells the story of a terrible drought in Henan province during the WWII that occurred at a time when the Japanese army was closing in to conquer central China.

Released in theaters around the country last week, the movie follows the hopeless march of millions of Henan residents as they flee their homes in search of shelter and food.



Although the movie focuses on how refugees from Henan were abandoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and betrayed by corrupt local officials, many on China’s Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo are focusing on another famine, one that occurred when China’s Mao Zedong was in power.

Murong Xuecun (pen name of Hao Qun), a popular Chinese writer and active blogger, draws a parallel between the events depicted in the movie and another famine, more severe but not as documented within China.

 “We all know that the famine in 1942 was not the most severe [in recent times], the most severe was the 1959-1962 years," he says, "but I can understand very well why Feng Xiaogang did not portray the famine of the 1960s.”

Progress

In the 1950s Mao Zedong launched a campaign, known as the "Great Leap  Forward", which brutally collectivized agriculture and largely halted farm work, in an effort to industrialize the country and raise China up to join the ranks of other developed nations.

The results were disastrous for hundreds of millions of people in the countryside, who had to give up the little grain they had to city dwellers. The famine, which within China is explained as caused by a combination of factors including “political errors,” killed an estimated 36 million people. But Mao is still revered as modern China's founding father and so the famine remains a taboo subject for books of modern history, let alone movies.

Murong says that if Feng were to set his movie during what is remembered as the “great famine,” it would not have passed the test of censors.

“I believe that if this were a free and open environment he would have definitely chosen to make a movie about 1959-1962,” says Murong.

Censorship

Chinese books, movies and news publications must undergo a strict screening by the State Administration for Radio Film and Television, and the General Administration for Press Publication, that are the main enactors of media censorship and often ban work whose content does not conform with the Communist party's line.

Censors have clamped down on various attempts to publicly debate sensitive times in China's history, but online, where people tend to share more candid views about their country, many users caught the opportunity of this movie to talk about the famine caused by Mao Zedong's economic policies.

“Why did so many more people die in 1962 as compared to 1942” read a thread on Weibo, China’s most popular twitter like service.

“The famine in 1942 was a natural disaster, the one in 1962 was man-made,” said one user named “Old Brother Zhang.”

Criticism

Journalists and popular online commentator Li Yong, who goes by the name “Ten Years Chopping Wood” and has more than 200,000 followers on Weibo, remarked that all governments must be criticized and monitored.

“The nationalist government cannot use the excuse that Henan was situated in a war zone to avoid responsibility for the problems in relief efforts,” Li writes on his account. “For the same reason, and even more so, people should look back at the great famine of 1959-1962 that took place in the central plains, as well as in the entire country, during times of peace.”

Some on Weibo followed up their comments with reading suggestions about the Great Leap Forward.

“I watched the movie and, as a result, I went and downloaded the book about the 1959 famine Tombstone,” a user from Xian wrote on Weibo that after reading one chapter of the book it was almost too hard for her to continue, given the horrible conditions people faced.

Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng's book Tombstone is the most detailed account to date of what happened in China's rural areas during the Great Leap Forward. Although Yang used official Communist party archives and documents for his research, the book is banned in China.

Yang was a child during the "Great Leap Forward" and a personal witness to the tragedy.

Reaction

Despite the connections made online between the movie Back to 1942 and the more deadly famine of the 1960s, it is unclear when the party will allow a more open discussion on its own history.

Earlier this year, a senior journalist at a state news agency angered many netizens after he denied the gravity of the great famine in a post on his Weibo account.

Lin Zhibo, head of the Gansu branch of the party's mouthpiece People's Daily, had to apologize for his comment that “very few people died of starvation at the time.”

As a result of Lin's comment,  many people started to post memories online, including accounts and photographs of their families' sufferings, breaking a taboo on what memories people in China are allowed to share in public.

In the last few minutes of Back to 1942 the narrator reveals that a little girl depicted at the end of the movie is his mother.

“Years later, because of an interview that I was preparing about the famine, I asked her questions about 1942,” the narrator explains. “I do not remember,” the mother responds, “why do you keep asking?”

You May Like

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Wangchuk from: NYC
December 07, 2012 10:41 AM
The Chinese Communist Party censors books, films, newspapers & Internet in China so that people will not learn of the atrocities the Party has committed since 1949. Hundreds of thousands died during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the 1950s, millions died during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution & hundreds were murdered by the PLA at the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. You won't read about these events in Chinese history books b/c of Party censorship. The CCP is raising Chinese people ignorant of their own history.

by: Sun from: Taipei
December 06, 2012 4:56 AM
Chinese journalists must tell the truth of Great Massacre (not Great Leap Forward) to the people in the world. I have learned from this VOA news that China Mainland is such a country where even a slaughterer (Mao) can be worshiped as a Great leader.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More