“We have achieved great progress in the construction of ideology and culture,” President Xi Jinping declared in the opening speech at the recent Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress. “The main theme is louder, the positive energy is stronger, and the confidence in our culture is reinforced!”
Such a claim might not be an overstatement of the Chinese Communist Party’s recent success in promoting its political agenda in arts and culture, as the theme of patriotism has permeated Chinese movies and TV shows.
Wolf Warrior II, a military-themed action movie, broke a Chinese record earlier this year by earning 5.67 billion at the box office. The highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time, it is set in a worn-torn African country with an Ebola-like epidemic. Its hero, a Chinese soldier named Leng Feng, fiercely battles local militant groups while protecting medical workers and fellow Chinese civilians. While impressing the audience with Hollywood-standard action scenes and visual effects, the movie owes its huge market success to its exploitation of patriotism.
In an illustrative scene, the film’s female lead, a UN doctor named Rachel, calls the U.S. embassy for help, but the call does not go through. So, the Chinese military then arrives to save the day, as a Chinese warship comes to rescue people trapped in the chaos. The plot draws extensively from China’s 2011 evacuation in Libya, in which the Chinese government evacuated more than 35,000 Chinese citizens from the war-torn country in twelve days. The Chinese passport makes an appearance in Wolf Warrior II accompanied by a bold statement on the screen: “To the citizens of People’s Republic of China: when you encounter dangers oversea, do not give in! Please remember, you have a strong nation that has your back.”
Of course, in reality the Chinese passport doesn’t have these encouraging words within its pages. But in watching Wolf Warrior II, the audience is captured by its representation of China’s strength, as showcased in its capacity for overseas crisis management.
The patriotism of the film is so undisputed that some netizens even argued, “If you don’t watch it, you are not Chinese.” The Chinese national flag is given prime real estate on the film’s poster, and a Chinese idiom is emblazoned near the top in red: “Anyone who offends China will be annihilated, no matter how far the target is”. The People’s Daily review of the film lauds it for “presenting a Chinese hero to the world” and arousing people’s “patriotic sentiments.”
China has a long history of promoting movies that advance state ideology, usually referred as “main theme,” or zhuxuanlü, films that dates back to the Mao era. During the early years, the “main theme” films were mostly concentrated on historical events, the biographies of party leaders, and the heroics of exemplary party members, characterized by films like The Birth of New China (1989), Jiao Yulu (1990), and Zhou Enlai (1991). Such state-led creations were usually filled with blunt political messages, and were often required as study material in schools and state institutions.
Wolf Warrior II might be mistaken for one of these state-produced political propaganda movies, given the great extent to which the movie extols the nation and its rising global status. However, it is in fact a commercial movie, made with $30 million of U.S. investment and produced by a team that included Hollywood directors like the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as advisers.
The tremendous popularity of patriotic movies like Wolf Warrior II signals the recent transformation of Chinese “main theme” movies from propaganda materials to commercial productions that have been enthusiastically embraced by consumers. Pleased to see its political agenda being carried out spontaneously by the market, the Chinese government has also been adopting a similar market-oriented strategy for its own political-themed cultural productions.
A notable example is this year’s TV show In the Name of the People, commissioned by China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and co-produced by the Propaganda Department of the Jiangsu Provincial Communist Party Committee. Surprisingly, the government’s heavy involvement in its production did not prevent the show from becoming the highest-rated Chinese TV show in the past decade and earning an incredibly high 8.3/10 rating on the review site Douban, the Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes.
For those who have watched the show, it is evident why In the Name of the People has achieved such overwhelming popularity and caught the attention of Chinese society. Unlike conventional state-produced movies and TV shows that present bright and favorable images of the government, In the Name of People vividly portrays corruption and power struggles and exposes the dark side of Chinese politics. While seemingly contradictory to the traditional plaudits and glorification of the party-state in this type of shows, it nevertheless successfully achieves its political goal of reinforcing the legitimacy of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.
Pop idols are another effective tactic that the state-directed propaganda films use to appeal to the public, especially to younger audiences. The most prominent example is the grand trilogy of government-commissioned propaganda films devoted to commemorate the anniversaries of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party, and the People’s Liberation Army, which are creatively titled The Founding of a Republic (2009), The Founding of a Party (2011), and The Founding of an Army (2017). Every time, the installment has received huge public attention and media coverage for little more than its star-studded cast. Most people saw the film not for a dose of government propaganda but just to enjoy the so-called “star discovery” —watching out for the famous movie stars that portray every single role, even minor ones that only show up for a few seconds. The new film this year, The Founding of an Army, even casts some teen idols such as Lu Han, Guan Xiaotong, and Liu Haoran, who have the youngest and most loyal fans in the nation.
Though having pop idols does help the propaganda movies to gain popularity, such a strategy could backfire. As a recent report from the Associated Press points out, the patriotic theme and political messages of these propaganda films are sometimes left behind as the audience pays more attention to the pop stars than the politics, thus defeating the purpose.
The increasingly commercialized and market-oriented “main theme” movies raise questions about how they might influence Chinese society in the future. Already noticeable in recent years is the rise of ultra-nationalism. As Chinese people continue to embrace movies that capture their growing national pride, patriotic sentiments have the potential to transform into internalized chauvinism.
What is relatively certain is that the prevalence of popular “main theme” productions will unquestionably drive China closer towards President Xi’s goal of consolidating “the solidarity and unity of the thinking within the party and society,” only if one believes it is the right and the only path for China.
Tian Qiu is a sophomore at Wellesley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.