A first disclaimer – The East is Red is in fact a film recording of a musical theatre show delivered in the Great Hall of the People directed by Wang Ping. Not long after Chairman Mao watched the play, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched; the play came at a time when Chairman Mao was consolidating his power base after a series of failed economic policies and period of turmoil and famine in China.
The East is Red tells the tales of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) history and background, from its formation in 1921 due to the oppression of Chinese laborers by their capitalist overlords, and the War of Resistance against Japan, finally to the formation of the “New China,” which could not exist without the Communist Party, as the revolutionary folk song goes.
The film replete with scenes of a vast number of actors performing song-and-dance to revolutionary tracks such as “Without the Communist Party there would be no New China” and “Ode to the Motherland”; these scenes are similar to the modern mass game performances in North Korea, where hundreds (if not thousands in the case of North Korea) of dancers move in beautiful synchrony to convey the raw revolutionary emotion and passion behind each one of the songs.
These scenes of song-and-dance are punctuated by silent-film-era displays of exaggerated acting, often involving whippings of laborers by either Western capitalists with three-piece suits and dyed blonde hair and their Chinese collaborators, or arrests and shootings by KMT soldiers. Dancing girls pointing AK-47s dominate a significant number of scenes.
Between each scene, a narrator explains the pressing issue facing the Chinese people during the time period the scene is intended to capture – aiding the understanding of the film for those that are less well-versed in Chinese history.
One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when an elderly woman holds the blood-stained shirt of her son, who died at the hands of a group of landlords, dramatically in front of a crowd of gathered revolutionaries. Though at first she holds it proudly in front of them as a statement of her son’s revolutionary spirit, she quickly falls into despair as a young lady revolutionary rushes over to support her. Dunce caps are subsequently placed on the landlords as they are paraded away, and the title to their land is ripped up and thrown into an incense pot.
My favorite scene however, occurs in Part 5, where details the “Fall of the [Chiang] Dynasty”. A group of chained revolutionaries stands up and declares their desire to “burn the Chiang dynasty and expel the American imperialists…to found the new China.” As a KMT military officer comes to approach them with rifles in hand, the chained revolutionary prisoners face them head-on, and turn their heads to sing a song of unity. The scene quickly changes to a column of protesters cornering retreating KMT soldiers, who are quickly routed as the protesters link arms.
Later on there is a scene where schoolchildren stand in Tiananmen Square, under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao, saluting to the Chinese flag as the “March of the Volunteers” is played – interestingly, the song was later banned, as the national anthem was replaced with “The East is Red” to praise Chairman Mao.
The film concludes with all of the performers standing together to sing a round of “The Internationale” as the conductor faces the audience in the Great Hall of the People, to guide them along in the song of Communist revolutions worldwide. This scene is indeed powerful, as it demonstrates China’s greatest strength – the sheer number of it’s people.
Overall, The East is Red is still a propaganda film whose original goals were nothing more than to praise Chairman Mao and elevate him above Karl Marx and Lenin, to the status of a near god. However, the beautiful visual effects hampered by the poor film quality of the era (leading to desaturation of what must have been incredibly vivid colors) are something to be truly appreciated, as is the fact that this is perhaps the single most historically significant film in Chinese cinematic history.
The incredible coordination of hundreds, if not thousands of performers on stage was truly an amazing feat that is unlikely to be reproduced today outside of North Korea. Those without an understanding of Chinese history may fail to grasp the true significance and appreciation for The East is Red, but it is an amazing production that is definitely worth watching for anyone who is remotely interested in modern Chinese history and society.
I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of Chairman Mao watching this being performed live in front of him, smiling smugly, knowing that The East is Red, if nothing else, demonstrated his complete victory in transforming himself into the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China.
The East is Red (Chinese: 东方红)—China. Directed by Wang Ping. First released 1965. Running time 1hr 57min.