chapter  6
‘Spring sunshine’: school films in the People’s Republic of China
Pages 23

The film King of the Children 孩子王 (1987), by fifth-generation Chinese director Chen Kaige, is set in a provincial mountainous area during the Cultural Revolution, when education, from primary to tertiary, was intermittent. The film commences with Lao Gan, the protagonist and a sent-down youth, being assigned by the village head to teach in a junior high school. When he arrives at the school, Lao Gan is surprised to find that the entire school has a shortage of textbooks and the only classroom activity is for students to copy a text from the blackboard. In due course, Lao Gan challenges the system by teaching his class how to read and understand individual Chinese characters. He even starts to teach them how to write essays. Lao Gan is soon dismissed for his unorthodox teaching methods. Before leaving, he gives the only dictionary he has to a student and tells him not to learn by rote but by thinking for himself. King of the Children is an unusual film for its thoughtful reflections on

education. But what makes it even more unusual is the fact that since 1949, only a handful of films set in schools have been made in the People’s Republic of China. As we shall see in this chapter, the scarcity has a lot to do with ideological constraints. It has also resulted in those school films receiving little academic attention. Nevertheless, films about education or adolescence made in any culture tend to be rich in social information. The ending of King of the Children, for example, highlights the issue of individualism versus collective thinking. Such films can serve as a barometer of change, in this case telling us much about the extraordinary political experiment that was the Cultural Revolution. The films Chen made in the 1980s are clearly based on a profound change of perspective (both for himself and for his society), reflecting both the more individualistic post-Mao period and the contrasting period of the Cultural Revolution when such a film as King of the Children could not have been made. The Chinese film industry has been a colossal one, and in recent years it has

also taken an interest in co-productions with other industries. Out of the many films produced every year, some have incorporated an element of education in narrative or characterisation, but most offer only a superficial treatment of the subject. I have set two requirements for inclusion in this chapter. The first is

that the film’s story must primarily take place on a school campus, and the second is that most of the narrative is devoted to school-related activities. To make sure that the chapter focuses on the same themes – school, ado-

lescence and coming of age – that were explored in my survey of Taiwan cinema, I have excluded co-productions with Hong Kong, Taiwan and the diasporic Chinese community, such as The Candlelight 烛光 (dir. Wang Bing 王冰, 2002) and My Career as a Teacher 我的教师生涯 (dir. Zheng Kehong 郑克洪, 2006). I have also omitted films in which a school functions merely as a backdrop for other themes, such as the humanitarian intervention of an intellectual in Xie Tieli’s谢铁骊 Early Spring in February早春二月 (1963), or in which the story takes place mostly outside the school, such as In the Heat of the Sun 阳光灿烂的日子 (dir. Jiang Wen 姜文, 1994) and Walking on the Wild Side 赖小子 (dir. Han Jie 韩杰, 2006). Also outside the scope of this chapter are films on pre-school education, such as Little Red Flowers看上去很美 (dir. Zhang Yuan 张元, 2006), or on tertiary education, such as Breaking with the Old Idea 决裂 (dir. Li Wenhua 李文化, 1975), The Dormitory of Female University Students女大学生宿舍 (dir. Shi Shujun史蜀君, 1983) and So Young 致青春 (dir. Zhao Wei赵薇, 2013). For many centuries, Confucianism permeated Chinese culture and society

and occupied a central position in Chinese education. Confucianism emphasised the importance of self-cultivation and self-improvement through education, giving educators a range of social functions: ‘to cultivate personal life, regulate family, run the state in order, and maintain peace and harmony throughout the world’ (xiushen, qijia, zhiguo, pingtianxia修身、齐家、治国、平天下). Educators (and the intelligentsia at large) were exemplary people; it was a common practice to ‘honour the teacher and revere his teachings’ (zunshi zhongjiao 尊师重教) in Chinese society. Nevertheless, Confucianism was disgraced and dismissed by the Communist regime since the early 1950s. The new revolutionary paradigm expanded the social hierarchy from ‘educators, peasants, workers and businessmen’ to ‘workers, peasants, soldiers, educators and businessmen’ (Ma, 1997: 4) – and changed the order of priority. Chinese cinema is known for its links with the political and ideological envir-

onment. For many years in the wake of the revolution, the Chinese government treated the film medium as a major propaganda tool. Lenin’s alleged remark – that in the hands of socialist cultural workers, this medium was one of the most powerful weapons for educating people and attacking the enemy – became a key principle. Considering the Maoist emphasis on workers and peasants, it is not surprising that out of approximately 769 feature-length films made by Chinese film-makers between 1949 and 1966, only 13 (2 per cent) were about intellectuals (such as academics or teachers), and only three films were set on a school campus (Ma, 1997: 13). The kinds of education in which the regime was primarily interested happened elsewhere, in factories and villages. The first school film in post-1949 China had the revealing title Flowers of

the Motherland 祖国的花朵 (dir. Yan Gong 严恭, 1955). Set in a Grade-5 class of a Beijing primary school, the story demonstrates how pupils can help

each other to progress side by side. The heavy-handed political slant of the film is clear from its opening sequence when colourfully dressed schoolchildren march in unison across Tiananmen Square, the nation’s social and political centre. The second such film was made four years later by the same director: Morning Sunshine朝霞 (dir. Yan Gong, 1959). This was also set in a primary school but against a different social and political background – the Great Leap Forward (the push from 1958 to 1961 to rapidly modernise the country through collectivisation and industrialisation). The contending ideas that propel the film’s simple narrative involve two types of educational process – one based in the classroom and the other in society. The film emphasises the need for students to acquire knowledge not from a traditional teacher but directly from the workers and peasants. It shows in detail how the children of the class manage to overcome many obstacles while setting up a factory workshop to further the cause of socialist construction. As in his previous film, the director starts with a symbolic opening scene – the morning sun rising against the golden background of what looks like a construction site. This establishes the ideological theme, clearly suggesting that children, as ‘flowers of the motherland’, are graced with a bright future by living in the new and progressive nation. In 1961, Lin Yang 林杨 made Peach and Plum Blossom in Spring春催桃李,

which was again set in a primary school during the Great Leap Forward era. At the start of the film, a semi-illiterate housewife is made head teacher of the school. The narrative revolves around her efforts to change the outdated way of thinking of a professional but old-fashioned colleague and to prepare her pupils to play their part in the proletarian revolution. The next school film appeared 12 years later – Song of a Teacher 园丁之歌 (dir. Sha Dan 沙丹 and Zheng Guoquan 郑国权, 1973), a provincial opera that tells the tale of how a primary schoolteacher, who has learned much from the workers, is able to teach children to study for the revolution and devote themselves to the revolutionary cause. The school films made up to this time share distinctive common features.

They focus on primary rather than high school pupils. However new the politics may be, the way in which the films emphasise young children is still in keeping with Chinese tradition. For centuries, human life in China consisted of two stages, childhood and adulthood, with no concept of adolescence as an intermediate stage. The advantage of this outlook was that it skipped over a risky and rebellious teenage period. It suited the fact that individuals had either to look after others or to be looked after by others, a situation which emphasised what the age groups had in common. Before children turned into adults, they were required to keep learning moral lessons from their elders until they were ready to impart those lessons to others. Role models of all kinds were set up for the young to emulate, and the whole community was thought of as an ‘exemplary society’ (Bakken, 2000). The concept of youth (in so far as there was one) was invariably associated with learning. For the

young, everything was arranged – lifestyle and leisure interests, belief and behaviour, employment and marriage (Sun, 1983: 394). The perspective of Communism replaced ‘elders’ and ‘teachers’ by (say)

‘peasants and workers’, but in many respects the basic paradigm remained intact. Teachers or intellectuals were, however, a problem category because they were no longer reliable as role models or as a source of moral integrity. Films, heavily shaped by official policy, took a critical view of teachers as the defenders of old educational traditions such as the idea of classroom and textbook learning. The goal of education, as far as these films (and Party policy) were concerned, was to abolish the outmoded idea that ‘The pursuit of knowledge is superior to all other walks of life’ (Wanban jie xiaping, weiyou dushu gao 万般皆下品, 惟有读书高). The Party believed that a revolution in education was urgently needed to break down the distinction between physical and mental work and to promote unified, collective thinking. All young people should fit the same mould, the same category of ‘cultured labourers with socialist consciousness’ (youshehui zhuyi juewu, youwenhua de laodongzhe 有社会主义觉悟, 有文化的劳动者). During the decade of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese teachers were even

described as the ‘stinking number nine’ (choulaojiu臭老九) – the ninth category after landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, rightists, renegades, enemy agents and ‘capitalist roaders’. During those years, the Party’s policy for intellectuals was clear – to ‘unite, educate (which can also be understood as to criticize, accuse and denounce) and reform’ (Ma, 1997: 5). On the rare occasions when a film referred to the school situation, it was to see the ideal as a highly disciplined context for both student and teacher, where personal identity was defined in terms of commitment to building China’s new society. Education was about becoming not ‘learned’ but ‘productive’, ready to live a life of service for the collective good. Typical of the period was the famous true story of the ‘heroic sisters of the

prairie’ (caoyuan yingxiong xiaojiemei 草原英雄小姐妹). Two schoolgirls of the Inner Mongolia minority region, aged 9 and 12, drove a flock of sheep out to pasture but were caught in a blizzard. They refused to run home to escape the storm as they remembered what their father used to tell them: ‘The sheep are collective property. Not one should go missing.’ The two sisters struggled with the blizzard for more than 20 hours to ensure ‘not one sheep less’. All the sheep were saved but the young shepherds were so badly frozen that one girl lost a toe and the other lost both of her feet. The sisters became heroic role models, and their story was included in primary school textbooks, besides becoming the subject of numerous songs, provincial operas, a pipa concerto and a ballet. As film was such a popular and powerful medium in China, a cinema version was needed. But the Chinese film industry was not equipped at that time to stage complex blizzard scenes involving animals and birds (including the girls fighting off an attack by eagles), so an animation version of The Heroic Little Sisters of the Prairie, was made in 1964 by the Shanghai Cartoon Film Studio, directed by Qian Yunda 钱运达 and Tang Cheng 唐澄.

The release of the film in the following year caused a sensation across the country and the two little girls become household names.1