by Margaret C. Pearson
The Chinese cultural scene was in turmoil in the 1970s. The infamous Cultural Revolution’s “Gang of Four” had been arrested on October 6,1976 and was still in custody awaiting trial at the time the US normalized relations with China on January 1, 1979. During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing, the ring leader of The Gang of Four and Mao’s 4th wife, led the effort to transform China’s cultural landscape. Dominating the Chinese arts, Jiang had snuffed out most traditional Chinese culture, and instead substituted one—in film, theater, and art—intent on glorifying Mao’s revolutionary ideology and the man himself.
For most of the ten years of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese could neither see nor hear anything besides the “The Eight Models” that Jiang had approved. Made into films and radio programs and performed at the opera, accounts say that “The Eight Models” were broadcast night and day on loudspeakers in the streets, in shops and theaters, and on radio. The lyrics were memorized and sung by millions. “The Eight Models” were the only available theatrical entertainment for the 800 million people of China. A joke that made the rounds in China after the Cultural Revolution recalled that “800 million people watched 8 shows.” How amazing it must have been for the average Chinese to have the opportunity— beginning with the first U.S. Film Week in May 1981—to see American films approved for viewing by the Chinese government, and understand that after years of estrangement between the U.S. and China the film world was opening up once again.
The first US-China Cultural Agreement was signed by China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping, on January 31,1979 during a trip to Washington. Then, on an August visit to Beijing by Vice President Mondale, the first Implementing Accord was signed calling for specific expanded cultural relations The Implementing Accord opened the way to a revival of exchanges in the arts. In the film world there developed what was called “movie diplomacy.”
Following on the Implementing Agreement the Chinese expressed an interest in an exchange of film weeks. The Chinese, who had a long and distinguished movie making history prior to the Cultural Revolution, worked with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the U.S. International Communications Agency (USICA)—the name then for what is now The United States Information Agency—to choose movies that both sides would find suitable for a Chinese audience.
Even before the Cultural Revolution Chinese theater-goers were used to a certain style of film. Films that might expose Chinese audiences to a positive image of western society (and which could contradict the image of capitalist societies as inferior to socialist societies) or films that showed people kissing, for example, could be both shocking and interpreted as an affront to policy and morals of the Communist Party. In addition to political and moral considerations, how exposure to US films (and US audiences to Chinese films) might benefit and promote a renewal of the Chinese movie industry—which suffered major setbacks under Jiang Qing—served to inform the choice of films.
As there was no trade agreement in film at the time, the movies went to China as one of the first major exchanges under the new Implementing Agreement. The Chinese would, in return, have their own Film Week in the U.S. in the fall of 1981. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represented the film studios, generously agreed to provide the five films gratis in order to foster goodwill between the U.S. and China.
The process of selecting the films was a lesson in negotiation. According to a Los Angeles Times article by Arthur Knight, a film critic and historian, a list of 100 films was compiled by the American Film Institute and The Museum of Modern Art after which availabilities were checked by the MPAA and, working with the USICA, yielded a final list of ten films which were sent to China for screening. Of these, the Chinese chose five.
Recent films that reflected on contemporary American life were ruled out and the Chinese specifically requested movies that did not contain sex and violence. According to Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, Dale Pollock, the result was a “sort of bland, if entertaining fare, that characterized the Hollywood of the ’50s and ’60s, the only Hollywood in which the Chinese seemed interested.”
There was no imposition of American preference on the Chinese and the films that made the final cut were:
Singin’ in the Rain
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The Black Stallion
Singin’ in the Rain and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were of particular interest. One Chinese senior official marveled that “a film could be made just for fun.” Another described Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as “a serious drama, the kind we are used to here.” Rejected films were:
To Kill a Mockingbird
On the Waterfront
East of Eden
The Official Delegation consisted of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President and delegation leader, Fay Kanin, Cyd Charisse, who acted in Singin’ in the Rain, and Arthur Knight, film critic, author, and historian. A USICA officer accompanied the group. On his return to the U.S. Arthur Knight was quoted as saying that the chosen films gave Chinese viewers “a fair idea of the development and diversity of American cinema over the last 40 years.”
The films were shown for ten weeks in five of China’s largest cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Wuhan, and Xian. According to a follow up briefing by Fay Kanin that appeared in Variety and the Los Angeles Times, the demand in Beijing to see the films was so enormous—with people queuing up for tickets at 4 a.m.— that the number of theaters was increased to 18 and the showings to eight times a day beginning at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 1:30 a.m. In Shanghai, 36 theaters were increased to 45 with 8 performances a day and shown in 1,000-seat venues. Reels were bicycled from one movie house to another since a single print of each film had to serve both Beijing and Shanghai. Eventually, however, new prints had to be struck for showing in the last three cities because of wear and tear. All and all, nearly 3 million Chinese saw the films in five weeks.
During the American Film Week the delegation met with more than 50 Chinese film writers, directors, actors, historians and journalists at which they discussed the craft of movies. American reports mentioned later that the delegation had learned much about the Chinese film world, including that the giving of awards for best films and actors, banned during the Cultural Revolution, had resumed in 1980. There were two awards, The 100 Flowers Award, a reflection of popular sentiment, and the Golden Cock Award voted by film workers themselves, effectively a Chinese Oscar. The Chinese also signaled an interest in the MPAA Foreign Language Film Award and said that one day they hoped that Chinese movies would compete in the U.S.
While exchanges in other cultural fields waxed and waned in the years after 1981—a reflection of the political developments in the U.S.-China relationship—movie diplomacy developed free of negative effects. The phenomenon of American movie diplomacy was unique as Ru Zhang, Chinese historian and author, pointed out in the 1991 article “The Chinese Experience: Sino-American Arts Exchange 1972-1986.”(1) This was partly because the Chinese agency responsible for foreign film issues showed great flexibility as it carried out a policy in step with current Chinese political developments and thinking. For example, the agency was attentive to the development of the Chinese film industry, to choosing films when politically required that were consistent with showing the under side of American life, as well as choosing films that would attract the most interest—particularly by younger Chinese—and therefore earn the most money.
Eventually, movies reflecting contemporary American life began to be introduced and by 1985 the American Film Week could present On Golden Pond, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Turning Point, and A Coal Miner’s Daughter.
As Ru Zhang wrote, “culture is a close neighbor of ideology”—and a harbinger of political winds.
1. Ru, Zhang. “THE CHINESE EXPERIENCE: SINO-AMERICAN ARTS EXCHANGE 1972-1986.” Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 31 (1991): 65-103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23891028.
Margaret Pearson arrived in Beijing in 1981 on her first Foreign Service assignment just after the conclusion of the first American Film Week. She served in China until 1983 and then returned to Washington to be Deputy Director of USIA’s China Desk. She is the Contributing Editor for Books at American Diplomacy Publishers.