China: The Virtues of the Awful Convulsion

Johnson, Ian. China : the virtues of the awful convulsion. The New York Review of Books, 27 October 2016. URL : (consulté le 18 octobre 2016)

Compte rendu de cinq ouvrages sur la Révolution culturelle, parus en 2016.

For decades, Beijing’s Beihai Park has been one of the city’s most beloved retreats—a strip of green around a grand lake to the north of the Communist Party’s leadership compound, its waters crowded with electric rental boats shaped like ducks and lotus flowers. A former imperial garden, Beihai is home to stone screens, temples, and steles from as far back as the Mongolian occupation of China, but it also has reminders of more recent conquests. On its western shore is one of the oddest: a life-size bronze sculpture of three children rowing a boat through a wave of musical notes. Next to the boat, three more children sit attentively as a soldier on a stool recounts a story. Surrounded by shrubs and flowers, the boat and the children point out toward the lake, as if readying for an idyllic day in the park.

The sculpture of the children was put up in 2013 to honor one of the most influential movies in Chinese film history: Flowers of the Motherland, released in 1955 as one of the first children’s movies made by the People’s Republic. It tells the story of a fifth-grade class with two rebellious children. Unlike the other thirty-eight children, they refuse to join the Communists’ Young Pioneers, even after hearing a stirring lecture from two demobilized soldiers. But eventually a flood of good deeds by the Communist children convinces the two recalcitrants to put on the red scarf, and everyone happily rows across Beihai’s lake to the words of the song “Let Us Paddle”:

After we’ve finished our day’s homework
We come to enjoy ourselves.
I ask you dear friends
Who gave us this happy life?

The answer, of course, is the Communist Party and Chairman Mao, a message drilled into children of all generations. Even today, the song is part of the national music curriculum. Its effect was strongest in those earlier decades, when the Party had a monopoly of information and entertainment. Little wonder that the old people who gather in Beihai and other parks sing these songs of their youth. Their generation had no real folk songs or pop music, let alone outside sources of information; instead they heard only a mind-numbing glorification of the Party and the great leader.

In his new book, The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China, Guobin Yang describes this movie as part of a propaganda barrage that laid the foundation for the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted until 1976. A professor of communication and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Yang writes how the Party’s control of information and images created a world of enchantment, mesmerization, and danger, one that combined a sense of infinite possibilities and hopes with a sense of danger and threat. It was this world that gave reality, urgency, and potency to the political culture of that historical era.

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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