By Rachel Wong, Harvard College ’15

“Probably never before had the Szechuanese seen fighters like these—men for whom soldiering was not just a rice bowl, and youths ready to commit suicide to win. Were they human beings or madmen or gods?”
Edgar Snow, 1938

“The Long March is the first of its kind in the annals of History. It is a manifesto, a propaganda force, a seeding-machine. … It has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes, while the imperialists and their running dogs, Chiang Kai-shek and his like, are impotent.”
Mao Zedong, 1935

We remember the Boston Tea Party, the English Civil War, and the Russian Revolution as turning points in history, but they are also legends, constructed by regimes as forms of political legitimacy. The Long March in China was no exception. Forced by advancing Nationalist troops to abandon their base, the Red Army embarked in 1934 on a year-long retreat across eleven provinces, braving snow-capped mountains and Tibetan marshlands and losing almost 90% of their men to desertion, disease, and enemy attacks. Yet eight decades after the Red Army set foot from their base, the story of this trek continues to resonate among Party organs as a complex and relevant source of political legitimacy. In 1983, Hu Yaobang told American journalist Harrison Salisbury, “Although what China is engaged in now is the Long March of modernization, the Chinese people can still draw courage, strength, and wisdom from the Long March of the Red Army” (Chen, 279). In 2006, the Long March was used by Party organs to promote its newest ideology of constructing a “harmonious society” (Wen, Shi). China’s continuing transformations are still referred to as “Long Marches” of westernization, modernization or globalization.

Although modern reincarnations of the Long March are interesting in their own right, this essay focuses on a state-produced film from the early years of the People’s Republic (PRC). Daughter of the Party (1958) stands at the intersection between the birth of Chinese socialist cinema and Party efforts to create new national identity. As the PRC approached its tenth anniversary, the nation found itself facing unrest among its Communist neighbors, upheaval within its own borders, and a growing sense of post-revolutionary anxiety. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these trends were accompanied by a marked increase in film production and in propaganda activity. By examining the ways in which the Party deployed the legacy of the Long March to establish and maintain its own legitimacy, I argue that the purpose of sustaining revolutionary fervor in the late 1950s is fundamentally different from the that of pre-1949 ideology. Daughter of the Party, which tells the story of an underground Party member whose husband has just left on the Long March, displays a cautious attitude towards sparking revolutionary outbursts, and a growing emphasis on establishing an ideologically stable, well-ordered new society.

I. Constructing Political Legitimacy

In response to the problem of converting state power into legitimacy, some cultures have prioritized the ability of statesmen to deliver powerful rhetoric, others have prized military prowess, hereditary ties, or religious authority. Chinese leaders have traditionally governed from behind silk screens, legitimized by performance, rather than by physical contact with the masses (Kissinger, 334). Mao was an exception. To a large extent, he relied on ideological fervor and mass mobilization to effect his economic programs, many of which tested the Chinese people’s endurance to its very limits. Deng may have been “half-Mao” in many of his policies (Terrill), but his era was marked by a return to practicing politics behind the scenes (Kissinger, 334). The public personas of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have been similarly colorless, their terms defined more by performance—think China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the Beijing Olympics—than by personal charisma or ideological exaltation. Thus, the legitimation strategies deployed by the PRC have run the full range, from revolutionary oratory and popular support during the Mao era, to low visibility coupled with consistent performance in more recent years.

While the individual legitimating strategies of Mao, Deng, Jiang and Hu are relatively easy to observe, establishing the collective legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is more problematic. The same cultural symbols may be deployed differently in settled and unsettled periods of rule, both as independent actors, and as products of explicit ideologies (Swidler, 273). Propaganda not only persuades audiences that the government is protecting their interests, but it also equips them with the ideological tools for evaluating the legitimacy of its creator.

With these complications in mind, this paper measures legitimation strategies along two axes: mode and direction. Performance, tradition, and charisma are the three main modes addressed here. Performance-based legitimacy refers to the degree to which the regime delivers goods that are consistent with the existing value pattern of society (Lasswell and Kaplan, 57).[1] This can include the economic reforms of the Deng era, for example, or Mao’s perceived ability to protect China from foreign imperialism. In today’s society, such values may include the “ability to innovate in theory [of government]; competence in organization and mobilization; decision-making power; ability to develop the economy and society; ability to handle emergencies; and ability to deal well with foreign relations” (Lam, 39).

Tradition refers to the strategic association of the current regime with the value patterns of previous regimes, in order to appear culturally continuous with a nation’s past. As Elizabeth Perry explains, this form of legitimacy “helps explain how a Communist party-state that was in fact an alien import both ideologically and institutionally – a deus ex machina, as Levenson so aptly put it – came to be accepted as recognizably ‘Chinese’” (284). Appeals to traditional legitimacy may include establishing ties between Mao Zedong and Qin Shi Huang (Kissinger, 319), establishing Confucian schools and a “harmonious society” as the Party’s new ideology, or portraying the PRC during the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the “rightful inheritor and steward of a five-thousand-year-old civilization” (Perry, 285).

Finally, charismatic legitimacy refers both to personality cults and the transformation of ordinary individuals into heroes or martyrs. In the first sense, charismatic legitimation is the association of the leader’s personal qualities with the existing value pattern of society, such that the leader himself becomes inseparable from both the founding myth of the regime (Rigby and Feher, 99) and the traditional culture of its people (101). In the second sense, charismatic legitimation refers to using individuals as symbols of already existing collective value patterns, or of value patterns that the regime wishes to promote.

Charismatic, traditional, and performance-based legitimacy strategies can be deployed in the positive or negative direction. The examples mentioned above are all instances of positive legitimacy, which refers to the actions or value patterns of the existing government. Negative legitimacy refers to the projection of resentments onto previous or concurrent competing regimes. Negating the legitimacy of one’s predecessor is especially important for new revolutionary or conquest regimes whose sources of positive legitimacy have yet to be established (Stillman, 44). This strategy can be deployed in all three modes, often in combination. In the 1950s, for example, the Department of Propaganda pursued a policy of “from far to near,” which identified grievances from China’s historical past, such as feudal structures, foot-binding, and Japanese war crimes. The Nationalist government would then be associated with these historical grievances, and subsequently labeled as the catchall root cause of modern problems—“representing landlords, secret agents, murderers, exploiters, feudalists, bureaucratic bourgeoisie, and militarists” (Yu, 1955a:19).

This theoretical framework for legitimation can therefore be divided into six categories: three positive modes of legitimation include a government’s performance, its continuity with traditional values, and its personal appeal, while their corresponding negative modes refer to a competing regime’s cruelty or incompetence, its dissociation from traditional culture or its association with negative moments in history, and the moral corruption of its members, whether followers or leaders.

II. A Historiography of the Long March

The Long March as a founding legend has functioned as a particularly rich source of cultural capital for state legitimation, whether for Mao’s fledgling regime in the 1950s, or for a rapidly globalizing China under the Deng reforms. Crucial to this process was American journalist Edgar Snow’s 1939 book Red Star Over China, the first major work to establish an official, Party-approved account of the Long March—as a heroic journey that tested the mettle of a tough and dedicated Red Army. Harrison Salisbury’s 1984 book The Long March: The Untold Story updated Snow’s vision with a wider range of interview subjects and newly available government archives, producing a reading of the Long March as a deeply ambivalent journey, fraught as much with internal power struggles as with external threats.

Most recently, Chinese scholar Sun Shuyun’s 2008 book The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth uses first-hand accounts of Red Army veterans to bring the official narrative of the Long March into serious question. Not only does Sun’s work add significant nuances to Salisbury’s earlier account, which relied on government-approved interviews conducted through interpreters, but it also directly addresses issues of historical revisionism and the deployment of propaganda based on the Long March.

III. Chinese Socialist Cinema as a Method of Constructing Legitimacy

In the same decade films about the Long March were first produced, the CCP initiated a series of ideological campaigns that fundamentally altered the country’s political trajectory, both domestically and on the world stage. By responding to international pressures, including the Polish and Hungarian Crises of 1956 and the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958, as opportunities for stoking domestic revolutionary enthusiasm, Mao worked to navigate China through what historian Chen Jian calls “post-revolution anxiety” (202). As the People’s Republic approached its ten-year anniversary, the CCP had become increasingly aware of the dangers of losing its revolutionary momentum. In Mao’s eyes, the deteriorating political situations in Poland and Hungary demonstrated a failure to “train their proletarians in class struggle to help them learn how to draw a clear distinction between the people and the enemy, between right and wrong, and between materialism and idealism” (Chen, 159).

The shockwaves of the Polish and Hungarian Crises abroad were compounded by China’s involvement in the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis. International relations strategy aside, the PRC’s provocative rhetoric served as Mao’s method for “using international tension to initiate domestic mobilization” (Chen, 202). Not only did China’s offensive seek to assert its ability to resist American imperialism, but it also served as a reminder that Communism’s ideological struggles against the “running-dogs of the American imperialists” (Yu, 1995b:19), the Kuomintang, were far from complete. In other words, international pressures like the Second Taiwan Crisis appealed to the Chinese people’s victim mentality and paved the way for further domestic upheaval, including the Hundred Flowers movement and the first wave of the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, and the Great Leap Forward of 1958.

“Like many of Mao’s undertakings,” Henry Kissinger notes, “the Great Leap Forward combined aspects of economic policy, ideological exaltation, and foreign policy. For Mao, these were not distinct fields of endeavor but interrelated strands of the grand project of the Chinese revolution” (183). Both abroad and at home, Mao was disturbed by the “loss of vitality as the Chinese revolution moved inexorably into a phase of cautious long-range planning” (Spence, 576). In response to the dangerously rightist outpouring of the Hundred Flowers movement, and sensing the threat to both his own leadership and the legitimacy of the Party, Mao had already initiated the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward when he reiterated in early 1958 the importance of continuing the revolution: “Our revolutions are like battles. After a victory, we must at once put forward a new task. In this way, cadres and the masses will forever be filled with revolutionary fervour, instead of conceit” (“Sixty Points on Working Methods”).

Immediately preceding this new wave of domestic upheaval, state-owned film studios doubled their output of feature productions, from twenty-three in 1955 to fourty-two in 1956 (Zhang, 2004:206). In 1958, a record of 105 features were produced, which would not be broken until almost thirty years later (208). “The motion picture is one of the most important propaganda weapons in art and literature,” the DOP stated in a 1955 memorandum. “In order that it may perform its propaganda function effectively and educate the largest possible mass of people, it is necessary, of course, to advertise good pictures. … If we cast aside the ideological and political content of the film and emphasize only one aspect of the picture (such as its daring, romantic, or hair-raising character), that is very vulgar and incorrect” (Yu, 1955b:47). Against this backdrop of international pressure, domestic ideological stagnation, and fading revolutionary legitimacy, the need for a vibrant yet politically correct, educational yet emotionally appealing repertoire of propaganda films had become one of the DOP’s top priorities.

The 1957 and 1958 issues of the DOP internal journal Xuanchuan Tongxun stressed the importance of uniting against foreign imperialism, surpassing the Americans and the British, and most importantly, channeling this anti-foreign patriotism for the creation of a “vigorous, powerful and prosperous” society (Tongxun, 1958.9.23). A 1957 article entitled “Politburo Statement Regarding the 30th Anniversary of the Founding of the PLA,” declared that maintaining national solidarity remains a crucial task for DOP, at a time when foreign enemies were pressing on Chinese borders and traitors to the Party were threatening China from within. It would therefore be important to publicize “Comrade Mao Zedong’s military achievements, the glorious tradition of the PLA, and the need for a stronger national defense program” (Tongxun, 1957.7.15).

Given these goals, the legacy of the Long March served as an especially rich source of cultural capital. It enabled the construction of a political enemy, the Kuomintang, which embodies foreign imperialism, the old feudal order, and moral corruption. It enabled the creation of martyrs and heroes, whose sacrifices could be held up as educational examples, but also the legitimation of Mao himself, who could be portrayed as a key actor in the success of the entire founding myth. It enabled the establishment of the Communist Army as an organized force rather than as gang of “red bandits” (chifei), as a patriotic army embarking on a crusade against the Japanese, and its officers as leaders who wielded the Confucian traits of scholarly wisdom (wen) and military prowess (wu). In this way, the story of the Long March could bolster the traditional, charismatic, performance-based legitimacy that the Party so needed, while at the same time de-legitimating its predecessor on the same grounds.

To a large extent, the Long March propaganda films of the late 1950s fulfill the legitimation strategies outlined above. The production of Wanshui qianshan (1955), Party Membership Dues (1958), and Hong Haizi (1958) each focus on the hardship and sacrifices made by the Red Army, functioning like parables for the masses’ moral education (Zhang, 2011:44). Socialist cinema from this era is generally characterized by “conformity and uniformity” (205): plotlines are often teleological, simplified, and saturated with symbolic meaning. Film style typically relies on the mannerisms of traditional opera, including the use of liangxiang, or “fixed figure” poses, ritualized gestures, and exaggerated facial expressions. The subjects are peasants and soldiers set in villages and camps, not the petit-bourgeois intellectuals occupying domestic, private spaces so often portrayed in earlier Shanghai films. Violent struggle, public welfare, identification with the masses, and political correctness are the new concerns of film, rather than sentimental issues of personal frustration and fulfillment. Characters are typified into good and bad; ambivalence is generally avoided (Zhang, 2004:202). The ultimate goal of the classical 1950s film, as Nick Browne puts it, is to link the “affective roots of individual life to the public sphere through socialist doctrine” (4). In other words, the typical socialist film of this era is designed to break down the boundaries between private and public life, and it does so by politicizing the individual, washing out any sentimental ambiguities, and placing ideology at the center.

Admittedly, 1950s Chinese socialist films often lack artistic innovation and are constrained by tightening DOP regulations (Ward, 89), even when conveying a historical event as nuanced in meaning as the Long March. Compared to propaganda works like Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, whose climax depicting a czarist massacre on the Odessa Steps has no historical basis whatsoever, and yet became one of the most powerful examples of negative legitimation ever created for the Soviet Union—the film was named the greatest of all time at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958—Chinese socialist cinema may appear flat, repetitive, and unconvincing. Yet, it is precisely against this backdrop of political correctness, artistic stagnation, and high ideological stakes that we may begin to understand the nuances and contradictions of the Party’s legitimation strategies.

IV. Case Study: Daughter of the Party

By subject nature alone, Daughter of the Party takes an unusual stance towards establishing Party legitimacy. Set in the Jiangxi Soviet after the Fifth Encirclement Campaign of 1934, this August First studio production depicts the heroic struggles of Li Yumei, a mother and an underground Party member whose husband has just embarked on the Long March. Captured by enclosing KMT forces, Li escapes execution, searches in vain for her scattered comrades, is betrayed by a Communist defector, forms her own Party cell, and is ultimately caught and executed for her efforts.

Right away, the film diverges from conventional portrayals of the Long March by making its protagonist a female, and by focusing on those Party members who were left behind. None of the political tensions of the Zunyi Conference, the spectacular firefight at Luding Bridge, or the epic crossing of the snowy mountains appears within the film. Yet by invoking the Long March as the backdrop to this film, the CCP manages to establish its legitimacy in ways that an epic retelling would miss. First, Daughter of the Party attempts to delegitimize the Kuomintang by focusing on an unusual time and place, a setting that rests somewhere between the temporary success of the Fifth Encirclement Campaign and the ultimate failure of the Nationalist Army. This paper argues that the construction of the KMT as a relevant enemy is a dangerous exercise in negative legitimation, and that the movie’s cautious treatment of this topic reflects these risks. The type of revolutionary fervour that the DOP wishes to promote is not one of violent anti-rightism, but rather a measured commitment to Party ideology that promotes the construction of a stable society. Second, Daughter of the Party exhibits a complex understanding of positive legitimacy that extends beyond “snapshots” of a regime’s charisma, tradition, or performance. Just as KMT agents served as vessels for the post-revolution anxieties of the 1950s, so Yumei and her comrades serve as vessels for the growth that the regime seeks to encourage: the union of the private and public spheres through ideology.

Negative Legitimacy: The Kuomintang as a Credible Enemy

The construction of the Kuomintang as a political enemy is one of the most effective, but also most problematic, legitimation strategies deployed by the PRC. After all, the process of creating a credible enemy is not just about defining the oppressive Other, but also about defining the self: “the narrative establishes the identities of enemy and victim-savior by defining the latter as emerging from an innocent past and as destined to help bring about a brighter future world cleansed of the contamination the enemy embodies” (Edelman, 1988:76). War movies such as The Battle of Triangle Hill (1956) choose to portray the enemy as incompetent, inhuman, and immoral. The Americans in Korea are shown as “undisciplined, frolicking, and ever-smirking enemy soldiers viewed frantically digging fox holes, … swigging alcohol, and passing around semi-pornographic pin-up pictures” (Pickowicz, 358). Such a portrayal not only attacks the opposing force’s performance-based legitimacy, but it also destroys the enemy’s charismatic legitimacy by highlighting their inherent evilness.

Daughter of the Party takes a different approach. Nationalist leaders become vessels for the post-revolution anxieties of the mid-1950s. They are well-equipped, methodical, and deviously pragmatic—they collaborate with pot-bellied local warlords, and intimidate local villagers by hanging the bodies of executed Communists from trees. Yet unlike in Triangle Hill, Wanshui Qianshan, or other films of the same period, the enemy in Daughter of the Party is by no means a monolithic force. The film’s antagonist, Ma Jiahui, is a Communist traitor who dresses in Qing garb, murders his wife, and conspires with the KMT in smoky, wood-latticed tea rooms. At first glance, the film’s construction of Ma as a stock character seems relatively straightforward. Low-angle shots positioning Ma at a slant are combined with low-key lighting from the side, casting harsh shadows around Ma’s face (Fig. 1). By comparison, the heroine Yumei is consistently shown with high-key lighting, using the same low-angle shots but with her shoulders squared to the camera (Fig. 2). The uniformity and continuity of Ma’s shots is so striking that they appear to be part of the same scene, even though they represent entirely different moments in the plot.[2] By associating Ma with the feudal remnants of imperial China, by placing him in private, bourgeois settings, and by highlighting his cunning cruelty, Daughter of the Party makes a case for both the charismatic and traditional de-legitimation of the KMT.

The construction of the KMT as a collective enemy, however, is nuanced by several factors. The higher-ranked Nationalist officers are portrayed as rigid members of the old order, while younger soldiers are considerably more ambivalent. Mid-ranked KMT soldiers are shown to be just as ruthless as their superiors. When Li and other village women approach a checkpoint, one officer levels his rifle at them, orders them to kneel on the ground, and proceeds to pull out their hairpins, attempting to identify underground Communists who may be disguising their cropped hair with wigs. As Murray Edelman notes, the difference between constructing an enemy and a mere adversary lies in how the resentments are displaced: enemies are attacked for their evil natures, while adversaries are attacked for their bad tactics (76). As the following scene illustrates, Daughter of the Party offers the viewer brief glimpses into the humanity of the youngest members of the KMT, but this merely serves to highlight corrupting nature of the entire system: as soldiers rise through the ranks, they grow progressively crueler until they fully embody the old order that had made China so weak and backwards since the Opium Wars.

At a mass execution, a cigar-smoking KMT general orders his subordinate to aim his mounted machine gun at the unarmed Communist captives. As the condemned men and women shout their last words, “Long live the Party,” the soldier licks his lips in anticipation, but then he hesitates, squeezes his eyes shut, and finally opens fire. This ambivalent sequence of gestures is complicated by the fact that the violence of the execution scene is elided. Instead, the audience sees an ink-and-wash landscape of windblown bamboos, and then a cut to Yumei’s baby daughter, Xiao Niu, crying for her mother. The tempo of the montage is similar to that of Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin, and the frames are linked together in the same manner, with non-diagetic sound—in Daughter of the Party, by the gunfire; in Battleship Potemkin, by the crunch of soldiers’ boots. Whereas Battleship breaks the fourth wall with a series of centered, frontal shots of the massacre victims, including one of a nurse shot through the eye, Daughter of the Party is markedly more conservative, showing instead an angled, three-quarter shot of the crying daughter, who does not make eye contact with the camera, before cutting to a landscape scene reminiscent of traditional Chinese painting.

Daughter of the Party’s montage scene and accompanying soundtrack are clearly designed to arouse the audience’s emotions, and yet the director refrains from packing the same visceral punch that had made Battleship Potemkin so famous. While this omission of violence may simply have been made so as not to offend the audience, a more likely explanation is that too strong an appeal to negative legitimacy could potentially have destabilized the newly established CCP. As Rigby and Feher note, the “civil war was won not thanks to the new regime obtaining a generally recognised [positive] legitimation but thanks to the legitimation crisis of the old regime” (49). In peacetime, the Communists now needed to construct a new enemy, one that not only invoked fears of international aggression and internal turmoil, but also reaffirmed the Communist beliefs in its own ideology. Negative legitimation was effective to the extent that it could eliminate competing claims to rulership, but over-stressing the violent trauma of the execution could have directed the audience in the wrong direction. Daughter of the Party’s cautious approach to the de-legitimation of the KMT suggests that the underlying goal of the propaganda is not to emotionally galvanize the people in a knee-jerk rampage against all rightist threats, but rather to engage with them intellectually, through symbols and storytelling, and to educate them on the nature of the new enemy of post-revolutionary China.

Positive Legitimacy: The Politicization of Private Life

To understand the nature of this new enemy, we should return to what our analysis of Ma Jiahui, the Communist traitor, can tell us about his adversaries, Li Yumei and her comrades. Earlier, I argued that Ma is a stock character whose fluid secret identity makes him a vessel for the charismatic and traditional de-legitimation of the KMT. Ma’s machinations cause Yumei and her comrades to stand out in sharp relief. Where he represents the corrupt old order, she brings new fresh ideas into the village’s local leadership. Where he ultimately pins down the Communist resistance through methodical planning, under-the-table deals, and strategic encirclement, Yumei’s resistance movement is entirely grassroots and spontaneous, born out of a sincere faith in the ideology of the Party.

While these dichotomies may appear relatively simple, it is interesting to note that Daughter of the Party openly acknowledges the ideological ignorance of Yumei and her comrades. Their indecision, inexperience, and occasionally scatterbrained disorganization is a portrayal that stands at odds with the idea of a steel-willed, invulnerable Red Army under the masterful direction of Mao Zedong. How do we reconcile this ambivalent depiction with the DOP’s emphasis on a continuous revolution, guided by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology? Was it simply a matter of showing the improbable survival of the movement, whose fighters were armed only with willpower and an unwavering faith in Communist ideals? Or perhaps it was a method of humanizing the CCP, which wished to construct its image as a bottom-up resistance movement with distinctly Chinese characteristics?

While it may be argued that this almost comic depiction of Yumei and her comrades is an attempt to establish charismatic legitimacy at the cost of performance-based and traditional legitimacy, such a viewpoint takes an overly static approach to legitimation strategy. Earlier in this essay, I argued that propaganda not only persuades audiences that the government is protecting their interests, but it also equips them with the ideological tools for evaluating the legitimacy of that government. Here, Daughter of the Party recounts Yumei’s rather clumsy attempts at Party leadership in order to teach its audience how individual interests can be translated, through socialist doctrine, into the public sphere.

Keeping this general goal of 1950s socialist cinema in mind (Browne, 4), we can interpret Daughter of the Party as a lesson on breaking the boundaries between private and public life. The first Party meeting among Yumei and her comrades opens with a mise-en-scène depicting the lush woods of the Chinese countryside. Not only does this setting reinforce the grassroots, ad hoc nature of their meeting, in stark contrast to the luxurious, private spaces of Ma Jiahui and the KMT, but it also emphasizes its universality. Yumei and her comrades struggle to recall the main parts of Mao Zedong’s writings. The scene begins with frontal, individual low-angle shots of each character as she contributes snippets of quotes she remembers, but as they each gain confidence and begin to recite his writings in unison, the camera zooms back with a final, long frontal take of the three comrades—united by their newfound appreciation of Maoist ideology. This same transformation from the individual to the collective identity, mediated by socialist doctrine, is reflected in the film’s opening scene. As Yumei’s grown daughter finally reunites with her long-lost father, the camera turns away from their emotional embrace, and delivers instead an exceptionally long take of a painting on the wall, a reproduction of “Reunion at Jinggang Mountain” (Fig. 3). In this way, the private reunion of father and daughter is sublimated into the political union of Mao Zedong and Zhu De, a partnership that proved crucial to the success of the Long March itself.

In addition to these two examples, the film is careful to show how the process can be applied to daily life. What appears to be a casual gossip session between the three comrades, in the eyes of Yumei’s elder sister, is really a Party meeting in disguise, complete with motions, reports, and deliberations. Yumei’s relationship with her own daughter also takes on political significance. When Xiao Niu attempts to eat from a basket on the table, Yumei scolds her violently, shouting to her comrade: “How can she be allowed to eat our Party dues? Children can deal with a little hardship. As long as we have the Party and the Red Army, their future will be good.” In each case, symbols of socialist culture, including Mao’s writings, a painting of the Jiangxi Soviet base, the ritual of Party meetings, and the collection Party dues, insert themselves into private life and imbue the situation with new political meaning.

The positive legitimacy of the CCP, therefore, rested upon the position that its post-revolutionary work was only just beginning. Using the charismatic legitimacy of the protagonists as a springboard, Daughter of the Party suggests that the establishment of new traditions, as well as the cultivation of performance-based legitimacy, should be understood as a process, not as a given. As the DOP made clear in a memo in October 1957, “it is of utmost importance that we rectify the serious ideological impurity of the media. Leadership positions in radio stations, including the editing, broadcasting, and technical departments should be filled by Party cadres and non-Party leftists” (Tongxun, 1957.10.16). In other words, individuals must first possess the moral values necessary for Party membership—as the requirement of charismatic legitimacy suggests—before all else. Ideology was the glue that would build a collective society out of disparate individual interests.

By focusing on the threat of the KMT, Daughter of the Party provided its audience in the late 1950s with a nuanced conception of the role that international tensions would play in the domestic politics of the nation. Released in the same year as the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, the movie constructed an image of a powerful Other who, despite now being exiled to an island, could continue to exert its influence in insidious and unexpected ways, especially if the Chinese people failed to maintain their ideological purity. Yumei’s inexperience as a Communist leader could be compensated by her determination, resourcefulness, and loyalty to Party teachings. Similarly, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 was an attempt to “lure the snake out of the pit—so as to make the target fully exposed” (He, 115). “Snakes” like Ma Jiahui threatened the very fabric of Communist society, and although he is branded in the movie with Qing clothing and a leering complexion, both Yumei and the audience understand that his identity as a traitor is not at all clear. A continuous revolution required purging China clean of its Ma Jiahuis: these traitors would undermine the success of the country’s Long Marches—its military exploits abroad, as well as the efforts of those who stayed behind—whether as Jiangxi Soviet guerillas, or as supporters of the Great Leap Forward.

On a deeper level, however, Daughter of the Party demonstrates how the legitimation process is really an ever-changing dialogue between a regime and its people. This case study suggests that the film’s cautious handling of violence relates directly to its understanding of the risks of negative legitimation. Painting the Kuomintang as a coherent enemy is the method, warning the audience of internal rightist “snakes” is the goal, but the larger vision of the film supports the establishment of an ideologically stable, cohesive society over the blind destruction of any enemy, internal or external. Daughter of the Party’s treatment of its heroines is no less ambivalent. At first glance, Li Yumei and her comrades seem to possess little performance-based or traditional legitimacy, despite their charismatic appeal. Yet structures and symbols used by the film clearly prioritize process over result: to the extent that character development occurs in 1950s socialist cinema, the transformation of Yumei’s private life into a fully politicized, public figure—culminating in her martyrdom—serves as a powerful example of how revolutionary fervour can generate its own legitimacy. As an example of Chinese socialist cinema from the late 1950s, Daughter of the Party suggests that PRC responded to international and domestic crises by calling for a sustained revolution, but that this agenda of a renewed revolutionary fervour included efforts to support, rather than challenge, the long-term construction of a new society. This is not to say that the decade of the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward were not characterized by heated slogans and continuous upheaval. Rather, this study of state-sponsored cinema suggests that underneath the more radical branches of revolutionary rhetoric, elements of the Party continued to pursue a systematic agenda of self-legitimation—one that sought to stabilize its ability to survive in the long-term, whether through the charisma of its best members, the lingering memory of past regimes, or the enduring legacy of its founding myth, the Long March.

IV. Legitimacy Problems Today

This essay began by proposing a taxonomy of the legitimation strategies along two axes, mode and direction. Charismatic, performance-based, and traditional modes of legitimacy can be directed positively, to bolster the existing regime’s power, or negatively, to attack the legitimacy of competing regimes. Over the years, the cultural legacy Long March has been deployed and redeployed by the Party for the purposes of reasserting its legitimacy in times of crisis, the first of which occurred near the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Near the end of the 1950s, international pressures, including the Polish and Hungarian Crises of 1956 and the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958, collided with domestic upheavals orchestrated by the Party, including the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward, to plunge the nation into another wave of revolutionary mobilization. In this highly unstable political climate, the Department of Propaganda worked to bolster the Party’s legitimacy, along all of its modes and directions, in large part by doubling the national output of feature films near the end of the decade.

Through close readings of the 1958 film, Daughter of the Party, this essay has suggested that the negative legitimation strategies of the Party may be more cautious and ambivalent than may be expected, especially when compared to similar works of propaganda, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The film takes a similarly nuanced approach to positive legitimation, choosing to enact propaganda as a process, an educational tool, and an ongoing dialogue with its audience, rather than as a flat-out assertion of the Party’s own legitimacy. The subtext encourages a more complex understanding of the legitimation strategies of the Party as a whole: despite pervasive rhetoric in favour of a continued upheaval and revolutionary struggle during this period, as embodied in movements like the Anti-Rightist campaign, the Party’s legitimation strategy may prioritize the creation a stable, settled society under the guidance of socialist doctrine more than we think.

Although Daughter of the Party is only one example of socialist film of the 1950s, and cinema can hardly speak for the entire realm of CCP propaganda, legitimation crises and the deployment of culture continue to hold relevance in today’s China. After the 16th Party Congress in 2006, the People’s Daily published “Following the Footsteps of the Red Army’s Long March,” drawing comparisons between Hu Jintao’s outline of a harmonious society and the historical legacy of the revolutionary era. CCP News followed with a similar piece, “A Different Long March for a Different Era,” which featured the following passage:

For the sake of survival, the Red Army and the Party embarked on the Long March, armed with an unwavering belief in the ideals of the Revolution. Today, for the same need of survival, the nation has embarked on a new Long March, armed with an unwavering belief in the ideals of a harmonious society.

With two different kinds of Long Marches comes two different goals: the journey of the Red Army was to destroy the old order; today’s journey towards a harmonious society is to establish a new China. … The Red Army’s Long March called for the revolutionary spirit of self-sacrifice. Today’s Long March to a harmonious society calls for the spirit of compromise.

Compared to the Long March of the past, today’s Long March to a harmonious society is an even greater challenge. We must carry forward the spirit of the Red Army into a new age of Chinese civilization!

In many respects, the legitimation strategies employed by Mao’s fledgling regime of the late 1950s are similar to the ones used by Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping today. Movies like My Long March, TV shows that document modern retracings of the route, and the rise of Red Tourism as official Party policy—all of these efforts seek to draw ties between the current administration’s performance, the traditions that define Chinese national culture, and the founding legends of that national identity. The stakes today are just as high, if not higher, than those that faced Mao in the first ten years of his rule. With a Party largely legitimized by the legacy of the Deng economic reforms, and with the gradual fall of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought as a viable ideology, it remains to be seen whether its new strategy will consist of more than just positive, performance-based legitimacy. In 1935, Mao wrote: “The Long March is the first of its kind in the annals of history, that it is a manifesto, a propaganda force, a seeding-machine.” As a manifesto, it has laid the foundations for sixty-three years of Communist rule. As a propaganda force, it has been continually deployed as a complex and contradictory source of national pride. As a seeding-machine, China has yet to see whether the seeds, sown in times of such incredible division and war, can truly blossom into the harmonious society that it has sought for so long.

[1] In “Conceptualizing Legitimacy,” Peter Stillman defines “value pattern” as the esteeming or preferring of conditions, as in “valuing X over Y,” and is therefore a synonym for “preference pattern.” Stillman’s value pattern can be understood as “the historian’s national character, to the subject matter of cultural anthropology, to the political scientist’s ‘civic culture’ and political culture” (40).

[2] This repetition recalls the operatic technique of the “fixed posture” discussed earlier, imported into 1950s cinema to establish continuity between scenes.


Fig. 1 Combined with low-key lighting from the side, slanted low-angle shots cast harsh shadows around the face of antagonist in the 1958 film, Daughter of the Party.
Fig. 1 Combined with low-key lighting from the side, slanted low-angle shots cast harsh shadows around the face of antagonist in the 1958 film, Daughter of the Party.
Fig. 2 The heroine of Daughter of the Party, Li Yumei, is consistently shown with high-key lighting, using the same low-angle shots but with her shoulders squared to the camera.
Fig. 2 The heroine of Daughter of the Party, Li Yumei, is consistently shown with high-key lighting, using the same low-angle shots but with her shoulders squared to the camera.
Fig. 3 “Reunion at Jinggang Mountain 井冈山会师.” As Yumei’s grown daughter finally reunites with her long-lost father, the camera turns away from their emotional embrace, and delivers instead an exceptionally long take of this painting on the wall. Source:
Fig. 3 “Reunion at Jinggang Mountain 井冈山会师.” As Yumei’s grown daughter finally reunites with her long-lost father, the camera turns away from their emotional embrace, and delivers instead an exceptionally long take of this painting on the wall.



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Propaganda Primary Sources

1 新时期的基层组织工作实务, Xuanchuan Gongzuo 宣传工作:统一思想、凝聚力量、推动社会主义文化大发展大繁荣,丰富内容形式、创新方法手段,提高宣传工作科学化水平. Edited by Dong Fangzhi 东方治. Beijing: 中共党史出版社, 2011.

2 Zuixin Dang de Xuanchuan Gongzuo: Guicheng Fangfa yu Anli Qishi 最新党的宣传工作:归程方法与案例启示. Edited by Fan Hongyi 范虹轶. 人民出版社.

3 本书编写组, Xuanchuan Gongzuo Shiwu 宣传工作实务:规程、方法、案例、创新. Beijing: 红旗出版社, 2012

4 中共中央宣传部政策法规研究室. Xuanchuan Wenhua Fagui Huibian 宣传文化法规汇编. Beijing: 学习出版社, 2012

5 全国宣传干部学院. Xuanchuan Sixiang Wenhua Gongzuo 宣传思想文化工作:案例选编. 学习出版社, 2012.

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