The Life of Wu Xun

Timelines: All, China Categories: 1950s, China, Country, Decade, Film, Media The Life of Wu Xun
Date: 1950


Sun Yu’s film The Life of Wu Xun (1950) was banned in 1951 following a number of editorial critiques from Mao Zedong in the People’s Daily newspaper. The drama produced in Kunlun Film Studio depicts the life of Wu Xun (1838-1896), who was born into a peasant family and became mythologised as a reformer for free popular education. Wu taught himself to read, and by begging and saving over many decades opened schools that provided free education to children. Following approval by the Film Bureau for public screening, Sun’s biopic was initially widely popular and received positive reviews (Xiao 1998, 23).

In the film, Wu Xun is juxtaposed with a friend, Zhou Da, who joins the peasant rebels. Mao attacked Wu for his supposed liberal tendencies because his reforms took place within the existing social system and thus implied that revolution was unnecessary. In his 20 May 1951 editorial titled “Pay Serious Attention to the Discussion of the Film, The Life of Wu Hsun”, which sparked numerous critiques of Wu in the People’s Daily and other publications, Mao wrote that,
“A fellow like Wu Hsun, living as he did towards the end of Ching Dynasty in an era of great struggle by the Chinese people against foreign aggressors and domestic reactionary rulers, did not lift a finger against foreign aggressors and domestic reactionary feudal rulers, did not lift a finger against the feudal economic base or its superstructure; on the contrary, he strove fanatically to spread feudal culture and, in order to gain a position for this purpose previously beyond his reach.”
Zhiwei Xiao (1998, 23-24) describes that following the media coverage, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, led an investigation into Wu Xun, which through a 45,000 word report sought to discredit him as a counter-revolutionary who had not in fact been successful in his school projects. It was the first film to be officially banned in the PRC.

Mao’s campaign also caused the Film Bureau to revoke its decision to ban the film for public exhibition. Xiao (2013, 120) suggests that some screenings may have continued with Mao’s approval, “but only as ‘teaching material’ to educate people about Maoist view of history and class struggle.” Wu’s body was later exhumed by the Red Guard, placed on trial, and then burned in public. This response to The Life of Wu Xun contrasted with the initial years of the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC), during which the government encouraged the film studios in Shanghai to produce films, resulting in 47 between 1949 and 1951. However, the campaign against The Life of Wu Xun also included a Film Steering Committee to “re-educate” members of the film industry and, through stifling tactics such as script review, censorship, and buy-outs, the private studios either disappeared or were incorporated into the state-run Shanghai Film Studio by 1952 (Johnson 2012, 168).

In 1985 the People’s Daily acknowledged its former criticisms of Wu were unfounded and in 1986 the State Council published an approval to clear Wu’s name. The film remained banned until 2012 when it was released on DVD, however the cover of the DVD included the statement “For Research Purposes Only”. – Liam Grealy

Further reading:
– Johnson, M. (2012). Propaganda and censorship in Chinese cinema. In Y. Zhang (ed.) A companion to Chinese cinema, (pp.153-178). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
– Xiao, Z. (1998). Chinese cinema. In Y. Zhang & Z. Xiao (eds) Encyclopedia of Chinese film, (pp. 3-30). London & New York: Routledge.
– Xiao, Z. (2013). Prohibition, politics, and nation-building: A history of film censorship in China. In D. Biltereyst & R.V. Winkel (eds) Silencing cinema: Film censorship around the world, (pp. 109-129). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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