The Passion of the Mao (Lee Feigon, 2006)
The Passion of the Mao (Lee Feigon, 2006) reviewed by Prairie Fire
(llco.org, originally published May 10, 2010)
The Passion of the Mao (Lee Feigon, 2006) follows the life of Mao from his humble beginnings to, as one interviewee in the film describes, “the greatest Chinese [person] of the twentieth century.” The film is done in a gimmicky style. For example, the film’s title alludes to Mel Gibson’s academy-award-winning film in 2004, which created a controversy two years earlier before the 2006 release of the similarly titled Mao film. The Passion of the Mao (2006) opens and ends with Mao cast as the suffering Christ: Mao in a crown of thorns, Mao ascending into heaven, images of Mao set to Catholic-stye choir music, etc. The motif has little to do with the content of the film itself. These Christ elements are stylistic bookends, merely packaging, for the main content of the film. Except for the first and last few minutes, there is little or no mention of how Mao might relate to Christ. It is as though the Christ motif was a kind of provocative afterthought tacked on in a hope to increase sales or increase interest in, what is otherwise, a historical documentary of Mao and Maoist China. In addition, the film engages in sensationalism and vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. This detracts from the important heart of the film. Most documentaries about socialist China adopt the Western or revisionist, anti-communist historical narrative. By contrast, this one is more sympathetic to its topic. For the most part, Mao is portrayed as a flawed hero, not a villain. The Maoist era is portrayed as animated by democratic, egalitarian, and utopian energies. The film stands out from other documentaries about socialist China. However, the film fails to treat its complex subject matter with the subtly that it deserves. Important and complicated struggles are reduced to the simple and banal. The cartoonish presentation is matched at times by the film’s cartoonish narrative.
Boy makes good
The film’s plot is Mao’s life story. Mao was born on December, 26th, in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Local boy starts out small, makes good. Mao begins as the son of an upper-middle class peasant. He spends his youth on the farm. Mao makes it to the city and, like so many before him, drifts from one thing to another, from one area of study to another. Along the way, Mao is moved by the suffering of his countrymen. He becomes politicized and joins the Communist Party. Thus Mao takes the first steps to becoming the Mao that history knows, the Mao who will lead a quarter of humanity in building socialism in China. The film’s portrayal of the Mao up to the seizure of power is boilerplate: the poverty and oppression in China, the beginnings of the Communist Party, the civil war, the long march, the patriotic war against Japan, etc.
Not unlike many narratives of the history of socialist China, the film’s view of national unification and socialist construction up until the Great Leap is positive. China developed very rapidly. The People’s Republic of China was proclaimed by Mao from the Gates of Heavenly Peace. Only six years after, by 1955, 2/3rds of China’s peasants are working in cooperatives. The film points out that collectivization of agriculture went smoother in China than the Soviet Union. In China, there was more of a bottom up, mass aspect to their efforts. The film reiterates that the importance of this mass quality in the shaping of the great Chinese social experiment. Of the earlier phase of socialism, the film’s narration states:
“In January 1953, Mao announced a 5 year plan for building the economy. Like similar plans in the Soviet Union, the Chinese plan emphasized heavy industry, steel, cement, chemical, and machine tools, and electric power… It worked! During its first 5 year plan, China’s industrial production grew at a rate of almost 18% a year. This was a huge, almost unheard of increase. In 5 years, China’s industry doubled. Those who think that the Chinese economy languished under Mao are dead wrong.”
“By 1956, Mao had united China, created an awesome rate of growth, restructured the education system and improved living standards.. peasant incomes rose, worker incomes rose, the percent of children in primary school doubled. Life expectancy, the best indicator of a country’s health, jumped from 36 to 57 years. By the mid-1950s, Mao could have looked around at everything he had done and said it was good. Instead, he became a Maoist.”
The Great Leap Forward, becoming a Maoist
The film is correct that Mao was not content with kicking back and retiring after winning the war. Mao was a true revolutionary. Mao’s socialism is not gradualist. Mao’s conception is not one that focuses merely on slight increases in economic prosperity over decades. In fact, socialism is not mainly about toasters and televisions at all. The Maoist idea that contributed to the great breakthrough of Leading Light Communism should be contrasted to the “Kitchen debate,” between leaders in the United States and Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. Socialism that emphasizes the level of productive forces over politics is not socialism at all. The idea that socialism should be measured on capitalism’s terms is a revisionist one. From such a misconception flows Deng Xiaoping’s revisionist slogan: “Black cat, white cat — as long as it catches mice.” For Maoists, by contrast, socialism reshapes society at its core. Socialism is transitory and fluid; socialism is step on the road to Leading Light Communism, the road to ending all oppression. Revolution is about qualitative transformations of society that can happen very rapidly. Building on early successes, Mao launched the most ambitious social and economic experiment yet in an attempt to reach a higher level of socialism: The Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap unleashed the Chinese masses in an attempt to remove remaining fetters on the productive forces in order to propel the revolutionary process forward. It elevated politics and moral incentives as a way to motivate the population. People power was to make up for lack of capital. Class war and social experiment gained renewed importance. Deep transformations rocked the Chinese world. No longer was the village to be the basic unity of administration of Chinese society. No longer was the household to be the basic unite of production. Rather, the Great Leap reorganized society into people’s communes. These communes were to be the basis of a China as it stepped closer to communism. These communes were central to the Maoist conception of development.
The film’s evaluation of the Great Leap is mixed. The Great Leap was impressive, especially in its democratic and mass aspects, says the film. Nonetheless, according to the narration, the Great Leap was a failure that resulted in terrible misery. There was too much enthusiasm and too much optimism. This led to big errors. For example, people were so convinced of their early successes that they ate their grain surpluses and let bumper harvests rot in the fields. There were problems of transparency within the bureaucracy. Because of false reporting, top leaders, including Mao, did not know the extent of the problems at first. For example, the film reports that whole crops were moved from one place to another in elaborate deceptions aimed at keeping Mao ignorant of the true depth of the problem. The false reporting and deception were so bad that Mao had to return to his home province and talk to old friends and relatives in order to get the real scoop. This lack of transparency increased the duration of the problems. Problems that should have been rectified earlier were drawn out for months or years longer. According to the film, Maoist utopianism caused “the worst famine in human history.” The film engages in guesswork when it states that the population of China declined by 16 million people between 1959 to 1961. The reality is that there simply are not reliable population figures from this period. Even so, the film tells us, “Mao bears responsibility.”
Mao began criticizing the capitalist roaders and warning about a very real threat of counter-revolution as part of the struggles within the Great Leap. Also, at this time, things were beginning to sour between Mao and Nikita Khrushchev. Mao was moving toward denouncing the Soviet leadership and vice versa. The film touches on the struggles between Mao and Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, the most openly vocal and high-placed opponent of the Maoist line in China at the time. The film states that, according to the Maoists, Peng had just returned from the Soviet Union and Peng was warming up to Nikita Khrushchev and the revisionist line. According to the Maoist version of history, it is no accident that Peng begins echoing criticisms of Mao and the Great Leap that had been made by the Soviets. The struggle reaches such a pitch with Peng at Lushan that Mao threatens to leave the Party and wage a new revolution. Peng is eventually defeated in the struggle that follows. Peng is labeled as part of an anti-Party clique — although many would seek his rehabilitation until he gained it as part of the defeat of the Maoist Cultural Revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. As part of the power struggle over the Great Leap, Lin Biao, a Maoist loyalist, replaces Peng as Defense Minister. The Maoists would now control the gun. Lin Biao will go on to create the Maoist base within the People’s Liberation Army over the next years. This will give the Maoists a space to regroup. It would give them the power to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution a decade later. However, Mao too is forced to compromise. Mao begins rolling back many of the key Maoist elements of the Great Leap.
“Mao dismantled the communes, restored free markets and acknowledged that he had made mistakes.” Mao turned power over to Liu Shaoqi and, according to the narration, it was back to “business as usual.” The failure of Maoist policies had the effect of turning the tide toward capitalism. According to one Chinese historian interviewed in the film:
“During the Great Leap, particularly in 1960, 61, and 62, in those years and in a lot of communities, helped by local leaders who had become disenchanted with the Leap policies, began to contract land and assign land to individual households… especially in those communities and provinces that had suffered the most from the famine. The Great Leap really steered China away from the goals of communism in rural areas fundamentally.”
Despite the film’s criticisms of the Great Leap, the film continues to draw attention to the democratic and egalitarian character of Mao’s policies throughout his entire revolutionary career. The film’s understanding of the Great Leap and the problems that arose is shallow. Even though the film blunts its criticism of the Great Leap, it still draws too heavily on the mainstream anti-communist narrative.
The return of Maoism, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
In order to understand the Cultural Revolution, it is necessary to understand the conflicts that were left unresolved at the end of the Great Leap. One the one side, there were the Maoists who saw Chinese society creeping back toward capitalism, elitism and bureaucracy. They held that it was necessary to continue to make revolution in a big way. Maoist power was centered in the central military, educational and cultural institutions, propaganda departments and media. Among the Maoists were Lin Biao, Chen Boda, Jiang Qing, and Zhang Chunqiao, for example. The capitalist roaders opposing them were centered around Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. The capitalist roaders were entrenched in the state and economic bureaucracies. They also had supporters in the provincial military. They favored stability, gradualism, opening up free markets, etc. In order to get China back on track, eventually Mao, with the help of Lin Biao, would launch a massive effort, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in 1966. The film does criticize, what it labels, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution years. For example, the film focuses on brutal beatings perpetuated by Red Guards. Nonetheless, the film’s overall evaluation of these years is positive. The film portrays the Cultural Revolution decade (1966 to 1976) as a positive move toward democracy and egalitarianism, especially in gender.
Mao’s democratic and anti-bureaucratic character is emphasized by the film. The film’s interpretation of the pre-Great Leap Hundred Flowers campaign (1957 – 1957), for example, is that Mao sought to use the campaign as a means by which the masses could criticize the bureaucracy. The film portrays the Cultural Revolution as a similar opening up of democratic space against complacent and corrupt elites. Mao once said that there is nothing worse than a stagnant pond. So, Mao encouraged the masses to organize and light fires under the feet of those in power. One historian in the film notes that by “the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mao pruned China’s vast bureaucracy to 1/6th its former size. He had ousted 70% of the toadies on the Central Committee…” Thus Mao empowered those at the bottom against those at the top in his last years.
The mainstream narrative by revisionists in China and the West portrays the Cultural Revolution as a violent free-for-all and as a “wasted” or “lost decade” for the youth who lived through those years. Professor Dongping Han’s testimony contradicts the mainstream narrative. It emphasizes just how the mass and egalitarian aspect of Maoism affected his life:
“Before the Cultural Revolution, we had one high school. After, we had 89 in the county. I think the educated elites didn’t care about the farmers’ children. Whether they were educated or not is not important to them but the farmers did want their children to have an education.”
“My mom never went to school. My father never went to school. My mom, even today, doesn’t know how to recognize her own name.. the four of us [children], because of the cultural revolution, we all have a high school education.”
The film points out that during this so-called “wasted decade,” primary school enrollment increased from 116 million in 1965 to 150 million in 1976. Middle school enrollment increased from 9 million to 67 million, an increase of over 700%. Education was made accessible to the daughters and sons of China’s toiling masses for the first time in history.
Another aspect of the Cultural Revolution was to revolutionize culture and make it accessible for the vast majority. Professor Wang Zhang comments:
“Those attacked during the Cultural Revolution years agree that Mao and his wife Jiang Qing sought to replace the rich culture of China with revolutionary slop.”
“To think of the Cultural Revolution period as a cultural wasteland is really a misperception because it was a rich period… operas, novels, films, sculptures and especially painting. All this flourished.”
There was an explosion of new culture, and many of these new forms had both a sophisticated and avant-garde quality, but were also accessible to the masses. For example, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing aided in the production of 12 model operas and ballets. Most importantly, the new culture was not just something for the elites. Rather, the new culture was reproduced in every remote corner of China. The American philosopher and liberal reformer John Dewey wrote approvingly about how the Soviet communists bussed villagers to cities so that they could access the museums. In China, the museums, so to speak, were brought to the people.
One of the most important successes of the Chinese revolution, especially the Maoist years, was the advancement of women. The communists were up against entrenched patriarchy. The binding of feet, crippling women to make them more, according to tradition, sexually appealing, was still practiced when Mao took power. This practice was soon abolished under Mao. Mao offered a new way; he wrote that women hold up half the sky. During the Maoist years, over and over, the masses were told that “times have changed. Men and women are the same. Whatever men can do, women can also do.” These simple words and similar propaganda images had a powerful effect. Professor Wang Zhang tells of how she was affected by the powerful images of revolutionary women during those years:
“Women repairing a telephone line.. that picture.. I’m a seagull.. strong women up there fixing a pole and you feel that I want to be that person.”
This was her experience growing up. By contrast, professor Wang Zhang describes a conversation where an American mother expresses pride in her daughter’s cheerleading. Her response:
“The mentality of women in this [the United States] country shocked me.”
During the Cultural Revolution, it was often said that revolution must touch one’s very soul. The experience of revolution, of throwing yourself fully into the cause of serving the people, is something that most people of the First World, and the United States, simply cannot understand. An extreme tunnel vision shapes the First World, the Western, the American, view of socialism. Americans, on the whole, simply cannot imagine a better world were one lives and dies for the people, not for one’s self and one’s limited world. This contrast of outlooks is sharply put by one interviewee in the film:
“American friends ask about the Cultural Revolution.. what we did. I said I was on a farm and I worked very hard. We dug canals with our hands, bare hands… ‘Oh it’s so terrible the labor you did. How do you feel?’ I feel wonderful because it was so romantic to me that I was able to make a great contribution to my country. When the water ran through the canals, we had tears in our eyes… It made us feel like revolutionaries… Americans say ‘Oh, you’re so brainwashed. You did not know any better.’ Armed with Mao Zedong Thought, we will move mountains and change the course of rivers. I was so puzzled.”
The Maoist revolution would allow a quarter of the world’s women to leave the dark ages. Feudal patriarchy was abolished. Chinese women, roughly one out of every four women, entered the modern, socialist world. This is probably the single greatest advance by women in history to date. Mao is the greatest feminist of all time.
The film also points out that the Cultural Revolution decade was not an economic disaster as the revisionists maintain. Rather, growth rates during the last decade of Mao’s life were very impressive. Not only did the economy continue to grow in those years, but the social safety net was expanded. The Cultural Revolution advanced the revolution to new heights. This is why the Cultural Revolution is the furthest advance toward communism in history so far.
Mao as vulgarian and lech
One flaw with The Passion of the Mao (2006) is its elevation of the sensational. There are no shortage of scenes that depict Mao as a vulgarian. He is also depicted as a playboy and a lech. The film makes a point of quoting Mao on farting and fucking numerous times. For example, without explanation or context, Mao is quoted as saying, “I wash my prick with cunt.” In addition, the film focuses on Mao’s numerous wives, including their alleged poor treatment. It comments on Mao’s trading in a previous wife for the younger and prettier Jiang Qing. The film appears to draw heavily on the Li Zhisui’s questionable book The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994). Li Zhisui was one of Mao’s private doctors who wrote a tell-all in 1994. The work’s veracity has been questioned by many historians. The book has been criticized as engaging in over-the-top sensationalism in an effort to increase sales. The film wastes much time on sensationalist factoids of Li Zhisui’s book. For example, Mao’s alleged poor dental hygiene is described in gross detail. In addition, the film repeats orientalist descriptions of Mao as a sultan, complete with a harem:
“By 1956, Mao, who was 62, had been head of China for seven years, he spent his days lolling in an enormous bed. From his bed, Mao wrote poems, oversaw policies, and read pornographic novels to stimulate his performance for the nubile, young women in his service.”
And, we learn that:
“Mao was an equal opportunity sexual predator, making passes at his male and female attendants.”
Surely American audiences will walk away from this film remembering little of the great social revolution of the Maoist years. But, they will, no doubt, remember the allegations that Mao swung both ways and had very bad teeth. The film appeals to the worst in its audience’s voyeurism and First Worldist sexual mores.
There are other flaws. The Passion of the Mao’s (2006) historical narrative is too simplistic. In this narrative Mao always stands on the revolutionary side of power struggles. The Mao it portrays, for example, is the Mao of those who advocate strong versions of the “Gang of Five”-type theories. This one-dimensional and cartoonish Mao is, for example, portrayed in the pages of RIM publications. In reality, Mao’s record is more complex. Rather, Mao’s path in his last years was often a zig-zag. Even though Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution and, to his dying day, described it as one of his greatest accomplishments, in reality, Mao had a big hand in ending it. Mao through his weight behind the rightward turn in foreign and domestic policy in the early 1970s, for example. This rightward turn led to the return of Deng Xiaoping and the bureaucratic and capitalist forces that he represents. It led to the demise of Lin Biao, who was replaced by Ye Jianying as Defense Minister. Thus the revisionists would control the gun once again. Defense Minister Ye Jianying would later play a big role in both the persecution of the Gang of Four in 1976 and in aiding Deng’s come back against Hua Guofeng. If Lin Biao was the gun behind the Maoists and the Cultural Revolution, Ye Jianying was the same for the revisionists and the restoration of capitalism.
Even with such flaws, there is much good in The Passion of the Mao (2006). The dominant, mainstream narrative paints socialism in China as terrible, violent and irrational. The Passion of the Mao (2006) challenges this narrative. This is very needed, especially today. The main narrative of today’s world is the pax capitalism, that socialism and communism do not work. The capitalists say that “utopian” experiments, such as Mao’s, only end in human tragedy. Thus the mainstream narrative tells the masses of the world to give up, to stop thinking big, to close their eyes. “It is better to try to improve your lot within the capitalist system,” it says. The end of history is upon us; capitalism is here to stay. Such was the outlook of Francis Fukuyama’s popular 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Almost a decade after the publication of Fukuyama’s book, this expression of the zeitgeist still has a powerful hold on many. The reality is that great inequalities shape our world just as much as they shaped Mao’s. The vast majority of humanity in the Third World earn less than a few dollars a day. At the same time, a handful of wealthy populations in the First World live in extreme comfort at their expense. The objective facts scream that revolution is necessary; it is the only solution. People must be moved to believe that communism, in the project of total liberation, is possible again. The communist track-record for making life better, for ending human suffering, is unmatched. The Passion of the Mao (2006) recovers part of this lost history. A quarter of humanity stood up and built a better world. It is possible. The film ends with the thought that “For millions of Chinese, Mao still offers hope.” It is bigger than just China. Mao, and the communist tradition that he stood for, offers hope to billions in the Third World. Today that hope is represented by Leading Light Communism, the fourth and highest stage of revolutionary science. Only Leading Light Communism can save the world.