A new children’s film about Zhou Enlai reveals a lot about China today

June 5, 2021

COUNTRIES MUST make revealing choices when making patriotic messages for children. To put it kindly, young minds are little treasure troves that deserve to be filled with only a country’s most valuable beliefs. To be blunt, little kids are easily distracted, so it’s best to teach them only a few important things.

It is therefore worth exploring what the Chinese propaganda leaders have in store for young people this summer. As usual, June 1 was declared International Children’s Day in China this year, a festival of museum visits, school picnics and healthy games. A month later there is a much bigger event: celebrations on July 1 of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party in 1921.

The Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping, is introduced to the youth as ‘Xi Dada’ or ‘Uncle Xi’, a strict but caring patriarch. Mr. Xi emphasizes the importance of loyalty, which is why children’s choirs are busy performing songs like “Me and My Country” and “Follow the Leadership of the Communist Party of China”. Party history is used to inspire the masses. That explains the reports of toddlers dressed in miniature combat clothes and being told to crawl on their stomachs while holding straw-wrapped “rations” to reenact the Red Army’s supply runs. There is much talk of China entering a ‘new era’ of prosperity, national strength and global influence. It is therefore not difficult to find children’s drawings in public, depicting high-speed trains and space rockets decorated with Chinese flags. The young are urged to take pride in old glories too, as heirs to what they are told is the oldest continuous civilization on Earth.

On this year’s Children’s Day, a new patriotic film, made especially for children, was released. It depicts the pre-teen life of Zhou Enlai, who was the Prime Minister of China from 1949 until his death from cancer in 1976. This brilliant, disappointing man is a mystery to historians. To this day, many Chinese revere Zhou as a moderate who tempered Mao’s worst excesses, especially during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Unfortunately, all too often the report shows that Zhou enables Mao’s follies and fails to defend his closest allies from political attacks. Born in 1898 into a once-great family of scholar-officials, Zhou was a precocious student of the classics. But his childhood was destroyed by the death of his mother and adoptive mother and by money problems that forced him at the age of 12 to leave his hometown of Huai’an, in the plain between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, in search of a new life with a uncle in the north.

During the first decades of communist rule, his privileged class background had to be explained away. A biography published in 1977, “The Early Life of Zhou Enlai” by Hu Hua, describes Zhou as a “rebel against feudal society” who, as a boy, began to hate the gentry into which he was born. Growing poverty made him a “great proletarian revolutionary”, it says. That official history manages to praise Zhou’s traditional upbringing and reflect the party’s then vociferous disregard for pre-Communist codes of ethics, such as that of Confucius. Hu describes how Zhou studied the books from his grandfather’s library and claimed that the boy was moved by the history of “commendable national heroes” who fought against foreign invaders, but was not interested in Confucianism.

Biographies written in the 1990s by historians in the West, including Chae-Jin Lee, Barbara Barnouin, and Yu Changgen, take a different view. They discover that Zhou had a conventional Confucian education, which marked him for life. Also, they disagree that he was an angry rebel, noting his later, loving praise for his two mothers. Both were educated, tradition-oriented daughters of learned officials. Indeed, they link Zhou’s survival on Mao’s side to a reverence for the Confucian doctrine of self-control and the need for officials to swallow petty insults in the national interest.

The new film seems to agree. Chaguan watched “Zhou Enlai in his Childhood” on Children’s Day at a movie theater in Huai’an. The film does not hide Zhou’s ancestral wealth. It depicts him as a solemn boy in a silk gown, visiting relatives in antique-filled mansions. Confucian customs are shown as expressions of love. Young Zhou chews on his elders and studies cobweb texts to make his dying mother proud. His adoptive mother teaches him to take an unjust punishment with tales of an old general who had to endure humiliations on the way to greatness.

The movie is not fast. There’s a lot of frustration going on at the cinema, though kids perk up from a brief shot of a boy’s bare bottom, and again when Zhou advises his adoptive mother to drink ink as medicine. The Zhou family’s struggle to afford a middle-class life is made to resonate with older moviegoers. Zhou’s father, a minor civil servant in another city, is portrayed as a migrant worker – largely absent, always worrying about money, and emotionally distant from his own son. The film shows health crises that ravage family finances and cause arguments over whether or not to spend money on medicine or school fees. Such dilemmas are still common today. The ending of the film unites all ages. Growing accords make young Zhou outraged when he learns that Russia and Japan have taken territory from the ailing Chinese empire, then declares that he is studying hard so China can stand up. That phrase of Zhou is taught in schools to this day and causes murmurs of recognition.

Nationalism instead of class struggle

After the film, a mother in the audience, Lu Ye, calls it “very instructive” to watch the orphaned Zhou confront debtors, endure hardship and take on responsibilities after his years. Ms. Lu’s 12-year-old son, Rongye, says he “liked the movie a lot.” He praises an episode where Zhou picked and sold wild vegetables to pay off those debts, until his hands bled. “He didn’t care for the well-being of the family,” Rongye remarks approvingly.

The filmmakers say their goal is to promote education and family harmony. China is a very conservative place, even as it prepares to celebrate its revolutionary past. Chinese children, who were constantly told to be diligent and obedient, felt this all along. ■

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “An Ancient Feast Pursuing the Young”

Comments are closed.