January 1, 2011

At The Movies With Mao Zedong

Tom Scocca posted about the story just before Christmas, but apparently, Mao Zedong was a Bruce Lee fan.

That's how the Chinese press is reporting the story of Liu Qingtang, [刘庆棠], a ballet dancer and close ally of Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who, as the deputy minister, was put in charge of films at the Ministry of Culture.

Mao was encouraged because of cataracts to cut down on his reading, and to switch to film. Liu was charged with programming and procuring prints for Mao's private screenings.

Scocca picked the story up from Raymond Zhou in China Daily, but Liu's account was first published in November in the Yangcheng Evening News, a major daily out of Guangzhou. It was posted online a few weeks later. Here's the Chinese, "毛泽东有多迷李小龙?", and a choppy Google translation, "Mao Was a Bruce Lee Fan?" [It's remarkable how far Chinese-English autotranslation still has to go. We're barely at Babelfish levels here.]

Liu says his story is from 1974:

Mao Zedong's like to watch movies there are several categories: first, the international award-winning film; second film biography, "Abraham Lincoln", "Napoleon," he loves; third is like watching garden scenery film, like most British films. Often, Mao heard good movie, the file will be down to watch, watch movies right away, very happy.
. At some point, then, Liu traveled to Guangzhou, and on to Hong Kong, where he had not a little bit of trouble getting prints of Lee's films, The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon, from the wary movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw.

Where Mao would watch only a few minutes at a time, taking up to ten days to finish another film, he apparently sat straight through Lee's movies, and even demanded repeat viewings. Liu was afraid to send the prints back to HK, in case Mao asked to see them again.

The incorporation of Mao into the Bruce Lee fan club, the American-born, Hong Kong-raised, one-quarter German Lee [who is known by his given Cantonese name, Li Jun-fan (李振藩)] was timed with the premiere on CCTV6 of a documentary, "Legend of Bruce Lee," which debuted at Beijing University. It all serves to retroactively position Lee as an inspiring, nationalistic hero of all Chinese, including the Mainland, where he was unknown during his lifetime.

And it all makes me wonder what was actually going on film-wise in the PRC during the tumultuous waning days of Mao's rule. Because there are some contradictions and gaps in Liu's story as it's reported:

Wikipedia, which has the only actual date I can find so far, says Liu was installed as Deputy Culture Minister in February 1976.

Jonathan Clements' 2006 biography of Mao dates the cataracts to 1974, but also says that Mao was nearly blind, and his slurred speech could only be decoded by his nurse.

As Reeve Wong pointed out to China Daily, Bruce Lee's films were actually produced by Shaw's rival studio, Golden Harvest. It's not clear how or where, but Liu still insists that he got the prints from Shaw.

Given the difficulty in tracking down prints of Hong Kong's most popular films, I have to wonder what "international award-winning films" and biopics Liu was able to get his hands on. I mean, was there a copy of John Ford's 1939 film Young Mister Lincoln laying around a cinema after the Revolution?

And the big question, did he watch Michelangelo Antonioni's epic 1972 documentary Chung Kuo? Antonioni originally shot Chung Kuo/ Cina as a left-to-left cultural gift, with Communist Party participation and supervision. After it came out, though, Madame Mao & her cinematic comrades denounced spectacularly as a capitalist reactionary insult to the Motherland.

A lengthy bio of Liu Qingtang at hudong.com says that in 1976 as the Gang of Four maneuvered for post-Mao power, Minister Liu personally oversaw the production of three "hit films," Back [反击]、Grand Festival, [盛大的节日], and Fight [搏斗] which attacked Deng Xiaopeng.

After Deng regained and consolidated power and began undoing the effects of the Cultural Revolution, Liu followed the Gang of Four into public disgrace, trial and jail. But he's apparently out now, and doing fine, if not quite keeping his dates and titles straight.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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