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  • Internationalism and Cultural Experience:Soviet Films and Popular Chinese Understandings of the Future in the 1950s
  • Tina Mai Chen (bio)

In 1950 a fifteen-year-old female middle school student, Jin Miaozhen, wrote to the editor of the Chinese film journal Dazhong Dianying (Popular Cinema) to ask why the cover photographs of the previous three issues featured Soviet films (Jin 1950, 28). The editor replied with an explanation of the guidelines: First, cover photographs represented the feature stories of each issue. In the weeks in question, the popular magazine introduced to Chinese readers the Soviet films Nongjia le (Happiness of the Peasant Household) and Gongke Bailin (The Fall of Berlin).1 Second, very few Chinese films were being produced at this time. In one of the issues, he explained, the editors had intended to feature the Chinese film Zhao Yiman, but the film had not reached Shanghai in time and therefore could not be introduced as planned. Finally, the editor reminded the young student, all should study Soviet film not only for its ideological and artistic merits, but because the Soviet Union was China's big brother. The issue, the editor insisted, was not whether Soviet or Chinese film stars graced the covers of Dazhong Dianying, but whether or not the films contained progressive messages.

In this brief exchange, the editor of Dazhong Dianying summarized the role of Soviet film in Chinese culture. Soviet film provided socialist heroes and heroines through whom the Chinese could envision their future. The editor dismissed national borders as legitimate criteria for selection of feature articles and photographs. He privileged international socialism over nationalism to justify the strong presence of non-Chinese films in the magazine. He argued that the Soviet Union, as an established socialist nation, provided China with [End Page 82] models of socialist development in all realms: cultural, social, economic, and political. At the same time, the letter draws our attention to the anxieties produced by the close politico-cultural ties between China and the Soviet Union, as well as to the explicit national identification of internationally circulating cultural products. With few exceptions, references to films included the country of origin of films and brief phrases characterizing the relationship between this country and the People's Republic of China (PRC). Given the heavy reliance on imported films in the early 1950s, a time of national reconstruction and nation-building for the PRC, we may very well join the middle school student and ask, where is the face of China in this new vision? More generally, how could a nascent film industry fulfill the cultural needs of the new Chinese nation-state and citizen if it relied extensively on Soviet films to entertain and educate the Chinese people?

The complex dynamics linking national and nationalist cultural consumption to internationally circulating imagery, film, and other cultural products, receives much attention in the literature on globalization and culture. Often considered as a challenge to national borders, the relatively free-flowing movement of goods in the present neoliberal moment is understood in terms of circulation, networks, hybridity, and multinational or supranational institutions and corporations. The ideological work done by this characterization of global cultural exchange tends to leave undertheorized the convergence around a consumptive subject. That is, analysts of globalization rarely sufficiently interrogate how this subjectivity is contingent upon imagining ourselves as part of a particularly conceived global community. Nor do analysts generally consider forms of consumption located in noncapitalist contexts that promote alternative globally situated subjects. Through the example of Soviet film in 1950s China, this essay examines how Soviet film provided visual imagery, language, and a comparative framework central to Chinese self-understanding. This essay attends to the ways socialism and internationalism acquired meaning, in part, through practices of cultural consumption actively promoted by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. As Soviet and Chinese leadership understood the importing and exporting of film to each other, and its concomitant mass circulation, to be crucial to their shared struggle against imperialism and capitalism, [End Page 83] international cultural exchange shaped popular Chinese conceptualizations of self, nation, and history.

Soviet Film in Maoist China

With the establishment of the People's Republic of...


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