The Founding of a Republic Not Overwhelmed By Propaganda!

The Founding of a Republic (建国大业) has been widely heralded as the Chinese Communist Party’s star-studded cinematic present for itself to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding of the People’s Republic of China. It debuted this past Thursday, and I saw it yesterday.

The big question on many people’s minds is: Is this movie going to be a massive propaganda piece about the evil Nationalists (KMT) and a whitewashed version of the Communist Party of China (CPC, aka CCP)?

Actually, that question may be more prominent amongst foreigners and expats than Chinese. “Oh brother, there he goes again”, the peanut gallery groans. Come now, it’s true, and it’s true because — believe it or not — many Chinese already expect the film to be propaganda. They’re keenly aware of the circumstances surrounding it and the bigger question for them is: How many stars can they spot and identify?

Oh look, here's a poster of some of those 172 celebrities!

Apparently there are 172 celebrities involved. Oh look, here's a poster with some them!

Propaganda Propaganda

But, going back to the question of greater import to my target audience, I’m happy to report that while a few events were portrayed in a noticeably skewed manner, there’s thankfully few — if any — obvious to outrageous rewritings of history (excusing dramatic artistic license). In fact, the movie was far more gracious in their handling of Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT Nationalists than I expected. (Of course, this was because I feared the worst from this movie, and now I probably owe the CCP responsible for this movie a measure of respect for, well, not living up to my fears.) Unlike so many lesser PRC produced films and television shows set in the Chinese Civil War era, Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT were not grossly vilified here. They were portrayed, I think, rather respectfully as multi-faceted humans with their human greatness, human flaws, and human mistakes.


Chiang Kai-Shek and Li Zongren, decked out in pimp regalia.

As for the Mao Zedong and the Communists, well, they were portrayed decidedly without much weakness and fault, save maybe being far poorer than the KMT Nationalists. While Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists are repeatedly shown being driven around in fancy cars and pondering the precariousness of their rule within grand villas, Mao & Co. are huddled in mud huts, conserving candles, and laughing about getting stewed meat twice a month. This juxtaposition, of course, serves to make Mao and his band of merry Communist leaders seem the rugged, scrappy, and long-suffering David that eventually brings down the Goliath.


Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, with dramatic shadows.

Despite the outward trappings of that Goliath, it is also shown as festering and faltering from political in-fighting, widespread corruption in its ranks, and declining popularity amongst the populace, while being abandoned by its American allies. All of these contribute to the eventual collapse of the KMT Nationalist government and their retreat/escape to the island of Taiwan. Chiang Kai-Shek’s famous reflection that the KMT largely screwed itself is also faithfully depicted.

Interestingly to reassuringly, the irony inherent in scenes concerning KMT Nationalist government corruption, and one particular scene of the KMT being publicly denounced for squelching speech and dissent, were not lost upon many of the Chinese in the cinema’s audience. They snickered their acknowledgment of these same problems continuing to plague modern China, under CCP rule, as they plagued China under the KMT over 60 years ago.

Amusingly to annoyingly, the film does seem to portray the Mao and the CPC’s ascension to power as being something “democratically” willed by a bunch of “pro-democracy” political parties at the 1949 Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) that established the PRC. This is done by repeatedly emphasizing their involvement and “pro-democracy” namesakes despite the fact that they made up less than half of the delegates (the rest were all CPC). Their opposition wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. As we know today, any of these political parties that survived have survived only in name, controlled and subservient as they are to the CPC.

At one point in the movie, where Mao had largely defeated the KMT and was beginning to establish the People’s Republic of China, one Chinese person commented: “And now Mao becomes the emperor.”

English Subtitles

Those who cannot understand Chinese will be pleased to know that the movie is almost completely subtitled in English. A few captions identifying many of the characters were not translated, but all the dialog is. That said, while the English subtitles are decent, I noticed some meaningful nuance and subtlety lost in the translations. Be prepared to see the word “democratic” thrown around a lot, and for those who are a bit confused by it, just remember you’re thinking of “democratic” slightly differently.

Lots of Commercials

One somewhat random thing I noticed were the massive amount of commercials preceding the start of the film. I’m not talking about previews for upcoming films but a long series of back-to-back 30-second commercial spots for both local and foreign brands alike, much of them being car commercials. This was notable because, in my experience, most movies start on the listed showtime in China, unlike America where most people take for granted that they can be slightly late to the theatre because the first few minutes are usually previews. For The Founding of a Republic, however, there was something like 8-10 minutes of commercials before the film finally started. This is unusual for most movies shown in China and I suspect a lot of companies intentionally purchased commercial time for this particular movie, expecting a whole lot of Chinese people to be hitting the cinemas to watch it. Makes sense, right?

Definitely Worth Watching

The Founding of a Republic isn’t a great movie, but it’s definitely good, having plenty of good acting, good scenes, and an inherently intriguing historical storyline. If you’re familiar with the history of the Chinese Civil War, you should enjoy it, partly checking if they’ve changed anything and partly to appreciate how they portrayed what happen over 60 years ago. If you’re like me, and generally pretty cynical about the CCP’s propaganda, I think you’ll also walk out appreciating the movie for not being the shameless propaganda piece we could easily imagine. Instead, it was a genuinely well-made film that helps us remember one of the most contentious and pivotal moments of modern Chinese history.

More information about “The Founding of a Republic” from the English-language China blogosphere:

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