Written by Tina Mai Chen.
The study of propaganda in socialist and post-socialist China generally focuses on the content and aesthetic conventions of specific genres of material including film, posters, and literature. Another area of scholarship attends to the political contexts that shape the production, circulation, and reception of propaganda. Less studied, but equally important are practices of propaganda and their everyday manifestations. Across the globe, changing technologies associated with film projection in the twentieth and twenty-first century ignited the imagination of individuals and organisations. Dziga Vertov’s involvement with a film car aboard an agitprop train during the Bolshevik Revolution and Aleksandr Medvedkin’s initiatives with specially equipped film cars in the 1930s Soviet Union find common ground with John Grierson’s support for mobile film projection through the British Empire Marketing Board and his extension of this work to disseminating government information across Canada through the National Film Board.
The practice of mobile film projection in the People’s Republic of China is part of the global experimentation with film technologies as a means to: create national and international spaces of identification; provide knowledge and ways of understanding the world; and promote specific subject positions desired by respective states or political parties. From its inception, mobile film projection in the PRC was about situating the PRC in relation to international and global movements and creating modern Chinese citizens. Specific technologies including the 16mm projector – and, more recently, digital projectors– allowed film to be integrated into spaces outside urban centres and cinema houses. In the PRC, mobile film projection participated in shaping the relationship between the Chinese state and rural subjects at different moments in the history of the PRC. Moreover, because mobile film projection in the PRC is a visible part of socialist and post-socialist state-funded propaganda practices, it provides an excellent case for critically assessing how we study the enduring legacies of propaganda. We need to pay attention to the ways in which our very questions about propaganda practices rest upon assumptions about their relationship to specific spaces, times, and politico-economic structures. That is, when is a propaganda practice primarily a legacy of the Maoist period of the PRC and when is it a localized expression of new forms of global cultural practices? Given the explicit connections through slogans and specific campaigns including annual celebration of National Lei Feng Day that link present-day mobile film in the PRC to its earlier manifestations, the answer may seem obvious. After all the Chinese state itself actively cultivates continuity of rhetoric and form. But if we are to gain a better understanding of how rural space has been integrated into visions of modernity in socialist and post-socialist China, then we need to interrogate rather than simply accept rhetorical continuity. At the same time, we need to consider the work done by the seemingly innocuous question frequently posed to me by scholars, policy analysts and members of the general public about mobile film projections in the PRC is: “Do they still do that in China?”
Project 2131: Historical Roots and Contemporary Frames
From 1949-1976, film projectionists introduced into the countryside new technologies and modes of visual literacy as part of larger projects to promote socialist citizenship and rural modernity. By 1957, 5700 mobile film projections units existed. In the initial stages, the cinefication movement in the Soviet Union provided a model and training for the PRC, as well as significant proportion of projectors and films. By the 1960s, the PRC had a well-developed network of over 14,000 projection units that figured prominently in mass mobilization campaigns, including the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. State investment in mobile film projection declined in the late 1980s-1990s; but has been reinvigorated in the last decade with “Project 2131”.
2131 refers to achieving the three ‘ones’ (one film, one month, one village) in the 21st century. Using the slogan first introduced in the 1950s of “one film per village per month”, Project 2131 utilizes digital technology to deliver film to communities with village designations. This can include remote villages with less than a hundred residents as well ‘new villages’, suburban villages, and new developments that retain village designation that have emerged as part of the rural-urban integration strategy in the PRC.
In Fall 2012, the National People’s Congress declared Project 2131 one of the cultural accomplishments of the state. Celebration of the project is curious for a number of reasons. First, the goal of providing one film to each village each month is not unique to the 21st century. Rather, the Chinese state first mobilized this slogan in the 1950s. The return of the slogan, we might suggest, signals not a cultural accomplishment but a pattern since the founding of the PRC of falling short of stated goals with respect to rural areas. Second, an explicit goal of Project 2131 is resource self-sufficiency, to be attained through local sponsorships. My research in Sichuan indicates this is far from being accomplished, and that rural screenings associated with Project 2131 are likely to remain heavily subsidized by Central Government funding, via SARFT. Finally, the statistical data collected by SARFT as well as the records of local film projectionists pay little attention to audience satisfaction, response to specific films, or engagement with the village film projection as a broad social activity. As such, the cultural impact of film projection is unknown. On what grounds, then, is Project 2131 a cultural accomplishment of the state? An answer to this question, I suggest, needs to view rural film projection in the PRC at the intersection of socialist spectacle (that is the history and memory of mobile film projection in the PRC since 1949) and contemporary global practices of neoliberal spectacle in which outdoor film screenings have become a standard component of festivals, public outdoor programming, or a means to draw customers to restaurants/bars.
Project 2131 and rural film projection operate within a current political economy of film that has local, national, and international dimensions. With respect to the international, as scholars such as Stanley Rosen and others have noted, with the exception of selected blockbusters, state-produced films rarely compete with Hollywood and other imported films in urban-based cinemas. Project 2131 thus provides opportunity for cost-recovery of PRC-produced films by providing a distribution network beyond urban theatres. The films made available through SARFT to Project 2131 projectionists are overwhelmingly Chinese-produced films. Not all are state-produced (or public) films, however. Many are commercial. Generally, in any given month over the past few years, the ratio of public to commercial films ordered by the over 280 film projection teams is 3:2, according to State Administration for Radio, Film, and Televison (SARFT) website data (thanks to Yilang Feng for his assistance compiling the data). In terms of content, many of these films present stories that foster Chinese nationalism through on-screen depiction of the brutality of Japanese soldiers or the Guomindang. The predominance of films set in the anti-Japanese War of Resistance and the Civil War period is striking. The general content and historical period is similar to many of the films screened in rural areas in the 1950s and 1960s, with a focus on anti-Japanese nationalism and the triumph of the CCP over a corrupt, inhumane, and corrupt GMC.
Despite an apparent continuity of practice and content that marks rural film projection, the state conceptualization of film projection has fundamentally changed in the post-socialist period. State representatives and film workers emphasize the changes brought by digital technologies. They proudly explain the GPS technology that allows for tracking of film distribution and screenings across the country, as well as increased capabilities for translation and distribution of films in a variety of languages. Individual film projectionists highlight the portability of digital equipment in comparison to 16mm projectors and attendant film reels. A screening can now be done by one person, rather by a film projection team of 3 or 4. The state discourse around film projection then produces a notion of rural subjectivity infused by notions of efficiency and rationalization rooted in the available technologies of the day. The economic rationality underpinning current day practices is part of the everyday experience of rural subjects. It is also part of the working conditions of projectionists who must balance their expenses against the 100 -200 yuan paid per screening. Present-day film projectionists tend to explain the reason for multiple screenings in one or more locations per evening through reference to profit, efficiency, and new rural structures resulting from policies of urban-rural integration; whereas in the 1950s reports described multiple screenings as delivering modern cultural experience to the people across diverse spaces.
The spectacle of economic development is also closely integrated into present-day rural projection. Film projectionist often set up with the hum of a superhighway not far away, with the glow of a new shopping mall across the field, and with cars passing by as village residents return home from work in the cities. These aspects of the film viewing milieu speak to the multiple reference points of the viewing subject and the constant integration of rural film projection into consumption-oriented lifestyles and development models that accept and support the broad parameters of neoliberal capitalism. Unlike in previous eras when Chinese media oft reported on how film projectionists explained new film technologies to awestruck villagers, the mere existence of the film technologies in rural space is no longer an interesting phenomenon. The technology does not differ from that used in the everyday lives of most urban and rural residents; and those watching the films screened by Project 2131 teams do not do so exclusively. Television sets and computer screens can be seen in the surrounding stores and homes; while audience members use their smartphones and tablets during film screenings. The use of multiple devices, however, is not a sign of failure of contemporary rural film projection in the PRC to engage audiences of to understand its diverse population. To come to this conclusion would mean that the expectations we have of outdoor screenings in China are fundamentally different than for similar practices in major cities and at local festivals through the world. Rather, I would suggest it is a sign that the Chinese state, to some extent, has claimed a space amongst the viewing options of rural citizens.
The richly developed propaganda infrastructure of the PRC provides many instances of ‘afterlives’ of specific campaigns, practices, or materials. In considering the enduring legacies of propaganda, critical and careful historcization of each moment of iteration is necessary. With respect to rural film projection, such an approach allows us to see that rural film projection at the current moment is innovative not for its theorization of a transformative subjectivity but for its reformulation of the neoliberal subject and spectacle to include the rural. Generally, the neoliberal subject is associated with attributes linked to urban space, with rural space and rural subjectivity construed as the ‘other’ to the modern. In the PRC, both socialist modernity and post-socialist modernity have engaged with the rural as constitutive of the modern subject. “Project 2131” thus is a site through which we can examine how subjectivity is conceptualized to integrate various forms of cultural consumption and the everyday work lives of those residing in areas designated as nongcun and served by mobile film projection units. Village film projection is not a holdover from a previous propaganda regime, nor an approximation or partial mimicry of urban and suburban experiences. Mobile film projection in the PRC is centrally part of how neoliberal subjectivity is mobilized, lived, and transformed across and between rural and urban space in the PRC. It is this at the level of enacting and envisioning the relationship between rural and urban subjects, I suggest, that continuity exists mobile film projection practices in the socialist and post-socialist periods.
Tina Mai Chen is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Manitoba. This article is based on research conducted as part of a collaborative project with Tong Lam (University of Toronto) and Thomas Lahusen (University of Toronto) that is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Image Credit: Tina Chen, August 2015. Village outside of Chengdu.