CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 20, December 2009


Filmed Founding Myths | China Heritage Quarterly

Filmed Founding Myths: 建国大业

Gloria Davies and M.E. Davies*

Some wags observed that the title of this grandiose, and numbingly long, cinematic celebration of the founding of the People's Republic of China is itself a reflection of the clutter, and shadows, of Chinese history. It so happens that both 'Jianguo' 建國 and 'Daye' 大業, the component elements of the film's Chinese title are also reign titles for two of the most notorious periods in dynastic history, both marked by the arrant misrule of their emperors. First, there is the interregnum of Wang Mang 王莽 who established his Xin 新 dynasty after usurping the Han throne in the eighth year of the common ear. He ruled under the reign title Jianguo 建國 during the years 9-13CE (his later reign titles were Tianfeng 天鳳 and Dihuang 地皇 respectively). Then there is the vile Emperor Yang (Yang Guang 楊廣) of the Sui dynasty 隋煬帝, who ruled under the title Daye 大業 from 605-618CE. 'Daye' has other strong dynastic connotations, as it is a term used for the 'great enterprise' of new dynasties. Frederick Wakeman's noted book on the Manchu-Qing, The Great Enterprise: the Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-century China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, takes the term for its title.

It is the penchant for 'harmonising' history in contemporary China that, among other things, the reviewers touch on below in their remarks on a film said to have been seen by one out of every five people in the People's Republic. There are other discordant notes in the production including the use of an actor with a broad accent to play the US ambassador to the Republic of China, John Leighton Stuart. The actor in question, Leslie H. Collings, may well be from the United Kingdom, but to this ear Leighton Stuart was virtually speaking 'Strine.—The Editor

Fig. 1 Poster for The Founding of a Republic.

The celebrity-studded film The Founding of a Republic (Jianguo daye 建国大业) was produced as a 'cinematic gift' (xianli pian 献礼片) for the festivities that marked the sixtieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China in 2009.[Fig. 1] As the official National Day celebrations on 1 October approached, publicity for the commemorative film which dramatized key events in the nation's history from 1945 to 1949, reached a fever pitch. Throughout September there was a rapid flurry of media reports, reviews and online commentaries about the film that, by the time we attended the première in Melbourne, prepared us for an historical romp rather than a disciplined treatment of the subject.

This orchestrated promotion campaign seemed to have achieved the desired effects of both promoting and priming domestic and international audiences.[1] For instance the Melbourne première saw a predominantly Chinese audience whose response to the numerous cameo appearances by famous actors and cultural figures mirrored a similar screening in Beijing, reported by Clifford Coonan for The Independent. Coonan wrote that the audience 'cheered loudly and chuckled when their favourite actors or pop stars appeared on screen.' Indeed, if the film's makers had sought 'to update patriotic cinema for a new generation,' it appears as though they had clearly succeeded.[2]

It is a cliché to say that history is written by the victorious, but in this era of Party-generated harmony a corrective is necessary: never has history on film been so generous to the opponents of the winners. The Founding of a Republic offers a version of the bloody Chinese Civil War as little more than an ideological disagreement between otherwise noble Chinese antagonists—indeed it is hard to find a villain on either side of the conflict, rather just passionate Chinese patriots who disagreed to the point of armed conflict as to what political system was best for the country. Hence, Chiang Kai-shek 蒋介石 (中正) and Chiang Ching-kuo 蒋经国 are both portrayed as valiant, principled and sincere men who simply chose the wrong path. Chiang Ching-kuo, in particular, is presented as behaving in a virtuous manner at all times. He is depicted as a paragon of unbending integrity in his confrontation with his corrupt cousin, David Kung (孔令侃). This humanistic rendering of the Chiangs, père et fils, in a film made to celebrate the founding of a socialist people's republic is evidence of a new foundation myth in the making. It also confirms in no uncertain terms that the worker-peasant-soldier dream, once the clarion truth and raison d'être of the People's Republic, has been consigned to the archives of irrelevance. It would appear that the new message is: although the Communists and Nationalists may have had their differences they have always been able to pursue their alternative visions in a principled manner. More to the point, principled opposition and conflict resolution is, regardless of the political hue, innately Chinese.

Fig. 2 An affable Mao with Zhou Enlai.

In keeping with this revisionist theme another memorable historical reinvention is embodied in the figure of Mao Zedong 毛泽东,[Fig. 2] here a jolly chain-smoking leader who ruefully contemplates the difficulty of buying cigarettes: all the shops have closed down as the owners have fled in fear of Communist retribution against merchants. Mao jokes to his always cheerful comrades that they should make a note: we must keep business people on side. After all, we are just simple revolutionaries, what do we know about economics! His remark is greeted with guffaws all round. Through a cinematic Mao happily ventriloquizing the market-driven logic of 'Deng Xiaoping Theory' (Deng Xiaoping lilun 邓小平理论) and 'Jiang Zemin's Important Thought' (Jiang Zemin zhongyao sixiang 江泽民重要思想) in one neat stroke the film both anticipates and legitimizes the harmonious cohabitation of Party supremacy with economic prosperity.[3]

Although the film is technically competent, the editing leaves more than something to be desired. Many online critics have remarked that of the 177 stars who participated in the making of the film, only a hundred or so made the final cut.[4] The film's award-winning co-director, Huang Jianxin (黄建新) expressed his regret at having to excise well over a third of the 240 minutes original to create a final 135-minute-long movie.[5] Nonetheless, 135 minutes should be more than enough time to convey the story of the dramatic Civil War and its bloody denouement. Yet despite the star-studded cast, the lavish budget and political largesse enjoyed by the producers, the film barely manages to convey a cogent history of the four-year war leading up to the founding of New China. It appears that the filmmakers presume that the audience has more than a passing knowledge of history. Thus, as the action shifts abruptly from one scene to the next, with minimal contextualization and the barest nod to narrative continuity, it risks leaving the uninitiated with a stylized and decidedly gimlet-eyed account. By the same token, among those well-versed in the historical complexities of the era, the film's starkly sanitized version of a complex, violent and tragic civil war is just as likely to irritate and perplex.

Not surprisingly then, the film's release on the mainland in September was swiftly followed by a plethora of negative, as well as positive, comments on the Chinese Internet. For those who enjoyed their history presented in cabaret-style, or rather a 'Chinese New Year Extravaganza' (Chunjie lianhuan wanhui 春节联欢晚会) format, The Founding of a Republic was just uncomplicated entertainment.[6] To those who had expected a more careful or at least heartfelt re-telling of both the tragic as well as the heroic tales of the period during a year gravid with commemorative moments, the film was shoddy and inadequate.

In contrast to the bile of the disgruntled, other commentators came to the film's defence. In particular some praised the fact that, for a change, a movie about Party history focused on the nation-founding role of minority party leaders, especially Zhang Lan (张澜1872-1955), Chairman of the China Democratic League (Zhongguo minzhu tongmeng 中国民主同盟), then in his seventies. This was seen as an important and positive departure from the previous received history which had hitherto placed the Chinese Communist Party and Mao at center stage, and in glorious isolation.

Chang Ping (长平), the online handle of the highly regarded editor and social critic Zhang Ping (张平), was among these yea-sayers.[7] He mused that as a film intended for global distribution, The Founding of a Republic should prove instructive for foreign audiences which had not previously been exposed to China's particular kind of commemorative extravaganza. Such earlier works include Song of Youth (Qingchun zhi ge 青春之歌, 1959), The East is Red (Dongfang hong 东方红, 1964), Little Flower (Xiaohua 小花, 1979) and The Birth of New China (Kaiguo dadian 开国大典, 1989). Chang Ping further offered that this new work was a 'special art form' that made it 'of a piece with the National Day grand parade.' Chang was not disparaging the film: rather he was suggesting that discerning mainland viewers would know how to read between the lines. He implied that their familiarity with Party truisms would lead them to appreciate the film's recasting of the nation's foundation myths. He believed that, against the displaced and discredited Maoist theme of class struggle, the film-makers were making a genuine attempt to highlight the past as a struggle for democracy.

Fig. 3 Chiang Kai-shek (Zhang Guoli) at the Presidential Residence, Nanjing, as depicted in the film.

In this connection, many viewers also found the relatively sympathetic portrayal of Chiang Kai-shek (played by Zhang Guoli 张国立) highly appealing. Zhang's performance presents a somber portrait of a man of honour increasingly conscious of impending defeat.[Fig. 3] Some commentators praised the film's makers for departing from former 'good vs. evil' representations of Mao and Chiang to emphasize instead the contingencies of war that led the Communists to victory (although one would remark that the Communist Party's well-coordinated propaganda and Fifth Column activities are genially overlooked). A few lines uttered by Chiang Kai-shek were among the most commented in the film. These provide a particular insight into the intention of the film's directors. Mid-way through the story, as he contemplates the defeat of the Nationalists, Chiang sighs softly, more to himself than his listening son: 'Corruption in the Nationalist Party is now bone-deep. If we fight it, we'll lose the Party. If we don't fight it, the nation will be lost, how difficult it all is.' ( Guomindangde fubai yijing daole guzili le, fan fubai, wang dang; bufan, wangguo, nan'a 国民党的腐败已经到了骨子里了,反腐败,亡党;不反,亡国,难啊!). At screenings in China these words were reportedly received with resounding applause and cheers for they were taken as being nothing less than a coded warning to the Communist Party-state about its own endemic corruption.[8]

Fig. 4 Mao reviewing troops before a triumphal entry into Beiping, subsequently renamed Beijing.

Scrutinized against the film's at times risible distortion of historical fact, commentaries and reviews by informed and vocal members of the mainland Chinese blogosphere reflect a shift of some magnitude underway in the self-projections of 'the Chinese'. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the new nation's foundation myths revolved without exception around that emergent multitude called 'the proletariat'. This collective was depicted from the late 1950s as constantly and tirelessly struggling towards victory under Mao Zedong.[Fig. 4] But the 1990s saw the progressive withering away of this collective protagonist. Instead, historical education became focused on the stewardship of the Chinese Communist Party in freeing China from 'a century of national humiliation' (bainian guochi 百年国耻). This state-sponsored 'patriotic education campaign' introduced in 1991 was intended to deflect attention from official Marxism-Leninism as a failing orthodoxy. As William Callahan writes, the new policy 'was formulated not so much to re-educate the youth (as it was in the past), as to redirect protest toward the foreigner as an enemy, as an external Other.'[9] In the early 1990s, the Chinese government was especially anxious to suppress memories of the 1989 student-led national protest movement, which was focused on Tiananmen Square. These protests, which began in April 1989, were brought to a sudden halt with the state-endorsed massacre of Chinese citizens on 4 June. Above all, the unelected Party-state was keen to enhance its legitimacy as a patriotic government that had delivered economic prosperity to its citizens. In return it demanded their fealty. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the discourse of national becoming was no longer the exclusive property of the Party-state, the academy, the state-guided media or the publishing industry; the rapid growth of the Internet ushered in an unprecedented level of civic (and sometimes less than civil) participation in public discussions of the nation's past.

China's new and rowdy 'netizens' (wangmin 网民) are an important part of the unprecedented phenomena that arrived with the growth of the Chinese net. Their numbers are legion and their hair-trigger reactions to an inexhaustible variety of topical issues saturate the Sinophone blogosphere. On this occasion, a good number have made impassioned and disparaging remarks about the faux-patriotism of 'foreign nationals' appearing in The Founding of a Republic. These remarks were directed in particular at the film's mainland-born actors and directors who now hold non-Chinese passports. A list of twenty-one cultural stars, including Chen Kaige 陈凯歌, Joan Chen 陈冲 and Jet Li 李连杰, was soon in wide circulation.[10] This online 'Hall of Shame' chiru bang 耻辱榜 includes people who have chosen to make their home in Hong Kong, such as Jiang Wen 姜文and Zhang Ziyi 章子怡.

Han Han 韩寒, a bestselling author turned social critic, seized on this proliferation of rude comments about turncoats and traitors as an opportunity for self-reflection. Arguably the leading member of an emergent literary 'brat pack' on the mainland, Han addressed 'those of you sitting in front of your computers': 'If you were offered American citizenship,' he pointedly asked, 'would you take it?' For his part he declared that he didn't have a problem with the foreign citizenship of the actors per se. Rather, it was the fact that so many among the film's stellar cast had chosen to discard their own Chinese citizenship for another that grated. He sermonized that this was tantamount to seeking 'a divorce' from the People's Republic, on grounds of 'irreconcilable differences or [because they had] found someone better'. (We would note that Han's discomfort grimly echoes the Mao-era line of condemnation that class and national traitors invariably 'divorced themselves from the people' zijue yu renmin 自决于人民.) Han concluded his remarks with the quip: 'The fact that so many have gone away tells us that, after the nation was founded, the great enterprise [daye 大业] remains incomplete. Otherwise there would be plenty of Whites with Chinese citizenship who are eager to play the part of villains of that era.'[11] In this regard, we should also note that the film's non-Chinese actors were all assigned bit parts. The few lines they spoke were mostly unmemorable except for a passing reference to Chiang Kai-shek as 'Cash-My-Cheque.'

Fig. 5 Film poster.

Han Han's playful dig at the film's title draws our attention to the vocabulary and diction out of which founding myths are produced as well as the lexicons they spawn. The official narrative of the People's Republic abounds with a plenitude of tasks dignified as 'momentous' and 'pioneering' that are a distinct legacy of the early Chinese Communist meta-narrative and it was out of this meta-narrative that the revolutionary zeal of Mao Zedong Thought evolved and became crystallized as Party orthodoxy from the 1940s to the 1970s. The film's revisionism away from such an antiquated orthodoxy reflects a broader trend. In this regard, a change that occurred in official discourse is aptly illustrative. The change in question relates to the revered title 'revolutionary martyr' (geming lieshi 革命烈士), an honour hitherto reserved for those who died a heroic death (although ignominious sacrifices were also venerated—one thinks of the 'red Samaritan' Lei Feng 雷锋 being felled by a falling power pole). The term was peremptorily and somewhat quietly revised to just plain 'martyr' in February 2008. According to the State Council, the significantly altered social and economic environment of the present-day People's Republic made the change necessary, for now not every hero of the age of economic reform and prosperity was necessarily a socialist.[12]

Just as the attribute 'revolutionary' has been rendered obsolete, the film The Founding of a Republic has now recast the villains of history as misguided patriots rather than as enemies of the Chinese nation. The irony is that this reworking of official history to depict erstwhile enemies with untoward sympathy serves only to confirm the self same Party-state at the hub of all history making, remaking and unmaking. But when all is said and done, both in movies and in life, perhaps it is worth recalling Ken Kesey's observation: 'We are all of us doomed to spend our lives watching a movie of our lives—we are always acting on what has just finished happening… . The present we know is only a movie of the past, and we will never be able to control the present through ordinary means.'[13][Fig. 5]


* Our thanks to the editor of Chinese Heritage Quarterly for his comments and erudition of which this article has greatly benefitted.

[1] Indeed as we were concluding this review we heard that one in five mainland Chinese had already seen the film.

[2] Clifford Coonan, 'The Thoughts of Chairman Mao (starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li),' The Independent, 8 September 2009, at:

[3] These titles are an integral part of what is known as 'Party theory' dangde sixiang lilun 党的思想理论. They represent the institutionalization of ideas and arguments associated with Deng and Jiang as guiding principles.

[4] This is the number most commonly quoted in online reviews. Other reviews place the number of stars involved at 172.

[5] Huang Jianxin also indicated that the 240-minute director's cut of the film would eventually air on CCTV 6 as a four-part mini-series. See Wan Quege万阕歌, 'The Founding of A Republic: like CCTV's Chinese New Year Extravaganza (Jianguo daye kan bi Yangshi Chunwan《建国大业》堪比央视春晚, Dongfang wang , 11 September 2009, reposted at The film's other director was Huang Sanping 黄三平, head of the state-owned China Film Group, the largest film company on the mainland. China Film has a broad variety of commercial enterprises ranging from film and television production through distribution, exportation and importation of local and foreign films to advertising and property development.

[6] Wan Quege, 'Jianguo daye kan bi Yangshi Chunwan'

[7] Chang Ping, 'The Founding of a Republic goes global' (Jianguo daye zouxiang shijie'《建国大业》走向世界), FT Zhongwen wang, first posted 12 October 2009, available at Chang Ping first attracted international attention in April 2008 when he was denounced by angry Chinese netizens for an editorial he published on the need for reliable information and independent reporting on the March 2008 Lhasa Riots. Although he lost his job as deputy editor with Southern Metropolis Weekly (Nanfang dushi zhoukan 南方都市周刊), he has retained a key research post at the Broadcast Research Institute based at the same news organization. Further details at

[8] Yu Ge 羽戈, 'Pride and prejudice regarding The Founding of a Republic' (Dui Jianguo daye de aoman yu pianjian 对《建国大业》的傲慢与偏见), 22 September 2009, at</p>

[9] William A. Callahan, 'History, Identity and Security: Producing and Consuming Nationalism in China,' Critical Asian Studies, vol.38, no.2 (2006): 186.

[10] See for instance, 'The List of Actors appearing in The Founding of a Republic' (Yingpian Jianguo daye yanyuan biao 影片《建国大业》演员表) at

[11] Han Han, 'My views on The Founding of a Republic : to get a woman you need your own place' (Wo kan Jianguo daye—dianying gaosu women, xiang yao goading nüren, haidei kao fangzi 我看《建国大业》:电影告诉我们,想要搞定女人还得靠房子) first published 23 September 2009, re-posted at

[12] As Jane Macartney writing for The Times pointed out, the fact that the draft of the new rules was issued for public comment for just one week was 'a move that signals that the change is a foregone conclusion.' See Jane Macartney, 'Revolutionary Change for China's Heroes', 22 February 2008, The Times,

[13] Quoted in Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, New York: Bantam Books, 1968, p.129.