Biopic Displays China at a Crossroads, Then and Now

In an attempt to write entries (and with a little push from ZJ) covering topics trending in China, this entry will discuss a recently-launched TV series covered in the Chinese and Western press. 

历史转折中的邓小平, roughly translated as Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroads, aired on Aug. 8 on CCTV and its digital counterpart. My husband’s watching the 48 episode series online, released as part of commemorating the 110th birthday of Deng Xiaoping, which happens to be today. The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report gives a thorough synopsis of the biopic’s premise and why it’s worthy of our attention:

The series depicts Deng Xiaoping’s life story from 1976 to 1984. While the concept of movies and shows that glamorize and laud the lives of past Chinese Communist Party leaders is nothing new, this show is unusual in that the history it reflects is quite recent. Many in China are deeply familiar with this recent history—a period of time that remains somewhat contentious, though Mr. Deng himself is widely respected.

Another point worth praising about the series is that it doesn’t try to pretend Deng Xiaoping was perfect. Traditionally, producers of works involving state leaders have tried to define such individuals by the greatness of the history that surrounds them. By contrast, CCTV’s show offers more individual, intimate details about Mr. Deng’s life. After all, leaders are also human beings, with ordinary peoples’ emotions. Back in the day, producers used to think that presenting such details might damage the official image of leaders. But when people watch movies or TV, they want to see a real person and a real part of history.

Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroads has made a breakthrough here. At the end of the day, hiding truths makes it easier for future generations to forget the lessons from history, meaning that it’s far more likely they’ll repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.

In our discussions of the series, ZJ has emphasized a similar point. It openly discusses contemporary history with the first episode covering the ousting and arresting of the “Gang of Four.” The series also credits, for the first time a group called the 8341, or “imperial guards,” under Hua Guofeng and Ye Jianying‘s command, (Ye, at the time is Minister of National Defense and usurper of power) as responsible for secretly arresting the “Gang of Four.”

It’s also the first time a TV drama has included Hua Guofeng, who initially succeeded Mao, as well as Hu Yaobang, the reformist general secretary of the party who was later ousted. History’s Crossroads reveals the factions that existed and still exist within the Communist Party of China, exemplifies how Deng outmaneuvered his political opponents, proposed new schools of thoughts without discrediting Mao and encouraged public criticism of the Cultural Revolution.

The series airs Deng’s announcements of political rehabilitations of individuals who were scorned as capitalists or stinking intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, and his reinstating of the Gaokao in 1978, helping China to cultivate intelligentsia. It displays Deng’s meetings with Carter’s envoys, the first CPC leader to reestablish diplomatic relations with the United States, travel to the US to meet with President Carter, his meetings with Margaret Thatcher, his handling of the British hand over of Hong Kong, the endless economic reforms Deng instituted, and references Deng’s coinage of China as “one country, two systems.” ZJ adds that Zhao Ziyang, preceded by Hua Guofeng, receives a mention in the series, albeit no credits. Lastly, it exemplifies that this period of Deng’s life shaped China as the economic giant of today.

The ever critical Western media points out that the biopic’s release does not merely coincide with the 110th birthday of Deng, but also pushes the parallels between Xi Jinping’s economic and political reforms and those of Deng’s. These parallels have not gone unnoticed by savvy Chinese netizens. ZJ concludes that the series serves as a symbol of support for Xi’s reform and anti-corruption policies as the country is also at a crossroads.

On Weibo, influencers are using the biopic as an example to plead for social media’s ability to open up and have as much freedom to discuss topics of any “sensitive” nature.

If you’re interested in history, learning or brushing up on Chinese related to politics and history, and picking up bits and pieces of Sichuan dialect, the series can be viewed in the United States here

3 thoughts on “Biopic Displays China at a Crossroads, Then and Now

  1. CrazyChineseFamily says:

    I remember few years ago, about a year before Xi assumed his position that we had actually in our university a courses in which the possible upcoming economic changes were discussed. Of course no one exactly knew what kind of changes would be but I remember clearly when it was stated that Xi’s reform will have similar impact to the ones of Deng Xiaoping.
    Well, the Western media can critize whatever they want as such “coincidental” shows, documentaries etc happen in every country in times to support someone who is in power or wants to be elected…

    • maklu001 says:

      Interesting that there was discussion of a correlation between the two leaders. Yes, this is true about the Western media’s criticism; I merely included it as I wanted the article to express several viewpoints and maintain a semblance of impartiality. Thanks for frequently contributing to the conversation on Xiananigans. Have you and your family moved yet? If so, how’s your wife transitioning. Wishing you all the best.

      • CrazyChineseFamily says:

        No, we haven’t moved yet. Next week we will go with all our belongings to my parents cottage and then on the 7th of next month we start our journey by ferry to Germany. There we will face all kind of renovation work in our new apartment and then we need to get the paperwork done for my wife 🙂

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