Animated film about Mao Zedong in works to raise youth awareness
It's not your parents' Mao Zedong, and that's the point. In an attempt to appeal to a generation versed in Disney lore and Japanese anime, one of the Communist Party's key propaganda arms is making an animated film about the teenage years of the Great Helmsman.
Presenting Mao Zedong in cartoon form is a departure for the party, but one the film's backers say is necessary to keep the revolution and its ideals current.
Media analysts agree that while the effort shows a propaganda unit can adapt to the times, the project might also be about self-preservation.
When Mao Zedong Was Young is being made by the movie and TV production subsidiary of the propaganda flagship Qiushi Journal and two filmmaking companies based in Hunan. The movie poster shows Mao as a teenager, sporting a braid, a typical hairdo during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), with large shining eyes and a confident smile.
Lu Huasheng, art director at Qiushi's film and TV centre, told the Sunday Morning Post the endeavour was an attempt to reach out to young people who knew little about revolutionary heroes.
"Children like to watch cartoons. The old and stereotypical style [of presenting leaders] can't engage them any more.
"This is the 21st century. We can't be stuck in the old ways. We need to be innovative."
The production team is working to finish the 30 million yuan (HK$38 million) production to coincide with celebrations in December marking the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth on December 26, 1893. The move breaks a decades-long taboo on depicting political leaders in animated form. Mao was last portrayed in a comic book in 1948, and political cartoonists who crossed the line were harassed or detained by the authorities.
Lu said Qiushi was also planning a series of animations about the teenage years of revolutionary heroes. The next one would be Mao's right-hand man, late premier Zhou Enlai .
Also in the pipeline are animations about former president Liu Shaoqi and Marshal Zhu De .
Lu said the centre hoped to produce animations about all 10 marshals who helped found the People's Republic of China.
"We can't use the old and dull methods to cultivate [young people's] patriotism," he said.
The change in strategy follows President Xi Jinping's August 19 speech ordering propaganda chiefs to build "a strong army" to "seize the ground of new media".
Analysts believe Qiushi's transformation is driven by the need of the Communist Party to stay relevant, as well as the production centre's need to generate revenue.
"No matter what they [Qiushi] do, the ultimate goal is to promote the party. And now, it is also for increasing revenue," said Wu Wei, a former researcher at a political-reform research centre under the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Qiushi Journal, or Seeking Truth, was formerly called Red Flag. Founded in 1958, it was an important mouthpiece during the Cultural Revolution. In 1988, it changed its name to Qiushi to distance itself from its past.
It is under the auspices of the Central Party School and the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
The TV and movie production centre was founded in 2005. Its previous works have been mostly conventional propaganda documentaries. Wu said the nature of Qiushi would not change even if it adopted new platforms.
"Qiushi has always been a weapon to attack people. It uses extreme left-wing views to maintain the party's ideology," he said.
Cai Shangwei, a journalism professor at Sichuan University and scriptwriter of a documentary about Mao's life in Sichuan , said Qiushi was trying to remain relevant to the public and stay competitive.
The move suggested the party wanted to put a new spin on Maoism, he said. "For a long time, Mao represented left-leaning conservatism. In this new era, the government is promoting Maoism in a positive way."
Dali Yang, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago and author of several books on Chinese politics, said the new strategy to promote the party's image might work.
"Qiushi is experimenting with new approaches. They haven't mastered cutting-edge technologies yet, but they are absorbing them. It might prove effective among the young generation," Yang said.
The film has been invited to screen as the opening presentation at this year's Macau International Movie Festival, Lu said.