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Cultural Revolution in China in “Hibiscus Town” Critical Essay

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Updated: Jun 13th, 2019

Where the Wind of Change Blows: Cultural Revolution in China Portrayed in “Hibiscus Town”

Introduction: Hibiscus Town through the Lens of a Foreigner. Summary

A seemingly simple movie, Hibiscus Town tells a story of a young woman named Hu Yuyin. She has a nice family, a successful small business and the support of her trusted friends, Li Mangeng and Director Gu. However, her idyllic life breaks into shards after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution erupts and she and her husband decide to give their money to a friend to hide it.

As soon as the so-called “friend” reveals hem to the Revolutionary Committee, Hu recognized as an unreasonably rich peasant, who has obviously earned her money by fraud. Hu manages to escape; soon she returns to find out that her house is confiscated, her business is shut down, and her husband commits a suicide in despair. Hu takes a job of a street sweeper; soon she meets her old friend, Qin Shutian, and they become attached to each other greatly very soon.

They decide to marry and have a child; however, they quickly learn that the Party does not allow them to marry. After arranging a wedding secretly, they get caught, and are sentenced to prison. Several years after the Cultural Revolution, the couple, having served their sentences, reunites to become a family and start a small business.

Social and Historical Dimensions of Hibiscus Town: Social Justice, Feminism and Struggle for Independence Combined

While the movie may be seen as a typical drama spiced with a pinch of social issues, some of its elements are not quite typical of a romantic drama. Therefore, it can be assumed that there is more to the social themes of the movie than meets the eye.

The social environment: semblance of equality

While the issue concerning the unfair treatment of the owners of small business, as well as the dictatorship of Mao Zedong and his party might be too on the nose in the Hibiscus Town, the social problems of the Chinese society of the time still seem to have been outlined in a fairly realistic manner.

The problem concerning equality and fair treatment of every single citizen in China is also rendered magnificently in some of the more subtle scenes, including the conversation between the lead character and her arch nemesis right after the new laws had been passed: “We’re launching a new movement…

We’re inquiring into each household’s political and economic situation” (Hibiscus Town 00:30:46). The subtlety of the new governmental methods is truly stunning: “You need to be completely honest with the Work Section, just as with the Party” (Hibiscus Town 00:31:04).

The despair of the lead character, her feeling completely trapped, is captured amazingly in this shot; though she barely says a word, she is clearly overwhelmed with emotions. The calm, composed and triumphant manner in which her opponent watches her reaction, in its turn, also shows that the entire concept of social equality and fair treatment of people in the era of the Socialist regime of Mao Zedong was hardly plausible, to say the least.

The historical environment: the wind of change

The movie director has used a variety of ways to rip the veil of decorum off of the post-revolutionary Chinese society apart from the character interaction. The historical environment of the era has also been captured flawlessly with the choice of setting, the efficient use of camera shots and the specifics of the conflict.

For instance, the setting in which the meeting regarding the “class struggle in the Four Cleanups Movement” (Hibiscus Town 00:31:37) has been designed makes the audience realize what stress the people accused of being the “Capitalist Rightsight” (Hibiscus Town 00:32:11) were under at the time.

The cold, emotionally lacking voice of the person conducting the meeting indicates that the Chinese population was hardly treated as human beings – on the contrary, they were seen as tools for achieving the ultimate goal of establishing totalitarian regime within the state.

More to the point, the movie captures the very atmosphere that people lived in – the era when they were not only told what is right to think, but also what is right to feel: “Looking at this class enemy, do you really feel hate for him?” (Hibiscus Town 0:33:01).

Such details as the frame showing the “class enemy” making an origami of a crane for his son as he is called out to be shunned in front of the entire town puts an even stronger emphasis on the callous attitudes within the Four Cleanups Movement and the people enhancing the Cultural Revolution aftermaths.

In fact, the movie does an extraordinarily great job of portraying the so-called Socialist Education Movement. Defined originally as the movement that was supposed to mobilize “poor and lower middle peasants” (Sharma 134), this movement contributed to establishing the dictatorship of the lower middle class and poor peasants in China, as the movie shows graphically.

Social and historical forces shaping Hu Yuyin

Seeing how the movie director clearly established that he was going to make a film that could represent the real life of the Chinese peasants during the era of the Cultural Revolution, it would be wrong to expect that he would make Hu Yuyin the strong and independent woman like the ones that the Hollywood movie industry was producing annually at the same time slot. However, Hu still develops very manlike qualities in the course of the movie under the pressure of the Four Cleanup Movements.

For instance, at the very start of the movie, she is obviously hesitant towards fighting the people who infringe her and her husband’s rights; yet, as the story unfolds, she becomes more decisive: “Nowadays, unless you trample on others, others will trample on you!” (Hibiscus Town 01:12:27). Still, it would not have been a fair portrayal of the Chinese people’s lives in the era of Mao Zedong’s reign if the movie had had a happy ending. If Hu Yuyin had grown into a strong willed and open-minded person, the movie would have turned into another fairytale.

This is the harsh and brutally honest representation of Hu Yuyin subduing to the force of the regime that makes the movie a true portrayal of the uncompromising force of the Socialist regime with its tactics of intimidation, violence and fear policy: “From now on I want to return to sweeping” (Hibiscus Town 02:3:02).

Therefore, such a social force as the willingness to avenge the poor by labeling every entrepreneur as a fraud and a swindler, conducting a quick investigation and passing a rushed and, quite honestly, a very cruel sentence, should be named first when taking about the factors shaping Hu Yuyin in Hibiscus Town.

Apart from the aforementioned social issue, the right to rebel can also be count as a social force affecting Hu Yuyin and her life. Combined together, these phenomena evolved into a bureaucratic struggle for power (Karl 84), which can also be spotted in the movie easily, and which finally makes Hu accept the influence of the Party and adapt to the new reality that she was supposed to live in.

Influence of cultural changes: suppression and despair

Together with the change in the state’s policy, the alterations to the Chinese culture have been made. The movie indicates clearly that the Revolution has made people either intimidated to the point where they would turn completely amorphous, or to the other extreme, where they would burn with rage and be willing to turn the totalitarian system down. Anyway, the entire state was ridden with despair after the revolution took place, as the movie shows graphically.

Conclusion: The Mesmerizing Moment of a Personal Revelation

Hibiscus Town leaves a very depressive impression. Every single frame shows the anguish of the people who were supposed to start from scratch, parting with the people whom they loved, the traditions that they were used to and the emotions that they were not allowed to have anymore.

The phrases dropped by the lead characters here and there clearly represent the metaphors of what people felt, and these feelings are obviously painful: “After we finish taking down the old house, Guigui and I want to adopt a child” (Hibiscus Town 0:14:22) is an obvious hint to the fact that Hu will have to find her way to being happy again with no one to help or support her. One of the most impressive dramas of its time, Hibiscus Town clearly deserves watching as a very honest interpretation of the Cultural Revolution.

Works Cited

Hibiscus Town. Dir. Xie Jin. Perf. Jiang Wen and Liu Xiaoqing. Shanghai, China: Shanghai Film Studio, 1986. Film.

Karl, Rebecca E. Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Sharma, Kal Renganathan. China: Revolution to Revolution. New Delhi, India: Mittal Publications, 1989. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Cultural Revolution in China in “Hibiscus Town”." June 13, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cultural-revolution-in-china-in-hibiscus-town/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Cultural Revolution in China in “Hibiscus Town”'. 13 June.

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