RAS Film

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Zhu Fu, New Year’s Sacrifice, 1956

Zhu Fu, New Year’s Sacrifice, 1956

Directed by Sang Hu

Cast: Bai Yang, Li Jingbo, Wei Heling, Guan Zhongqiang, Shi Lin

Screenwriter: Xia Yan, based on a story by Lu Xun

Cinematographer: Qian Jiang

A Beijing Film Studio production


The 1924 short story by Lu Xun, New Year’s Sacrifice was first adapted to performance in 1946 as an underground Yue Opera, staged to commemorate Lu Xun’s death 10 years earlier and as a rallying cry for Shanghai Communists oppressed by Nationalist rule. New Year’s Sacrifice tells the story of the tragic life of a countrywoman blighted by the weight of tradition, superstition and the low status of women. The misfortunes she endures are harsh, relentless and patently unconnected with her own agency. As an opera it appeared on the silver screen in 1948 and after the founding of the PRC many performances of the original opera and multiple adaptations were staged. This 1956 film version of the story, a classic of revolutionary realism, was also made as a commemoration of Lu Xun’s death, and was the first film adaptation by Xia Yan in his new role as Deputy Minister of Culture. Many prominent filmmakers in China in the new Peoples’ Republic had been part of the May Fourth generation of artists and turned to literature of that period as a source for adaptations to mass culture. Xia Yan (1900-1995), arguably the most successful leftist writer in drama circles in Shanghai in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, was one such scriptwriter and he is seen here making dramatic changes to the narrative voice of the story, and to its content, to make it suitable for the mass culture of the day. The most outstanding change from the story to the film is the removal of Lu Xun as narrator, a device in the story that strongly conveys the doubt, isolation and moral creativity involved in turning away from traditional values, whilst allowing the story of Xian Ling’s wife to amply demonstrate the consequences of traditionalism. Removing the narrator and chronologically following the oppressive experiences of Xian Ling’s wife, shifts the focus from the individual to the state, making progressive state reform the categorical saviour of the oppressed.

During his time in Yan’an during the Sino-Japanese War Mao Zedong made it clear that the writings of the May Fourth ‘petit bourgeoisie’ had little connection with the Communist cause and directed writers to address wider concerns and wider audiences. As a result, the more complex, often ironic narrative styles were replaced with more traditional forms of storytelling and ambiguities in storylines were replaced with strong certainties. This film version leaves no doubt as to the message of the story. It opens with an off-screen voice saying “For young people today, this is a story of long, long ago. About 40 years ago, around the time of the 1911 revolution, in a remote village in Zhejiang …” and ends with the same voice saying “This happened more than 40 years ago. Yes, this is a thing of the past. What we should celebrate is that times like these finally passed on. They are over, and will not return.”

The director, Sang Hu, and his team of top ranking actors had also been prominent in pre-1949 Shanghai film, and this becomes evident in the quality of the performances and the attention to detail in the film. The sequence introducing the Lin family to the audience, for example focuses first on the plaque above the entrance to their mansion, the New Year’s slogans freshly written by the master of the house who is teaching his grandson calligraphy, all of which was addressed to educated Chinese who would appreciate the literary culture on display. The popularisation of this story for the film version did not simply turn it into propagandist fodder for the masses, but produced a temporarily politically acceptable film, which appealed on a number of levels to both urban and rural public. It was an instant and widespread success, making the story a household name. Brilliantly portrayed by Bai Yang (1920-1996), Xianglin’s Wife on screen finally brought the feminist critiques of China’s patriarchal society by the New Culture Movement to a largely illiterate mass audience.

The number of films made during the “Seventeen Years” Period that were based upon May 4th literature has been seen as ironic, considering Mao’s negativity towards Western-influenced May 4th writers in the 1940’s. Yet the literary cachet these films carried assured audiences that the narrative would be high quality and, perhaps more importantly, marked by Shanghai’s past, rather than by Hollywood. The mildly progressive politics of the mid-1950’s to early 1960’s also permitted their use in mass media, although those involved later fell foul of Jiang Qing’s strictures as the Cultural revolution got underway. They were certainly hugely successful at the box office and the mismatch between early modernist literature and socialist realism gave them a kind of endearing awkwardness that later films lacked. Of all of them, New Year’s Sacrifice has generally been considered the most successful of them all because of Xia Yan’s adaptation and the direction of Second Generation great Sang Hu. The film appears amongst Asia Weekly’s authoritative list of the 100 Greatest Chinese Films of the Twentieth Century.

While it is not essential to have read the story before seeing the film it is interesting to see the type of adaptations made to popularise the story. The story is very short and can be found online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lu-xun/1924/02/07.htm

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