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56 Flowers: The All-Girl Group Promoting Socialist Values

The all-girl group ’56 Flowers’ (五十六朵花) is all about promoting China’s core socialist values. Although many Chinese are happy with the group’s “positive energy”, there are also those who are fearful for its revival of the Cultural Revolution.

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The girl group ’56 Flowers’ (五十六朵花) is all about promoting China’s core socialist values. Although some Chinese netizens are happy with the group’s “positive energy”, there are also those who are fearful for its rekindling of the Cultural Revolution-era .

Chinese idol girl group ’56 Flowers’ had the debut performance of their latest concert in the Great Hall of the People on April 23, 2016, and has since been a popular topic on Chinese social media.

The Great Hall of the People (人民大会堂), located near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, is generally used for legislative and ceremonial activities by the PRC and the Communist Party of China.

The 56 Flowers program consists of “red songs” about the Chinese nation, the socialist regime and its core values. The girl group’s combination of political propaganda and pop culture has drawn much attention from Chinese netizens, who have contrasting opinions about the new pop group.

“China’s Dream, the Most Beautiful”

56 Flowers (五十六朵花; 56朵花吧) is a girl music group with 56 members. They are young women aged between 16 and 23, and are selected from the 56 different ethnic groups of China.

First appearing on stage in June of last year, 56 Flowers reportedly aims to be the biggest idol girl group in the world. The director of the group, Chen Guang (陈光), compares them to the popular Japanese group AKB 48. On stage, the uniforms and dancing styles of the singers are indeed not much different from their mainstream Japanese or Korean counterparts – their message, however, is.

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Chen Guang said that his goal was to nurture the “purest Chinese girls” and run a popular music group that follows the “main theme” (主旋律) of China’s Party and the State. The emblem of 56 Flowers meets Chen’s idea; it adopts the red and yellow of China’s national flag, and resembles the national emblem of China. Below the group’s name the phrase “China’s Dream, the Most Beautiful” (中国梦,最美丽) is featured.

56 Flowers: Socialist-Style Pop Group

56 Flowers sings “red songs” – songs that praise the socialist regime, the Communist party, and the Chinese nation in general.

Earlier this year, 56 Flowers appeared in the Pre-New Year Gala of Hunan TV, a local broadcaster famous for its entertainment programs. In the gala, 56 Flowers presented an original song “Don’t Know How to Address You” (不知该怎么称呼你). The song referred to Xi Jinping’s 2013 visit to ethnic groups in Guangxi Province. All 56 girls, dressed in traditional Miao clothes, sang an ode to the president: “You love the people and the people of the whole nation deeply love you.”

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In the most recent performance at the Great Hall of the People, 56 Flowers brought back memories of the Maoist era with the song ‘Sailing the Sea Depends on the Helmsman‘ (大海航行靠舵手). Originally named ‘Revolution Depends on Maoist Thoughts’ (干革命要靠毛泽东思想), this was a popular song during the Cultural Revolution.

Echoing the lyrics “Maoist thoughts are the sun of China”, the performance was accompanied by a big portrait of Mao in the middle of a radiant sun. They also chanted about “socialism is good” and “down with American imperialism.”

No to Sexy, No to Glamour, No to Romance

The 56 girls of 56 Flowers were dressed in black and white t-shirts, hair tied up in a pony tail, during first public appearance June 2015. Art director of the group, Liu Yanxi, told South Weekend (南方周末) about his member selection criteria: the girls can absolutely not be sexy, nor glamourous, no blond or dyed hair, and cannot be “street-wise”. Another strict rule is that the members of 56 Flowers should not be involved in any romantic relationships. According to the director, the last criterion is to ensure a “pure and innocent” image of the girls.

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Once selected, what awaits the girls is tough training. Living in four-person dormitories, they have a tight daily schedule that runs from 6:00 till 17:00, including physical training, figure training, Chinese dancing, and lessons on how to be a pop idol. Evenings are dedicated to patriotic education, literature lectures, and training in eloquency. The singers have one day off each week, and contracted members receive 3000 RMB (460 US$) per month with performance subsidies.

By now, only a few girls of the group are actual contracted members; most singers are temporary members that participate in daily training. Two girls were fired last July for participating in an AKB 48 audition.

Reviving the Cultural Revolution?

Since their first appearance last June, 56 Flowers has been attracting contrasting opinions on Chinese social media.

Supporters say the group sings songs that “encourages people, inspires national solidarity, and expresses much energy”, that “realizes the Chinese dream”, with songs full of “positive energy”.

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But some netizens worry that singing “red songs” may revive the Cultural Revolution. “Singing red songs in such a sensitive place as the Great Hall of the People, everyone will associate it to a revival of the Cultural Revolution, a second round of personal worship, a second round of dictatorship!”, one Weibo netizen says.

Some netizens also criticize the group for using young girls for political propaganda: “The remains of the Cultural Revolution are used to poison young girls. Those who utilize children and tarnish true art will not die in peace!” Another netizen remarks with annoyance: “Why destroy the children!?”

Politics through Popular Art

Around the world, pop music is often used to convey political and nationalistic messages – in that regard, China’s 56 Flowers is no exception.

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The Moranbong Band of North Korea (see image) is a state-orchestrated all-female music group. Initiated by Kim Jong-Il in 2012 and featuring modern-looking young artists, the objective of the group is to promote revolutionary creativity and advocate the battle for nation and country in a modern fashion. The band has just performed on the closing ceremony of the 7the National Congress of North Korea.

There is also a myriad of international examples of single songs, rather than pop groups, focused on political or nationalistic messages. In the West, UK Independence Party candidate Mandy Boylett released a song Britain’s Coming Home in February 2016 to propagate the Brexit campaign. The song sends the explicit message that the EU had “gone too far” and “it’s time to get out”.

In the Netherlands, the National Inauguration Comittee (NCI) released a King’s Song (Koningslied) to celebrate the 2013 inauguration of King Willem Alexander. Asking the public to contribute phrases for the song, the final lyrics ended up with phrases such as “I will shelter you in the storm; I will keep you safe as long as I live”, and “I will fight like a lion, to make sure you have all you need.”

56 Flowers in Trouble?

It is not just the songs by UKIP and the Dutch NCI that received much public criticism for the aforementioned songs – the music by 56 Flowers has also drawn much controversy. Besides voices that warn against a revival of the Cultural Revolution, 56 Flowers is also criticized for utilizing “red songs” for commercial purposes, and for other things, such as delaying payment for members, or giving false information about the band’s background.

There are some signs that the controversies surrounding the pop group are affecting its online presence. The official 56 Flowers website 56hua.cn has recently become inaccessible, and its video album on China’s online video platform Tudo.com has been deleted. Other recent news coverage on the group by prominent Chinese news agencies, including reports about the group’s controversies, have been removed. This might relate to the fact that its official website previously stated that the group was supported by a committee on the promotion of socialist values, which later turned out to be non-existing.

Where 56 Flowers will go from here remains a question for now. But the media sensation and controversy the group has created shows how tricky it can be to combine political propaganda with popular culture – even when (or especially when?) its message conveys the official Party line.

– By Diandian Guo

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Diandian Guo is a China-born Master student of transdisciplinary and global society, politics & culture at the University of Groningen with a special interest for new media in China. She has a BA in International Relations from Beijing Foreign Language University, and is specialized in China's cultural memory.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of ‘Wandering Earth 2’

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#, 6.2 million views at time of writing).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that the sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had:

“(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Instead of triggering anger, the bad review actually instilled a sense of pride among many Chinese, who argued that the review showed the impact the movie has made. Some commenters pointed out that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by India as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative plays into existing fears over China’s rise, and it clashes with American values about what the international community should look like.

Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

On Zhihu.com, some commenters also attached little value to the review and showed how the overseas reviews of Wandering Earth II widely varied in their verdict.

Meanwhile, a state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by moviegoers outside of China.

On IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10; it has gotten a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

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