Historic moment

Why the Peng Dehuai biopic could be the last of its kind

War w

Standing up against Mao: Peng (in brown) played by Dong Yong

Mao Zedong’s eldest son Mao Anying fought, unlike his father, outside China. Legend has it that he served in Joseph Stalin’s tank troops that fought their way into Berlin in 1945. He was further hailed as “the first volunteer” to join China’s armed forces in the Korean War (in which he was killed in 1950, aged 28).

The circumstances surrounding his death have been debated. According to a 2010 biopic by state TV about Mao junior, he perished during an air raid as he relayed crucial intelligence. Other accounts are less glorious, suggesting he was frying eggs when his position took a direct hit.

An undeniable fact is that Mao Zedong had entrusted his son to the care of Peng Dehuai, a PLA marshal and the leading Chinese commander in the Korean War.

Peng kept Mao junior at his headquarters doing non-combat duties (as a translator) but still failed to prevent his death. No one knows how much Mao Anying’s demise changed the relationship between Mao Zedong and the soldier who later became his defence minister. Indeed, that is likely to be one of the historical puzzles that viewers will look out for in Marshal Peng Dehuai, another biopic from state broadcaster CCTV, which began showing last week in a prime time slot. The 36-episode series recounts Peng’s military successes, but also touches on parts of his political life. The aspect that is now timely: he was one of the most high profile victims of the Cultural Revolution.

We reported on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution last month and how it has been dealt with mutely by the Chinese authorities (see WiC325). However, Marshal Peng appears to be a subtle reflection on the period, given that Peng was one of the major ‘villains’ targeted by Mao’s Red Guards.

“The series is highly acclaimed by experts in Party and military history. It is a seamless combination of artistic facts and historical facts,” ThePaper.cn has suggested, adding that Marshal Peng took three years to produce and features more than 300 historical figures.

The TV series will also try to dramatise the all-important Lushan Conference. This was a top level meeting of Chinese leaders in 1959 at the illustrious Lushan mountain in Jiangxi. The summit was meant to review Mao’s Great Leap Forward (during which tens of millions had starved to death, see WiC98) but no one dared to speak out.

Peng wrote Mao a personal letter depicting many of the disasters of the Great Leap Forward. He had chosen not to criticise him openly, but Mao made the letter public to all the delegates at the meeting, inviting their comments. The power struggle climaxed in a long speech by Mao, slamming Peng. The PLA marshal was removed from office and exiled.

Chinese historians generally agree that the Lushan Conference was the catalyst for the Cultural Revolution, during which Peng was arrested, tortured and beaten. His suffering did not end until his death in 1974.

A biopic of Peng would have been nearly impossible for most commercial producers to undertake. “The most difficult [and sensitive] TV series usually involve [political] tragedies and injustice; Peng’s case has it all,” Beijing Youth Daily reckons. “The production cost for a biopic like this is extremely high and it is a genre that doesn’t make a lot of money.”

So who is behind Marshal Peng? According to the People’s Daily, the ‘chief consultants’ for the series are Zhao Nanqi, who served in Peng’s headquarters during the Korean War, and Liu Yuan, another retired PLA general and the son of former Chinese President Liu Shaoqi (who with Peng was the most senior leader tortured to death during the Cultural Revolution).

Zhao raised the money for the biopic and even wrote a personal letter to current leader Xi Jinping in the summer of 2013, pitching the idea of turning Peng’s life into a TV series.

According to Beijing Youth Daily, the production was approved by Xi but only narrowly so. Not long after Xi gave his go ahead the central authorities issued a new directive restricting new biopics to seven former leaders (Mao, Liu, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Ren Bishi, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun). That means that future TV series on a figure such as Mao Anying will no longer be possible and that Marshal Peng could be last of its kind.

Of course, the series has had to navigate its way past a cautious state censor. Some of the most sensitive content, such as Peng’s suffering during the Cultural Revolution, most likely won’t be shown.

A similar approach was taken with Deng Xiaoping the biopic History’s Crossroads. When the series on the former leader was broadcast in 2014, it also skipped Deng’s plight during the Cultural Revolution.

For China’s Communist Party, the turbulent period that began in the mid-sixties remains a delicate topic, as does much of the discussion of Mao himself (see Ask Mei column in WiC325).

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