When I was in high school I had a friend who grew up in Taiwan. To say that he was opposed to the communist rule in China is an extreme understatement. At times he would rant about how idiotic the mainland China government was, and many of the stories he told sounded like Taiwanese propaganda. One story he like to tell was how the Communists ordered all of the peasants to make steel out of any metal that could be found. They melted their farm implements and other metal that they had and smelted it in backyard furnaces. The problem was that you can't make high grade steel in a wood furnace and the result was pig iron which is pretty much useless. When it came time to plant and harvest their crops though, they didn't have any plows or other tools so they couldn't grow enough food and many starved. It sounded too unrealistic to be totally true. Surely the story was mostly propaganda. It turns out that my friend wasn't exaggerating. This and many more tragic incidents that occurred in the most populous nation on Earth are related in China: A Century of Revolution. This six-hour documentary from 1997 is an excellent overview of Chinese history. From end of the last Chinese dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China, to the rise of the Communists, Mao's initiatives, and the student protests of the late 90's this documentary shows the political, social, and economic forces that have changed China throughout the last century.
The series is broken into three parts and starts with "China in Revolution". Starting in 1911, the fall of the last dynasty is chronicled along with the rise of the Nationalist Party and the formation of the Republic of China. It follows Chiang Kai-shek from leader of a military school to ruler of the country. His cooperation with the communists to fight the various warlords who ruled the provinces and unite the country is described and illustrated with vintage film from the period. At the end of this time Chiang turned on his allies, fearing that the Communists were the greatest threat to his rule. The Long March, where Mao and his followers had to retreat from central China and ended up on an 8000 mile trek that lasted 370 days is recounted, as well as the renewed cooperation between the Nationalist and Communists during WWII.
After the war, tensions were high between the two different factions and a civil war broke out. This lead to the Nationalist and their leader Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to the island state of Taiwan. The mainland was left in the hands of Mao and the Communists.
The second section, "The Mao Years," covers from the start of Communist rule until the Chairman's death in 1976. This was a time of upheaval for many residents of China. Mao wanted to bring the country into the 20th century by any means possible, and some of the programs that he set up to do this had disastrous consequences. The Great Leap Forward of the late 50's was probably the most catastrophic economic plan ever put in motion. The plan was to mobilize China's huge populace to create an industrialized nation, and steel production was the key. As was mentioned in the introduction, backyard furnaces were made and all available metal smelted. The furnaces were fueled with wood, and peasants were forced to burn nearly everything that they had to smelt their farm implements. They even went so far as to dig up graves to burn the wooden coffins. This left no one to man the fields and yields were incredibly low. Even so, record harvests were announced in order to please party officials. Taxes were calculated on the inflated yields however and this often left no food at all for the peasants.
Another great disaster was the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960's. Chairman Mao urged students to revolt against their teachers and party officials in an effort to rid the country of liberal thinkers. Students created an organization known as the Red Guards that beat and even killed "counter-revolutionaries", basically anyone with an education or someone who dared to speak out against the government. Eventually these units started fighting among themselves, and chaos ensued.
The series ends with "Born Under the Red Flag" and looks at China after Mao's death. Things actually started getting better with gradual reforms leading to a gradual increase in the standard of living among most of China's residents. Eventually Deng Xiaoping, an old-time communist who was on the Long March with Mao, became leader of the party and loosened the government's hold on the people. The farm communes were disbanded and farmers had the right to sell surplus crops in markets. Under his rule China's economy boomed.
Things were not all wine and roses after Mao's passing however. The series takes a look at the "one child" policy where couples, even farmers who need help in the fields, could only have a single child. A woman who became pregnant a second time was pressured into have an abortion, and many women had their tubes tide against their will.
The student unrest in the later 90's that resulted in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations is covered in depth. The origins, actions, and ultimate fate of the student movement are explored in more detail than many of the other topics in the series.
This is an excellent series. Even though I had heard about the Cultural Revolution and some of the other projects that Mao instigated, this documentary puts them in context. Just seeing how one failed policy after another was enacted while Mao was alive was captivating. It's fairly amazing that so many decrees, many of which had good intentions, could all go so wrong. Seeing how the Chinese people have fared over time was very sobering too.
One of the most impressive things about this show was the number of important people that are interviewed. Over the course of the series people like Mao's personal physician, the editor of the Bejing newspaper, dissidents, revolutionaries, and even peasant farmer who witnessed important events take their turn before the camera. These first hand witnesses bring the history to life and put a personal face on many of the tragedies.
The main flaw with this show is that it concentrates on presenting the events that had an impact on China and often glosses over the causes and reasons behind them. The reasons that Japan invaded China at the start of WWII for example, are never mentioned. Why did Mao start and encourage the Cultural Revolution, even after things got out of hand. If there had been a bit more analysis this series would have been stronger. Even without it, this is a very good overview of Chinese history.
This series, presented in six one-hour episodes, comes on three DVDs. They are housed in a double width clear keepcase with one DVD on each side and an inserted page to hold the last.
The two channel mono soundtrack was clean and clear and fit the documentary well. The voices were easy to hear but there was a very soft hum in parts. Luckily this isn't notable at normal listening levels. There are Chinese subtitles.
Released in 1997, the full frame image looks good. Filled with vintage film footage, the older sections are naturally showing their age, but the image is never distracting. The quality of the recent interviews with various Chinese politicians, reporters, peasants, workers, and others is fine. The colors are a bit muted, but not to a large degree. On the digital side there was a little aliasing but it was minor.
Unfortunately there are no extras at all. Since this film was released in 1997, an update of what has happened in the country since then would have been nice.
This documentary is very educational and offers an excellent overview
of China during the 20th Century. While there isn't a lot of analysis,
the interviews, and rare film clips really bring the story of this Communist
nation to life. Anyone interesting is expanding their knowledge of
this world power would do well to seek this out. Highly Recommended.