copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Redeeming the woman from Maoist China in China Cry: A True Story

by Jing Yang 

The U.S. desire to contain the ideological other has often manifested itself in cinematic narratives about redeeming other women from their native land. In the 1950s and 1960s, filmic tales sometimes described Soviet or Chinese women who left their homeland because they had U.S. lovers or because they suffered dreadful persecution or because they came to have another vision of life, often through Christian conversion. The cultural assimilation found in narratives about such women effectively assuaged Western anxiety at the height of the Cold War confrontation.

In a film produced during the global decline of Communism in the 1990s, such a redemption narrative recurred, with some variation, in an independent movie made for a Christian broadcasting network, Trinity (TBN). This film—China Cry: A True Story (1990, henceforth China Cry)—was adapted from a dissident’s memoir China Cry: The Nora Lam Story (1980) that was written about a woman’s flight from China in the 1950s, almost a decade before the launching of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Thus the narrative itself spans decades of Chinese history and its interpretation in the United States. The film version of China Cry was produced and released amidst a certain climate in the United States in thinking about China, that is, the revival of U.S. Cold War memories of China’s evil regime as triggered by the Tian’anmen tragedy. Both the literary memoir and the film China Cry detail the protagonist Sung Nengyi’s disillusionment with the tyrannical government, her conversion to Christianity, and her miraculous escape. Taking up a smaller part of the memoir, the film features her suffering in Maoist China and eventual redemption in the West, rather than the narrative of her individual accomplishments in the United States, which the memoir also traces. For its endeavor to probe into rather serious subject matter at the risk of box-office failure, China Cry deserves critical attention. In addition, because it continues a long tradition of acceptable narratives about oppressed Christians, it has had a particular long life through Christian media outlets in the United States.

I argue that China Cry exemplifies residual Cold War thinking through the narrative’s symbolic redemption of the Chinese woman. Traumatized by the Chinese social system, Sung gets rehabilitated in the script through her conversion to Christianity. The description of Sung’s evolvement from a blind follower of Communism to a Christian believer in the memoir echoes the kind of redemption narrative traceable to the Cold War era, such as Whittaker Chambers’ Witness (1952) which detailed the author’s period as a Communist agent, his gradual disillusionment with Communist doctrines and eventual commitment to God and freedom. By situating the film and the book within the framework of the ever-popular redemption narrative and its specific relation to the U.S. discourses of Communist China, I will explore the importance of the way the filmic narrative deals with Sung Nengyi’s transformation.   

Conventional U.S. discourses of Communist China

The founding of the People’s Republic of China played a large role in the U.S. Cold War. The end of World War II (WWII) resulted in a new and more insidious conflict between two ideological blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union respectively. The expansion of Communism, such as the Soviet’s blockade of Berlin and the Communist takeover of Czecholslovakia and Hungary, was seen as a security risk to the “free world” led by the United States and its European allies. The United States adopted the policy of containment via multifaceted military, economic and diplomatic strategies to stall the spread of communism. Communist victory in China, therefore, appeared “peculiarly intolerable” to the U.S. public for violating some “law of history” (Goldman, 1960: 116). Considering the century-long U.S. endeavor to expand its influences in China and the growing U.S.-Sino trade volume, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, public resentment at the “loss” of China exhibited a certain frustration at the United States’ declining power in the Cold War confrontation. Talking about the U.S. position on China just before the communist takeover, Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated that “the implementation of our historic policy of friendship for China” would be “influenced by the degree to which the Chinese people come to recognize that the Communist regime serves not their interests but those of Soviet Russia” (August 5, 1949).

The overtly communist path taken by China disturbed the previous U.S. dream to have an impact in that country by means of democracy and Christianity (Spence, 1980; Gernet, 1985). Starting with Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, the Western desire to transform the populous eastern country dominated almost all cross-cultural encounters. Seeing China as the world’s most fertile land for Christian evangelism, churches and Christian organizations in the United States had supported missionaries in China for generations. Missionaries, often simultaneously intelligence agents for the U.S. government, helped create the image of China as a “protégé” of the United States through numerous publications and took the slogan “America Assists the East” as their mandate (Tuchman, 1972: 39; Anderson, 1990). Interventions ranged from the missionaries’ efforts to convert the Chinese population to the expansion of U.S.-sponsored colleges and charity organizations to U.S. participation in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). In a statement delivered on December 16, 1945, President Truman condemned the “autonomous” communist army and promised to help build a “strong, united, and democratic China.” Since the end of WWII Washington had funneled $3 billion financial and military aid to the Nationalist government against the uprising Communists (Mann, 2002: 111); and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made extensive use of the American missionaries working in China for intelligence collection and for organizing a resistant movement against Communist rule. Both the U.S. government and popular U.S. opinion assumed that the United States needed to assert a kind of parental guardianship to shape the future of China.

For example, between 1931 and 1949, many Americans were convinced that China was following the U.S. example to be a model nation for Asia (Jespersen, 1997), so that in Hollywood films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Oil for the Lamps of China (1935), The General Died at Dawn (1936), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), scripts contrasted the benevolent Western missionary efforts, commercial ventures and military presence to villainous warlords and communists in China. The recurrent cinematic narrative of Westerners saving Chinese women and children from Japanese invaders, Communist oppression or dire poverty confirmed the belief of Western superiority over China. Believing a universal applicability of American modes of living and values, U.S. public institutions and popular opinion could not accept that China might choose an alternative way of life.

Both U.S. public policy and former missionary paternalism collided with a surge of Chinese nationalism when Mao Zedong declared to the world atop Tian’anmen Square, “[F]rom now on, the Chinese people stand up!” In the process of socialist transformation following the Soviet Pattern, Mao adopted a hegemonic strategy through state coercion and ideological self-study. State-controlled propaganda organs employed a multitude of thought transformation techniques including the enactment of a nationwide system of loudspeakers and the constant use of mass mobilization campaigns. The state maneuvered traditional Chinese collectivism into communist ideology and attempted to eliminate private space, to minimize family life and to discipline sexual desires (Gilmartin, 1994). By organizing various communal activities in which the members were often required to take part in self-criticism or criticism of their fellows, Chinese authorities obtained a means of social control which could easily turn into an abuse of power. Despite frequent eruptions of violence in purges of counterrevolutionaries, socialist modernization gained the broadest consent of the masses in a largely illiterate population. The Maoist utopian vision and the self-empowering dream of becoming the “center” of the world revolution appealed to the masses, especially the young. The idolization of Mao reached a new height in 1966 when millions of young Red Guards gathered in Tian’anmen Square and brandished the Little Red Book to worship Chairman Mao, the great helmsman creating a unified China free of foreign domination for the first time since the Opium Wars. When the Chinese government started to root out the “corrupt” Western imperial influences, eliminated U.S.-subsidized institutions and forced U.S. diplomats, businessmen and missionaries to leave the country in the early 1950s, many Americans grumbled about the ingratitude of the Chinese government for “biting the hands that had fed them these many years” (Isaacs, 1958: 153).

Haunted by the specter of a Soviet-Sino alliance to subvert the “free world,” in the next two decades the United States tried to destabilize China’s communist rule. Washington encouraged its allies to refrain entering into diplomatic relations with Beijing, prohibited Americans from visiting China, cut off trade and imposed an international embargo of China. When CIA took steps to exploit the potential for a “Third Force” against the Chinese mainland (Lilley, 2004), Washington constructed an offshore line of military alliances along China’s eastern and southern borders. Stationing significant number of troops in Japan and South Korea, the United States formed the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization in 1954 to contain further spread of Communist power in Asia. The international climate of fear and suspicion corresponded to the rise of Red Scare in the United States. In the early 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy, in particular, exploited public dismay at the “loss” of China as he launched his demagogic anti-Communist campaign, and American people were ideologically swept up in a struggle to eliminate “communists” from public life. 

Public condemnation of a monolithic and godless China circulated in popular media in the United States. Under the supervision of Henry Luce, son of China missionaries embittered by the Communists’ victory, Time and Life magazines played a key role in steering mass sentiment against China (Herzstein, 2005). In international radio, the Voice of America condemned China’s intervention in the Korean peninsula, and the United States Information Service (USIS) authorized mass distribution of printed materials to extol the virtues of capitalist society. Propaganda articles like “A Worker’s Life in a ‘Worker State’” and “Communist China’s Boast—Millions in Slavery” emphasized that the Chinese systems were built upon the backs of “slave labor.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Tales of heroic Americans fighting against evil communists proliferated in Hollywood film. From the politically oriented Peking Express (1951), to the thriller Hell and High Water (1954) and TV series Soldier of Fortune (1955), to the melodrama Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955), The Seventh Sin (1957) and Five Gates to Hell (1959), communists from China appeared as demonic conspirators (Whitfield, 1991; Barson, 2001). In The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Satan Never Sleeps (1962), the Chinese regime was depicted as exploitative of its own people or as a threat to the American system. The description of the Anglo-American defense of Western legations against the Chinese Boxers in a historical epic 55 Days atPeking (1963) demonstrated an allegorical condemnation of the xenophobic communists. The archetypal Chinese villains of the 1930s—Fu Manchu and his vicious daughter—came back to the screens in the 1960s with their evil plan for world conquest. Strongly influenced by the depressing Orwellian view in the dystopian 1984 (1949), the Western imagination assumed that the totalitarian regime was an inevitable concomitant of Communism, as exemplified by the Hitler nightmare and the Stalinist horrors of Soviet Russia.

The dread of the state’s infiltration into individual life in China was consolidated by writings of Chinese dissidents. Eileen Chang, a prominent 1930s literary figure in China, felt intimidated by the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party’s) ideological campaigns and left for Hong Kong where the U.S. consulate watched China intensely through various monitoring and diagnostic programs. Before taking permanent residence in the United States, Chang wrote two novels in English under the sponsorship of the USIS (United States Information Service). In Rice Sprout Song (1955) and Naked Earth (1956), set against China’s land reform movement in the 1950s, she described the horrors of agricultural “communes” in which the peasants worked and slept together like a vast hive of worker bees. The depiction of the peasants’ desperate attempt to survive famine and governmental abuse made vivid the tyranny of the Maoist regime. The narrative carried extra potency due to Chang’s status as a reliable native informant. In some sense, Chang was a pioneer figure for Chinese women writers, whose accounts of persecution of the Maoist era proliferated in the West about thirty years later.

In 1989, the Tian’anmen tragedy once again raised concern in the United States about repression and lack of individual freedom in China. The event became the most visible in a long line of reminders of Communist China’s otherness. Despite the U.S.-Sino rapprochement and China’s economic decentralization in the late 1970s, China’s lack of personal freedom has always haunted Americans. For example, western journalistic accounts like China Alive in the Bitter Sea (1983), Behind the Forbidden Door: Travels in Unknown China (1985) and Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform (1988) continued to describe people’s difficulties in the post-Maoist era. In 1989, on the eve of a worldwide outburst of public indignation against Chinese corruption, inflation and the uneven distribution of social wealth, the veteran China reporter John Fairbank wondered about the survival of “Party dictatorship” as China switched from a command economy to a free market (1989).

Then when college students and unemployed workers gathered for demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square in the spring of 1989, the spectacle of turmoil thrilled the international media. Often not relating the demonstrators’ specific demands and the demands’ relation to the rapidly changing economic and political structure in China, the British Broadcasting Corporation and U.S.-owned Cable News Network reported on the event as the blossoming of the democratic seeds sown by the West.[2] Scenes of students’ erecting their own Statue of Liberty and quoting Abraham Lincoln in the political heart of China suggested to the media and to international television spectators that they were witnessing a primal, ideological confrontation between pro-democratic students and an unyielding communist government (Perlmutter, 1998: 61). The images of the students’ hunger strike, the report of the Tian’anmen “massacre” and the subsequent mass purge, replayed on TV screens with sinologists’ enumeration of Chinese despots from Mao to Emperor Qin, convinced many of the international public of the CCP’s forceful rejection of the American model of progress.

In the renewed moral outrage, U.S. Christian activists leveled criticism at the CCP regime. For example, Washington Post reported a new tide of religious persecution in China (Sun, 1991), and a Reader’s Digest article talked about the indefatigable underground Chinese Christians (Bordewich, 1991). It was in this context that the movie-tie-in book China Cry: The Nora Lam Story (1991) was published by a religious publishing house, Thomas Nelson. Compared to the book’s first edition in 1980, which received scant attention probably due to the relative improvement of U.S.-Sino relations at the time, the new version condemned the Chinese government and mentioned in particular the woman author’s evangelical crusades in China after the bloodshed in Tian’anmen Square (244).

Popular discourses about the monstrosities of the Chinese regime were enhanced by the publication of various insiders’ autobiographical accounts since the 1980s. Compared to Eileen Chang’s fictional construction of peasants’ victimization in the 1950s, these writers’ first-hand experiences of suffering in Maoist China and regeneration in the West were promoted in the western market as “real-life” sagas of the Chinese families. The claim of “truthfulness” in these narratives, according to Peter Zarrow, was subject to certain limiting conditions: “the vagaries of memory,” “the difficulty the narrating self has in reposing the consciousness of the experiencing self,” “the structures of autobiographical narrative” and “Cold War ideology” (Zarrow, 1999: 186). Zarrow’s critical understanding here reveals how these Chinese memoirs emphasize suffering under Oriental despotism and thus provide familiar tropes for westerners to understand China.

Example of the 1980s and 90s memoirs include the following. One, Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1987), stayed on The New York Times bestseller’s list for 13 weeks and was selected by many newspapers all over the United States as one of the best books for 1987. Written by a survivor of the Cultural Revolution now residing in the United States, Life and Death in Shanghai struck a sympathetic chord among a large portion of American readers. If mentioning her education in London and work experiences in Shell Oil in a first-person narration rendered the Chinese woman more “recognizable” to western public, her narrative of suffering in China fed a sense of superiority in American audiences, who might celebrate their own good “luck” to reside in the “free world.” The book’s compelling accounts of how the Red Guards accused Cheng of being a British spy and looted her home, and how she struggled for dignity during seven years of solitary confinement, verified U.S. popular belief in the repressive Communist regime. Additionally, inspired by Christianity—which allowed her “to see the distant green hills on the horizon”—Cheng found a new life in the United States (Cheng, 1987: 539).

Nien Cheng’s book’s phenomenal success boosted a wave of autobiographical accounts with Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991) as the apex of the fad. Winning the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year, the book recorded Chang’s infatuation with Maoism, her parents’ ordeal in Cultural Revolution and her suffering undergoing ideological exorcism. The “authenticity” of her life accounts was enhanced by reprinting old family photographs as visual evidence of the tumultuous political reality of Maoist China. Her description of suffering ended in 1978 when Chang went abroad and breathed the air of freedom in England, “a just place” where she “had nothing to worry about” (Chang, 2003: 14). The recurrent paradigm of leaving China and finding spiritual solace in the West in these memoirs echoed the redemption narrative of the Cold War and appealed to the Anglophone readers, particularly at the time of global decline of Communism.

Such eyewitness accounts of Chinese turmoil further found cinematic expression in a number of independent films. For example, the award-winning Niu-Peng / China: My Sorrow (1989) about a 13-year-old boy being arrested for playing a Western record during the Cultural Revolution captured New York audiences. A personal narrative of suffering seen as a test of faith in God was the theme of the TBN production, China Cry, which I am discussing here. Although not a commercially viable project in the conventional sense, the film was able to secure its $7 million budget mainly from Christian donations. Through a promotion package of well-made TV promotions, slick posters and brochures, the film was released to more than 200 theaters in 23 cities throughout the United States. Backers of the film then took a 12-minute segment of the picture to the Cannes Film Festival in 1990 in an attempt to reach a worldwide audience (Pinsky, 1990), yet the film was circulated and consumed mainly within the protestant evangelical community. To the conservative-minded film critic Michael Medved, China Cry upheld “traditional values” of the United States and achieved “impressive success” as a “pioneering production” in film evangelism (1992: 334). Attorney and Christian talkshow host, John Stewart, on the other hand, dismissed the film as a “China Lie” for its unsubstantial claims of Christian miracles and refused to endorse it (Alnor, 1991). For its controversial presentation of personal memories and China’s public national history, the film provides an interesting site to examine how Cold War ideology continues to shape the redemption narrative and the public reception of the film in the post-Cold War era. 

To rescue the woman from Maoist China 

China Cry’s script reveals how disparate source materials get condensed, reduced, and left out in order to shape the film ideologically to contain the Chinese woman’s life experiences within the well-reiterated redemption narrative. Nora Lam’s original memoir chronicles the 60-year life trajectory of Sung Neng Yee (later known as Nora Lam in the United States) in Mainland China, Hong Kong and the United States. Taking only a small part of that history, the film chooses to capture her suffering in China as the most “filmable” segment. Starting with a brief war prelude showing the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 and ending with Sung’s miraculous escape from China in 1958, the film narrative concentrates on her gradual disillusionment with Maoism and eventual acknowledgement of God amidst the escalating political frenzy in the 1950s. To emphasize Sung’s victimization in China, the film narrative omits the book’s accounts of her refugee experience during the Japanese invasion, the family abuse she suffered and divorce in Hong Kong, her immigration to the United States, and her setting up of the Nora Lam Ministries and worldwide evangelistic crusades, etc. Since the description of these family anecdotes and individual accomplishments outside China tend to dilute the central motif, the film adaptation leaves these accounts out and provides the western audiences with a familiar narrative paradigm of escape to freedom. To condense Sung’s 60-year-long experiences into a 101-minute-long feature film with sentimental music, melodramatic events and sensuous cinematography, the filmmakers lump together Chinese social customs, political campaigns and historical events to foreground the woman’s individual triumph. Some inaccuracies of historical and geographical facts, such as a non-existent desert between China and Hong Kong and a four-year “delay” of the Japanese invading Shanghai, which actually took place in 1937, contradict the film’s claim to tell a “true” story. Nonetheless, to the majority of western audiences not so familiar with China, the film rings true enough particularly through the voice-over narration of the victim-exile-immigrant Sung.

The personal accounts of a traumatic Chinese past are constantly haunted in the film by the split between the narrating self and experiencing self. At the very beginning of the film, the opening title card reads, “[T]he following events are true...taken from the life of Sung Neng Yee who became Nora Lam” and the voiceover claims, “My name is Sung Neng Yee. This is my story.” To a certain degree this opening sets up the historical, spatial and cultural distance and difference between the U.S. evangelist Nora Lam and the youthful Sung Neng Yee living in Maoist China. Commanded by a dissident who looks back at her Chinese past with mixed feelings of bitterness, amber-tainted nostalgia and relief, the forthcoming film narrative of suffering, persecution and redemption in China promises to be re-contextualized by a critical Western perspective. Certain discrepancies in the narrative suggest the Chinese woman’s bifurcated class and cultural identities—such as the camera’s lingering gaze on a Shirley Temple doll in the opening shot, the subsequent mise en scène that emphasizes Sung’s western style upbringing in metropolitan Shanghai, Sung’s support for Chinese communists since “they’ve returned our country to us,” and her determination to be “a big potato for the Communists.” The western-oriented narrative self seems to negate the innocent, pro-Maoist experiencing self. Thus the authorial voice is “necessarily split”—posing “both as omniscient and simultaneously as engaged in a search for the self” (Zarrow, 1999: 174). To create empathy in the intended western audiences, the film narrative manages to instill the ideals of freedom and individualism into Sung although she is uncritical of her social system at the beginning and subject to the political frenzy beyond her control. The tension between the narrator’s two selves in the film narrative manifests this kind of memoir’s ambiguous maneuvering to package the Chinese woman’s autobiographical accounts for western consumption.

Building on audience expectations of Chinese savagery, the presentation of Maoist frenzy in the film constitutes a cinematic specimen of contemporary chinoserie of revolutionary orgy. According to the film director James F. Collier, the film crew “chase history” by scouting Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao for sites in which to recreate 1949-1958 Shanghai. To represent political manipulation in 1950s China, the film builds up a visual and audio track of uniformed soldiers, blue-clad civilians, political posters and bullhorns condemning class enemies. Frequent shots of Mao portraits allude to the omnipresent gaze of the Orwellian “Big Brother,” and the monotone of national political discourse, with its daily vocabulary about “bad elements,” indicates a threatening surge of revolutionary zeal. For instance, in a scene when Sung is riding a bicycle across a street, a point of view shot captures how the angry mob loot a church, burn bibles, and humiliate priests and nuns by denouncing how churches promotes “counter-revolutionary superstition under the guise of religion.” Such a presentation of Christian persecution enhances western audiences’ resentment toward the atheist Chinese regime, as the narrative adopts western discursive frameworks of freedom and justice to condemn revolutionary violence in China, which nonetheless is shown as appealing to the Chinese people in a web of patriotic passion in history.

The film further offers seductive episodes of sex and violence with a tantalizing structure of voyeurism built into them. For example, the film has such scenes which serve no discernible narrative function: e.g., a bloody martial arts sequence involving the villainous colonel; scenes showing the government’s radical transformation of prostitutes in the Red Light district; and Sung’s sexual molestation at the hands of a communist soldier. To foreground Sung’s suffering in China, the narrative reduces China’s public history to an eerie background and titillates the western fancy for oriental exoticism. The film’s producers and scriptwriters assume that only against this political scenario does Sung’s story become meaningful to the West. In other words, Sung remains interesting insofar as she suffers in Communist China but she loses her magic as a career woman in the United States. In terms of her interest as a cinematic character, the Chinese woman is henceforth fastened in her conventional status as native informant, victimized exile and political dissident.

The cinematic adaptation thus has a relevance for film and cultural studies in that it demonstrates a particular ideological valence effective in maintaining popular sentiment against the CCP regime. The presentation of Sung’s victimization and her triumph over the communist regime in the film applauds God’s power and how it can preserve the believer’s humanity inside an otherwise fanatic China. At this point, I would like to analyze the film in closer detail to explore the relation between cinematic and ideological construction, that is, how condemnation of China and solidification of Western superiority are enacted in the film’s narrative structure and cinematic language.

The opening title card states that the story happens “a decade before China’s Great Cultural Revolution and some thirty years before the bloody history of Tiananmen Square.” The title compresses in this way two historical events that have no direct relevance to the plotline; its function is to embed the forthcoming narrative within the larger social framework of condemnation. The story will be like a case study, so that the depiction of the Sung family trapped in this political vortex becomes emblematic of the Chinese people’s enslavement in this draconian state. The film depicts how the Sung family becomes the target of political storms launched by the reigning communists who define themselves as representatives of the impoverished city proletariats and rural farmers; the then-reigning communists might describe this family as members of the “culturally colonized native elites” in the semi-colonial Shanghai and remnants of the former “exploiting classes” with foreign connections (Shih, 2001: 275). In the way that the film presents this historical moment, a crane shot of the Sung family forced to leave their home by rifle-carrying communist soldiers recalls the pre-credit sequence of Japanese invaders. The cinematic language of visual and music cues suggests the similarity between the communists and the Japanese with a sense of wry irony. In contrast to an earlier scene in which Sung in a political parade chants the greatness of Chairman Mao for teaching the Chinese “to stand up to the world,” her youthful idealism fades when her family faces intensifying persecution. Sung’s disillusionment with the new regime is aggravated by the humiliation inflicted on her father, a Western-educated doctor forced to clean the toilet. When the father is forced be a test subject for experimental drugs and dies from overbleeding—a change from the memoir’s account of his natural death—Sung starts to question political indoctrination by the proletarian dictatorship and express concerns about state violence against civilians. Depicted as noble refugees in their unworthy homeland, the Sung family invites the audience’s sympathy, especially when memories of the Tian’anmen tragedy are still fresh in world consciousness.

The film also appeals to a western audience, one accustomed to a consumer society, by dramatizing the young Sung’s yearning for feminine beauty. Her penchant for lipstick and stockings poses a challenge to the 1950s Maoist gender discourse. As the state called upon women to exercise economic, political and physical rights as men’s equals, Chinese women were treated primarily as a revolutionary force and a productive power for the construction of the nation-state. Ideologically cosmetics and fashion were often linked to bourgeois self-indulgence and renounced as a capitalist crime against females. Visually, the much-propagated “model woman” in China’s official discourse was often a blue-clad machinist or tractor driver with rosy cheeks. In the visual culture that surrounded Sung, the muted color scheme of “Chinese puritan communism” and lack of capitalist consumption demonstrated the interplay between socialist citizenship, the politics of national building and gender formation (Chen, 2001). In deliberate ideological and visual contrast, the film, on the other hand, suggests that women’s love of fashion is an irrepressible part of femininity despite the massive campaign to purge any “bourgeois” lifestyle in China. For instance, Sung falls in love with the uppity Lam whose proclivity for dressing in western clothes makes himself an outstanding figure among a hive of blue Mao suits. In that vein, Sung asks Lam to buy nylon stockings from Hong Kong as a first step in their courtship. Shortly after that, in the scene of taking wedding photos, a hastily found bridal hairpiece adds flair and romance to the otherwise solemn-looking couple.

The film presents Sung’s tortured romance in terms of individual rebellion against a repressive state. Compared with the matter-of-fact description of her marriage in the memoir, the film accentuates the romance as an affective political moment in defiance of the state. Though a woman cadre dismisses love as a vulgar “bourgeois conceit” in face of the great revolutionary cause, Sung treasures romance despite her avowed commitment to the socialist project. In the spiritual wasteland of ideological censorship and political mandates, the couple listens to Chopin’s piano sonata and dances to the beat of American Boogie-Woogie in secret. Yet such spontaneous joy is bound to be transitory as a shot of the laughing couple bicycling in the sunshine is followed by a reverse shot of macho soldiers at their morning exercises. Since the image of the fist-waving fanatics occupies the central frame, an intimidating look from the villainous Colonel seems to fix the lovers in their marginality. The state’s erosion of Sung’s emotional life is further demonstrated by the wedding night scene in which Lam quotes from the newspaper that kissing is “in questionable taste” and “possibly unhealthy” in the new China. The joking dichotomy between “positive” proletarian sentiments and “negative” bourgeois lifestyles interrupts the intimacy and casts an ominous shadow upon the young couple.

The film develops the gradual erosion of Sung’s marriage as an example of the negative impact of the political fervor upon family ties in China in the 1950s. Successive waves of ideological campaigns, such as Suppression of Counter-revolutionaries Campaign, Elimination of Counter-revolutionaries Campaign, and Anti-Rightist Campaign, treated those belonging to the “wrong” class as second-class citizens. To eliminate potential “threats” to the socialist project, the state called upon the victims’ friends and family members to make denunciation speeches against them so as to break publicly with them as “bad” elements (Jones, 1962: 65-66). People were often encouraged to make “heroic” choices between private feelings and public duty to demonstrate their dedication to Communism. The film represents such alienation of interpersonal relationships in an episode of a “struggle meeting,” in which Sung’s friend reports to the authority about her attending missionary schools and marrying a rich man with Hong Kong connections. From then on, the couple is deemed suspicious and subjected to interrogations by Communist officials. When Sung and her husband are detained separately and forced to recall details of their courtship, Lam stops communicating with Sung for “they compare our stories.” As revolutionary fervor goes awry, turning into random purges, Lam has to attend daily self-denunciation meeting where he is beaten to exact a confession that he was a foreign spy. Ceaseless mental and physical tortures plunge Lam into despair as he shudders at the idea of his child growing up in an absurd world of coercion and conspiracy. As the Colonel tells him that his wife has confessed that he spies for foreign governments, Lam grabs Sung and yells at her out of hurt and anger. A close-up shot of the tearful couple is then followed by a reverse low-angle shot of the Colonel with a malicious sneer. As the secret hand behind the state-warranted conspiracy, the Colonel pits Sung against her husband in an attempt to break their spirit and love. As the film delineates his zealous acclaim of the proletariat dictatorship, sadistic violence towards his subordinates and contempt of moral decency, the Colonel is constructed as the antithesis to Sung, a cosmopolitan bourgeois with some Christian background. When a pregnant Sung is dragged away from her teaching lectern and thrown into solitary confinement for having attended a Presbyterian school, the melodrama starts to give way to the Christian theme of redemption.

China Cry seems to focus on the melodramatic episodes with a lack of presentation about Christianity to the dissatisfaction of some devout U.S. audiences. For instance, a number of DVD customers complain about the film’s “non-biblical themes” and its minimal concerns “about the growth and spread of Christianity in China” at Amazon.com.[3] Historically speaking, the perception of Christianity in China has often been intertwined with the nationalist discourse of anti-imperialism. The anti-Christian movement in China could be traced back to the outbreak of mass indignation against China’s degradation at the Versailles Treaty in the 1910s. For years, both the government and people of China had a widespread suspicion of foreign missionaries especially since various colonialist and imperialist pressure were exerted upon China often on behalf of the missionary enterprises. In addition, Western missionaries sometimes “took temporary or permanent service under their own government” by utilizing their familiarity with China and years of experience there (Jones, 1962: 56). To establish a nationalistic state freed of foreign exploitation and cultural invasion, since 1949 the CCP continued the anti-Christian campaign and took measures to bring all religions under supervision (Yip, 1980). The publication of the Christian Manifesto: Direction of Endeavor for Chinese Christianity in the Construction of New China in July 1950 launched a massive campaign to bring Christianity under control.

Distrust of Christianity as western-originated religion went deeper at the outbreak of Korean War (1950-1953) where the U.S. military was involved in a conflict with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese government charged the Christian missionary movement as the puppet of imperialism and singled out the United States as the main offender in this respect (Jones, 1962: 55). As China utilized the anti-imperialist discourse of the Korean War for mass campaigns to hunt for alleged or real enemy agents, those who had contacts with foreign firms or church organizations were especially subject to persecution. Despite the 1954 declaration of freedom of religious belief in the first Chinese Constitution, in real-life the persecution of Christian believers was rampant. Drastic measures included confiscation of churches and Buddhist temples, and scrutiny of all pastors, churchgoers and monks. Subject to expulsion, imprisonment or execution, a large portion of Christian believers were forcibly re-educated by working among farmers or detained in labor camps.

Such an historical contextulization of Christianity in China is not mentioned in the filmic narrative of religious persecution and redemption. Faithful to its Christian-oriented production, China Cry features the motif of Christians triumphing over the atheist Communist regime, especially towards the latter half of the narrative. As Sung is imprisoned to purge the influences of Christianity, the biblical theme moves to the foreground. For example, as Sung is forced to write autobiographical essays to confess her “complicity” with imperial infiltration, a flashback scene depicts young girls at the missionary school laughing and playing in the sunshine; here the voiceover narration states, “It began like a tiny seed planted in my spirit.” The visual images of the white-clad girls, the benevolent pastors and the serene atmosphere in the church symbolize the character’s nostalgic longing to escape the present political frenzy. Accentuated by the soundtrack of screams, cries and gunshots, scenes of the pregnant Sung being forbidden to drink, slapped by the woman cadre and enslaved in a barren labor camp dramatize the cruelties of the regime. Claiming herself as a Maoist believer with just slight involvement with Christianity as a teenager, Sung nonetheless changes her mind after rounds and rounds of torture. Despite China’s official indoctrination about the doom of Western ideology and her re-production of such knowledge when she was in college, Sung now draws a cross on the chalkboard.

In the empty hall dominated by the gargantuan portrait of Mao and the glaring Five Star Red Flag, China’s national symbol, the battered woman gazes at the white cross and listens to the voice of God in the wind blowing through the window. In a moment of “transformation,” Sung responds to God’s call, asks for forgiveness for denouncing Him so long and identifies herself as a Christian. As stated by the theme song “No One But You,” God “openes” her soul, “gives” her life and “shows” her her real identity. Ironically, the communist ideological thought reform has had a counter-effect: to turn her flickering interest in Christianity into a firm belief. In another sequence, one depicting underground church activities, a bespectacled pastor preaches to a small congregation from all walks of life, the fellow believers read scriptures from Bible and sing praise to God, while the lyric of Hallelujah in the soundtrack creates a sense of peace and hope. Moved by this holy atmosphere, Sung kneels down and repents with tears. Multiple scenes of the woman’s unyielding belief in God create an aura like a “biblical epic” except the film is set in the 20th century and the villains are Communist zealots instead of Romans (Holden, 1991).

Sung’s conversion to Christianity in the film bespeaks a significant precondition to her ending her suffering in China and realizing her final redemption in the West. By re-examining her life through a newly acquired Christian lens, Sung overcomes her nationalistic illusions, breaks free from Communist ideological shackles, and towers over the communist cadres in the spirit of a Christian martyr. Renouncing Maoism in favor of God, Sung survives hardships that are presented as analogous to ritualistic trials to test her faith in God. When the 9-month pregnant woman recovers from a kidney infection and insists that God has promised that the baby would be born “somewhere free” outside China, her mother is awed by Sung’s saintly vision. Her call for salvation is answered by a chain of miracles, which prompts a devout viewer at Amazon.com to admit “some of her story strains credulity.”[4]

A controversial episode, both in the book and film, comes when Sung refuses to denounce Christ and is dragged before a nighttime firing squad. In a courtyard suddenly bathed in an otherworldly light, the camera cuts back and forth between the team of soldiers and the woman who is praying to God in silence. In this prolonged moment of intensity, a lightening bolt from heaven cowers the firing squad and Sung is miraculously spared from bullets. The subsequent miraculous claims, including her husband and daughter being released to Hong Kong and her extended pregnancy as God’s promise for the baby to be born outside China, help quicken the pace of the narrative as Sung finally obtains her exit permit to Hong Kong. The over-corporeal representation of God’s power, on the other hand, runs the risk of mythologizing Christian miracles as manifested for personal gains and catering to fundamentalist beliefs in a contemporary context. As a result some Christian groups in the United States have questioned the movie’s “truthfulness,” as seen in the Christian Research Journal, and have refused to endorse the film (Alnor, 1991). For those who admire the film, refuting what critics see as provocative and opportunistic presentations of God’s power, these viewers instead say these moments of the plot enflame a Christian viewer’s religious loyalty and condemn the atheist Chinese regime.

The film consolidates its depiction of the redeeming power of Christianity over atheistic communism in China by featuring Sung’s successful pursuit of freedom. From the chaotic world of ideological fanaticism and bureaucratic labyrinths in China, Sung emerges as a firm believer of God. Her indefatigable spirit, graceful dignity and commitment to her husband somehow win the respect of the dogmatic Colonel as he wishes her “safe journey” when handing her the exit permit. At this point the cinematography puts the two sitting side by side as implied equals, and here Sung confronts the Colonel’s dismissal of Christianity saying that to succeed he would have to “imprison the wind.” The film concludes with Sung and her son crossing an iron-wired border gate, running away from the ominous Five Star Red Flag, crawling through a non-existent desert between China and Hong Kong, and being re-united with her husband in freedom. The fictionalized geographical wilderness is contrived to situate Sung’s suffering in the mythical discourse of a biblical journey. Accentuated by the grandiose “Freedom Symphony” in the soundtrack, the woman’s escape from China is represented as the Oriental/female version of the Exodus. As the film concludes with a hackneyed Hollywood ending of the couple living in the Western “free world” happily thereafter, the audiences become reassured that a loving God will triumph over the atheistic communism in China. The film thus refurbishes the superiority of American way of life by reminding the audiences to be grateful for not suffering such excruciating persecution in China. Indeed on amazon.com one viewer vows to do more for the work of Christ after seeing the film for he/she cannot help “feeling guilty about how cushy and easy my life is in the USA.”[5]

The all-too-perfect story of one Chinese woman’s self-realization in the film and memoir has also invited suspicion from the public in the United States. Some Christian groups raise questions about the film based on various controversies surrounding Nora Lam’s ministry and character (Alnor, 1991). If Sung-Lam is constructed as a freedom fighter and a devoted wife in China and later as a committed evangelist in the United States in the film and book, such a claim of moral righteousness is contradicted by disputes about the real-life figure of Nora Lam. For instance, the memoir describes how Lam moves to the United States and remarries after divorcing her husband in Hong Kong, but Paul Kauffman, Lam’s pastor in Hong Kong at the time, testified that she “ran away with an elder in my congregation” who left his wife behind. The description of her evangelistic career in the memoir does not mention that the Assemblies of God refused to endorse the Nora Lam Ministries in 1977 and that the National Association of Evangelicals turned down Lam’s ministry application for membership in 1989 because of allegations about her involvement in a pattern of fund-raising improprieties. The tactful avoidance of ethical issues and the selective use of memories in the film and memoir tend to situate the woman’s migration to the United States within the conventional paradigm of escape to freedom, rather than depicting her as seeking personal advantages in the West.

The “mismatch” between the real-life figure and the artistic glorification of Sung-Lam unveils a conservative ideological propensity to fasten the Chinese woman in the stereotypical role of noble victim, political exile, and assimilated Christian. To deflect audiences’ consideration away from those inconvenient real-life “distractions” about Sung-Lam, the narrative is obliged to sanitize and singularize her experiences at the expense of constructing a more sophisticated other woman. In this sense, the cinematic character of Sung is projected as a “scheme” rather than a “person” to celebrate God’s omnipotence even in a foreign land. The monolithic projection of Sung in the film, as well as the monotonous vilification of a horrible China, reinforces the ideological demarcation between a civilized American self and a fanatic Chinese other. Probably due to its politically manipulative ploy and exploitation of the audiences’ religious loyalties, China Cry is largely forgotten by the public and survives only within the Protestant evangelical community in the United States.


The suffering-triumph-freedom structure in China Cry coheres with the redemption narrative of the Cold War era and exemplifies the deep-rooted U.S. thinking about the need to rescue the Chinese. The description of Sung’s victimization in Maoist China, conversion to Christianity, and empowerment through spiritual transformation purports to demonstrate the superiority of the American way of life and enhance the western moral righteousness against the uncivilized eastern other. Since China’s reengagement with global capitalism does not cause a weakening of the power of the nation-state and thus poses a potential challenge to the U.S.-dominated world system in the early 1990s, the filmic narrative of Sung’s cultural assimilation serves to assuage a collective Western anxiety to some extent, especially among the religious audiences. Promoted under the category of “Stories of the Persecuted Church” as it is distributed at ChristianCinema.com, China Cry is able to stay alive in the context of religious persecution in the United States. (7335)


1. “History of U.S. Labor Day.” Box 7, Feature Packets. [return to text]

2. For instance, Disney Studio president Richard Frank reported to Congress in July 1989: “I won’t be so bold to say that American movies are responsible for the popular uprising in China. But I am willing to bet that for more than a few Chinese citizens our films served as an inspiration to strike for something better.” U.S. Government Printing Office. (1990). Television Broadcasting and the European Community: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, pg. 51). For a sophisticated analysis of the 1989 turmoil as a less idealized democratic movement, see Hui Wang. (2003). China’s New Order: Society, Politics and Economy in Transition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press); Richard Madsen. (1995). The Moral Challenge of Tiananmen: Shattering A Liberal Myth. In China and the American Dream (pg.1-27).

3. http://www.amazon.com/China-Cry-Russell-Wong/product-reviews/

4. http://www.amazon.com/China-Cry-Nora-Lam-Story/dp/0849928982

5. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews


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