Stab in my back: TV Serials and Communist Ethics

Written by Julen Madariaga on November 13th, 2009

I have realized lately that, due to a certain unbalance in my training methods, my Chinese reading skills might be running ahead of my speech, and I have been forced to take severe corrective measures. At the risk of turning this into an SM blog, I am going to speak today of the terrible penance I imposed on myself to make up for that error. Brace yourself: I watched a whole 22+ hours communist TV serial on CCTV, all in a single week and pausing to understand every word and chengyu.


It is the latest super production of the “Red Army against Capitalists” kind, called 冷箭, or “Stab in the back”. The first chapter was launched the day of the 60th Anniversary, on CCTV 1 prime time, proving that it was born to be big. Even if it didn’t live up to expectations (it was switched later to CCTV 8 nights), I am guessing that more people have watched this than the “Foundation of the Republic” film that so excited Western minds. Admittedly, there is little buzz on the internet about 冷箭, but that is just because the target audience is a different (and much larger) group than the internet community. My own investigations with taxi drivers indicate that it had a very strong following, at least in the first weeks.

For all those who complained about political propaganda in the “Foundation of the Republic” (or in Independence Day, for that matter), those are just amateur efforts next to this “Stab in the Back”. Because the Stab is not concerned with distorting facts, but with edifying and providing a complete moral system for the people. And like most of these widely watched Chinese TV serials, it still follows loyally in the spirit of the first moralizing plays organized by the 1930s partisans in Shaanxi.

A Little Critique

Regarding artistic merit, I will just briefly say that, although this looks like one of the highest budget “Red Army” serials to date, an improvement in quality does not follow. The main problem is the visible incompetence of its producers and actors almost without exception. Knowing that Chinese are very well capable of doing good films when they are given some freedom, I can only suppose this is the result of dead imaginations bureaucratically selected and nurtured by CCTV mummy-cadres.

In this case the main story is about — surprise- a Long March towards the West, where the Captain discovers that there is a Capitalist enemy spy infiltrated in the team. In fact not only one, but two, and three, and more are found in every chapter, until by the end of the serial the largest part of the brigade are actually undercover agents. This gives the poor captain played by borderline Huang Zhizhong countless occasions to run his fits of histrionic paranoia, apparently a main selling point. One can’t help wondering why all those spies don’t just get together to kill their clownish captain, rename their brigade with the KMT star, and get on with their counter-revolutionary business.

I don’t know if you have experienced this before when watching a film, but it is one of those instances when deplorable script and performance manage to kill the suspension of disbelief right from the first sequence. Then, suddenly, you find yourself watching a bunch of adult people walking around in funny clothes and uttering pointless nonsense. The result is embarrassing.

I have never been much of a TV watcher, but I do understand that TV films are substandard anywhere in the World, and nonsensical plots or braindead dialogs are by no means exclusive of China. Even the fixation with the deeds of the Red Army marching West is not necessarily more ridiculous than, say, the fixation with illiterate cow herders during the golden age of Westerns. But there is something in these Chinese serials that makes them unique beyond the obvious propaganda and quality issues, and that is the complete set of values that they embody for the edification of the masses.

Edifying the Masses: A Communist Catechism

This is the first time, (and most surely the last) that I watch a complete Chinese propaganda serial, but I believe that the effort is not wasted. Because only getting inside these long works one can appreciate that deeper level that flows underneath, the construction of  a public moral system that is very much akin to Religious Instruction.

Here are a few of the points I noted while watching the Stab, for the benefit of those who want to understand these works without throwing 22+ hours of their life down the drain:

  • Love: The scenes of love are tacky to nauseate an armored brigade, with perhaps the best example in this scene in minute 40 chapter 4, when the captain “falls in love”. In general, love among the communists is virtuous and innocent, and always secondary to the interests of the organization. There is not the slightest romantic indulgence, no concessions to passion other than for the party. When the communist lover is told that her beloved is a Capitalist spy, she abandons him on the spot, and volunteers to kill him if necessary.
  • Sex: Of course, this puritanism does not stop the young lieutenant from having proper sex (under the sheets) starting chapter 25, in a clear effort by the authors to attract more audience. “乱搞男女关系!” (disorderly do man-woman relations!!) chastely exclaims the captain when he gets the news through a disgustingly virtuous informer. But worry not, the ethical purity is safeguarded. These two sinners have betrayed the higher cause, and they receive their deserved punishment without further delay: death at the hands of some brigands.
  • Violence: We have  seen enough of the likes of Eastwood in Alcatraz to have some expectations about the frightful fate of new prison inmates (especially if they are male!). I don’t know to what extent this violence is consistent with reality, but what I am pretty sure is that prison wardens do not tell off the inmates screaming “don’t be naughty”, and major disputes in the common cells are not settled through pillow fights. This is exactly how things are done in 冷箭, making the whole experience for the high level KMT prisoners like a children’s Summer Camp. This is one of the most puzzling parts of the communist ethics, and the most difficult to grasp in a movement that was imposed largely through violent revolution. It seems to come from a belief in molding mentalities through peaceful labour, but, as we will see below, it has little to do with the Christian notion of “turning your other cheek”.
  • Class virtue: Virtue is presented as a characteristic of the proletarian class, and salvation must necessarily follow. Like the ancient Christians looking for consolation in the Bible before they were thrown to the lions, so the Chinese Laobaixing today seem to find solace in these serials, while they wait for the next corrupt CCP cadre to come and tear their homes to serve a rich developer. The notion of a Final Judgment that accompanies this kind of teaching is represented through the iconic verses of the Internationale, sung at several points in the serial, with the main theme conspicuously inspired in the melody of the first verse.
  • Forgiveness and Revenge: There is an appalling scene of revenge (ch 31 38:00) when the main spies are apprehended, that completely shocked me after 20 hours of mellow bloodless harmony. The righteous blows of the officers are completely devoid of mercy, enjoying the raw pleasure of revenge. In my observation of the Chinese, this represents very well the paradox of their ethical system: Chinese are by nature far more tolerant than any Western people, but –perhaps as a necessary consequence – once a certain level of crime is attained, this sets off a mechanism of ruthless punishment where the object ceases to be seen as human. This is perhaps the most important difference with Christian influenced ethics, where our less tolerant natures were softened by the love doctrines of the New Testament. The whole discussion of death penalty in China vs. Europe is an interesting modern development of this difference in outlooks.

Some Conclusions

There are many ideas here worth commenting further, perhaps one of the most interesting would be to see how this communist system of ethics is working (or failing) to keep the always delicate balance between 道德 (virtue) and Deng Xiaoping’s 致富 (getting rich).

Clearly, Chinese are not the only ones to introduce ethics into their TV serials. Popular Western serials have long been educating us with teachings as varied as respect for minorities, tolerance of homosexuality, patriotism or democracy. But crucially, while the Western system of moral instruction has evolved with the times and deals with problems facing today’s society, the Chinese system has remained stuck in the 1930s, with the characteristic rigidity of Religious ethics. As a consequence, there is a growing, insurmountable gap in China between the ideas preached and the real needs of the ordinary citizens. This may be having the catastrophic effect of eliminating all ethics from mainland Chinese life.

When we speak of problems like perceived racism, corruption, lack of respect for the public goods or environment, how much of these are related to a lack of a realistic, up-to-date moral support, or to the hijacking of ethics to serve the single interests of the CCP power elite?

I would like to say more about this, but unfortunately this post has got out of control already, and I know nobody reads past the first 1000 words. Write your ideas below about any particular point and if we get some interesting discussion going on we can try to expand the subject in a new post.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Nov

    I think these kinds of things is unlikely to be controlled directly by bureaucratic agency and high officials. I don’t think they commission serials out of the desire to enhance the public belief in the communist party and communism. It’s mostly likely that some people/organization want to make a serial. Other topics might be risky and might be censored by the government, so what’s the safest bet, communist era films. What’s the safest morals to include in the serial, love party, love communism and love the poor. They might get into trouble and objections if they put something else. Why would they take the riskier way when it gives no benefits? Conforming to the general politically correct rhetoric returns more coverage and there are still enough people that watches this that it’s not necessary to appeal to the mass with another more interesting topic.

    “In my observation of the Chinese…” You need to observe more then. Humans are bad natural statistic takers. Yeah, most Chinese think that they are superior and more tolerant? I doubt that that most or a significant minority of Chinese subscribe to your version of their ethics system. You apparently still feel that Chinese are feeble-minded creatures that soaks up any kinds of propaganda. Let me ask you this. In your accurate and rigorous observation of the Chinese people, do they immediately believe whatever marketing ploy on TV? Since according to you, they are most likely to completely soaks up the ethics systems of these serials with no resistance, they must all blindly believe the info-commercials on TV. Obviously since Chinese can not critically think for themselves, because they are not trained at school to do so, these commercials are dangerous. I think you should protect those naive people from these dangerous things with your advanced perceptive mind that can resist extremely well engineered propaganda of the communist party.

    Ok, I maybe too critical on your post. You just finish watching a crappy 1930 communist serial for 21 hours. I can understand why you are angry. I do agree most of them suck a lot (There was one that was ok, since it didn’t have as much commie-speak and the main actor was pretty good. Don’t know it’s name though. I only watched 2 episodes). I can’t sit through them. Too boring and too many cringe inducing political slogans. However, if you don’t like them, that means they do not target foreigners. But there are still people who watches them which allow excuses for their existence. They do not have to like the government or subscribe to the ideologies to be able to enjoy/watch shows like this. It’s there; it’s well-advertised; their peers are watching it; there is nothing else to do with their time.

    I definitely think there is less painful way of learning spoken Chinese. There are other genre of serials available. You can even watch things made in Taiwan, although I doubt those things have a pool of vocabulary of more than preschoolers’.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Nov
    Xu Jiahong

    You’re not going to get an interesting discussion going because your ignorance of Chinese history, the Chinese communist movement and the revolution seem to be only surpassed by your ignorance of the Chinese language.
    There’s not a single shred of originality or insight in this tawdry rehash of tired anti-communism and Orientalism that merits even refutation. Your folly speaks - loudly - for itself.

    [Reply to this comment]

    kailing Reply:

    I do not know if he is looking for discussion, but I agree with many things in the post. So let’s hope for your illumination on the matters that you so much understand, and the rest seem to fail to… then we can have some discussion.

    [Reply to this comment]

    stuart Reply:

    @ Xu Jiahong

    Do be quiet, old sport.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Nov


    Yes, I suppose for humors sake you could translate this literally as “disorderly do man woman relations”, but from what you described, isn’t this a period piece intended for a very broad audience? I would think that a less rigid translation might be in order, though that might not make for such good mocking. I think that in time you will find that 乱 means a lot more than just “disorderly”, especially in this context… that said, I seriously doubt tv censors wants to see the other characters for this fine, fine action appear on the screen, no?

    Perhaps a quibble over a small detail, but it’s important to know such things when trying to master Chinese.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Nov

    Oh dear, I hate it when things get hot over here and I am not home to defend the poor blog. I will try to do what I can from my phone.

    It is interesting how a little vigorous criticism of something Chinese (even if it is just bad TV series) immediately triggers the emotional response of angry ABCs.

    @IG - You are not logical, most of your points are not germane to the central idea in discussion, and the one that is, namely that about Chinese tolerance, you completely misunderstood in my post. I dont think Chinese follow these serials like sheep, I think it is the writers of these serials that follow Chinese society, as most fiction writers are based on the reality that surrounds them. And I do think that Chinese are more tolerant than Westerners, yes, almost every single observationn, today or in history confirms it. This has nothing to do with the communist party or with TV, but just with the general character of a people.

    @Xu -Why do you think I don’t understand Chinese history? How is this related to the post? Please be more specific. Or did you just, as I suspect, copy/paste your comment from somewhere else?

    @Jaime - Obviously I did translate it like that for fun, and obviously I understand the meaning of this expression that is by no means obscure in Chinese. I am not sure I get your point really. The captain and the whole team represent a puritanism in terms of sex that far exceeds anything found today in the West, thats all. You have to see the guy say the phrase (in chapter 25 or 26 cant find it now) to realize that it is the promiscuity that really disgusts him, far more than the immediate danger of a subordinate sleeping with a capitalist spy.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Nov

    I just edited a bit the comment above to make it more clear. I realize that, as author of the post, I bear at least half the responsibility for the misunderstandings, so here is a clarification:

    All societies have an ethical system that defines what is right and what is wrong. This system is usually not written, and not fixed in time or space. For example: A couple living together before marriage is OK in my country today, but 30 years ago it was evil. Using fake receipts is morally acceptable in some countries, but in others it is a matter of shame.

    In some societies it was mainly religious institutions like the Catholic Church that had the monopoly of setting and preserving these systems, in others it was tradition that handed down the principles from older to younger generations, as seen in the losely called Confucian system.

    In the last decades, since both of those sources have lost credibility in large parts of the World, other elements have taken an increasing role in guiding the notions of good and bad. Mass communications, and TV serials in particular, are one of the best means to pass the message.
    In the West, for example, TV has taught us lessons as diverse as race equality and compulsive consummerism. It is difficult to determine who controls these messages, but the power of Big Business is certainly in it for some part.

    In China, the situation is easier to understand, since the CCP completely controls TV productions. Therefore, all the lessons passed into these serials are either created by the CCP, or else inherited from pre-CCP times but adopted and supported by the communists.

    Now, I admit the post is highly speculative in some points, and in particular about the concepts of forgiveness and revenge. But I want to clarify this: the idea that Chinese have a very tolerant nature, and in the same time are able of ignoring all compassion, is not an observation that I have done alone in my 3 years in China. It is an idea that has been written by many famous observers of Chinese society, including those in pre-communist times such as Carl Crow, Lin YuTang or Bertrand Russell.

    Clearly, the Chinese, like any other people, don’t follow blindly the roles seen on TV serials, and yet it is impossible to ignore the influence that TV has on society. The ethics embodied in serials such as 冷箭 have not changed in their main lines since the liberation (probably long before), largely ignoring the Opening and Reform of Deng, and they are completely disconnected from the reality on the ground today. It is this disconnect that I tried to speculate about in the post, considering to what extent it has a role in many of the social problems seen today in China.

    I am glad that people refutes some of my ideas, that is the whole point of this blog and I see it as an opportunity to learn more. But it would be so much more useful if somebody gave positive comments that add something, instead of plainly writing: “You don’t understand China”.

    I reserve the right to erase those zero-value comments when I grow too tired of them, although up to now I have always kept a policy of accepting all non-insulting contributions.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Dec

    The older ones were so much better - check out 地雷战争 for a 90 minute romp of pure guerilla-on-Japanese-invader action, the People’s militia song sung whilst making the land-mines is a classic. A CCTV serial from a few years back was also pretty bizarre - called 历史的天空 - a term generally understood to refer to the Cultural Revolution, it follows a guerilla who becomes an officer in the PLA and then experiences the cultural revolution in an ever-so-toned-down fashion.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Dec

    I will try that once I have recovered of the brain shock after watching 冷箭. I am completely sure that they are much better. It couldnt be otherwise..

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Apr


    如果对历史题材感兴趣我推荐你看老版的《四世同堂》虽然是个老片,但是里面演的倍儿棒!!! 角色入木三分,从老百姓的生活反映整个社会大环境,角度也比较客观。是我最爱的一部电视作品。


    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    谢谢! 我试试下载吧。

    [Reply to this comment]

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