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China’s Invisible History: An Interview with Filmmaker and Artist Hu Jie

Ian Johnson
If you don’t go record it, these people will die and no one will know their stories. The government definitely won’t tell their stories, so if people don’t go do it, these people will die out and their stories will die.
Hu Jie.jpg

Sim Chi Yin/VII

Hu Jie in his studio in Nanjing, 2015

Though none of his works have been publicly shown in China, Hu Jie is one of his country’s most noteworthy filmmakers. He is best known for his trilogy of documentaries about Maoist China, which includes Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004), telling the now-legendary story of a young Christian woman who died in prison for refusing to recant her criticisms of the Party during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957; Though I Am Gone (2007), about a teacher who was beaten to death by her own students at the outset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966; and Spark (2013), describing a doomed underground publication in 1960 that tried to expose the Great Leap famine, which killed upward of 30 million people.

Most recently, Hu, who is fifty-seven, has produced a remarkable series of woodblock prints about the famine, based on drawings he made during his interviews for Spark. They were scheduled to be shown in Tianjin last year, but they were deemed too controversial and the exhibition was cancelled.

Ian Johnson: Your films must be difficult to make. There are so few visual records of these events. Is there any historic footage of the Great Famine?

Hu Jie: No, not at all. No photos. Chinese farmers were too poor. They were also cut off, isolated, with no way to record their fate.

How did you get around that when you were making Spark?

I consulted a lot of records. I feel I need the records in order to film, or else I am vulnerable legally. The dead can’t speak but their records can at least tell stories.
I think documents are pretty strong. Documentary films need to have an artistic side, but the main thing is they have to be real. Of course it would be good to have visual records, but in this case it’s impossible.

Spark magazine.jpg

The first issue of Spark, an underground magazine published briefly in 1960 to expose the Great Famine

Spark deals with a magazine formed by four students who tried to document the famine that they saw happening around them. They only managed to produce a few copies before being arrested. How did you find out about it?

I had been told about the existence of this magazine in the course of making the Lin Zhao film. Eventually I got the only two issues they made and interviewed survivors. It was terrible because people like that didn’t know why their relatives had died. One man thought his father had been a counter-revolutionary and that was why he had been executed at a mass rally. When he talked to me, he was ashamed. He didn’t know that he had had the courage to stand up and speak out against the famine. He had supported the students, but the son didn’t realize that.

Were you influenced by recent books about the famine, such as Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone ?

I didn’t know of him at the beginning. Later I heard he had written this book and I went to visit him and interviewed him. He gave me many leads and tips.

How did you become interested in making films about such sensitive events? Your earlier film, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul in 2004, dealt with a woman who was persecuted during the Anti-Rightist purges that preceded the Great Famine.

For people of my generation, in elementary school we didn’t learn about the Anti-Rightist Movement and in middle school we learned very little. Books about it weren’t published. So the Anti-Rightist Movement, or the Great Famine—we didn’t understand anything. When I got into contact with this material and talked with Lin Zhao’s classmates, they would tell me things, and each time I would be shocked, and I realized that everything I knew about history had been covered up, that the official history was complete nonsense. So I felt it was very important, that these true words had to come out. After four years I was finished but only showed it to a few friends, like Cui Weiping, Ding Dong, Yu Jie, Liu Xiaobo. They brought up some points that helped me.

woodcut 10.jpg

Hu Jie: Let there be light #9, 2014

And then came Though I Am Gone, about the killing of Bian Zhongyun during the Cultural Revolution by the girls at the elite Beijing high school where she taught.

When I finished Lin Zhao suddenly it felt that more and more people were doing documentaries, but they were young and not many were doing history. So I thought, I should keep doing history. I am a bit older than the others and so it’s a bit easier for me because I have some memory of history, of events like the Cultural Revolution. When I was small I saw all that with my own eyes: fighting, beating people, killing people, struggle sessions. So I thought I’d do more. The death of Bian Zhongyun was the next logical step.


Followed by Spark (sometimes translated as “Glowing Embers”), which won top prize at last year’s Taiwan Independent Documentary Festival. I’m struck by how you let scenes unfold slowly. You take us to the places where the history unfolded, show documents, and talk to survivors and witnesses. You linger on people.

I watched Shoah by Claude Lanzmann repeatedly, over and over. But I watched a lot of foreign films, thanks to DVDs, especially pirated DVDs. I learned a lot of methods by watching these films.

Let’s look at some of your prints from the Great Famine series. In this one, a couple seems to be floating in the sky.

The ground is barren and bleak. But the two are flying. It is their souls heading to heaven. It is a kind of hallucination. It’s like the Communist Party’s “tomorrow will be beautiful,” but they’re starving to death.

famine flying woodcut.jpg

Hu Jie: Let there be light #16, 2015

Do these pictures all stem from specific stories?

Yes. They’re all from my interviews during the making of Spark. I was also influenced by stories from a friend whose family lived through the famine and who emigrated to the United States, Yi Wa. Some of the pictures come from his experiences.

Some of the prints allude to specific rules and regulations that made the famine worse.

It was illegal, for example, to flee from famine areas. They were labeled “fleeing criminals.” When I interviewed people, they said that everywhere there were signs warning against doing this.

You also did a series called “We.” Some of these pictures are more hopeful. This one shows a child looking up.

It shows a street that Party leaders’ cars would drive down. Everyone has a bowed head but one child is looking up. In fact, I think all my work has hope in it. There is always someone who is not accepting the official story.

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Hu Jie: We #3, 2015

Why do you use the medium of woodblock printing? It reminds me of the 1930s and Germans artists like Käthe Kollwitz, or Chinese artists who used it then too.

Yes, artists like that were close to ordinary people’s daily lives. [The writer] Lu Xun thought this would be a good medium to show real life and became an advocate for woodblock printing. Carving the wood has an immediacy that puts you directly in touch with the events.

I feel that nowadays contemporary art has taken a very strange path. It’s been able to integrate with the world, and specifically with Western art, but has distanced itself from China. The things it produces now appeal to Western collectors but doesn’t have anything to do with China, or even with Chinese art. I’m not trying to criticize artists. They’re pursuing art, but they’re not doing anything connected with reality.

You were born in 1958, just as the famine was about to begin. You managed to escape the worst of it because your father was in the military, but you were affected directly by the Cultural Revolution. It began in 1966, so you would have been eight.

The schools were closed at first and then when they reopened we learned nothing. The days were filled with struggle session, demonstrations, criticism meets, and things like that. Our family class background wasn’t very good so my mother very often had to go out to give self-criticisms. She was a doctor and had to go to factories and treat patients and only got back home very late. She didn’t really look after us. My father was a soldier and he wasn’t at home. I had to take care of a lot of things because I was the oldest. I had to care for my two younger sisters.

Mao poster woodcut.jpg

Hu Jie: Let there be light #12, 2014

So your education only restarted around middle school?

Yes, but we didn’t really learn anything. People of my generation, we basically didn’t learn anything at school. On the other hand, I learned to struggle. When I was young I had to raise chickens, geese, sheep—even though we were in the city. It was the only way to get a bit of money. I learned to take care of myself. Boys fought a lot and I often ended up with a bloody nose and a swollen face.

How did you become interested in film and art? I suppose you had little exposure to it, growing up amid such turmoil.

I went to the People’s Liberation Army Arts College in Beijing from 1989 to 1991. It had a huge impact on me because I got to know Beijing’s art scene and how art can express social problems. It was just after June 4 and society was gloomy. No one spoke too openly. But by meeting these artists, I got to exchange ideas, and learn new things.


After you left the PLA in 1992, you began to wander around China quite a bit. You lived in the Old Summer Palace and began to film.

Not too many people were making documentary films then. In fact, almost no one. Back then, you couldn’t even find a book on how to make documentary films. I felt that the problems in society were so serious, but the media was just broadcasting propaganda. There was such a gap. I thought then: Why don’t those journalists tell the truth? Then I thought: Why don’t you try yourself, try to say something true? A friend who had returned from Japan had a Super 8 camera and I bought it. So I left with a camera and traveled. I went to Qinghai. I went to mines. I made a lot of films. Everything was at the grassroots. I stayed with people so poor they had nothing.

Then you briefly worked for Xinhua, the state news agency.

It was an interesting job. I was hired to make short documentary films. You could film corrupt officials. They would have just been arrested and you could go to the prison and interview them. They’d open their hearts to you, crying and weeping. Once I was sent to a village to interview a village chief. The village party secretary was beaten up by thugs and told to follow their orders. You saw things like that. But then I think they knew I was filming other things on my own, and I was asked to leave.

That was because of the Lin Zhao film?

I never let anyone know that I was filming the story. Working at Xinhua, I knew how the government likes to keep secrets, and doesn’t want ordinary people to know about this sort of thing. But I felt it was too important. In China at that time, no one dared say anything, but one person did. Everyone was scared of death but one person wasn’t scared to die. While I was making the Lin Zhao film, and interviewing people, I felt that the history I had learned, that I didn’t know it.

Hu Jie scream.jpg

Sim Chi Yin/VII

A sketch from one of Hu Jie’s notebooks, 2015

How difficult has it been to work as a documentary filmmaker?

I never take money from anyone, especially not from overseas. I win some money from awards. The police are very clear on this. Don’t take others’ money. But the police know everything. They know your every move. They call me and say “Teacher Hu, where are you going? We can drive you there.” They sometimes call ahead and tell people not to meet me.

How do feel about your films not being shown in China? Is there any point if Chinese audiences can’t see them?

There is, because if you don’t go record it, these people will die and no one will know their stories. No one will ever know their stories. The government definitely won’t tell their stories, so if people don’t go do it, these people will die out and their stories will die. For example, over a dozen important people I filmed for the Lin Zhao story have already died.

The other point is that during this bitter era, this violent era, this most terrifying era, people still tried to reflect on what was happening. They weren’t afraid to die. They died in secret, and we of succeeding generations don’t know what heroes they were. I think it’s a matter of morality. They died for us. If we don’t know this, it is a tragedy.

When I was filming Spark, one of the people who had supported the magazine was sentenced to eighteen years and he cursed the judges. He said the court smelled of death. Couldn’t they smell it? The dead from the famine. I feel, you have such a courageous person—if we don’t understand their history, then it will vanish.

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