Review

The Art of Suffering

Two new works of Chinese government propaganda meet with very different reactions from viewers.

An illustration of Chinese leaders jailed for corruption and members of China's military.
An illustration of Chinese leaders jailed for corruption and members of China's military.
Deena So’Oteh illustration for Foreign Policy
By , a New York-based writer focused on contemporary Chinese cinema, culture, and politics.

Two major works of Chinese government propaganda released this year have elicited opposite viewer reactions: effusive praise and ridicule. Both works, the historical fiction film The Battle at Lake Changjin 2 and the five-part TV documentary special Zero Tolerance, extol the virtues of sacrificing oneself for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Both are also plodding, heavy-handed, and preachy, commissioned by central authorities and released after scrutiny by government censors.

Yet where Lake Changjin 2, set during the Korean War, has been celebrated for its agonizing attention to brutal, snowy battle scenes, Zero Tolerance has come under fire for muddying its own message: namely, by not depicting corrupt officials as miserable and repentant enough. Lake Changjin 2, a feature film, has been deemed more effective as propaganda in the court of public opinion because of the real suffering involved in its making; Zero Tolerance, a documentary, has been criticized for supposedly insufficient suffering on the part of its subjects.

THE CHINA ISSUE: This article appears in the Spring 2022 print magazine. Read more stories from the issue, and subscribe to support our journalism. 

An illustration of Chinese leaders jailed for corruption and members of China's military.

Deena So’Oteh illustration for Foreign Policy

Two major works of Chinese government propaganda released this year have elicited opposite viewer reactions: effusive praise and ridicule. Both works, the historical fiction film The Battle at Lake Changjin 2 and the five-part TV documentary special Zero Tolerance, extol the virtues of sacrificing oneself for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Both are also plodding, heavy-handed, and preachy, commissioned by central authorities and released after scrutiny by government censors.

Yet where Lake Changjin 2, set during the Korean War, has been celebrated for its agonizing attention to brutal, snowy battle scenes, Zero Tolerance has come under fire for muddying its own message: namely, by not depicting corrupt officials as miserable and repentant enough. Lake Changjin 2, a feature film, has been deemed more effective as propaganda in the court of public opinion because of the real suffering involved in its making; Zero Tolerance, a documentary, has been criticized for supposedly insufficient suffering on the part of its subjects.

Why does the reception of both hinge on this notion? Suffering is part of the self-sacrifice required by the CCP of its members to demonstrate patriotism and loyalty. As the party pushes metaphor to the wayside to make its messaging as literal and unambiguous as possible, Lake Changjin 2 and Zero Tolerance show how suffering has taken on a new importance in Chinese art and media. This is particularly true of so-called “main melody” propaganda, which depicts themes deemed important by the state, including—as in the two works in question—the virtue of collectivism over individualism and the validity of Communist rule.

Time and again, Chinese President Xi Jinping has described how important it is for artistic works to help the Chinese people build cultural self-confidence. Stories depicting suffering, and then the eventual facing down of hardships, are intended to evoke pride in both the characters’ and the creative team’s grit. They turn the audience’s viewing of even the slowest slog of a film into an act of solidarity and patriotism.

The darker the past, after all, the brighter the future.


The smash hit Lake Changjin 2, released during China’s Spring Festival holiday, is the second installment of a gritty war saga, totaling nearly six hours, about the 1950 maneuvers of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army during the Korean War. Intended as a paean to China’s fighting spirit, it tells the story of Chinese troops’ repeated attempts to blow up the Sumun Bridge, a key retreat path for U.S. forces, who were far better equipped. It becomes a suicide mission, and the Chinese troops succeed only when all but one in the platoon die for the cause.

Lake Changjin 2 has been widely praised by China’s state media apparatus, which has released a barrage of content online, in print, and via broadcast about the making of the film while censoring overtly negative commentary. It has consequently been a political and commercial success, currently ranking as the world’s highest-grossing film so far this year thanks to sales of $626 million and counting. The prior installment, September 2021’s The Battle at Lake Changjin, earned $903 million to become China’s highest-earning title of all time, outstripping foreign titles such as Avengers: Endgame and the reigning box office champ, the local hit Wolf Warrior 2.

The film goes out of its way to portray U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a nuclear-war-hungry boor and spends most of its two-and-a-half-hour run time slaughtering Americans, but the subject is the suffering of Chinese troops, not pure anti-Americanism.

Surprisingly, the crudeness and complacency of the U.S. troops serve more as a backdrop to the volunteer army’s heroism. Chinese viewer comments highlighted by the Maoyan Entertainment ratings platform were not gleeful; instead, they focused on how the technological disparities between the tank- and bomber-equipped Americans and the less well-equipped Chinese forces underscore the latter’s heroism.

“In the past year, my work and life haven’t been going well; afraid of hardship, I haven’t been trying too hard, just wanting to get by. But after watching this movie, I feel that my difficulties are nothing at all,” said one commenter who saw the film on opening day. “Faced with the U.S. military’s powerful weapons and equipment 70 years ago, our heroes relied only on their fearless spirit of sacrifice to compete. … Today’s happy and stable life was not so easily come by. We must always cherish the memory of our martyrs.”

While some criticized the film for its “soulless characters,” “lack of originality,” and “stereotypic depictions,” such voices were largely drowned out by state media reports. These tended to lionize the challenges the Lake Changjin 2 cast and crew faced during filming—a clear sign that Chinese officialdom views their suffering as just as important as the trials of the beleaguered, frostbitten troops on screen.

The actors have repeatedly told the press how co-director Tsui Hark—the primary director among a trio of heavyweights including Chen Kaige and Dante Lam—wanted to make the explosions in the film as realistic as possible. “The smoke all over our faces was real; makeup couldn’t produce an effect like that,” actor Li Chen said in a behind-the-scenes special recounted by the state-run 1905 Movie Network.

Wu Jing, the film’s star, at one point received a blast right between the eyebrows. The state-run China Daily recounted breathlessly: “If he had shifted just a bit further, his eye would have been blown up, but he joked that it didn’t matter, saying, ‘The action would’ve been more continuous.’” Fellow leading man Jackson Yee “felt no fear facing explosions right before his eyes, remaining extraordinarily calm.” To stay in character, the China Daily reported, Yee “insisted on sitting alone in the snow and taking no rest between takes.”

Actor Zhu Yawen, meanwhile, “actively requested that more [special effect] explosives be placed on his body, saying, ‘Let me feel a little more pain!’”

The production was shot on winter nights—when the temperature dropped to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit, reports emphasized—and with snow blowers and snow guns blasting to re-create the battlefield’s harsh conditions.

Co-director Hark explained: “We needed huge winds when shooting this film to create difficult circumstances—otherwise, it would be as if we weren’t presenting the realism of those days. These difficult challenges help depict the volunteer army’s courage and stamina and make the final product much stronger and more dramatic.”

Whenever he speaks with the press about the film, Hark emphasizes the importance of zhenshigan, or a sense of genuineness. Hark has said, for instance, that it was critical for the production to re-create the challenging topography of the area around the Sumun Bridge. It was this landscape that made it so hard for the Chinese soldiers to attack the Americans. “The steep slope was a technical problem we had to surmount in order to re-create the details of the battle with a sense of zhenshigan, of realism. In the shooting process, the actors went through great hardship because they really had to climb up and fall down the slope,” he said.

This emphasis on realism has become a trend in recent years since the unexpected success of the 2018 comedic drama Dying to Survive, a saga about the real-life smuggling of overpriced cancer medications into China from India. Dying to Survive opened the floodgates to realistic live-action films on topics of social importance, which were previously considered box office poison. Of course, zhenshigan is of particular importance to main melody war films such as Lake Changjin 2, which hinge on the verisimilitude of suffering.

At the premiere of the first installment of the Lake Changjin series, Hark said it was important to him to create a convincing war saga not just for art’s sake but to better convey the sentiment of a quote by Mao Zedong about the need to join the Korean War to counter “U.S. imperialist aggression” at the country’s northeastern border and stave off a potential encroachment into Manchuria.

“The thing that touched me most during the creative process was Chairman Mao’s phrase ‘Strike one punch to avoid a hundred punches,’” Hark told a well-heeled crowd at the Beijing International Film Festival, citing Mao’s quote as an example of the sacrifices necessary for maintaining social stability in the rest of China in times to come. “I decided then that my mission was to show the zhenshigan of this phrase for everyone to see.”


A screen shows the sentencing of Chinese politician Bo Xilai in Beijing on Sept. 22, 2013, for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.

A screen shows the sentencing of Chinese politician Bo Xilai in Beijing on Sept. 22, 2013, for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power. Feng Li/Getty Images

Zero Tolerance is an official government-produced documentary TV series that recounts more than a dozen stories of high-profile corrupt officials taken down in the Chinese president’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. It features a mix of talking head interviews with the fallen officials in question; authorities analyzing their cases; clips of speeches from Xi; and b-roll footage of a prosperous-looking China. The series is intended as study material for those “within the system” of Chinese officialdom and seeks to inspire “self-reform” among those currently serving and yet to admit to their own vices.

Jointly produced by the propaganda department of the CCP’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), and the state broadcaster CCTV, Zero Tolerance was clearly vetted by censors before its release. Billed as a “faithful record” of the CCDI’s achievements, it debuted on the eve of the body’s big national convocation to lay out annual plans in mid-January.

That day, the Chinese state press was awash in clarion calls for official self-reform, citing the practice as a key component of the party’s “zero tolerance to corruption” platform and its “fundamental approach to maintaining vitality and achieving constant success,” according to Xinhua. China Daily cited Xi as telling the CCDI on the day of the documentary’s release: “There must be zero tolerance for any abuses of power by party members. … Only by carrying out self-reform will the CCP keep itself invigorating as a ruling party.”

That message has been a critical part of Xi’s own rise. His anti-corruption campaign has helped him root out political rivals such as former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was convicted of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power in 2013, and other opposing factions from the early days of Xi’s presidential tenure.

Despite the care with which it was made, the series has struck a sour note. Nationalistic viewers have circumvented blocks on real-time “bullet comments” scrolling directly over the videos on streaming sites such as Bilibili and reviews on culture platforms such as Douban to air their displeasure with the series via Weibo and other message forums. Most complain that its criminal subjects are presented as teachers of moral conduct urging others to learn from their example without appearing to have suffered enough for their crimes.

With smiles on their faces, the former officials casually describe their past sins while dressed in professional clothing and lit in what one commenter lambasted as an almost “holy and pure” fashion, framed by upward-looking camera angles that make them appear “above the masses.” “No matter whether it were true or false, if the show made them appear a bit more tragic, ordinary people could at least let off some steam,” the commenter continued. “As it is, the more you watch, the angrier you get. Are these guys really trying to teach us to be good people? They should be accepting these interviews wearing handcuffs and prison vests from behind bars.”

Another incensed Weibo commenter echoed the sentiment: “Is this guy really repenting? It feels more like he’s giving an honorable retirement speech. In the anti-corruption documentaries of years past, at least the fallen officials would have gray hair and dull eyes, wear a yellow prison vest and cry bitterly in front of the camera. Are we too lazy to even pretend now? Why shoot it this way?”

Some commenters joked that the detailing of these officials’ high-flying lives made the anti-corruption documentary seem like a campus recruitment video for a career as a corrupt official. 

Many found the production problematic for appearing to give the disgraced subjects space to reminisce fondly about their past, interposing their descriptions of private jets, bribes, and high living with attractive images of nightclubs, mansions, and luxury goods. The effect was to make it seem as if their main problem was merely having been caught. Some commenters joked that the detailing of these officials’ high-flying lives made the anti-corruption documentary seem like a campus recruitment video for a career as a corrupt official. 

“This documentary is more like ‘A Hands-On Approach to Teaching You Corruption’ or ‘Memoirs of My Awesome Years’ or something. It’s infuriating,” one Weibo user wrote. “They’re shooting these corrupt officials like an old master artist looking back and freely reminiscing about his life. How is this ‘Zero Tolerance’? More like ‘Too Tolerant’!”

Viewers rankled in particular at the example of Beijing Normal University’s party secretary, who was not criminally prosecuted and was given a lighter punishment for voluntarily surrendering herself. After returning her ill-gotten gains, she wound up merely demoted with her retirement benefits docked.

The show struggles to convey a coherent message. On the one hand, it presents a less severe image of the fallen officials to encourage others to rectify their behavior and turn themselves in. On the other hand, it seeks to depict anti-corruption efforts as a successful fait accompli to the public.

It’s impossible to portray the CCP as simultaneously unimpeachable and in dire need of deep reform—leaving one to conclude that the annals of history are perhaps a safer refuge for unassailable narratives of the party’s success than the messy present.

On YouTube, a Chinese-language comment offers an example of the sort of thinking authorities don’t wish to encourage. “These corruption issues are just the tip of the iceberg,” it reads. “Such issues are not the problems of a single individual—they arise from a problematic system that allowed the cultivation of so many corrupt criminals.”

Like Xi’s anti-corruption campaign itself, Zero Tolerance runs into trouble by attempting to present the party’s strength at cleaning up its ranks as a positive without noting that the need for such a sweep implies a deeper rot.


A scene from The Battle at Lake Changjin 2.

A scene from The Battle at Lake Changjin 2.BONA FILM GROUP

Lake Changjin 2 succeeds as a work of propaganda because it so viscerally dramatizes the soldiers’ sacrifices, hammering them home both in the promotional materials describing the difficulties of production and within the film itself, where the heavy visual effects of bloody wounds, soot, and frostbite are practically more emotive than any speech or gesture. Zero Tolerance fails because the featured officials seem hardly to have suffered at all, calling into question the party’s key message that the anti-corruption campaign has been a sound success. 

The extent to which subjects have suffered in real life to create a work of film has become a key measure of its realism and thus of its veracity and ultimate value. The more off-screen suffering audiences are aware has been infused into a production, the more clearly self-sacrificing those participating in it have been and thus the more valid the work’s message.

In a genre engaged in the creation of martyrs and heroes, the actors themselves conveniently undergo a similar transformation by dint of their suffering, becoming vehicles of party messaging conveniently beyond reproof. How could anyone question Wu’s acting chops or the sincerity of his message when they know even before they begin watching the film that he spent night after night out in the winter cold, almost losing an eyeball?

The more off-screen suffering audiences are aware has been infused into a production, the more valid the work’s message.

Zero Tolerance, meanwhile, presents a rare but telling instance in which reality appears less convincing than fiction.

“If this were a movie, the director would certainly yell, ‘Cut, do it again!’ How could they act it out like this?” one baffled blogger wrote. “No matter how fantastic the script, no director or actor would think about presenting a performance like this, yet this special report revealed that this is what the officials are truly like.”

Many commenters wrote of how much more appropriately a scene from the film Break Through the Darkness conveyed Zero Tolerance’s message. In the 2021 main melody film, billed as the first to thematically bring Xi’s anti-corruption campaign to screen, veteran actor Zhang Songwen plays a fallen county secretary interviewed in a detention center, weeping in his blue prison vest.

Speaking through tears as orchestral strings swell and even stretching out a hand to block the camera lens in an effort to obscure his debasement, he says: “The first night I slept here was the soundest I’d slept in the past 10 years. I’d never slept a single good night’s sleep. I was so scared! I hope that everyone can see my case and take it as a warning.”

The audience’s admiration for his craft mingles with his message of repentance. This is the new socialist realism as envisioned by China’s film authorities, and it is more powerful than real life.

On an artistic level, all the hardships involved in making a film render it worthwhile irrespective of quality. The more the specter of suffering lingers about a work, the more detached appreciation of that work becomes from its creative merit.

China views its ascent as one predicated on victim narratives.

“Stop commenting on things like acting or shooting techniques—those are all industry issues that we don’t understand. The point of such works is to let children understand history, remember history, and cherish their families and country!” one strident reviewer of Lake Changjin 2 wrote on the Maoyan ratings platform.

On a social level, this particular brand of xinku, or weathering hardships, affirms a type of masculinity that the party has long championed—that of battle-hardened machismo, rather than the effeminate, fresh-faced manhood popularized by Korean pop culture. Chastising others calling the film overly bloody and unsuitable for children, the reviewer continued: “When children grow up in a hothouse, they’ll wilt if they encounter difficulties. How then can we move toward the future?”

On a political level, this new emphasis on suffering is itself a manifestation of the CCP’s constant depiction of itself as something worth uniting around and sacrificing for—a function of its ever-present need to justify its own legitimacy.

China views its ascent as one predicated on victim narratives. It is regaining its rightful place after a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. As evidenced by its mounting calls for companies, countries, and individuals to apologize to the Chinese people for perceived offenses, China’s stoical endurance of suffering is now baked into its national character.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. 

Rebecca Davis is a New York-based writer focused on contemporary Chinese cinema, culture, and politics.

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