From Rivers to Roads: The Depiction of the Chinese Revolution in East German Documentaries

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Yejun Zou


While the burgeoning Asian – German scholarship in North America has valorised the intercultural relation between China and Germany (Li 2010; Shen 2014; Zhang 2017), the interplay between Chinese and German socialism, particularly in the cultural arena, has remained understudied. In fact, the Chinese Communist Revolution not only led to a structural transformation in China, but also had an impact on the ways in which other socialist states and revolutionary regions engage with their own conceptions of socialism.

In this paper, I will focus on the depiction of the Chinese revolution in East German documentaries in the 1950s. In particular, I will examine Lied der Ströme (Song of the Rivers, 1954) by the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens and China  – Land zwischen gestern und morgen (China  – A Country Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, 1956) by Joop Huisken, Ivens’ mentee. Both films showcase China in the form of ethno­graphic travelogues, while foregrounding a sense of political solidarity. In depicting six major rivers across different continents  – the Volga, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Amazon and the Yangtze, Ivens’ film places China in a setting of international workers’ movement, celebrating the significant role of Chinese workers in transnational socialism. Huisken’s film, by contrast, focuses solely on the const­ruction of Chinese socialism and highlights the rapid development of infrastructure in the early 1950s China.

 In scrutinising the depiction of natural and urban spaces in these two documentaries  – rivers in Ivens’ film and railways/roads in Huisken’s film, I argue that, produced from a perspective of socialist solidarity, they challenge the kind of orientalist depiction of China exhibited in other Western cultural products. At the same time, the Chinese revolution serves as a form of selfreflection, through which artists in East Germany could envision their own blueprint of socialism and strengthen their understanding of the socialist ideals.

Published: Nov 14, 2022

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