Gada Meilin (Chinese: 嘎达梅林) tells the story of the Mongolian hero Gada Meilin, who led the grassland people to rise up against the local rulers in order to protect the Mongolian prairie in 1931. Gada is the sinicization of the Mongolian term for the youngest brother in a family, and Meilin that for the highest officer in the Mongolian military. Although all of the film’s lines are in Mandarin, its songs are in Mongolian. Within China, the film is categorized within the genre “Chinese ethnic hero symphonic poem.” The music for the film was composed by the famous popular music star, San Bao.
China Film Group, China Central Television, and Beijing Forbidden City Film Company, 2002. According to Nanfang Daily, the budget was over $5 million.
Feng Xiaoning 冯小宁, also responsible for Red River Valley《红河谷》, Purple Sunset 《紫日》, and Grief Over the Yellow River《黄河绝恋》. Among the themes running through Feng’s work is the memory of Japanese aggression.
San Bao 三宝, a graduate of the Ethnic Minority Music Department of Beijing Music Academy. The film’s theme became a commerical success in China. The Mongolian pop singer Tengger sings the majority of the film’s lyrics.
The film opens with a quotation from a 1927 letter written by Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi of Japan arguing that the way for Japan to conquer China is to first conquer Mongolia. The film then cuts to the Horqin 科尔沁 (pinyin: Ke’erqin) Grassland in the early twentieth century, in what is today Inner Mongolia 内蒙古 (Nei Menggu), where an old man plays a stringed instrument. A young boy, later identified as Gada, is practicing wrestling with a sandbag. He does not seem to have good luck with it. Meanwhile, a group of children are trying to catch a wild chicken. The biggest of the children, soon identified as Bater, knocks the bird down. It falls near Gada. He tosses it aside and goes back to his practices. Bater becomes angry and tosses the sandbag far away. His strength compared to the smaller child is emphasized. They wrestle and Bater wins. A girl promises wine for the winner, and all the children run after her, causing her to flee toward the old musician.
A passing carriage with two prisoners inside then interrupts the group’s play. The older of the two prisoners is singing loudly. The younger of the two, Huzi, is about the children’s age and is dying of thirst. The old man with the instrument stops playing and offers a cup of wine to him, only to have it whipped out of his hand by a guard.
Later, we see a public execution. The older prisoner’s final request is an insult to the executioner. He taunts, “My last request is to sleep with your wife.” They execute him. Huzi is apparently the son of the elder prisoner. His last request is to have something to drink. Gada walks toward him and offers him a drink. Suddenly there is a sandstorm. When it clears, the young prisoner is gone. Gada takes a necklace bearing a pendant from the ground, left by the young prisoner.
Twenty years later, we see the boys as young men. They sing love songs to the sight of a young woman riding. They ride their horses freely on the grassland and take a dip in a cool river. Out of nowhere a stampede of wild horses interrupts them. Gada’s horse begins to run along with the stampede. Out of nowhere, a girl dressed in white riding a white horse chases after Gada’s horse. She chases it down and separates it from the group, then leads it to Gada. Gada is embarrassed that he is not dressed. His friends come by with his coat and they introduce each other. The girl calls herself Mudan (“peony”), and asks playfully whether Gada will ever become anything in the future, to which he responds that he cannot even outwrestle Bater. She says that “anything is possible.”
Later, at a festival honoring the leader of the grasslands Mongols, people are betting on the best wrestler. Naturally, the majority bet on Bater to win. When the girls dance and offer ceremonial cups of wine for the contestants, Mudan offers her cup to Gada and also gives him her red sash. This inspires him to win the wrestling match against Bater. When the horse riding competition begins, he follows Mudan’s waving red sash and the two ride off into the sunset. He vows to become a Meilin—that is, a general—for the Mongol leader.
He then leaves on an errand and tells the girl to come back and meet him in half a month’s time. Gada brings Bater on his errand, but on the way they nearly die of thirst. A passerby saves them. They go their separate ways because the stranger is looking for someone. Gada is reunited with red sashed girl.
Gada and Mudan marry, give birth to a daughter, and settle down on a piece of grassland.
In a chance meeting with the leader of the grasslands Mongols, their leader is attacked by Huzi, the boy whose life Gada helped save two decades earlier. He spares both Gada and the leader because of this debt from the past, but he and Gada tell each other that they have fulfilled their previous favors and will be enemies henceforth. Because Gada saves the Mongol leader’s life in this way, he is named Meilin.
The Mongol leader becomes addicted to opium, and the Japanese begin to buy up his lands. His subjects say their lives are at risk because the grassland will be reduced in size and will turn into a desert if the land sales continue. Gada begs the leader to stop the madness but the leader simply tells him he is now no longer Meilin. Gada goes back to his home and finds many elders to sign a petition. Gada also signs the petition and then goes in search of the local rulers. He finds Bater drunk, and is told that he has been named Meilin.
Gada then submits his petition to the leader. He is imprisoned for inciting violence and is scheduled for execution. The night before the execution, Mudan breaks into the jail and attempts to free Gada. Her attempt fails, and the execution is expanded to include her. At the execution, Gada’s last request is to die at the same time as his wife. Mudan’s last request is to have Gada die on his feet. She says, “My man will not die kneeling.” Before they are beheaded, a gunshot is heard. Huzi enters with his gang to save them.
They become partners and decide to fight against injustice together. Some time later, Bater captures Gada, but lets him go free and decides to join the rebels.
In the course of their rebellion, Bater kills an innocent man out of drunkenness. Gada is forced to execute him as an example to the rest of his soldiers, but cannot. Instead, Bater decides to kill himself.
The film’s final battle is fought against Japanese forces armed with guns and cannon. The Japanese bring out Gada’s daughter and the other local children at a key moment. A soldier rides with Gada’s daughter behind him, dragging along all the other children behind them. Overwhelmed by emotion, Gada feels he has no choice but to surrender. Unable to convince Gada to continue fighting for the cause, Mudan says again, “My man will not die kneeling.” She then shoots her own child and the soldier on horseback, stopping them from dragging the other children any further. Gada is incensed and rallies his troops to fight.
Before reinforcements can arrive, Gada tells Mudan to leave with the other children. He assures her, “As long as the grassland has women and children, we have hope.” She complies, and the entirety of the force left behind is killed. Gada walks away from the dying troops, watching Mudan wave her red sash as she rides away with the children. He is then shot himself.
This film pits the Mongolians against the advancing forces of imperialist Japan, evoking a Mongolian national identity and purpose. To gird against a possible interpretation of Inner Mongolian separatism, lines in the movie equate Gada’s and Huzi’s rebels with the Chinese communists of this time. They discuss the similarity between their cause and that of a group of people who also fight for land rights, with Huzi telling Gada that they are called communists and are very brave. At this Gada exclaims, “It would be nice if we could join up with them since we fight for the same cause.” Together, these two aspects of the film underscore the principle of minzu tuanjie 民族团结—nationality unity.
The film further aligns the Mongolian cause with that of the Chinese Communists by portraying the Mongolian leader and other aristocrats in a negative light. By linking Gada Meilin’s call to fight on behalf of peasants and herders to communists, the film celebrates the concept of the liberation of oppressed minorities, without showing the Red Army explicitly as taking on this role.
2002, the year of the film’s release, was an especially tense moment in Sino-Japanese relations. Books considered sympathetic to Japan and Japanese-made cars were burned in many parts of China and Japanese people there faced many dangers and protests. The film’s production may be seen as a part of the general trend in the years leading up to this moment, and its release as a part of this moment.
Compared to the ethnically Mongolian female heroines of films such as A Secret History of the Potala Palace (1989) and Queen Mandukhai the Wise (1989), Mudan is somewhat untypical. She kills her only daughter in order to save her husband from disgrace, and fought side by side with Gada. She is portrayed as the cleverer of the two of them, asking him “if the Mongol leader’s interests are not in line with the people’s, what will you [Gada Meilin] do? You can’t satisfy both.” When Gada tells her he has lost his title of Meilin, she responds, “Good, otherwise you’d still be a slave to that man who doesn’t care about the people.” Mudan’s character thus recalls notions of women’s empowerment as well as the common practice in China of representing ethnic minorities as women or through female attributes. In addition, Mongolians are equated with the land on which they live, especially when they predict the desertification of the grasslands if the Japanese conquer them successfully.
Feng Xiaoning, in an interview with Li Peng of Sina, says he had waited ten years to film Gada Meilin because he could not find a suitable lead actor until he traveled to the Inner Mongolian grasslands one snowy night. The actor Ebusi had formal training but had never left the grasslands to act in films. He seems to have been a handyman until Feng discovered him. Feng claims that, at first, he did not restrict the main leading role to ethnically Mongolian actors. However, he later realized that Han actors could not capture the “spirit” of Mongolian horseback riders. The role of Mudan (“peony”) was filled by a Han actress who received intensive training in horseback riding and other cultural practices. Feng takes credit for writing Mudan’s famous line, “My man will not die kneeling.” In the interview Feng claims that he wanted to depict Mongolian women’s fierce and unrelenting spirit. They will never kneel, or beg, or surrender and would not let their men do any of these things either, he claims, adding that they believe it is important to “die standing and die an honorable death.” Feng insists that the motivation behind the making of Gada Meilin is the celebration of freedom and liberation which, according to him, are the ideals of all people.