Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland is an animation film for children produced in Shanghai in 1965 which became famous throughout China. It is still widely distributed and watched in China today. It depicts the absolute dedication of two young Inner Mongolian girls to serving the commune in which they live, as well as their dedication to Chairman Mao and the socialist cause.
The film shows the two young girls trying to protect the commune’s sheep during a brutal snowstorm on the grasslands. The children and the sheep are saved after three days by a Chinese railway worker and by other members of the commune who have been searching for them.
Title in Chinese: Caoyuan yingxiong jiemei 草原英雄小姐妹
Lin Wenxiao, Zhang Jingyuan, Xiong Nanqing, Chang Guangxi, Jiao Yesong, Lu Qing , He Yuwen, Yang Suying , Jing Xiayun
The film begins by declaring that is “based on a true story that took place in Wulan Chabu pastureland area of [Inner] Mongolia in Spring 1964.” It follows the story of Longmei and Yurong, two sisters aged eleven and nine who live on a commune in Inner Mongolia.
One fine day in February 1964, their father entrusts them to look after one of the collective’s flocks of sheep close to home while he goes out to help a neighboring production brigade. The two girls drive their herd away to a better pasture.
Suddenly, a fierce storm breaks out. Before the two girls can round up their flock and return home, the storm has turned into a raging blizzard. The frightened sheep run away in the roaring wind. Fearing that the sheep will be lost in the blizzard, the two sisters follow them, despite the increasing dangers that they face.
The sisters sing songs about revolutionary dedication and recite tales from a book that they are carrying with them about the model worker, Lei Feng. Meanwhile, we see the adult members of the production brigade, led by the commune leader, riding their horses across the grasslands in search of the two girls.
When one lamb is stuck in the snow, Longmei stops briefly to rescue the sheep. By the time she catches up with Yurong, the younger sister, and the rest of the flock, she finds that Yurong, while saving other sheep that were stuck in the snow, has lost one of her fur boots in the process. She is unaware that her foot has been uncovered, as she no longer has feeling in her foot.
Longmei realises that Yurong’s foot has suffered serious frostbite. She tries to give one of her boots to her sister but she cannot take off the boot as her own foot is frozen to her boot. Longmei carries her sister on her back.
Finally, after three days, just as Longmei starts to lose consciousness, a Chinese railway worker from a nearby outpost sees the sisters and rushes out to save them. The search party from the commune arrives just afterwards.
The sisters are rushed an ambulance to a hospital, where they are cared for by doctors and nurses. When Longmei wakes up in the hospital, the first sentence she says is, “How are the sheep? How is my sister?”, in that order. The Party Secretary tells her that the sheep are safe, and that her sister is too.
The film ends with a song with the refrain, “Love the commune, sacrifice one’s own interests… ah, the red successors!”
Yurong wakes up in the hospital. She asks about the sheep before she asks about her sister.
In 1949, just after the founding of the PRC, the state formed a national animation group that was located initially at the Changchun Film Studio but in 1950 moved to the Shanghai Film Studio. In the 1950s and early 1960s, numerous animated films were produced by the group, under the well-known cartoonist and illustrator Te Wei (1915-2010). Details of these and other examples of Chinese animation from the 1920s onwards can be seen at the website of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art’s “Creating Classics: The Golden Ages of Animation in China”, a record of their 2012 program about Chinese animation. Some of these, such as Where Is Mama? (1960) and Buffalo Boy’s Flute (1963), used ink wash animation, while others used paper-cut techniques.
In this period, most of the cartoons were moral tales taken from Chinese fables, folktales, proverbs or literature. Several were about the importance of work and of collective labour and cooperation, usually depicted through stories about animals:
- Good Friends (Haopenɡyou 好朋友, Te Wei, 1954) is about two friends – Xiaoyazi, the duckling, and Xiaohua, the chick – who unite against a vicious weasel.
- Pull Up the Radish (Ba luobo拔萝卜, Qian Jiajun, 1957) is about a rabbit, monkey, snail, pig and bear arguing over ownership of a radish.
- Cuckoo Calls Late (Buɡuniao jiao chile布谷鸟叫迟了, Qian Jiajun, 1959) tells of a cuckoo who discovers that the people have started sowing seeds for their crops even before he arrives.
- Risky Moments on the Ice (Bingshang yuxian, Wu Qiang, 1964) is about a duck, a bear and other animals who cooperate to save a little rabbit from drowning.
- Xiao Lin’s Diary (Xiao Lin riji小林日记, associated with Ge Guiyun ad Hu Jinqin, 1965), about two school friends who look after their community.
Others, like Little Sisters, are explicitly about political stories:
- San Mao: An Orphan in the Streets (Sanmao Liulanɡ Ji 三毛流浪记, Zhang Chaoqun, 1958) is a puppet animation about the difficulties experienced by the little orphan San Mao (“Three Cents”) when a drunken American soldier does not pay to have his shoes shined.
- The Cock Crows at Midnight (Bànyè Jī Jiào半夜鸡叫, You Lei, 1964): Devious landlord Zhou Bapi exploits his workers by imitating the cockerel crowing at the stroke of midnight so that the farmhands must wake and start their working day.
- The Red Army Bridge (Honɡjunqiao 红军桥, Qian Yunda, 1964): A bridge built by Red Army soldiers and local villagers becomes the stage for a struggle between workers and their rich landlords.
Cartoons about Minority Nationalities
One well-known series of cartoons is taken from Uighur folklore: Effendi (A Fanti, 阿凡提). These feature tales showing the folksy wisdom of the peasant wiseman Effendi, a folk figure related to the Turkish folklore character Nasiruddin and the Tibetan stories of Akhu Donpa. 14 animated films in the Effendi series were made between 1979 and 1988.
The history and implications of the story of the two sisters has been discussed by the leading Inner Mongolian anthropologist Uradyn Bulag in his essay “Models and Moralities: The Parable of the Two “Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland”.” The China Journal, no. 42 (1999): 21-41. Bulag describes the details of the political considerations which led the writers of the story to claim that a Chinese worker had rescued the girls, when in reality they had been found and saved by a Mongolian herder.