The People on the Grassland (1953)

Caoyuan shang de renmen 1953-posterThe People on the Grassland is one of the earliest “minority nationality films” produced in the PRC. It features Mongolian herders who serve the people in the struggle against the forces of the KMT. The film was released in China in 1953 and became particularly well-known for its songs and theme-music.

Chinese title: Caoyuan shang de renmen 草原上的人们

Year of Release

1953

Production Company

Changchun Film Studio

Director

Xu Tao

Script

Malaqinfu, Damulin and Haimo. Malaqinfu wrote the novel on which the film is based.

Cinematography

Wang Chunchuan, Bo Hong, Li Guanghui

Score

Tong Fu, Xiang Yi

Cast

  • Sarangewa – Wurina
  • Sangbu (Sarangewa’s boyfriend) – Enhesen
  • Baire (Sarangewa’s father) – Caolu
  • Balu – Shuhai
  • Urshana (Sarangewa’s best friend) – An Chi
  • Party Cadre – Guanbudaoerchi

 

Viewing

You may be able to watch the film online at http://www.1905.com/vod/play/527816.shtml.

Production Background

The People on the Grassland was released in China in 1953 as one of 81 Chinese feature films shown in the country that year (mostly through state-sponsored film festivals). The production company, Changchun Film Studio, was the largest and most important film production company in the PRC at the time, and produced many other minority films in the period from 1949-66 (sometimes known as the “17 Years of Minority Film”). The film was adapted from a novella called The People on the Ker’qin Grassland by the Mongolian author Malaqinfu, who helped write the screenplay. It is notable for its use of folk music as soundtrack, with several individual songs which attained mainstream popularity.

Synopsis

The People on the Grassland is set in a village in 1950s Inner Mongolia. The CCP has set up work units there whose primary task is to produce wool. The village is highly productive and maintains a healthy rapport with the local party officials. The main character, Sarangewa, is the head of the local Women’s Youth Group, and has won the award of ‘model worker’ two years in a row.

Sarengawa and her counterpart in the local Men’s Youth Group fall in love. Sarangewa tells her best friend that she is anticipating the day when her tribe will plant crops and use electric lighting. A villager named Balu attempts to persuade Sarangewa’s father, a village elder, to disband the newly formed work units and youth groups. Sarangewa’s father chastises Balu for his laziness and lack of community spirit. During a blizzard, Balu secretly frees the village’s sheep from their pen. Sarangewa and her boyfriend recover the sheep.

The following spring, Balu tries again to sabotage the village’s productivity, this time by poisoning the sheep’s water supply. As a result, many sheep die, and the village’s top reputation for productivity is tarnished. Sarangewa is deeply upset, but the local party cadre encourages her to continue working by reminding her allegorically of the soldiers fighting for the PRC not far away on the Korean front. Sarangewa’s boyfriend also brings to the attention of some local CCP administrators the intentional nature of the two bad incidents, and raises suspicions towards Balu.

Meanwhile, Balu confers with a KMT loyalist, who gives him money and a pistol as bribery. The KMT loyalist tells Balu that rewards will be granted to him once the KMT defeats the CCP (with the aid of the Americans). They agree to make their next move at the approaching Nadam festival.

Wurina as Saragnewa in the final scene of The People from the Grassland

Sarangewa in the final scene of The People from the Grassland

During the festival, the work units meet to decide who will receive the title of ‘model worker.’ The groups decide that Sarangewa is deserving, but that the incident involving the dead sheep must first be investigated and explained before she can claim the title. Discouraged, Sarangewa goes for a walk alone beside a river, where she encounters Balu, who seems to acting in a furtive manner. She sees his gun while he is mounting his horse, and chases after him, convinced that he is up to no good. Balu sets a large swath of village land on fire, but Sarangewa detains him before he can meet up with the KMT loyalist and his troupe of spies.

Sarangewa’s boyfriend leads the people of the village to the scene, where they find and capture the rest of the spies in dramatic fashion. The film ends with Sarangewa giving a speech about the value of selflessness, the priority of community, and how Mongolians are part of Chinese national unity, which adheres to these values.

Further Reading

These articles about the film are in Chinese and are available in the CNKI database:

  • 李晓峰. “民族国家话语对个人话语的消解–从 <科尔沁草原的人们>到<草原上的人们>.” 民族文学研究. 大连民族学院文法学院: 2005 (04). p60-65. (Li Xiaofeng, “The Dissolution of Personal Discourse by Ethnic-National Discourse: From The People on the Ker’qin Grassland to The People on the Grassland.”) This article analyzes the process of adapting Malaqinfu’s novella into a film. It is particularly concerned with the shift from the biographical representation of the novella’s characters to the dramatic symbolism of the film’s characters.
  • 刘清涛. “论<草原上的人们>中电影音乐的功能及作用.”白城师范学院学报. 白城师范学院中文系: 2011 (02). (Liu Qingtao, “On the Functions and Effects of Movie Music in The People on the Grassland.”) This essay shows that the music of The People on the Grassland plays a strategic role in character portrayals and narration, in general.
  • 刘清涛. “电影<草原上的人们>的主题探析名作欣赏.” 白城师范学院学报. 白城师范学院中文系: 2012 (21). (Liu Qingtao, “A Thematic Analysis of The People on the Grassland.”) This essay examines three thematic elements of The People on the Grassland which concern the national discourse on minorities at the time, and compares/contrasts the rendering of these themes with other minority films made in the PRC between 1949 and 1966.
  • 王云阶. “民歌与电影音乐.” 中国电影. 北京市: 1957 (07). p.35. (Wang Yunjie, “Folk Music and Movie Music.”) This short note in the PRC’s first journal dedicated to film criticism discusses some advantages, as well as potential issues, with integrating folk music into movie soundscapes. It describes The People on the Grassland as an example of good integration.
  • 张天民. “多写些好的短篇小说—从<科尔沁草原的人们>谈起.” 人民文学. 北京市:1952 (Z1). p.96. (Zhang Tianmin, “Writing More Novellas—A Discussion beginning from The People on the Ker’qin Grassland.”) This op-ed piece, written by a leader in a national-level youth organization, argues that Malaqinfu’s novella raised knowledge and awareness of minority cultures while inspiring political unity. As a result, the author contends that more short-form literature of this kind should be written.

Research: Eddie Lu, December 2014