Through much of the history of the CCP, the term “main melody” simply referred to trends in music, the general tone of the times (not unlike the German zeitgeist), or even to the nature of international relationships – as when the People’s Daily reported in January 1984 on an article in the Soviet Union’s Pravda newspaper that possible withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia by saying that “peace and development are the main melody of the age.”
An Era of Reform
The concept of the “main melody” as a reflection of CCP ideals embodied in culture was introduced at the National Film Work Conference in 1987, where leaders raised the need to diversify propaganda products with the slogan “promoting the main melody, insisting on variety” (突出主旋律, 坚持多样化). This was essentially the idea that the film industry could advance in China, resulting in more productions and better-quality productions. While the focus remained conducting propaganda and conveying the Party line, the “main melody” at this time was more about reflecting the spirit of the age as it was being redefined by reform and opening.
On an official visit to Jilin and Liaoning provinces in August 1987, Politburo Standing Committee member Hu Qili (胡启立), a close ally of the reform-minded Premier Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), held a discussion forum on “propaganda and public opinion work” attended by “culture and arts workers” (文艺工作者). Conveying Zhao’s direction on the arts, Hu urged those present to “participate in reforms, support reforms and propagate reforms.” According to Zhao’s instructions, they should conduct propaganda not only on the “Four Basic Principles” (四项基本原则), the third of these being to uphold the leadership of the CCP, but also on the economy and on political reform, or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革). In retrospect, this in fact reflects the relative openness of that decade, and in the China of the 2020s the phrase “political reform” is nearly unmentionable.
Hu said in Liaoning that he hoped cultural workers could “grasp the building of modernization and full-fledged reforms as the main melody of the times,” and reflect this in propaganda, which should not be dry and formal. “Reforms are a complex thing,” he said, “and propaganda must not be simplistic” (改革是很复杂的事情，宣传不要简单化).
The Tune Changes
The sense of “main melody” changed rather dramatically in the wake of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing on June 4, 1989, as the country entered nearly three years of political reckoning in which hardliners within the CCP ousted leading supporters of reform.
A piece on the front page of the People’s Daily on September 3, 1989, just three months after the crackdown, began with mention of the need for “guidance of public opinion” (舆论导向), a phrase denoting press control that directly referenced June 4, blaming the “chaos” on the liberal press policies of ousted Premier Zhao Ziyang. “The major victory in stopping the unrest and quelling the counter-revolutionary riots was a source of heartfelt joy for Party journalists,” it said, “and at the same time brought painful feelings at the harm done to the Party’s cause by incorrect guidance of public opinion.”
In this piece, as in many others during the early years of Jiang Zemin’s leadership, the notion of the “main melody” became more closely connected with a hardened attitude toward the press and its role.
The press and public opinion should carry out in-depth struggle against bourgeois liberalization, fundamentally correcting the political orientation of news and propaganda, and strive to be creative while adhering to the correct direction, advocating diversity within the clear main theme, constantly improving the art of propaganda, enhancing the effectiveness of propaganda, maintaining a lively atmosphere of news reporting, and better serving the construction of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Following Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour,” as economic development again accelerated and China sought foreign investment and greater cultural exchange, the so-called “Five Ones Project (五个一工程) was initiated by the Central Propaganda Department as an annual award program to encourage innovative cultural production that conformed with the “mainstream” (主流), meaning the Party’s values and objectives.
This was essentially the late 1980s emphasis on diversifying choice for the masses in the consumption of cultural products, combined with an increased insistence on adherence to CCP values. Cultural products were at this time increasingly seen as emerging within a media marketplace. It was only around the mid-1990s, in fact, that China began talking about the existence of a “media industry” (媒体产业). The “Five Ones” referred specifically to dramas, television series, films, books, and theoretical articles (in the social sciences).
A 2001 article from the Guangming Daily, published by the Central Propaganda Department, merged the ideas of cultural creation and political control together in using the above-mentioned phrases, saying: “Under the guidance of striving for the ‘Five One Project’ award, we tightly focus on the overall situation of the work of the entire Party, correctly speaking politics throughout, and adhering throughout to correct research orientations and public opinion guidance.”
As China moved into the Hu Jintao era and commercialization of the media sector proceeded at a rapid pace, also under the notion of the “Three Closenesses,” the phrase “main melody” continued to be associated with “mainstream” (i.e., adhering to Party-state political norms) products that sought to find a marketable sweet space between control and the commercial. These were increasingly in this period films and TV series in which private sector investment was involved in production and distribution. This included the TV series Drawing Sword (亮剑), about a commander of an Eighth Route Army regiment during the Second Sino-Japanese war, and films like The Knot (云水谣), a story set during the Chinese Civil War.
By this point, films of this type could be routinely referred to as “main melody films” (主旋律电影). One clear direction was to diversify the story lines and settings of such products, moving away from the previous focus on the so-called “Red Classics” (红色经典), or works from the Maoist period, including the Cultural Revolution, that followed the spirit of Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art” in 1942, dwelling on the lives of ordinary workers, peasants, and soldiers under the leadership of the CCP.
The recent domestic success of the film The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖), released in 2021 and earning 908 million dollars at the Chinese box office, shows another milestone for China’s “mainstream” film industry and for “main melody films.” But such films, despite the push for commercial success, have remained largely unattractive to foreign audiences, owing to their still sometimes stiff adherence to narrow CCP-led views of morality – such as self-sacrificing heroes and the worship of authority.