While the Chinese struggle against Japan during World War II and the subsequent victory of the Communists over Jiang Jieshi’s Nationalists receives large amounts of scholarly attention, little attention is paid to propaganda and changes in popular culture during this period. Many studies assert that Communist forces successfully portrayed themselves as the primary forces opposing Japan, but few discuss how these claims disseminated through China’s large and dispersed population. Chang-tai Hung argues that both Nationalists and Communists relied on urban popular culture, which spread into rural areas to promote resistance to the invading Japanese, but that Communist propagandists were more adept at using popular media to promote their own agenda.
The new importance of popular culture is as important a change as the use made of it. Chinese elites looked down on popular culture as unsophisticated, and in their urban form as crass commercialism. However, popular culture became an important tool for spreading political messages simply because it was popular and entertaining. The urban popular culture that spread into rural areas after Japan’s invasion was less commercial, focusing on patriotic and reform messages. Although propagandists relied on media formats including song, cartoons, newspapers, and poetry, the first important export to the countryside was spoken drama, delivered by acting troupes that communicated rather than fought. The core of Hung’s argument is that the war with Japan was more than a military crisis – it created an environment when traditional values were questions, roles of intellectuals changed, and social order altered. These combined with the expansion of popular culture into rural areas to work to the Communists’ advantage in winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the people.
The result of these epochal changes was the development of a new political culture in China focused on rural areas rather than cities, providing Communists with an advantage in the Civil War against the Guomingdang. The war created a crisis for intellectuals, many of whom believed China at a dead end, and that the GMD’s leadership corrupt and ineffective. The result was a belief that a new era was dawning for China. The Communists successfully adapted these feelings to create a new “people’s culture” that minimized the rich and powerful and served their own ends.