Representations of History in Chinese Film and Television


Xi'an Shibian
(The Xi’an Incident [1936])


(Feature Film, PR China, 1981)


The Chinese movie “Xi’an Shibian”, produced by the Xi’an Film Studio (西安电影制片厂) and launched in 1981, was the last movie directed by the then 64 years old third generation Chinese movie director Chen Ying 成荫. It is an officially sponsored movie with the ambition to “historically accurately describe” the events of the Xi’an Incident in 1936.

The Xi’an incident happened in December of the year 1936. Jiang Jieshi (= Chiang Kai-shek), leader of the Nationalist government in Nanjing and generalissimo, considering the given situation of the Chinese Communists being based at Yan’an in Northwest China and the Japanese being established in Manchuria and pressing on in Northern China, had given instructions to the Northeast Army (东北军) commander Zhang Xueliang (张学良) to ignore the Japanese invasion for the moment and first fight the Communists. When Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng (杨虎城), commander of the Northwest Army (西北军), who both had come to disagree with Jiang’s political order of priority in first eliminating the “inner enemy” and only then the “outer”, refused to take orders, Jiang personally flew to their headquarters in Xi’an to settle the matter. After no mutual consent was obtained, Zhang Xueliang’s troops attacked Jiang’s resort near Xi’an on December 12, 1936. Jiang was detained and confronted with a list of demands, which can be subsumed under the mottos of “ending civil war” (停止内战) and “guns at the foreigners” (枪口对外). With Jiang’s fate in the hands of Zhang and Yang, many political camps became highly interested in the outcome of the incident: The Communists at Yan’an, the Nationalist Nanjing government, the Soviet Russians and of course Madame Jiang (Song Meiling 宋美龄) and her native family, the influential Songs. Thus, leading Communist Zhou Enlai (周恩来), Madame Jiang and her brother and member of government, T. V. Song (宋子文), flew to Xi’an to arrange for negotiations there. On December 25, Jiang was released after he reportedly gave verbal assurances that he would support a United Front with the Communists to fight off the Japanese. Zhang Xueliang personally accompanied him back to Nanjing, where Zhang, though, was placed under house arrest by Jiang, which would last for more than 50 years.

The movie depicts these events from the official perspective of the Chinese Communist Party. Compared to earlier productions, a rather realistic and not simply demonising portrayal of Jiang Jieshi demonstrates a substantial move towards a more factual cinematic historiography. Still, the rather monolithic design and homogenous depiction of the Communist Party at Yan’an reveals that this movie was made for propaganda purposes.

For some background information on the film and its production see here. For a synopsis of the film please see here. For comments please contact us .



© 2007 Gotelind Müller-Saini