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Sparks of Fire

Hu Jie

Release year: 2013

Run time: 100 mins

Film type: Documentary


Following the Anti-Rightist movement of 1957, a group of Lanzhou University students who had been condemned as “Rightists” were sent to the rural areas in Tianshui, Gansu, to be reformed through labour. There they witnessed the absurdities of the Great Leap Forward and the ravages of the mass starvation and deaths of the Great Famine. In response they started an underground publication, which they called Sparks of Fire, in which they exposed the exaggerated local harvest reports along with rural poverty and starvation. They also initiated a profound theoretical analysis and criticism of the structure of the People's Commune and called for the establishment of democratic socialism in opposition to the vested interest of the political oligarchy. The publication also carried Lin Zhao's long poem "Prometheus's Day of Passion."

Sparks of Fire is the only extant unofficial, intellectual periodical from the time of the Great Famine. In the end, 43 people, including the Rightist teachers and students who were connected with its publication and the peasants and rural cadres who sympathized with them, were arrested and given long prison terms. Among them, three key people—Zhang Chunyuan, county party secretary Du Yinghua, and Lin Zhao—were executed during the Cultural Revolution.


Director biography

Hu Jie is an independent historian, artist, and filmmaker. Born in Jinan, Shandong in 1958, he graduated from the Art College of the People’s Liberation Army. He works in oils and woodcuts from his lakeside studio in Nanjing. His films are among the most important documents of China’s unacknowledged “unoffcial history”, and include Looking for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2005), about a martyr-poet critic of Mao; and Though I Am Gone (2007), about an elite Beijing girls’ high school whose students murdered their headmaster at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Director's statement

Sparks of Fire is the only extant unofficial, intellectual periodical published during the time of the devastating Great Famine from 1959 to 1961. It emerged in defiance of the ruthless suppression of independent thought. It was a historical testimony and reflection done with the lives and the self sacrifice of a group of young people who were driven by both reason and passion. It fills a void not only in the intellectual history of that period but also in the human dignity of the Chinese people.

The filming of this documentary spanned six years. Its historical clues came from my earlier documentary film Searching for Lin Zhao's Soul. It was the courageous and persistent efforts of Tan Chanxue, a key member of Sparks of Fire, that led to the recovery of the original periodical. Only the complete recovery of Sparks of Fire made possible the filming of this documentary. This film is an homage to all those who contributed to the publication of Sparks of Fire.