‘Weaponised Colour: A Brief History of the Dye-Transfer Process in China’s Cultural Revolution’ by Zhaoyu Zhu

Undeniably, the dye-transfer process has been one of the prestigious techniques in terms of colour on film in cinema history. The American company Technicolor brought it to life in 1915 and then diffused it through its global networks of laboratories in the thirties, which resulted in a huge number of beautiful productions with a full spectrum of colour (1)Since the 1950s, the dye-transfer process was no longer the technique mainly used for colour film post-production in America and Europe.[2]However, it was in the 1970s that Technicolor travelled across the ocean to China, and founded a new workshop in the charge of Beijing Film Lab. This proved that the dye-transfer process found a new pathway to continue its life in the faraway Oriental nation of China. An intriguing fact is that when Technicolor came to China was the period when China underwent the politically radical Cultural Revolution, which was marked by the personality cult of Chairman Mao, a large-scale purge of officials, devastation of historical relics, and forced migration of young students from cities to rural areas, et cetera. In the field of science and technology, a great number of intellectuals were persecuted as political reactionaries and then denounced. By contrast, research of dye-transfer process didn’t cease immediately in the case of technologies. The dye-transfer process gained unparalleled political attention under such a bleak political situation.

Research of dye-transfer process can be traced back to 1958, the year when the state-owned Chinese Research Institute for Film Science and Technology was established. At that time, Chinese researchers tried to incubate a dye-imbibition machine with the support of the technical know-how from the Soviet Union. They produced the first dye-imbibition machine in 1962 and experimented with it by producing the colour prints of several short animations. Two research communities were founded separately in Beijing and Shanghai. However, before the Cultural Revolution, the dye-transfer process was not put into practice or implemented extensively in the production of film prints.

figure 1

Figure 1: The paper-folding animation Yike Dabaicai (A Big Chinese Leaf, Yu Zheguang, 1961). This short animation was one of the earliest works to be printed in dye-transfer process in China.

During the Cultural Revolution, colour film was unprecedented in its preoccupation of the governmental bureaucrats. A paradigmatic genre which was largely relevant to the promotion of colour film was the Model Operas. The Model Opera is a sort of stage performance which integrates the revolutionary ideologies into several artistic forms, including the Beijing Opera, ballets, and orchestrated musicals. From 1964, eight sets of revolutionary operas were designed under the centralised guidance of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing.[3]In 1967, she acknowledged the important role that film played in promoting the revolutionary consciousness amongst the population. The Model Operas were broadcast widely through radio and television and their adaptation to film was put on the official agenda.[4]

The filmed Model Operas were all planned to be shot in colour. Before the extensive research of dye-transfer process, colour monopack film stocks were the materials that were predominantly harnessed to produce colour film prints. Some colour film stocks were imported, especially Agfacolor and Eastmancolor.[5]Others were domestically produced by the Baoding Film Stock Plant, the largest film stock manufacturer in China. These film stocks bore the name of Daidaihong, which could be translated in English as “being red from generation to generation.” Although China gained the production capacity of colour film stocks and put the colour prints into production for the first time in the making of the released prints of the cinematic version of the “song and dance epic” Dongfanghong. (The East is Red, dir. Wang Ping, 1965)[6]As film historian Ding Yaping points out, the Chinese colour film stocks were marked with the characteristics of low photosensitivity and an unqualified contrast coefficient, which results in the colour quality that the image cannot render the green tone appropriately. (7)

figure 2

Figure 2: the “song and dance epic” Dongfanghong (The East is Red, dir. Wang Ping, 1965)

To produce the colour prints of the Model Operas and the other propaganda films, research of the dye-transfer process was thus elevated to the nationwide strategy in the field of film machinery. In November of 1969, when Jiang Qing watched a documentary on 9th Congress of China’s Communist Party printed by the dye-transfer process, she clearly announced in her subsequent speech that the film prints of teaching films of the Model Opera The Red Detachment of Women(Hongse Niangzijun, dir. Pan Wenzhen & Fu Jie, 1970), which would be distributed widely for teaching how to perform the characters in this Model Operas to local theatre troupes and propaganda teams, should be finished with the homegrown film stocks and the homegrown dye-transfer process. If this experiment was successful, Jiang Qing suggested thatanother Model Opera, TheRed Lantern (The Red Lantern, dir. Cheng Yin, 1971) and other artistic films should adopt this technique for colour printing. She encouraged the two local bases of research of dye-transfer process, Shanghai and Beijing, to deepen their collaborative relationship in the researching of the dye-transfer process.

figure 3

Figure 3: The Red Detachment of Women

Indeed, research on the dye-transfer process was also largely related to the militarisation of the film machinery industry. In 1969, film machinery manufacturers were rapidly combined with the arms industry. An administrative group, historically named as The Film Industrial Production Coordinative Direction Group, directing the research and production of film machinery, was established on July 11th of 1969. This group was composed of thirteen people from various governmental authorities, including the departments in charge of scientific research, machinery production, chemical production, and national planning. It is worth noting that four people were originally from the defence industry or the offices monitoring the military administration in different institutions. The establishment also pointed out that the main supervisor of this cooperation was appointed as Vice-director of the Military Administration group of defence industry and the headquarter was set in the chief office of the defence industry. The film technology enterprise was thus transformed to “the Cinema’s Military Industrial Complex”, as termed by Haidee Wasson and Lee Grieveson, in which the military became the creative force prompting the emergence of new cinema technologies and infrastructure. (8)

table 1

Table 1: The Personnel Table of the Thirteen People who were chosen into the film industrial production coordinative direction group.(9)

After the film machinery’s military complex was established, the First Coordination Conference for the Dye-Transfer Processwas held on February 2nd of 1969, convening eighty-seven members from thirty-two institutions all over China. The research into dye-transfer was then escalated into the nationwide Ranyin Fa Dahuizhan(the Great Pitched Battle for Dye-Transfer Process), with prioritised status from government. The pitched battle originally refers to “a battle which has been planned, and of which the ground has been chosen beforehand, by both sides.”[i]In the context of Socialist China, this term was endowed with an industrial meaning, indicating that the state-led research campaign centralising the labourers of different professions from all over the country would construct a new infrastructure or to develop one specific technology. This Dahuizhanfinally resulted in a couple of Chinese-made dye-imbibition machines installed and operated both in Beijing and Shanghai in 1975.

However, these dye-imbibition machines were still based on Soviet standards. These machines are marked with a circular sprocket wheel, on which the dye is transferred, instead of the Technicolor’s design of a 200-feet-long steel pinbelt. Certainly, the pinbelt-based Technicolor was imported from Britain in the early 1970s. At last, we can find that, the utilisation of both the Soviet-model dye-imbibition machine and the Technicolor pin-belt dye-imbibition technique reveals that there was a huge demand for dye-transfer process in China during the Cultural Revolution at the same time when its value was steadily undermined in the other nations. This history also implies that it was for reasons more than the requirement in film aesthetics that pushed this technique to be rooted in the social environment of the politically radical China, which involved technological capability, ideological propaganda, and military orientation.

figure 4.a.

Figure 4.a. the Soviet-model dye-imbibition machine in Shanghai.

figure 4.b.

Figure 4.b. the Technicolor installed at Beijing Film Lab.


Biographical notes: Zhaoyu Zhu is a Ph.D. candidate at Department of Film Studies at King’s College London. For his doctoral dissertation, he intends to use an interdisciplinary research methodology of historiography of science and technology and film studies to investigate into the history of cinema technology in Maoist China. His research interests include history of film technology and East Asian cinema. Contact: zhaoyu.zhu@kcl.ac.uk Twitter: A Film Technophile @Zhaoyuzonic


[1] Richard W. Haines. Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye-Transfer Printing(Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993), 2.

[2] Ibid, 121-37.

[3] The appearance of the Model Operas can be viewed in the first chapter “Modeling a New Culture” in Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 10-54.

[4] The cinematic adaptation of the Model Operas was launched in Jiang Qing’s speech on November 13th, 1967. The speech could be viewed in Li Song, Yangbanxi Biannianshi Houpian: 1967-1976 (The Chronicles of the Model Operas, 1967-1976), 27.

[5] Yan Jizhou, ‘Jiangqing Zheteng Wopai Yangban Dianying’ (‘Jiang Qing Tortured me in the Shooting of the Model Film’), Yanhuang Chunqiu, vol.2 (2004), 42. This talk expresses how Jiang Qing adores Eastmancolor rather than the Agfacolor. She also requested that the film production should spend foreign currency, which was limited in China at that time, to purchase more Eastmancolor.

[6] Li Ming, Li Nianlu, and Zhang Ming, Zhongguo Dianying Zhuanye Shi Yanjiu: Dianying Jishu Juan(Chinese Film History Research, Film Technology Volume) (Beijing: China Film Press, 2006), 127.

[7] Ding Yaping, Zhongguo Dianying Lishi Tuzhi, 1896-2015(The Pictorial Chronicle of Chinese Film History) (Beijing: Cultural Art Press, 2015), 637.

[8] Haidee Wasson and Lee Grieveson, ‘The Military’s Cinema Complex,’Cinema’s Military Industrial Complex, edited by Haidee Wasson and Lee Grieveson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 8.

[9] ‘Zhongyang Dui “Guanyu Chengli Dianying Gongye Shengchan Xiezuo Zhidao Xiaozu Baogao” De Pishi’ (The Party Central’s Notice to “The Report for Establishing the Film Industrial Production Coordinative Direction Group) (July 1969), in Zhongguo Dianying Wuzi Chanye Xitong Lishi Wenjian Huibian(The Anthology for the Historical Documents in Chinese Cinema Material Industrial System), edited by Liu Naizhong (Beijing: China Film Press, 1995), 238-39.

[1]This meaning is retrieved from Oxford English Dictionary. Please view the part of 1b. of the entry of the word “battle.”

[1]D.W. Samuelson, ‘Filming in China,’ American Cinematographer, LXIV, 5 (May 1983), 26.



One thought on “‘Weaponised Colour: A Brief History of the Dye-Transfer Process in China’s Cultural Revolution’ by Zhaoyu Zhu

  1. Pingback: Centre for Screen Cultures | THEMED PLAYLIST: RAINBOW OF FILM COLOUR

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