By Phil Hall | June 11, 2010

BOOTLEG FILES 327: “China: The Roots of Madness” (1967 made-for-television documentary).

LAST SEEN: Available in its entirety on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There is a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R version available from the National Archives.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Lack of a commercial release.

Highly unlikely.

Time has been exceptionally cruel to the 1967 documentary “China: The Roots of Madness.” While hailed in its day and honored with an Emmy Award, it now comes across as representing the very worst of nonfiction filmmaking: a pompous, condescending examination of a serious subject that conveniently leaves out large slices of important information while casually denigrating its subject.

“China: The Roots of Madness” was the creation of Theodore H. White, one of the most distinguished journalists of the 20th century. White was Time Magazine’s China correspondent during World War II and he was well acquainted with the nation’s major political figures, including Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. White wrote the screenplay for the documentary and served as on-screen commentator throughout the production.

Yet White’s view of China comes across to the contemporary viewer as being astonishingly callous and condescending. In his view, China had no history prior to the Opium War – there is a brief mention of the “tyranny of Confucius” (huh?), but beyond that the film gives an impression of an anarchic and chaotic environment. White even had the gall to ask about ancient China: “Was it really a nation or only a geographical experience?” Even worse, he claimed that that 20th century China was “looking for some entry into the modern world, and nothing in their ancient culture could give them any guide.”

To its credit, “China: The Roots of Madness” serves up some of the most amazing newsreel footage on the subject.  Included here is very rare film showing U.S. soldiers playing broomstick polo during the period of the Boxer Rebellion, the filmed record of Sun Yat-sen’s funeral, the wedding of Chiang Kai-shek to Soong Mei-ling, and glimpses of pre-war Shanghai and wartime Chunkgking.  The film briefly details the exploitation of China by European and American interests, and Joseph Campanella’s narration sneeringly refers to the denigration of the Chinese people by recalling their servitude to “Master and His Missy Lady.”

“China: The Roots of Madness” also calls on a number of experts and observers to talk about the subject.  Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck waxes approvingly on Chiang by claiming, “He might have been a great emperor.” Several former military officers provide insight on Chiang’s pitiful military response to the Japanese invasion and the stealthy rise of Mao’s Communist army from a ragtag force into a genuine militaristic threat.

However, no Chinese person is interviewed in the film. White speaks of his own conversations with Chiang and Mao, and a 1930s newsreel features Madame Chiang speaking English while her husband’s comments are translated through an interpreter. Otherwise, Chinese history is presented without any input from the Chinese.

Yet throughout the film, the Chinese are rudely dismissed with name-calling. The Emperor Dowager Tzu Hsi is identified merely as an “ignorant” woman, while the laborers who kept the country functioning are noted for their “animal energy.”  White makes a specific point of detailing a minor faux pas regarding Mao’s knowledge of when electricity was invented, and post-1949 Chiang is simply written off as a “pawn to American policy.”

The film abruptly stops after the 1949 Communist takeover.  There are fleeting mentions of the Great Leap Forward and the rise of the Red Guards, and very brief footage (its source is not identified) shows glimpses of then-current China. White bemoans a lack of Western insight regarding the Maoist regime by claiming, “We don’t know what they’re struggling about.”

“China: The Roots of Madness” was produced by David L. Wolper and directed Mel Stuart. (Some Internet sources hint at Central Intelligence Agency involvement, but that cannot be independently confirmed.) The Xerox Corp. sponsored its syndication on independent U.S. television stations, and it played on 101 channels in 41 states between January 30 and February 5. The program was well received by critics and White’s screenplay received an Emmy Award in the documentary category, which was an unusual accomplishment for a non-network program

The status of this film is difficult to ascertain. The film carries a 1967 copyright through Wolper’s company and I don’t believe it is in the public domain. Yet the film is offered through the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R title. I don’t know if Wolper donated the film to the National Archives – it might make sense, since the film has very little reissue value today. Nonetheless, there is no need to purchase the title since the full version can be seen on YouTube.

However, “China: The Roots of Madness” should only be seen as a historical curio rather than a genuine source of information.  Fortunately, documentary filmmaking has evolved over the years, and there are numerous works of superior quality that provide a more mature insight regarding China’s violent and dramatic history.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. MAO ZEDONG says:

    1967: The Real truth about the real china. This is real truth about the real china. Free public information on internet. In the short 27-rule, mao zedong killed 40-60 million

    All Free public information free free free on internet.

    Many are dissmissive of the documentary. let look at the facts.

    1. confucius: form of mind-control, brain-washing..
    Superior/Inferior, hierarchy… top to bottom.
    This type of mind-control is NO different than Ancient Egypt. Ancient Greece or Ancient Europe…

    The Emperor on top and all on the bottom..

    China for 2000 years ruled by Dynasty (family-based rule akin to North Korea)

    North Korea is the china of the 21st century. All of North Korea is about Kim worship… Kim Dynasty (kim-family on top). All others on the bottom.

    USSR (union of soviet socialist republics) until the collapse in 1991.

    Free vote for a Free china in a Free world.
    The only way to rid china of the Emperor is to have Free elections.
    Free vote for a Free people.

    2. Peasants. china is a land where 80-90% of her people lived in farms and villages.. China never had either a Science-Age or an Industrial Age.

    From Scientific Revolution to Industrial Revolution to the Information/Internet Age..

    World Now has 6-billion cell phones and will have 10-billion by 2020.

    All people on earth will have Free access to Information Anytime, Anywhere by Anyone.

    3. HANZI: 50,000 barbaric, ugly, backwards characters. No civilized nations uses such barbaric, ugly system of writing….




    4. China needs a Free vote for a Free people. Witness in 21st. century..

    vote in japan

    vote in korea

    vote in taiwan

    vote in russia

    vote in philippines

    vote in russia

    vote in europe

    vote in canada

    vote in usa

    vote in mexico






  2. Jeff O'Connell says:

    An excellent, well-written comment, Lord! It must have been distressing to witness, from a firsthand perspective, modern China’s Great Leap Backwards (in terms of cultural preservation, history, language, intellectual acuity, and values, among many other factors).

  3. Jeff O'Connell says:

    It’s amazing that this was directed by the same Mel Stuart that directed “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory” AND “Wattstax!!!” :-O :O)

  4. Lord says:

    I have not seen this film, but having lived in the Chinese culture for 12 years there is an underlying aspect of shadow chaos and a propensity for information control. Control, information and its use are their most powerful weapons. The first priority is to control Chinese culture (The invisible confusionist hand), second is to remake the people. Once a party controls what people believe about their own culture, history, values, beliefs it can then create the people in it’s own image. This is very true and effective with Ancient cultures, because they are More dependent on culture. (I’m talking about the Billion people which live on the farms.)

    First goal is to re-write the language, enter Simplified Chinese, it has a powerful thought reducing effect, I have experienced, because there are so many words which are missing. It is not possible to have an effective thought if you have no word for it. Local dialects may or may not have the words, but they are rarely if ever spoken.

    It is true that Chinese history is not what it was, or to be more precise it is today what it never was.

    Chinese people do not have enough time to study, they work 12 to 18 hour days, and for students they are more focused on rote memorization to bring the mind into submission than concepts about the world, they read Communist propaganda, rinse and repeat.

    Few if any Chinese people have ever studied Chinese history due to the Communist take over. The people live in a cultural vacuum in which their customs and history have been sanitized with Orwellian splendor. I have seen and visited hundreds of temples, ruins from the invasions of the 8 armies, Ming Emperor tombs, even Sun Yat Sen’s Tomb, Tienamen Square, Summer and Winter Palaces, Tang Palace, Qin Tombs and much more. As it turns out much of what is a “discovery” or something old which had existed, was completely destroyed along with the people, only to be remade into a replica with “new people”

    After seeing all these things and being part of the culture for over a decade I learned that China and Chinese are just an idea. The core of Chinese history has been altered and changed far beyond it’s origins, values, beliefs, to the point where the idea of what is “Chinese” is openly debatable. This idea is guarded openly, secretly, and militarily

    Confucius would wish to return to the grave if he saw what has become of China. He would be arrested by the secret police and promptly sent back to the spirit world. No hero’s needed to challenge the control factor. Confucius is what they say he is, not what he said or did.

    I have experienced and witnessed all this I realized they were changing the definitions of what is “mine” or what is “yours” and disguising their own selfish tendencies with the concept of “ours”. Then as the years wore on what was yours becomes theirs, who you were is not anymore, who you are or will become is what they tell you, you are. Welcome to the cultural Borg, they will assimilate you.

    Everything over there works out if you:
    1. Keep your mouth shut.
    2. Give all you have to the Communist pool of assets.
    3. Receive crumbs in return, and be thankful for them.
    4. Rinse and Repeat.

    It was a mind bending experience, one in which I learned a lot of how to survive inside the game, I would not wish that trial on anyone.

    But I survived, and I write this today because of that.

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