Staging communism: state control and the Chinese Model Opera

Abstract

In this paper, we draw on the case of Chinese Model Opera during the Cultural Revolution to demonstrate not only an extreme case of political control over cultural production but to consider the role of the state’s involvement in the consumption side of cultural politics. In addition to a textual analysis of the videos and librettos of 11 Model Operas, we analyze 274 reports and reviews related to Model Operas in the People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) from the period 1964 to 1976, as well as supplement government documents. Our analysis of Chinese Model Opera extends our theoretical understanding of the potential relationships between political power and culture. Totalitarian regimes that take culture seriously, understanding art as a crucial resource in the reconstruction of society, may expand their involvement to direct not just what type of art is produced, but the conditions of its viewing, interpretation, and evaluation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    “Revolutionary Model works” were designated by The People’s Daily in an editorial of May 25th, 1967, including five revolutionary Peking operas, two revolutionary ballets, and a symphony readapted from one of the revolutionary Peking operas. Model works is the term used to describe all theatrical works produced directly following the guidance of Madame Mao, which are about 18 in total.

  2. 2.

    Readers could search on YouTube with key words such as “Peking opera,” “Revolutionary Model Opera,” or the opera names listed on "Appendix" to view the opera pieces and have a clearer understanding of what these different kinds of operas look and sound like.

  3. 3.

    Interestingly, the carefully cultivated impression of collective authorship is challenged after the Cultural Revolution, especially after the Code of Authorship was passed in China in 1990. There have been lawsuits in China around the authorship of the Model Operas since the 2000s, particularly when they are readapted into TV shows or replayed on stage. See for example the lawsuit in 2006 for the authorship of Shajiabang (http://www.chinacourt.org/article/detail/2008/04/id/298965.shtml) and the lawsuit in 2011 for authorship of the Revolutionary ballet Red Detachment of Women (http://www.bjnews.com.cn/ent/2012/05/04/197251.html).

  4. 4.

    “Model Opera” is a literal translation from the original Chinese “Yang Ban Xi,” first used in flattering reviews in The People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) and Red Flag (Hongqi) in 1966 to refer to modern revolutionary Peking operas. In the report of Excellent Models of Revolutionary Art in The People’s Daily on May 31, 1967, there were eight staged works being called the “model” of revolutionary art, including 5 modern revolutionary Peking operas, 2 revolutionary ballets, and a symphony. Since then, people usually use “Eight Model Operas” to refer to the staging works produced during the Cultural Revolution under the supervision of Madame Mao, but there were actually 18 of them in total. Some scholars adopt “Model work” instead of “Model Opera” to better encompass various kinds of art forms in these products and use “Model Opera” to refer to the revolutionary Peking opera explicitly (e.g., McGrath 2010; Mittler 2010). In this article, we use “Model Opera” to refer to the general 18 Model works.

  5. 5.

    These cases are also recorded in Shanghai local chronicles. See http://www.shtong.gov.cn/node2/node2245/node72149/node72164/node72270/index.html, accessed on December, 25, 2017.

  6. 6.

    Eventually the goal of exact reproduction was found to conflict with the goal of saturation and the rules on performances were relaxed (“Do a good job on popularizing Model Operas,” The People’s Daily, July 15, 1970).

  7. 7.

    Several scholars, most notably Clark (2008), have argued that the CCP’s attempts at cultural control, particularly after 1971, were less effective than is generally acknowledged as sent-down youths were active in developing and spreading an innovative underground culture.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the editors and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions. We would also like to thank Allison Pugh and the participants of her 2015 writing workshop for their help in developing this paper.

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Correspondence to Hexuan Zhang.

Appendix

Appendix

The original “Eight Model Operas (Works)”

“Revolutionary Modern” Peking Opera:

  • The Red Lantern (Hongdeng Ji)

  • Shachiabang

  • Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (Zhiqu Weihu Shan)

  • Sweeping the White Tiger Regiment (Qixi Baihu Tuan)

  • On the Docks (Haigang)

“Revolutionary Modern” Ballet:

  • The White-Haired Girl (Baimao Nü)

  • Red Detachment of Women (Hongse Niangzi Jun)

Symphony:

  • Shachiabang

The additional ten model works

“Revolutionary Modern” Peking Opera:

  • The Azalea Mountain (Dujuan Shan)

  • Song of the Dragon River (Longjiang Song)

  • Red Detachment of Women (Hongse Niangzi Jun)

  • The Warfare on the Plain (Pingyuan Zuozhan)

  • Panshiwan

  • Hongyun Gang (Same story with Song of the Yimeng Mountain)

“Revolutionary Modern” Ballet:

  • Song of the Yimeng Mountain (Yimeng Song)

  • The Brother and Sister on the Prairie (Caoyuan Ernü)

Piano-accompanied cantata:

  • The Red Lantern (Hongdeng Ji)

Piano concerto:

  • The Yellow River (Huanghe)

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Zhang, H., Corse, S.M. Staging communism: state control and the Chinese Model Opera. Am J Cult Sociol 7, 79–100 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-017-0056-4

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Keywords

  • Model Opera
  • State control
  • Production
  • Consumption
  • Cultural revolution