Madam Mao's Chinese model operas make a comeback

Image caption,
The Chinese ballet Red Detachment of Women, performed for President Richard Nixon

Anna Chen revisits the Chinese Cultural Revolution model operas that she first heard as a child in the 1960s and 70s and discovers how they are, somewhat surprisingly, enjoying a new lease of life.

Growing up in London with Beatles and Bowie as my soundtrack, I was occasionally taken by my parents to the Chinese legation in Portland Place for screenings of the latest movie spectacular to emerge from China.

Created by Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, these were the Yangbanxi, the Eight Model Operas with intriguing titles such as The White Haired Girl and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

For the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) they were virtually the only films, stage performances or music available to the entire Chinese population.

These state-sponsored works combined opera and ballet with simple plots about brave peasants uniting to defeat evil landlords, Japanese invaders and other enemies of the revolution.

Heroes looked like heroes with rouged faces, kohl-lined eyes and great hair, while villains were easily identified by their sneaky demeanour and bad moustaches.

My Hollywood sensibility found these crude melodramas puzzling and somewhat turgid but then they were not made for relatively pampered East End kids like me. They were made for the Chinese peasants and workers who had hitherto rarely, if ever, been represented in their own culture.

Within living memory, mass starvation, imperialist conquest and the horrors of the Japanese invasion had devastated the nation. Barely 20 years into its communist revolution, the Chinese population was struggling to get back onto its feet.

Madam Mao was determined to make ordinary peasants and soldiers the heroes of her new art works and to renew their fervour for the class struggle and for Chairman Mao.

She banned traditional Beijing opera with its stories of emperors and concubines, as well as all performances of Western music and movies. She viewed them as having a corrupting influence on the masses.

In fact Jiang Qing, a former actress, was herself passionately addicted to Western classical music and Hollywood films such as The Sound of Music and continued to watch these in her own private screening room.

She was canny enough to harness what she saw as the greater emotive power of Western music and combine it with traditional Chinese instruments in the operas she created. She recruited the most talented composers and artists to ensure that the music and dancing were superb.

The model operas had a profound influence on a whole generation of Chinese.

Novelist Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea, who was plucked from working in the labour camp to act in a later model opera that was never completed, recalls the songs that were the soundtrack to her childhood in Shanghai.

"They were on the radio, the only movies in the theatre, on the street megaphone. For 10 years I listened to the operas when I ate, walked and slept. I sang the operas wherever I went."

Media caption,
Anna Chen revisits the operas, including The White Haired Girl.

She can still sing all the songs today.

Jingdong Cai, conductor of the Stanford University Orchestra in California, says he owes his musical career to the model opera troupes that Madam Mao created.

They provided an opportunity for millions of ordinary Chinese children like him to learn a musical instrument and perform in public.

In that respect they fulfilled Madam Mao's ambition to ensure that art was for the masses, not just a narrow elite.

But the Cultural Revolution was also a time of great hardship for many established artists who were denounced as bourgeois and not allowed to perform. Many were publicly humiliated and driven to suicide.

When Chairman Mao died in 1976, Jiang Qing was put on trial and the model operas and all those associated with them, fell from favour.

But since the 1990s there has been an unexpected revival of the model operas.

The White Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women have become part of the standard repertoire of the Central Ballet of China.

Journalist Sheila Melvin, who writes on the arts and culture of China, explains when the Central Ballet of China go abroad they perform those "because they're the ones that have stood the test of time."

"When they began redoing them in mid-early 1990s they'd change the lyrics that were particularly offensive to rich people but the audience would get mad and shout out real words because they didn't want it changed: this is what we grew up with and we want it sung the way it was written!"

It is this nostalgia that Dutch-Chinese film director Yan Ting Yuen, whose documentary Yangbanxi: The 8 Model Works won a Sundance Festival award, believes is behind the revival.

"It's like if you grow up listening to the Beatles every day, whether you liked them or hated them, the music is still part of your childhood. So for many people who grew up in China in the 60s and 70s, it's part of their youth. And the music has stood the test of time... it's fantastic."

So with time and distance what was once propaganda has now become a national treasure. The political message of class struggle is lost in the new China and the music of the model operas has become mainstream, sung on tv shows and on the grandest stages - in karaoke bars, with remixed versions becoming popular hits in the charts.

Jingdong Cai believes they are still relevant because of the talent involved in their creation.

"I think Madam Mao didn't create those model operas. The artists created them. I think that's why I they are still relevant."

"And, if you look at today the revival of the model operas, especially the ballet, in 2008 when the Beijing National Centre for Performing Arts opened, it was a big event. They opened this brand new theatre at a cost of $400m. One of the first shows that they put on was the model opera - Red Detachment of Women."