Rethinking Chinese Socialist Theaters of Reform:
Performance Practice and Debate in the Mao Era

Edited by Xiaomei Chen, Tarryn Li-min Chun, Siyuan Liu

Reviewed by Rosemary Roberts

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2022)

Xiaomei Chen, Tarryn Li-min Chun, and Siyuan Liu, eds., Rethinking Chinese Socialist Theaters of Reform: Performance Practice and Debate in the Mao Era Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. 320pp. ISBN: 978-0-472-12851-8 (Hardcover). $80.00

This book brings together research by ten scholars of Chinese theater of the socialist period focusing on theater reform in the years from the late 1940s to early 1970s. The editors have done an excellent job in designing the collection so that the in-depth case studies work together as a series to demonstrate vividly that far from this being a period of ideological unity in which the Party exercised nationwide hegemonic control over the theater world, it was a complex period marked by significant disparities: between the more controllable cities and the out-of-reach countryside; between state funded troupes and those reliant on ticket sales for survival; between political intentions and aesthetic aspirations. Further contributing to the complexity of the situation, theater practitioners personally committed to the socialist cause and who had been prominent in theater reform efforts during the Republican era took up appointments in the Party bureaucracy to help guide the creation of a new socialist culture and found themselves continuously negotiating between artistic integrity and political imperatives in their continuing pursuit of theater reform.

The editors have designed the book to appeal to a broad readership, from students to Chinese theater specialists, and to this end the book begins with a substantial introduction by Tarryn Li-Min Chun that contextualizes the case studies. Chun begins by placing the CCP’s approach to theater within a Chinese literary tradition that regarded theater as a vehicle for moral and religious teaching and social critique, making the important point that Mao inherited rather than invented the approach of tying literature and art to ideology, and that he shared common roots with May Fourth intellectuals who saw strong links between reform of theater and reform of the nation. Chun traces the history of the CCP’s mobilization of theater starting from the earliest days when street theater and “living newspapers” were used at a local level to spread communist ideas and even organize strikes amongst a largely illiterate population. She outlines institutions for theater training and performance established by the CCP from the Gorky Drama Academy in the Jiangxi Soviet of the early 1930s through to the Lu Xun Academy of Arts in Yan’an in the late 1940s, illustrating the Party’s continuous development, control and utilization of theater as an integral part of their ideological war effort. Background information on the role that left-wing dramatists such as Tian Han 田汉 and Xia Yan 夏衍 played in Republican era theater reform and experimentation provides a useful context for understanding their post-1949 work as both party bureaucrats and theater practitioners attempting to reform traditional theater to suit the new socialist society. In the following section Chun traces the development of the CCP’s literary theory for the corresponding time period, including a succinct summary of Mao Zedong’s 毛泽东 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” and their significance for literature and art in the PRC. The introduction is rounded out with a description of the cultural apparati at the central, provincial, and local levels that controlled dramatists, troupes and their repertoire, and a contextualization of Chinese socialist theater within the international socialist community that elucidates the Soviet influence on theater practices as well as the incorporation of themes of international socialist solidarity into new productions.

The case studies that follow are arranged in chronological order to give a sense of the historical development of socialist theater as well as a taste of the diversity of experiences of theater practitioners across institutions and localities at specific points in time. Chapter 1 by Max L. Bohnenkamp, “Neither Western Opera, Nor Old Chinese Theater: The Modernist ‘Integrated Art-Form’ and the Origins of the Maoist ‘New Music-Drama,’” links socialist theater back to earlier reform efforts by arguing that The White-Haired Girl (白毛女), one of the foundational pieces of socialist theater, was not a response to Mao’s literary directives to create mass art, as laid out in his “Yan’an Talks,” as is the common narrative in literary histories, but had origins in movements to reform Chinese theater that began in the early twentieth century. Providing evidence from records from the early 1940s of production notes and critical reflections by Zhang Geng 张庚 (who had supervised the original play’s production) and Tian Han, Bohnenkamp shows that the production grew out of protracted efforts by theater practitioners to create an integrated art form that unified diverse elements from Chinese, Western, and Soviet musical and theater arts, and can be traced back to the nineteenth-century Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art.” The chapter convincingly makes the case that the adaptation of global discourses of aesthetic modernism was a significant factor in establishing the model for socialist music-drama of the early Maoist period, and Bohnenkamp makes brilliant use of previously untapped archival material to support his argument and throw new light on the artistic complexity of Mao-era theater. The only point of contention one might raise with Bohnenkamp’s argument is that Mao’s “Yan’an Talks” did not actually discourage practitioners from drawing on classical and foreign sources in developing socialist literature and art, merely its uncritical transplantation. Section 2 of Mao’s “Conclusions” states, “We must on no account reject the legacies of the ancients and the foreigners or refuse to learn from them, even though they are the works of the feudal or bourgeois classes.” This does not invalidate Bohnenkamp’s findings on the theoretical origins of The White-Haired Girl, but perhaps they were not as incompatible with Mao’s literary directives as he suggests.

With the establishment of the PRC, the practical implementation of theater reform policies at the local level switched to controlling troupes and performers and their repertoire. In chapter 2, “The Campaign Against Scenario Plays in China in the 1950s,” Siyuan Liu demonstrates how these policies had widely diverging consequences for two scenario-based troupes in Tianjin and Beijing. In Liu’s first case study, a ping 评opera troupe received state funding, providing income security, funds for sets, costumes, lighting, professional training, and so on. However, creativity was stifled because improvisation was eliminated and scripts became fixed, though the performers were happy with the enhanced quality of performances and their improved social status. In contrast, Liu’s second case study shows that the majority of huoci xi 活词戏 (live line theater) troupes, considered vulgar in taste and politically questionable, were eliminated by being refused registration or being forced to amalgamate and switch to the northern yueju 越剧 genre. By 1964 only four troupes remained, and the last was closed in 1968, thus eliminating both the huoci xi and northern yueju genres of improvisational theater. Liu’s study throws new light on the extent to which improvisational skills and local genres were affected by the CCPs determination to control theater in socialist China, and the very different impact this had on the survival of local genres. He is implicitly critical of the failure to provide support for reviving huoci xi and northern yueju in the post Cultural Revolution years and attributes those genres dying out in Tianjin to this. However, it is notable that this period also saw the rise of television and film in China, which contributed to the drop in demand for other popular cultural genres (such as lianhuanhua 连环画) and may have exacerbated the problem for huoci xi by reducing audience demand for lowbrow live theater to unsustainable levels.

In another case study of the same period, “Chasing Spirits in the Script: The Ambivalent Politics of Early Socialist Theatrical Adaptation,” Anne Rebull traces the adaptation of the Yuan dynasty legend Chasing the Fish Spirit (追鱼) into xiangju 湘剧 and yueju forms. Theater reform had left troupes very uncertain as to what were acceptable scripts, particularly those including supernatural elements which could be labelled as feudal superstition and lead to deregistration of the troupe for incorrect thought. Rebull examines the development of the adaptations against the background of theater reform policies and the political turmoil that embroiled high profile supporters, as well as considering their aesthetic achievements and audience appeal. Although Rebull’s research shows the key role of Tian Han (as both dramatist and leader of the Xiqu Improvement Bureau) in promoting and leading the revision of xiangju under the policy of promoting national forms in theater, she concludes it was more An E’s 安娥 (Tian’s wife) subsequent successful adaption of the script to yueju form with its wider audiences and a charming film with outstanding performers that explain its success. Rebull makes the important observation that the traditional approach of seeking political reasons for the success of socialist works can be a trap. Rather than focusing on political resistance or critique, Rebull calls for seeking out greater complexity of factors in the success or failure of works in the socialist period with political, cultural policy, and aesthetic elements all given consideration.

In 1964, at the Festival of Peking Opera on Contemporary Themes, which was a nursery for the model works that would dominate the Cultural Revolution period, Jiang Qing 江青 and Peng Zhen 彭真 in separate speeches both decried the continued occupation of the Chinese operatic stage by emperors, princes, generals, ministers, scholars and beauties, and ghosts and monsters. In Chapter 4, “Navigating Bureaucratic ‘Gusts of Wind’: The Shanghai Theater World, 1949-1966,” Maggie Green has conducted detailed archival research and statistical analysis to demonstrate the extraordinary degree to which it was true that traditional plays dominated the stage to the exclusion of plays on modern revolutionary themes in the Shanghai theater scene during the “Seventeen Years.” Green’s research not only reveals the extent to which calls for contemporary themes failed to cut through in the major cultural center of Shanghai, but also delves into archival records of troupe member meetings to reveal an unexpected degree of dissent and resistance expressed by theater staff and performers against the rapidly changing upper level directives, providing a distinct counterpoint to the positive messages being expressed in the newspapers of the time, thereby presenting a unique insight into the way theater practitioners negotiated their way through the “bureaucratic gusts of wind” of 1950s cultural policy changes.

The following two chapters, Liang Luo’s “The Experimental and the Popular in Chinese Socialist Theater of the 1950s” and Emily Wilcox’s “Aesthetic Politics at Home and Abroad: Dagger Society and the Development of Maoist Revolutionary Dance Drama,” both undertake case studies of the theory and practice of aesthetic experimentation in dance drama of the 1950s. Liang Luo continues the investigation into supernatural themes, looking at how innovative interpretation of the White Snake legend and its central character during the 1950s prevailed over the prescriptions for socialist theater reform, testifying to the dominant influence of folk and popular culture in aesthetic experimentation and revealing underlying continuities in the transmedia and transnational qualities of Chinese socialist theater reform of the 1950s. Luo notes the largely unrecognized role in aesthetic experimentation played by cultural bureaucrats/theater practitioners such as Zhou Yang 周扬 and Tian Han, for whom, she argues, “the utopian impulses and democratic aspirations of official rhetoric and central directions originated from a desire to reconnect contemporary realities and political aspirations with traditional forms and folk practices loved by the people over a long period of time” (156). Luo also makes instructive use of innovative source material to argue against the common narrative that 1950s theater was highly politicized, collectivist, and largely unproductive. To counter the bias and distortion inherent in commonly referenced sources such as official records, newspapers, or memoirs written decades after the events, when recollections may have been distorted by time, Luo draws on alternative sources, such as lists of gramophone records of traditional theater performances, which she uses to identify the broad range of works still available to 1950s audiences, or Question and Answer sections in magazines and newspapers of the time in which performers responded to audience’s and critics’ questions, comments, and criticisms in sophisticated discussions testifying to the lively public debate that contributed to ongoing experimentation in socialist theater reform.

In Wilcox’s chapter, the experimental is also inextricably linked with the popular in the development of Dagger Society (小刀会), a dance drama developed in Shanghai in 1959 that incorporates elements of movement from Chinese opera, ethnic minority dance, martial arts, folk performance, and other local and regional materials. Wilcox traces the development of Dagger Society, starting from its creators’ search through local historical records for a story to convey a socialist revolutionary theme for both national and international audiences. She details the gathering of an experienced creative team and their successful combining of foreign theoretical principles for drama creation with complex Chinese dance elements to produce a dance drama that was innovative and original in both narrative content and aesthetic form. Wilcox’s analysis draws attention to the high level and diversity of expertise that was brought into the creation of Dagger Society and the dynamic innovations in choreography, orchestration, and stagecraft achieved that are often overlooked because of the overtly political narrative. In the process of creating Dagger Society, artists established a set of principles that defined the standard creative method for national dance drama, and Wilcox observes that this method is still practiced widely in China and other parts of the world today, attesting to the importance of the work of the authors of this book in reassessing the achievements of Chinese socialist theater.

Wilcox’s chapter tells us that theater played an important role in creating a sense of an international socialist community through international tours of performances on socialist themes, such as Dagger Society’s tour of the USSR and Poland in 1961, and ballet troupes from the USSR and Cuba touring China in the 1960s. Christopher Tang’s chapter, “Staging World Revolution: Crafting Internationalism in the Chinese Dramatic Arts, 1962-1968,” shows an alternative side to this internationalism, where stories of foreign struggles against imperial and colonial aggression were brought to the Chinese stage by Chinese theater troupes. Tang’s chapter details the production and reception of two of these plays, War Drums on the Equator (赤道战鼓) and Letters from the South (南方来信), narrating war stories from the Congo and Vietnam, respectively. These plays, Tang argues, fulfilled an important domestic function by imprinting on the Chinese imaginary the concept of the Chinese people as leaders of the world revolution. This was leveraged at a local level to encourage workers and peasants to increase their production so as to provide support for fellow third-world nations, and at an abstract level to rally the population’s flagging faith in socialism after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Sino-Soviet split. In promoting the concept that the Chinese people were a critical bulwark against the failure of world revolution, these plays presaged the anxieties that were soon to be exploited in framing the Cultural Revolution as a movement to save socialism in China.

While the majority of chapters in the book deal with productions by major theater troupes in the big cities, chapters 7 and 9 switch the focus to the countryside, providing fascinating perspectives on the difficulties of attempting to implement theater reform in more remote rural areas. Brian Demare’s chapter, “Drama from Beijing to Long Bow: Reforming Shanxi Stages in Socialist China,” takes the novel and highly effective approach of examining drama troupe reform in rural Shanxi from three separate viewpoints—the central, provincial, and local levels of the cultural apparatus. In doing so, he sharply highlights the contradiction between the political ambitions of central and provincial leaders to reform old theater, the practical needs of local communes and brigades to supplement their income by ticket sales, and the demands of rural audiences who would not buy tickets unless the program was predominantly traditional in content. He also reveals the fascinating existence of rogue bands of artists on the borderlands between provinces, out of reach of Party authorities, performing whatever plays audiences wanted! Providing another perspective on the rural theater scene, Tarryn Li-min Chun’s chapter, “Sent-Down Plays: Yangbanxi Stagecraft, Practical Aesthetics, and Popularization during the Cultural Revolution,” examines the experience of rural troupes attempting to reproduce the sophisticated stagecraft of the ideal big-city versions of the revolutionary model dramas (革命样板戏) in the real environment of rural China. In a political environment in which a mistake in lighting or a failure in sets could be construed as a serious political mistake, Chun reveals the ingenuity shown by resourceful troupes, some of whom reported carrying sets on their backs into remote mountain villages, or hanging lighting from trees so as to bring the full impact of the revolutionary message to their audiences. Chun notes that the imperative to produce a high standard of stagecraft in model drama performances throughout the nation even resulted in technical innovations and improvements that brought lasting benefits to regional theater.

Chen Xiaomei’s “Epilogue: A Personal Reflection” relates the chapters to her own experience of growing up in a theater family in socialist China, reinforcing the sense of the volume as a conversation among authors providing differing perspectives on theater reform in the Maoist era. Chen endorses many of the chapters as reflecting her own experience, but also points out some discrepancies between their findings and her recollection of her family’s experience.

This book consciously follows new efforts in sinology to reassess various aspects of the Mao era by looking beyond interpretation of the works as political propaganda to delve into their aesthetics, thereby bringing more balance and complexity to the study of socialist culture. By examining a kaleidoscope of different aspects of socialist theater, the authors set up an implicit dialogue between their different essays, some mutually reinforcing, some even contradictory, that brilliantly reveals the complexity of the implementation of theater reform in socialist China of the 1950s and 1960s.

Rosemary Roberts
University of Queensland