Staging Revolution: Artistry and Aesthetics in Model Beijing Opera during the Cultural Revolution, by Xing Fan
Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy, by Emily Wilcox
Reviewed by Xiaomei Chen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2020)
This review essay examines two outstanding recent books in Chinese performance studies: Xing Fan’s monograph Staging Revolution: Artistry and Aesthetics in Model Peking Opera during the Cultural Revolution (Hong Kong University Press, 2018) and Emily Wilcox’s Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy (University of California Press, 2019). Both books are substantial and significant contributions to theatre studies, contemporary Chinese literary and cultural studies, and comparative Asian theatre history, with a sharp focus on aesthetic traditions in the context of intellectual and political history.
Xing Fan’s Staging Revolution focuses on the complexities of the “revolutionary modern Peking opera” promoted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), also widely known as “model theatre.” She is among the very few in English language scholarship to fully delve into the aesthetic features of Peking opera (jingju 京剧) in the modern period, with an emphasis on five major components of jingju arts: playwriting, acting, music, design, and directing. Staging Revolution expands the scope of Barbara Mittler’s remarkable book A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture (Harvard University East Asian Center, 2013) and Rosemary A. Roberts’s excellent study Maoist Model Theatre: The Semiotics of Gender and Sexuality in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) (Brill, 2010). With a comprehensive study of the artistry of model theatre, Fan’s Staging Revolution has raised to a new level the academic study of the model theatre, and by extension, the cultural legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
The scope of her book, moreover, reaches beyond the period of the Cultural Revolution. Her succinct narrative of jingju history and practice—from the late eighteenth century to the Yan’an period of the 1930s-40s and on to the high Maoist period before the Cultural Revolution—delineates a rich history of the sociological and ideological functions of jingju and its artistic heritage and development, with the latter being the most innovative contribution of Fan’s book.
In fact, Fan eloquently demonstrates how the political choices of theatre reform, as seen in model theatre, were “realized through the most rigorously formulated artistic choices and carried out by exceptional performances and entertaining techniques and devices” (3). Fan’s study benefited from her training in jingju and kun opera (kunqu 昆曲)—as a performer, an interpreter, and a historian—and from her interviews with fifty-eight practitioners and scholars in Beijing. Field work, on-the-ground training, and years of a fruitful labor of love are all evident in this accomplished book. In fact, reading the book makes me more keenly aware of the artificial separation (as seen in some theatre departments in America) between the so-called “text/history scholars” and the “theatre practitioners” (specialize in areas such as directing, acting, stage design, or management), both in curricular design and in academic research. Fan’s research demonstrates the potential for merging the two sub-fields of performance studies through a multi-disciplinary approach; most impressively, her examinations of the origins, expressions, images, concepts, debates, theories, and practices of model theatre, placing its aesthetic form in the context of phenomena such as “the masses” and “the nation,” are refreshing and insightful.
The Overture skillfully blends comparative and critical analysis with recent scholarship published in China and in the West. Among many critical points, I enjoyed in particular her close reading of how dramatic characters in a radical revolutionary era were “brought to life onstage [italics in the original], thus revealing the special features of stage production” and “the artistic components of model jingju” (5). In fact, she demonstrates that without understanding the complex artistic form, the content-only approach to these works has merely re-confirmed the PRC’s claim to “putting politics in command,” or the idea that politics should override and dominate artistic creation—a slogan, I would add, that Xi Jinping has recently brought back in a postsocialist retake of the socialist “legacy.” Fan’s informative survey of jingju in Yan’an in chapter 1, as “controversial cultural productions that are far more complex than those depicted in the CCP’s official narrative” clarifies some of our current scholarly inquiry of Yan’an culture and its impact on the socialist and postsocialist periods (15). Her argument that, contrary to the familiar narrative, traditional operatic performances were in fact more popular and more frequently staged in Yan’an than revolutionary new operas is refreshing. Implicitly, she points to the fact that by designating part of the wartime scene as the “Yan’an” period, we have already fallen into the trap of narrating theatre culture as foremost a politically-dominated one, thereby neglecting or simplifying a complex history of transformation. Treating the discourse of operatic practices from the late imperial tradition to the Republican experiments and on to Communist transformations, Fan cogently describes the dynamics of performance culture, the new aesthetic thinking of the era, and the diverse expressions in performance as seen in the creative energies of numerous script-writers, musicians, directors, stage designers, and actors and actresses.
I found Fan’s chapter 2 equally informative. Tracing the reform of PRC operatic theatre (xiqu 戏曲) from 1948 to 1956 and its experimentation in themes and plots, Fan highlights the reform’s failure to meet the demands of opera’s prolific traditions and their ongoing impact on artistry and practice, thereby paradoxically acknowledging the “old theatre’s power, based on its popularity” (29). The xiqu reform caused confusion in its implementation and was also sometimes unable to account for the performance-centered nature of the art, for which changing scripts alone could not alter the visual language and stylization at every level of theatrical practice (30-31). Fan’s thoughtful discussion of the inseparability of, interactions and mutual enrichment among, diverse operatic languages is particularly intriguing and can serve as a beneficial approach to explore theatrical phenomenon not limited to jingju.
Furthermore, Fan’s account of the mid-1950s experimental production of Three Mountains (三座山) illustrates her skill in blending critical insight and interviews. For example, Liu Jidian, a participant in this production, revealed in an interview that the production could not fully integrate traditional Chinese and Western musical instruments into a coherent and overall style of jingju music. In this context, I was particularly interested in reading about Mao Zedong’s and Jiang Qing’s reactions to the play: both Mao’s confirmation of the value of artistic reform and Jiang Qing’s indifference to it foreshadowed the important role jingju was yet to play a decade later during the Cultural Revolution. Historical details like these help us to understand the opera-loving couple’s continuous recognition of the genre’s potential to promote their agenda of revolutionary culture precisely because of its long artistic traditions, the difficulties in their modernization, and their diverse receptions. Fan’s observation that Three Mountains—originally a Mongolian opera based on a folksong but later adapted as jingju by transgressing both performance and ethnic boundaries—would have been labelled a “cross-cultural production” in current academic discourse reminds us to be cautious in applying certain Western theoretical discourses to complex Chinese cultural and artistic practices.
A lucid account of the unpredictable years from 1956 to 1965, chapter 3 interweaves multiple political campaigns—from the Anti-Rightist campaign and the subsequent Great Leap Forward movement until a brief period of policy relaxation in the fall of 1962 led to yet another round of uncertainty—and their impact on xiqu reform, In contrast to some recent scholarship that has depicted socialist culture as at once vibrant in artistic output and valuable to everyday life experience in contemporary China, Fan demonstrates how the rising socialist zeal for creating new art followed a path that zigzagged between frustration with the negation of traditional opera arts and frantic re-orientation according to the changing political winds; theatre artists, critics, and cultural bureaucrats adopted various strategies of survival and preservation while creating the best “socialist arts” possible under the circumstances. Her account of the success of the jingju version of The White-Haired Girl (白毛女) not only illustrates the laborious but ingenious efforts to modernize a traditional art form; it also adds a previously less-mentioned episode of this jingju version to the performance history of The White-Haired Girl, which has usually been traced from Yan’an folk opera, to the early 1950s film, to the spoken drama, to the Western ballet versions of the 1960s, and finally to the crowning success of the model ballet during the Cultural Revolution as well as its postsocialist reincarnation as a “red classic.”
As a side note, I am excited to see recent scholarship devoted to xiqu reform and its impact on intellectual history and personal life in Maggie Greene’s Resisting Spirit: Drama Reform and Cultural Transformation in the People’s Republic of China (University of Michigan Press, 2019), which scrutinizes the controversial debate of ghost plays such as Li Huiniang 李慧娘. First praised as a successful re-making of the past to serve the socialist present in xiqu reform, Li Huiniang was then quickly attacked as a negative example of “feudal” opera that justified the necessity of the new model jingju of the 1960s. From Greene’s thorough account of the controversial cases in the 1950s and 1960s to Fan’s examination of theatre practice during the Cultural Revolution, we now have more comprehensive coverage of the legacy of xiqu reform, including critical debates and the impact on such issues as classical tradition, radical thinking, and artistic experimentation.
Fan’s chapter 4 synthesizes earlier research on the construction of model theatre in the ideological context of the early 1960s by Roderick MacFarquhar, Harry Harding, Lan Yang, Chen Tushou, Barbara Mittler, Paul Clark, and others. Moving beyond the prior scholarship, Fan further contextualizes the theory of the “three prominences” (三突出), previously examined by Ellen R. Judd and Richard King, and brings to our attention Xie Bailiang’s observation that contrary to the belief that the “three prominences” was mostly an invention of Jiang Qing and her associates in creating model theatre, it can in fact be traced to Jin Shengtan 金圣叹, whose analysis of Wang Shifu’s 王实甫 Romance of the Western Chamber (西厢记) pointed to “negative characters to set off other regular characters, using other regular characters to enhance major characters, and using major characters to accentuate the central characters,” as Fan describes it (78). While noting that Jin did not categorize characters into negative and positive, Fan demonstrates how in the process of revising Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (智取威虎山), the theory of the “three prominences” resulted in an increasingly strong focus on Yang Zirong 杨子荣, the principle hero, while gradually reducing the original panoply of colorful negative characters to Vulture and his gang. Her table of comparisons of the plot between five different revisions, from 1958 (borrowing in part from the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s spoken drama [huaju 话剧] production) to the final 1970 model jingju version, supports her argument that not only was the formation of the model jingju a result of a long process of artistic re-creation prior to the PRC period with certain roots in classical drama, but it also “encompasses a search for both revolutionary political content and the highest artistic form possible” (95). Jiang Qing’s emphasis on the importance of script writing and revisions and her requirement that “jingju’s characteristics be applied in lyrics, music, movement, and artistic language” provides a more balanced picture of the creation of model theatre as a cultural art form with enduring appeal in contemporary times (70). I hope that these new insights will stimulate future research that challenges the existing narrative of the life story of Jiang Qing—with its various biases rooted in sexism, anti-communist politics, and so on—and that might produce scholarly works on the artistic and theatrical achievements of Jiang throughout her career. From a different perspective, one could also delve deeper into what has been lost in terms of artistry when, for example, the original eight negative characters were reduced to Vulture and his gang in the process of transforming Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy from the original novel, to the huaju production, to the film adaption, and finally to the model jingju.
Whereas Part One contextualizes the transformation of jingju art in its historical, ideological, and cultural conditions, Part Two focuses on the artistry of jingju. To some extent, Part Two reads like a small-scale encyclopedia on both traditional jingju art and its systematic evolution into model jingju. Chapter 5, for example, examines scripts and playwriting, tracing the genealogies of eight model jingju from their original versions as huaju, novel, film, or dance drama (wuju 舞剧), which were already successful pieces in their own right, therefore providing solid groundwork for jingju adaptations. I believe students of jingju will find that the sub-sections “Synopses,” “Meeting the Characters,” “Overall and Supporting Messages,” “Plotting and Theatricality,” and “New Narrative for New Characters” offer an appropriate analytical vocabulary for understanding the basic elements of theatre, addressing also aesthetic features such as musical rhymes, song lyrics, and stage speech as critical elements of playwriting.
Chapter 6 discusses how model jingju succeeded in expressing the gist of modern revolutionary life through appropriating traditional acting styles in an attempt to navigate the dilemma of the “incompatibility between the content of modern stories and the form of traditional jingju” (125). In the process, Fan succinctly educates her readers about the subcategories within each of the principal role-types, both for male and female roles, each indicating “a particular gender, age, social status, level of dignity, and certain primary acting skill(s)” (126). General readers and students of jingju alike will learn a great deal about the tradition and practice of this art form. Through interviews with theatre practitioners, Fan further explains the artists’ creative efforts in breaking with the traditional role-types and their subcategories, which required specialized training. Yang Chunxia 杨春霞, who played the lead female role of Ke Xiang 柯湘 in Azalea Mountain 杜鹃山, for example, mastered not only various subcategories of female role-types such as qingyi (青衣, young and middle-aged dignified female), huadan (花旦, young lively female), and wudan (武旦, martial female), she more significantly adapted the stage steps of the male role-type of wusheng (武生, martial dignified male) to express Ke Xiang’s courage and bravery as a military leader. Rather than destroying traditional acting conventions, model jingju in fact borrowed “performance techniques from multiple particular role-subcategories and then fuse[d] them into the presentation of a character’s inner world, personality and individuality” (130). In this way, characters in model jingju could better express the sentiments and experiences of the modern period. Cross-fertilization between the traditional and modern aspects of performance also spurred performers to learn new techniques in the traditional genre: some actors, such as Yang Chunxia, adopted acting styles from the Cheng school (程派), in which she was not originally trained, as the inspiration for her singing passages. Through interviews with practitioners of model jingju, Fan convincingly explains the importance of the artistic success of model jingju and its enduring appeal to audiences many decades later; the artistic breakthroughs in model jingju to a large extent stemmed from, and even were inspired by, the very “ambiguity that is directly implicated in the interrelationship between tradition and innovation in model jingju” (153).
Here, Fan has expanded the scope of other pioneering studies of gender politics in model jingju, such as Roberts’s Maoist Model Theatre. It is here that perhaps a bit more critical engagement with previous studies would in order. Fan’s point on Yang Chunxia combining the techniques of both genders’ role-types prompts one to ask, for example: to what extent does Fan’s view help to verify or complement Roberts’s argument for “a modified understanding of gender construction” in model jingju? Roberts explains: “Taking gender as a continuum with ultra-femininity at one extreme and ultra-masculinity at the other, what happened in the Cultural Revolution was not the erasure of gender and sexuality . . . but a shifting of gender parameters along political lines, with the parameters of ‘the revolution’ shifted towards the masculine end of the gender continuum and the parameters for the ‘counter revolution’ shifted towards the feminine end” (Roberts, 23). Does Fan’s emphasis on the ambiguity between tradition and innovation help clarify some of the questions raised in the semiotic analysis of gender in Roberts’s study? To what extent can we argue, in terms of gender studies, that model jingju as successful artistic achievements indeed obscured or even transgressed a binary gender opposition rather than seeing it as swinging more toward one pole or the other?
In chapter 7, on music, Fan does briefly engage Barbara Mittler’s pioneering work on the musical achievements of model jingju. Mittler argues that model jingju music “actually perpetuated” the so-called bourgeois individualist music that was a target of the Cultural Revolution and took its “rightful place in a long series of attempted syntheses of foreign and Chinese heritage” (Mittler, 96). Among many subtopics, I was particularly taken by some of the in-depth analysis based on Fan’s interviews with musicians of model jingju: in the four areas of orchestra organization (乐队), percussive music (打击乐), instrumental music (配曲) and vocal-melodic music (唱腔), for instance, the innovations of both traditional jingju orchestration and Western-style orchestration “demonstrate significant, new dimensions of musical composition” (155). Conductors of both the jingju orchestra and the general conductor for all orchestras had to develop new skills in accommodating a combined team for its full artistic potential, thus making orchestra conducting a fascinating area for experimentation.
Chapter 8 further examines stage designs in setting, lighting, and costume. Fan traces a creative evolution of model jingju, in which artists retained and reformed traditional stage practices rather than destroying them. Similar to her previous chapters, Fan first educates her readers in (1) the traditional spare, decorative stage designs and generic stage properties; (2) the rise of nonconventional scenery in the second half of the nineteenth century in Shanghai playhouses; (3) the mid-twentieth century “machine-operated” stage design; (4) Mei Lanfang’s use of flats with painted scenery in his modern-dress plays; and (5) the 1950s’ new proscenium theatres in which modern jingju were staged. Describing model jingju as a gradual reform of rather than an abrupt break from tradition, Fan argues that model jingju design “developed elaborate scenery specifically created for each production, and the scenery indicates an overall close-to-realistic style” achieved by collective teams consisting of a chief scene designer and several subordinate designers (201). Through her research, Fan has recovered a missing history of how a group of designers effectively worked together to pool their resources: they took field trips to the specific regions where the original stories had taken place, participated in script analysis with directors and playwrights, and accommodated the acting style of jingju. Fan thus challenges the familiar view, which denigrates model theatre as a mere product of “collective creation” (集体创作) that discouraged individual talent. Drawing from Fan’s work, future scholarship can more easily compare model jingju practice with other sister genres. Earlier in the book, Fan informed us that huaju performers were invited to tutor jingju actors to help them better deliver their stage lines, but did the stage designers in huaju learn from the jingju teams as well? Since several model jingju were adapted from huaju, were some of the innovations in huaju stage design carried over into model jingju? If so, exactly how and why did jingju artists borrow from or modify the huaju design? The questions can apply to chapter 9 as well: how did the history of directing in jingju overlap with or benefit from the history and practice of huaju directing, especially in the 1960s, when both genres reached their high point in popularity?
Chapter 9 on directing is thorough; it contributes not only to our understanding of jingju, but also of other genres of performance art such as huaju, geju (Western-style opera 歌剧), wuju, and ballet (芭蕾舞剧). Additionally, Fan gives Jiang Qing due credit as the general director/administrator controlling and contributing to all artistic aspects of model jingju revision; Fan renews attention to Jiang’s role as a theatre artist against the usual depictions of her as a political manipulator and villainous woman who destroyed the jingju tradition. Fan’s account of Jiang’s directive to use conventions while avoiding conventionalization and her exploration of how actors, musicians, script writers, and designers carried it out in the revision process illustrate the importance of a comprehensive study of this artistic practice. More explorations into certain larger issues—such as the complex relationship between the state and the role of women as leaders or experts in socialist art—would have carried the book to an even higher level of critical engagement.
Overall, Fan’s stimulating study reconceptualizes usual binary opposites, such as politics/art, modern/traditional, and theory/practice. It is particularly heartening to see young and brilliant scholars in departments of theatre and dance who excel in theatre practice and bring that knowledge with them in their study of theatre history and textual analysis.
By the same token, it is equally exciting to read Emily Wilcox’s monograph Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy, which shares with Fan’s work a similarly meticulous style while exploring an entirely new field of inquiry: the history of modern dance in China. A cultural anthropologist by training, Wilcox found her scholarly calling in examining the history of modern dance both as practice and as text; with a dancer’s experience and knowledge, she presents historical analysis of choreography, musical accompaniment, and stage conventions. Whereas Fan dissects the rich art of jingju during the particular period of the Cultural Revolution, Wilcox’s monograph is a panoramic history of modern dance in regional, national, and international contexts. The two books delve into the theatricality of jingju and dance, respectively, with attention to the complex emotions and body politics of those art forms’ traditional roots and modern transformations; both books discuss film adaptations and video recordings that yield additional detailed insights into performance texts.
The first English-language book-length study on the topic, Revolutionary Bodies succinctly chronicles the history of modern Chinese dance from the 1930s to the 2010s, with a particularly in-depth analysis of the socialist era, when dance culture flourished, and that period’s impact on the postsocialist stage. Most importantly, Wilcox examines the critical debates in theory and practice in cultural and ideological contexts with careful readings of numerous dance pieces; she succeeds in showing “Chinese dance as a complex cultural phenomenon that transcends simplistic dichotomies between personal and collective, hegemonic and resistive, traditional and contemporary, or embodied and conceptual” (4). She offers scholars and students of modern China a firm grounding in the dynamics of dance culture and its diverse manifestations in educational endeavors, institutional organizations, and the performance practices of numerous dance groups, tours, and festivals. Her study provides new insights into the interactions among ethnographic forms of knowledge, artistic modes of representation, and the changing political imperatives of the past century.
Chapter 1 is particularly compelling. Complicating the conventional view of Dai Ailian 戴爱莲 as a dance icon in the PRC, Wilcox analyzes her modernist career in light of her diasporic trainings as well as her talents in discovering multi-ethnic dance rituals within the Chinese tradition. Born in Trinidad in 1916 and trained in London as a ballet dancer, Dai moved to China in 1941 during the war period as a rising star with a distinctive style that bridged East and West. Her construction of “Chinese dance” is a story of how diasporic experience to some extent redefined the nation in cultural and aesthetic terms rather than the other way around; in other words, the nationalist sentiments of her times coincided with her artistic agenda and resulted in a new dance form rather than such a form being merely the result of political culture.
Wilcox is as strong as Xing Fan in aesthetic analysis. Fan’s depiction of Liu Changyu’s 刘长瑜 masterful stage rhythm in playing Li Tiemei 李铁梅 in The Red Lantern 红灯记 (Fan, 226-228), for example, is matched by Wilcox’s scrutiny of the artistic quality of Dai Ailian’s filmed solo choreography titled “The Mute Carries the Cripple” (哑子背疯), a representative piece from her early career. Inspired by the xiqu style of gui opera (桂剧), Dai carved out a space of her own by taking advantage of her multicultural identity, which combined an “Oriental” body with a European upperclass upbringing. She also benefited from wartime mobilization campaigns to rally the support of the Chinese people at a time when debates about genre and form led to “new innovations and competing approaches to the meaning of modernity and modernism in artistic expression” (23).
Wilcox’s informative discussion of the mutually enriching interactions among three diverse models of dance is particularly intriguing. Wu Xiaobang 吴晓邦, for example, first rejected Yan’an “new yangge,” a folk mode of revolutionary dance, as lowbrow working-class art, favoring instead his Western approach to modern dance with its higher aesthetic values, only to fully embrace the “new Yangge” movement after he arrived in Yan’an in 1945. Wilcox delineates how Dai Ailian in fact played a key role in bridging the oppositional approaches of native/Yan’an versus Western/elitist through her own theory and practice of a third approach, which drew inspiration from regional rituals and ethnic dances in order to develop a new form of Chinese art. Wilcox’s book thus complements Fan’s in expanding our view of Yan’an culture as more complex and dynamic than previously conceived.
There are other intriguing details in Wilcox’s fascinating narrative, and future scholarship should follow her lead to pursue even larger critical issues. For example, in 1949 Dai was chosen as the president of the All-China Dance Workers Association over Wu, who was male, her senior, and already a CCP member who had promoted the modern dance movement longer than Dai (46). One might ask further: What does this episode tell us about gender politics in the formation of a male-dominated leadership structure in the early PRC period, and how were gender dynamics different in the leadership within art circles? Why have historians narrated stories of “founding fathers” such as Tian Han 田汉, Hong Shen 洪深, and Ouyang Yuqian 欧阳予倩 in the case of huaju, and of Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳 in the case of xiqu and his adapting of jingju to modern tastes, yet we hear nothing about the “founding mother” of modern dance in the English-language scholarship? Isn’t Dai’s “founding” role equal to those of her male peers in other genres? To what extent did Dai’s female body and global/diasporic experiences affect later narrations of her artistic vision and life story? What was the role of gender politics in a performance history, broadly defined, in which she “was the first to insist, categorically, that Chinese dance should pursue a new aesthetic form inspired by local performance practices” across ethnic lines and the rural/urban divide (47)?
In chapter 2, Wilcox incisively delineates how the construction of a new people’s dance became instrumental in building a new nation immediately after the founding of the PRC from 1950 to 1952—when, for example, a mostly Western ballet dance drama such as Peace Dove (和平鸽) presented an anti-U.S. imperialism story on pointe shoes. Most telling is Wilcox’s discussion of the rather negative reception of Peace Dove and the ensuing controversial debate on how to use Western ballet to serve revolutionary socialist themes. It is intriguing to learn from her account that instead of being attacked on ideological grounds, which would have condemned the ballet as Western and therefore corrupt and bourgeois, Peace Dove was instead critiqued as ineffective and “artistically uninspired” (59). One critic dismissed the artistic mode of Ouyang Yuqian, the director of Peace Dove, as “too traditional” and “out of touch with the tastes of contemporary audiences” whose “expectations for art are relatively high” (59). Ouyang was a highly respected theatre director who had produced successful works of film, huaju, jingju, and guiju in the Republican period and was admired for his multifaceted artistic achievements. The critic’s claim that contemporary audiences had higher artistic expectations than Ouyang himself points to the slippery meaning of “artistic,” which increasingly referred to the politics of art. Some of the audiences’ distaste for Peace Dove as a “stage filled with thighs” reminds one of a similar criticism that was to emerge a decade later during the Cultural Revolution. Wilcox’s discussion of the Peace Dove controversy provides an early example of the heated and continuous debates throughout the PRC period centered around binary opposites, including Western/Chinese, artistic/political, and form/content. By contrast, though reviewed as lacking in a polished artistic style, the song and dance drama Braving Wind and Waves to Liberate Hainan (乘风破浪解放海南) was well-received because of its realistic portrayal. Wilcox demonstrates how in the early 1950s politics gradually but surely took command over artistic criteria in the development of a national dance form, and how theatre critics and journals controlled and directed artistic orientations in socialist China. It is here that perhaps Wilcox could have engaged a bit more with the concept of “reception” in performance studies. Although she is careful not to use the word “reception,” her scrupulous quotes of critics’ and audiences’ responses could have led to more critical observations on the complexity and the merit, or lack thereof, of the thorny issues of reception studies, especially in the context of early socialist dance during a time when “a consensus gradually formed regarding the parameters of Chinese dance as a new artistic medium in the early PRC” (57).
Despite neglecting to directly confront the issue of reception, Wilcox narrates in this chapter an intriguing story of how diverse artists such as Choe Seung-hui 崔承喜 fostered and enriched modern dance as it came into being in the early 1950s. It is fascinating to read about Choe’s Korean choreography, her artistic journey from the West, to wartime China, to socialist North Korea, and finally to Beijing where she helped establish the curriculum of the Beijing Dance School and standardized its educational agenda. Most remarkable is the fact that she actually helped create “classical” Chinese dance by incorporating jingju choreography, which she learned as a faithful student of Mei Lanfang. It is here that “classical” becomes modern, and traditional Chinese art blends with the revolutionary and national dance form. During her two brief years in the PRC from 1950 to 1952, Choi played an instrumental role in the formation of socialist dance with multiethnic characteristics. In historical hindsight, Wilcox’s study helps us to better appreciate the persistence of ethnic dance, which has remained popular in the twentieth-first century in everyday life as evidenced by the “public square dancing” (广场舞) still practiced by retired and middle-aged urbanites, many of whom had learned ethnic dances in their teenage years before and during the Cultural Revolution.
In chapter 3, the comprehensive account of the golden age of dance in the high socialist period further advances the current scholarship on socialist culture as at once vibrant in artistic output and valuable to the everyday life experiences of the masses. For example, Wilcox’s discussion of the massive “lotus dance”—which combined yangge and kunqu with other regional dance steps, around a float trumpeting the “success of socialist construction” in the national parade in 1955 celebrating the sixth anniversary of the founding of the PRC—reminds one of its contemporary reincarnation in the mass parade at Tiananmen Square to commemorate the seventieth anniversary in 2019, with similar choreography, formations, and floats; ironically, for a semi-capitalist China with socialist characteristics under Xi Jinping, the portraits of leaders and their signature slogans on Chang’an Avenue have changed, but not the socialist dance culture and its spirit of mass participation and carnival-style festivity.
Students and scholars of modern Chinese literature and culture are familiar with Chinese films that win international awards and fiction writers who win Nobel Prizes; Wilcox expands our knowledge with her illuminating narrative of how China was in fact both a producer and a receiver of a lively global dance culture during the Cold War era: in the 1950s and early 1960s, the local and national song and dance performers of the PRC toured around sixty countries and won awards in international festivals and competitions. Wilcox argues that some of these dances “formed an important medium for China’s international cultural engagements and national self-projection during the socialist era” and had in turn helped developed “the first golden age of Chinese dance” (92). As Wilcox points out, the fact that Chinese delegations brought dance performances to countries around the world during this period revises the conventional view of China’s isolation from the Western world. She also reminds us that “the United States is conspicuously absent from this list, which may explain the persistent incorrect US perception that China was ‘cut off from the world’ during this time. The notion is accurate only if one equates the world with the United States” (84). Wilcox demonstrates that “China’s postcolonial, Third Worldist, and inter-Asian international aspirations during the 1950s and early 1960s” and its artistic achievements in dance culture created canonical pieces for future generations that “circulated as a highly visible symbol of the national culture of socialist China” (90, 92). I wonder, however, if more could be said about Chinese socialist neo-colonialism, in which China was the self-proclaimed leader of socialist and non-aligned countries against Western imperialism, as well as about how Chinese dance was positioned—in both thematic concerns and artistic styles—between East and West to establish its unique identity as a friend to some and a foe to others. Mao’s subsequent ideological campaign against Soviet hegemony and the military-themed dances opposing the two superpowers (the revisionist Soviet Union and the imperialist US) in the 1960s might have added another dimension to Wilcox’s excellent account. The lasting impact of the military-themed dances in ethnic minority style can be seen, for example, in Feng Xiaogang’s 冯小刚 2017 film Youth (芳华), which featured a popular Mongolian-style dance titled “Women’s Militia of the Grasslands” (草原女民兵). The film’s powerful visual representations of the dance as well as the director’s personal memories of the Cultural Revolution and of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War best testify to the impact of ethic military-themed dances in socialist experience and postsocialist art.
As Wilcox’s narrative has demonstrated, the fully developed dance drama of this period coincided with the mass movement of the Great Leap Forward, which set a new standard for Chinese dance choreography through the use of Chinese dance movements to engage political and social issues. The same period also witnessed the premiers of the first few large-scale dance dramas that combined socialist themes with the hybrid artistic traditions of xiqu, folk culture, ethnic minority dances, and mythical stories from Magic Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯), Five Red Clouds (五朵红云), and Dagger Society (小刀会). Wilcox’s succinct analysis of these works’ plots, characterization, costumes, choreography, as well as of the interwoven issues of gender, class, and ethnic politics, provides insights into the effective construction of socialist culture in its early years, which was characterized by a strongly shared artistic vision, despite being later described by others as politically oppressive and unworthy of serious study.
Following a survey of the earlier two decades as an energetic period of expansion for Chinese dance in chapter 3, chapter 4 examines the dance field during the Cultural Revolution, when Western ballet rose to become a dominant form after years of struggling to become an equal partner with the new Chinese dance. Throughout her book, Wilcox carefully traces the origins, debates, and institutional training involved in the ballet world. She discusses, for example, how the early practitioners of ballet were associated with Western culture, including the elite White Russians who settled in Shanghai, Harbin, and elsewhere after the 1917 Russian Revolution; Western ballet, Wilcox argues, was therefore perceived as the “other” and set against the new Chinese dance as the “self” before the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, by contrast, ballets were elevated to the high status of model theatre, while “other dance forms, particularly Chinese dance, were actively suppressed” (152). However, I wonder if Wilcox’s account could have been more nuanced. For example, thanks to the mass education before the Cultural Revolution, Chinese dance, especially ethnic minority dances, remained popular during the Cultural Revolution among propaganda teams; Red Guard performances of musical dance epics such as The Military Song of the Red Guards (红卫兵战歌), for example, in fact imitated their predecessor The East is Red. Amateur dance performances, if taken into account, indeed demonstrate how successful the PRC dance education had been before the Cultural Revolution. Seen in the context of the overall picture of the popularity of all kinds of dance, the rise of ballet during the Cultural Revolution might be interpreted as the eventual coming into being of a more balanced picture between various subgenres: a combination of the Western with the Chinese, the traditional with the modern, and the professional with the amateur—precisely what Dai Ailian, Wu Xiaobang, Choe Seung-hui, and other pioneers had envisioned in their earlier careers. It was thus not uncommon, for example, to see amateur propaganda team performers combining aspects of choreographies of the revolutionary model ballets with those of Mongolian, Tibetan, and Korean folk dances.
Chapter 5 is exceptional in its accurate treatment of the early post-Mao period, which witnessed a return to the tradition of the first seventeen-years of the PRC. The late 1970s and early 1980s in the arts are sometimes glossed over in scholarly works as a transitional period when an ongoing Maoist influence prevented the emergence of what scholars would deem more authentically aesthetic art works; for example, “Fourth Generation” films, “Anti-Gang-of-Four” drama, and “Scar” literature initially received attention for having critiqued the radical policies of the Maoist period, but were later deemed too political to be worthy of sustained study. Wilcox demonstrates that, on the contrary, starting in 1979, large-scale dance dramas and performances such as Flowers and Rain on the Silk Road (丝路花雨) successfully combined the socialist legacy prior to the Cultural Revolution with traditional themes and classical dance from the Tang dynasty, Buddhist frescoes from Dunhuang, and local and regional sound and dance vocabularies. Compared with other genres, such as huaju, xiqu, and fiction, one might argue that dance culture in the early post-Mao period can be seen as an exception in exerting a more lasting impact on the subsequent reform era; innovative dance performances such as Flowers and Rain on the Silk Road, for example, remain popular in the twentieth-first century, with repeated world tours to more than twenty countries. One might ask further: what do we take away from the longevity of this early post-Mao dance legacy? Could we possibly argue that dance, which of course does not rely on language, provided artists with more freedom of visual experimentation than sister arts based in discursive narrative forms?
Chapter 6 concludes the book with an informative analysis of postsocialist dance, which has inherited and redeployed the socialist “red legacy” to promote, for example, Xi Jinping’s policy of One Belt, One Road, as seen in the depiction of the historical relationship between China and Sri Lanka in Maritime Silk Road (碧海丝路), while appealing to a broad audience with an accessible and entertaining aesthetic style. This continuity with the socialist past dovetailed with experimental avant-garde performances that were characterized by a “theme of self-conscious reflection on the role of the past in the present” (208). Wilcox argues that unlike other Maoist arts which have been largely forgotten, Chinese dance has continually rejuvenated itself thanks to its “flexibility to transform and remain relevant with the times” (214). Her personal account as a graduate student at the Beijing Dance Academy and her subsequent career in teaching, research, and choreography have provided her with a valuable perspective to study dance culture and its institutions.
All in all, I recommend these two books as essential textbooks for undergraduate classes and graduate seminars on modern Chinese theatre and performance studies as well as resources for general readers looking for engaging stories about Chinese arts. Both books are important sources for anyone interested in theatre culture with or without a non-Western focus. Both books have set a new standard for the study of modern Chinese culture. Additionally, Fan’s and Wilcox’s frameworks and approaches could be beneficial to other areas such as modern Chinese film studies, women’s studies, and comparative cultural studies. The theatricality of jingju and wuju and their cinematic recordings and stage representations have yielded a new understanding of the complex heritages and debts of socialist China.
University of California, Davis