By Jeffrey Wong

In 1942, Mao Zedong gave a speech at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, where he stated that “literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part… [They] operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”[1] His wife, Jiang Qing, later gave a speech in 1964 at the Forum of Theatrical Workers Participating in the Festival of Peking Opera on Contemporary Themes in which she reiterated Mao’s argument, stating that revolutionary operas would reflect “real life.”[2] The importance of these speeches lay in the Communist Party’s attempt to use the arts to create a monoculture during Cultural Revolution. Model operas are a prime example of the Cultural Revolution authorities’ attempts to disseminate party doctrine throughout the country. The term “model opera” was first introduced in Jiang’s 1964 speech. Jiang referred to model operas as the peak of Chinese cultural art that all must strive to emulate.[3] This official rhetoric has been echoed by a common scholarly assumption about cultural activity during the Cultural Revolution that focuses heavily on model operas. But to what extent did official rhetoric summarize Cultural Revolution culture? Did society embrace model operas with full fervour?

There exist two schools of thought when it comes to discussing the topic of model operas. One is the “conventional” camp which shares the common perception that model operas was at the center of focus during the Cultural Revolution. Barbara Mittler, for instance, states that “model works were everywhere… They were the staple of daily radio broadcasts, and on the streets they were blasted from loudspeakers.”[4] Merle Goldman agrees, explaining that Jiang Qing’s model works dominated opera, film, dance, and music during the Cultural Revolution.[5] This rhetoric is mainly derived from the recounting of memories and diaries of the period. In her recollection of growing up during the Cultural Revolution, Anchee Min recalled that growing up with model operas, “they became my cells. I decorated the porch with posters of my favourite opera heroines. I sang the operas wherever I went.”[6] This familiarity of the model operas is also shared by many other Chinese across the country. As Paul Clark explained in his book The Chinese Cultural Revolution, many local brigades organized the study of model operas and from “seized opportunities in rest periods in the fields, at night school, and by going door to door to families to teach the arias to their fellow commune member.”[7] A 1975 report from suburban Tianjin argued that this studying of model opera “directly benefited morale, commitment to work, and on productivity.”[8] This depth of cultural activity, conventional scholars argue, helped to distribute model operas to the whole country and built a memory that fixed model operas at the center of focus during the Cultural Revolution.

The second school of thought on the subject of model opera contrasts the common rhetoric. This school of thought, called the “revisionist” school, believes that although there was a great deal of prominence place on model operas, they did not hold a monopoly on cultural activity during the period. In a later article called “Model Theatrical Works and the Remodelling of the Cultural Revolution,” Paul Clark, although arguing for the case that model operas was given a great deal of prominence, he also argues on the side of the revisionist camp. He claimed that “although memory, nostalgia, and mythology place the model theatrical works firmly at centre stage in those ten years, the reality seems to have been somewhat different.”[9] On analysis of magazines, newspapers and official records from the period, Clark convincingly argues that although model operas were given prominence in society, attention towards them was sporadic:

the usual generalization… suggests that [model opera] dominated the media, and even the most casual perusal of the pages of People’s Daily or any provincial newspaper show that they certainly were granted great prominence. But the attention… was not constant. Sporadic intensive coverage was punctuated with periods in which little was mentioned regarding the model operas and ballets.[10]

In his analysis of Red Guard newspapers from 1967 and 1968, for example, Clark demonstrated that model operas was not always at the center of attention throughout the Cultural Revolution but also experienced periods of neglect.[11] Clark also argues that model operas did not hold a monopoly on the stage and that

contrary to a frequent claim that all feature films made in China before 1966 were banned from public screening during the Cultural Revolution, the National Day cultural activities that year included several popular films from the 1950s and 1960s… [and] among a dozen other Chinese and foreign features [was] onscreen.[12]

Revisionist scholars also disagree with the conventional school that emphasised model operas’ popularity throughout Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution. Scholars such as Xiaomei Chen explain that contrary to common rhetoric, Beijing Opera performer, Qian Haoliang, often recalled his distain for performing in model operas.[13] Qian’s feelings are not unique. This was demonstrated when

Beijing Opera stars… declared at the [Beijing Opera Festival of 1964], that they would portray contemporary life, they resisted passively, by agreeing to perform in revised traditional operas or even in new historical plays, but by objecting to perform in new plays on contemporary themes.[14]

Bell Yung also agrees with the revisionist school argument about model operas’ reception amongst opera troupes. He explains that during the 1950s and 1960s, when revolutionary and traditional operas shared the stage, many troupes favoured traditional operas over revolutionary ones due to their popularity.[15]

Government officials also had mixed feelings towards model works. Although Jiang Qing and her supporters promoted model operas fervently, other government officials felt differently. For instance, in preparations for the play Shajiabang (originally named Spark Amid the Reeds), Jiang Qing was opposed by cultural officials indirectly. Although verbally officials agreed with Jiang’s reforms, they sabotaged her by “not providing her with a theater in Beijing […] diverted performers to other productions and denied her access to funds […] did not communicate her directives to the relevant organizations [… and] assigned people to the writing groups adapting her plays who made the heroes less than glorious.”[16] Even government leaders had mixed feelings towards model works. Chen, for example, stated that “PRC drama historians have recorded Mao’s personal preference for opera over modern drama […] Mao regarded Peking opera as the quintessential representative of traditional operatic theaters; it would continue to exist, Mao predicted, even in the era of communism.”[17] Clark also agrees with Chen, writing that “in 1971 and 1972, Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai had both remarked that the range of cultural products available to Chinese audiences was too small.”[18] Mao and Zhou’s criticism of model opera was not only their own personal preference but was the expression of “the attitudes of more ordinary Chinese opera and their fans.”[19] This evidence convincingly shows that model operas were not always the center of focus and were even received with reluctance from all levels of Chinese society.

If the conventional school of thought on model opera is an overgeneralization of the attitudes of the time, how has this stereotype come to be? Revisionist scholars explain that the stereotyping of model operas’ success was due to the governments “lavishing of resources of talent, funding, and time on their development and refinement.”[20] Paul Clark, for example, explained that once model operas were “identified as models, they were broadcast with the full resources of Chinese state cultural apparatus.”[21] Beyond the stage, cultural officials distributed postcards, posters, printed images on ceramic cups, and crafts, which helped build a prominent image of model opera amongst society.[22] The publishing of “comic books and retelling of episodes as short fiction [also] took the model stories to younger audiences than would be reached by regular opera.”[23] The adaption of model operas into films was another important aspect in which it helped to build the image that model works were prominent and widespread across all of China. With the invention of portable 16 and 8.5 millimetre projectors, model operas became more accessible and could be brought by “mobile projection teams to relatively remote locations… [and] of course, also took these works to audiences around the world, reinforcing the impression of their importance in China.”[24]

Soap operas series such as the 1990s show “Yearning” and Wang Shuo’s 1978 show, “Waiting,” often suggested that model operas were heard and seen constantly through speakers, radios and television.[25] This shows the common perception of model opera that originated from the Cultural Revolution. Conventional scholars argue that, in attempts to creating a monoculture, Communist Party officials fully backed model operas and spread them throughout the country. This conventional argument also parallels official rhetoric that model opera were widely popular and was at the center of Cultural Revolution society. However upon close analysis of sources from the time, revisionist scholars tell a different story. They explain that although model operas were given a great deal of prominence, there was sporadic attention intermixed with different degrees of fervour. Revisionist scholars, in challenging conventional rhetoric on model opera, demonstrates that in studying Chinese history, one must be aware of the possible alternatives to official rhetoric.


Works Cited

Chen, Xiaomei. Acting The Right Part: Political Theater And Popular Drama In     Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2002.

Chiang Qing. On The Revolution Of Peking Opera. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1968.

Clark, Paul. “Model Theatrical Works and the Remodelling of the Cultural Revolution.” In Art In Turmoil: The Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-76, edited by Richard King, 167-187. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Goldman, Merle. China’s Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Mao, Tse-Tung. Talk at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1962.

Min, Anchee. Red Azalea. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Mittler, Barbara. A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Shepard, Jeremy. “Model Opera Fed Propaganda Machine; Pointed Political Lessons made during China’s Cultural Revolution.” North Shore News, July 12, 2013.           origsite=summon (accessed 22 November 2015).

Yung, Bell. “Model Opera as Model: From Shajiabang to SagaBong.” In Popular Chinese Literature and Performing Arts in the People’s Republic of China 1949-1979, edited by Bonnie S. McDougall, 144-164. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

[1] Mao Tse-Tung, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1962), 2.

[2] Chiang Ching, On the Revolution of Peking Opera (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1968), 3.

[3] Chiang Ching, “Talk of Comrade Chiang Ch’ing,” In Talk at the Peking Forum on Literature and Art, ed. Juan Fajardo. (accessed 30 November 2015).

[4] Barbara Mittler, A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture, (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012), 48.

[5] Merle Goldman, China’s intellectuals: Advise And Dissent, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 157.

[6] Anchee Min, Red Azalea (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), 17.

[7] Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 81.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] Paul Clark, “Model Theatrical Works and the Remodelling of the Cultural Revolution,” In Art In Turmoil, ed. Richard King (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 167.

[10] Ibid., 180.

[11] Ibid., 182.

[12] Ibid., 175.

[13] Xiaomei Chen, Acting The Right Part (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), 73.

[14] Goldman, 83.

[15] Bell Yung, “Model Opera as Model: From Shajiabang to Sagabong,” in Popular Chinese Literature and Performing Arts, ed. Bonnie S. Mcdougall (London: University of California Press, 1984), 146-147.

[16] Goldman, 80.

[17] Chen, 107.

[18] Clark, 2010, 185.

[19] Ibid., 185.

[20] Ibid., 170.

[21] Ibid., 179.

[22] Jeremy Shephard, “Model Opera Fed Propaganda Machine; Pointed Political Lessons Made During China’s Cultural Revolution.” North Shore News, July 12, 2013. (accessed 22 November 2015).

[23] Clark, 2010, 180.

[24] Ibid., 184.

[25] Mittler, 49.