Revolutionary Operas and Ballets
In a letter of 9th January, 1944, to the pingju (Ping Opera) theatre at
Yan'an, the political capital of the Chinese Communist Party before the Revolution,
Mao Zedong mentioned the importance of reversing the trend of traditional Chinese
operas, where, for obvious reasons, there was little room for the lower ranks
of society. This attitude epitomized the philosophy of the Chinese Communist
Party towards stage art, manifested in particular during the period of the Cultural
Revolution between 1966 and 1976. During this period, Mao Zedong's wife Jiang
Qing, a former actress from Shanghai who had become heavily involved in politics,
chose six revolutionary Peking operas and two ballets to serve as yangban (models)
for the three thousand performing stage groups of the country. The six revolutionary
operas are: Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, The Red Lantern, Shajiabang,
Attacking the White Tiger Society, Harbour and The Cuckoo Mountain, while the
two revolutionary ballets are The White-haired Girl and The Red Detachment of
Women. These were considered models for the Chinese stage, proletarian revolution
and the three elements of the Cultural Revolution, struggle, criticism and rehabilitation.
Works in the same style soon appeared. These included In Praise of the Yimeng
and In Praise of the Longjiang. An additional motive in their creation was also
the possible elimination of political rivals connected with the Party Secretary
of Beijing city, including Zhou Vang, Qi Vanming, Xia Van, Lin Mohan, Tian Han
and Zhang Geng, who were labelled 'anti-revolutionary', because of their support
for traditional Peking opera.
It was the
desire of Jiang Qing to produce Peking operas that might have the desired
effect in as short a time as possible, and this inevitably involved large teams
of script-writers, musicians and artists. Jiang Qing's advice was to attempt
first works on a smaller scale and later expand them to larger forms. She also
saw the possibility of borrowing material from existing operas and pointed out
that singing and acting styles ought to be in accordance with those of
traditional Peking opera, with no concession to the individuality of the
performer, no matter how famous. One element she realised must be overcome,
namely the portrayal of the villain, who may often appeal to the public through
a display of martial arts and in exaggerated stage make-up. She praised in
particular the Shanghai Peking Opera Company in its revision of Taking Tiger
Mountain by Strategy, in which scenes involving the villain were cut in order
to stress the qualities of the good characters.
It has been
said that the Cultural Revolution began with the revolution in Peking opera.
The Red Lantern played a significant part in the opening phase of the movement,
praised officially by the authorities as 'a high quality modern Peking opera'
after its first performance in Beijing in 1964 and subsequent revised
performances in Shanghai and Guangdong in the following year, after which it
was taken as a model for all varieties of regional Chinese operas. It was the
most frequently performed of all these works between 1964 and 1966.
In Praise of Longjiang
The revolutionary Peking opera in Praise of Longjiang was the collective
effort of the Shanghai Drama Group. It was arranged from a drama of the same
title by Jiang Wen, Chen Shu and others. The drama received an outstanding award
from the Chinese Cultural Ministry in the year of its first performance, 1963.
is in every possible way conceived according to the doctringes laid down by the
great promoter of the genre, Jiang Qing. Dramatically, the heroine Jiang
Shuiying is built up according to the rule of "three levels of highlighting",
that is, the building up of good characters among a large number of characters,
the building up of the hero or heroine among the good characters, and the
highlighting of the main hero or heroine among heroes and heroines. This is
principally achieved by setting different levels of conflict around Jiang Shuiying.
At one level, she is in confrontation with Li Zhitian, a committee member of
the Longjiang Communist branch who has an image of individualism, owing to his
refusal to allow the water much needed in the drought area to go through the
three hundred acres of fertile land under his supervision. She is also in
conflict with Huang Guozhong, a member of the anti-drought team who tried to
prevent the damming of the river, an obvious enough common enemy. Last but not
least, she identifies Chang Fu, a team-member with a middle class background,
as a capitalist recidivist. Each of the villains creates a contrast with the
heroine, who represents the best of Communism at work.
of the opera is in the second scene, which is entitled "Sacrifice the
Small to Save the Large". Li Zhitian has to face the dilemma of having to give
up his ambition of high productivity and an extra reward if Jiang Shuiying goes
ahead with her plan of diverting the Jiulong River to end the drought over the
large area of agricultural land near the southern coast of Fujian. The heated dialogue
leads very naturally to the famous words of Chairman Mao "Never forget
about class struggles". The symphonic suite concentrates attention on heroes
rather than villains
The period is some time in the 1960s. It is spring. Along the southeast
coast there is a severe drought and the district committee decides to dam the
river beyond the Longjiang embankment. The party secretary Jiang Shuiying calls
on the mass of the people for sacrifices and insists on carrying out the committee's
decision, giving up three hundred acres of good farmland, giving up part-time
income and allowing three thousand acres of open country to be flooded. By bringing
water to the area suffering from drought, she inspires self-sacrifice and saves
ninety thousand acres of affected land. She composes a song of triumph, praising
public spirit and heroism in fighting the elements.
Opera Symphonic Suite
1. Overture: Committee members sing together "The way forward shines
brightly", a work-song.
The way forward shines brightly over Longjiang. Everyone sings loudly the
song celebrating the great leap forward: people and committee are like the rising
sun: for the revolution we plough in order to be strong.
2. Jiang Shuiying sings "People's thoughts are changed, the appearance
of the earth is changed".
Jiang Shuiying accepts the order of the committee and saves ninety thousand
acres of good land. The Longjiang is to be dammed and the drought brought to
an end. She is disturbed because there is a conflict between private and public
interest, but in this battle the people's ideas and the land itself must change.
3. In a duet Jiang Shuiying and Li Zhitian sing "Hundreds of flowers
blossom; spring fills the garden."
The leader Li Zhitian shows signs of hesitation when he learns that three
hundred acres of good farmland are to be flooded. Jiang Shuiying tries her best
to persuade him, adducing in her support all the facts and reasoning. One flower
can only make one spot to red colour: when hundreds of flowers bloom, spring
will fill the garden. Today one area of fertile land is sacrificed, but in exchange
there will be a good harvest from ninety thousand acres.
4. Intermezzo: A Lin sings "Let youth shine in the radiance of the
The youth commando unit is working hard to dam the river. The unit leader
A Lin sings of the burden of heroic leadership. Not hesitating as a pioneer,
let youth shine in the radiance of the revolution.
5. Xiaohong pours water.
During the work little Xiaohong wants to drink water, but when Jiang Shuiying
fetches a bowl of water for her, she just holds the bowl and stares at it. Jiang
Shuiying asks her why she does not drink, and she answers with the words of
her grandmother that a bowl of water can save sever al seedlings.
6. Jiang Shuiying sings with the people "Change Longjiang to spring
Jiang Shuiying is deeply moved when she sees the enthusiasm of the people
in tackling the drought. She is determined and orders the flowing water of the
Longjiang to grow wings and fly beyond the mountain, changing the Longjiang
to spring rain to irrigate the whole region and end the drought.
7. Jiang Shuiying sings "Look at Beijing: my strength grows."
Jiang Shuiying inspects the embankment at night. She looks up to the stars
and becomes very agitated: tonight is the critical battle: currents are to be
conquered and one must beware of hidden rocks. When I look at Beijing, my strength
grows and the great passion of revolution fills my heart. Whatever the difficulties,
the Longjiang must be dammed.
8. Dragon Dance music is for fighting danger.
The music depicts the people fighting heaven and fighting water. With Jiang
Shuiying the people try to divert the waters of the Longjiang. With their own
bodies they make a wall and succeed in chaining the nine dragons and diverting
9. Jiang Shuiying sings "A ray of red sunlight shines on his heart."
Holding the precious book, the heart is warm: a ray of red sunlight shines
on it. Never doing good for oneself, private thoughts should be destroyed. Only
doing good to others, the people come first. Jiang Shuiying is inspired by the
writing of Chairman Mao and continues to sacrifice herself for the good of the
10. "Chairman Mao showers the earth with sunshine and rain."
The song is concerned with old and new societies, the contrast between the
11. Jiang Shuiying sings "Fighting for one's whole life to bring freedom
to the people."
The song urges the leader Li Zhitian to learn responsibility. She asks how,
if one cannot stand firm in this little storm, one can bring freedom to the
12. Jiang Shuiying sings "Let the red flags of revolution fly everywhere."
Li Zhitian is ashamed when he understands the danger of thinking of oneself.
Jiang Shuiying encourages him to hold up his head and look up the water future:
storms and clouds should be put aside and the red flags of revolution should
13. The suite ends with a triumph song, celebrating the new harvest.
Damming the Longjiang has put an end to the drought. Ninety thousand acres
of good farm-land have been irrigated and the people are united. Three thousand
acres have given a fine harvest for the village and the people celebrate with
a triumph song that shakes the earth.