Mao banned traditional Chinese opera and put on propaganda musicals instead. Now, according to a new film, they’re making a comeback, reports Geoffrey Macnab.
Like almost every art form, traditional opera was banned during China’s Cultural Revolution. To replace it, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, came up with the Yang Ban Xi operas: all-singing, all-dancing musicals with an uplifting communist message. The titles, such as Red Detachment of Women, On the Docks, The White Haired Girl and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, weren’t exactly catchy. Nor were the lyrics. “Today we who suffer will cast off our chains,” runs one anthem, while another well-known song offered: “He forces people to pay rent and charges high interest rates.” These operas were created between 1966 and 1976, each one full of workers, soldiers and slaves who were burning with revolutionary zeal.
The eight best-known Yang Ban Xi – known as the “Eight Model Works” – were also made into films, lavish spectacles shot in widescreen and eye-popping colour in an attempt to outdo the MGM musicals in scale and production values. The subject of new documentary, Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works, by a young-Dutch-based, Hong Kong-born film-maker, Yan Ting Yuen.
Yuen’s interviewees look back with the same cheery nostalgia which characterises the endless British TV shows about pop music and sitcoms of the 1970s. A man confesses that when he was an adolescent, he found Red Detachment of Women intensely erotic. “Women wore very little. You could see their legs.” Another interviewee says “the music was lovely.” Others describe the excitement they all felt when the films were projected at communal screenings on giant sheets in the countryside. “They’re engraved in my memory. We watched them as children. There was nothing else to see.”
Young and old alike seem fascinated by the Yang Ban Xi operas. When the operas are revived on stage today, both parents and their children flock to see them. Teenagers, Yuen says, regard them as “fun and campy – they look at the operas with so much irony. They like them but they laugh about them.”
Nonetheless, Yuen’s film can’t disguise the circumstances in which the operas were created. There is one telling interview with a beautiful former dancer who recalls how, when she was appearing in Red Detachment of Women, she was given fake eyebrows and told to put slices of apple in her cheeks so that the peasant she was playing would look sturdy and strong. (In truth, most peasants at the time were close to starvation.) Another leading light of the company tells the film-makers how he was arrested and locked up because he had the temerity to disagree with Jiang Quin, but he is not invited to go into further details.
Jiang, or “Madame Mao” as she was nicknamed, is the dark presence at the heart of the documentary. The film-makers include a voiceover narration which purports to be her speaking from beyond the grave. “I was Mao’s dog, his obedient dog. I knew they wouldn’t forget me,” we hear her croaking as the film begins. A tiny figure in a military uniform with a black coat, a cap and glasses, she can’t help but seem like a Chinese version of Rosa Klebb. Yuen points out that Jiang once had aspirations to be an actress. When she was growing up in Shanghai, she had seen many Hollywood movies and was desperate to emulate them.
So far the film has only been screened at the Sundance and the Rotterdam film festivals, but already it is proving highly contentious. Yuen’s sin, in the eyes of her critics, is that she has made a cheerful, upbeat film that skates over the horrors of one of the most tragic episodes in recent Chinese history. “The film is very offensive in the way it completely fabricates the history of the Cultural Revolution,” says critic Richard James Havis of the South China Morning Post. “There is hardly any attempt to contextualise. It’s like a film about Leni Riefenstahl which ignores the Nazis.”
The 37-year-old director was aware that she would face such criticisms, but she argues that her documentary simply reflects what the Chinese people themselves feel about the Eight Model Works. She adds that it would be absurd to dismiss or ignore the operas simply because western critics and historians feel embarrassed by them.
“When I got to China and started to research, I encountered so many people who had already left the past behind,” she says. “They don’t want to deny their history, but they can talk about it in a much more cheerful way than 99 out of 100 westerners would in the west, everything is good and bad, but in China, there are many more shades of grey.”
Yuen claims that some of her interviewees told her that the Cultural Revolution was “quite fun”. “OK, they didn’t like what happened to their fathers, but they were young and happy to be working on the land and 80% of the youth had a blast. It was the first time they left home, they were away from their parents and they believed in the revolution.” Such an assertion is belied by one startling sequence in the documentary. To counterpoint all the footage from the Eight Model Works, with their energy and demented optimism, she includes a montage of black and white stills. We see horrific images of show trials and of old men being taunted, humiliated and beaten. These are some of the 20,000 photographs taken by Li Zhensheng, a Chinese photographer who worked for a party-approved newspaper. After the Cultural Revolution, photographers were asked to hand in their pictures, but he hid his photographs under the floorboards of his house before eventually smuggling them west.
None the less, Yuen is not apologetic in the slightest about tackling a seismic moment in Chinese history with “a big, big wink”. “You just have to look at the Yang Ban Xis with irony,” Yuen insists. “It’s like with Leni Riefenstahl. She is completely taboo, but nobody denies that she made perfect, beautiful art.”