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6— Popular Culture in the Communist Areas
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The Village Drama Movement

The Communist drama movement in the Yan'an era was in many ways distinct and ingenious not because it created new types of dramatic forms, but because it rejuvenated the old, infusing them with new ideas. For the Communists, the stage was an ideal political platform from which to enlighten the masses, and spoken drama was a powerful agent for socialization. These new dramas revealed the profound transformation of ideology, attitudes, and beliefs that had occurred in the Red areas. Through their widespread influence and subtle mix of symbolic idiom and stark realism, a new peasant political culture was created.


When Edgar Snow made his historic trip to the blockaded Communist area in Shaanxi in 1936, he witnessed a unique drama movement still in the process of developing:

People were already moving down toward the open-air stage, improvised from an old temple, when I set out with the young official who had invited me to the Red Theatre….

Across the stage was a big pink curtain of silk, with the words, "People's Anti-Japanese Dramatic Society," in Chinese characters…. The programme was to last three hours….

The first playlet here was called Invasion. It opens in a Manchurian village, in 1931, with the Japanese arriving and driving out the "non-resisting" Chinese soldiers. In the second scene, Japanese officers banquet in a peasant's home, using Chinese men for chairs, and drunkenly making love to their wives…. In the end, of course, all this proves too much for the villagers. Merchants turn over their stands and umbrellas, farmers rush forth with their spears, women and children come with their knives, and all swear to "fight to the death" against the Erhpen-kuei [Riben gui ]—the "Japanese devils." …

Another unique and amusing number was called the "United Front Dance," which interpreted the mobilization of China to resist Japan….

What surprised me about these dramatic clubs, however, was not that they offered anything of artistic importance to the world … but that, equipped with so little, they were able to meet a genuine social need. They had the scantiest properties and costumes, yet with these primitive materials they managed to produce the authentic illusion of drama. The players received only their food and clothing and small living allowances, but they studied every day, like all Communists, and they believed themselves to be working for China and the Chinese people….

The Reds write nearly all their own plays and songs…. There is no more powerful weapon of propaganda in the Communist movement than the Reds' dramatic troupes, and none more subtly manipulated.[4]

Snow was sympathetic to the Communist drama movement. But it was a performing art still in its infancy. It soon developed into a full-scale and mature force laden with peasant idealism, though frequently couched in patriotic language.

Contrary to Snow's claim that "the Reds wrote nearly all their own plays," famous pieces such as Cao Yu's Thunderstorm, Ouyang Yuqian's The Death of Li Xiucheng (Li Xiucheng zhi si), and foreign


works like Gogol's The Inspector General and Ostrovsky's The Storm dominated the early theater in Yan'an and the other border areas.[5] The staging of these plays—dubbed "big plays" (daxi) or "famous plays" (mingxi) by critics, often with a disparaging tone[6] —stemmed partly from the shortage of scripts and partly from a fascination with accomplished works. It seemed natural and practical for those dramatists who had just arrived in Yan'an (for example, Cui Wei and Zhang Geng, both of whom came to the Red capital in 1938) to stage familiar pieces rather than to attempt something from scratch at short notice. Putting on a new play was both time-consuming and full of uncertainties. Nevertheless, Communist dramatists soon found that although these well-known pieces were popular with the cadres, they produced little resonance among the peasants. With soldiers and peasants "doz[ing] off in the middle of a famous play," as one critic observed,[7] city-oriented works came increasingly under fire. Artistic merit was not at issue; rather, political questions were now paramount. "These plays were completely divorced from reality," Zhang Geng later recalled.[8] Spending large sums of money on majestic and imposing sets in this barren and poverty-stricken land, another critic charged, was extravagant and nothing more than an ostentatious ploy on the part of the dramatists to show off their talent.[9]

Putting on an urban-oriented or foreign play became even more controversial with the launching of the Rectification Campaign in early 1942, a thought-remolding push directed against party cadres and intellectuals that subsequently established Mao Zedong's ideological preeminence in the CCP. Mao's decision to build a new China with the Shaan-Gan-Ning (Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia) Border Region (which centered on Yan'an) as his testing ground implied sweeping changes in all aspects of Chinese life. Old ideas, he proclaimed, should be discarded and new ones introduced. Thorough reform was possible only with a correct political viewpoint and careful implementation of the "mass line." As is now well understood, Mao's rural background and the realities of the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region allowed him to emphasize the peasantry. His concept of the mass line, however, was more than a class notion; it was a romantic belief in the masses (especially peasants) as the font of virtue and struggle. In comparison with Lenin and Stalin, Mao attributed to the masses a more critical role in fostering revolution and changing history. The CCP could not exist without learning from the masses, he said. In his famous directive of June 1943, Mao explicitly stated: "All correct leadership is necessarily from the masses, to the masses."[10] Intellectuals should learn from and


become members of the masses through self-criticism and thought reform.

For Mao and his associates, a "big" or "famous play" production was more than a display of artistic arrogance: it was a sign of political insensitivity toward the needs of the people. Might "big plays" help to raise the standard of Communist dramas? Perhaps, but as Zhang Geng argued, one must never be divorced from the masses merely for the sake of raising the standards of drama. "We understand too little about China," he wrote in August 1942. "What we need to understand now is the life of the workers and peasants."[11] Besides being a misplaced exercise in elitism, an "imported" production could also be interpreted as casting doubts on the ability of homegrown talent, definitely an insult to the wisdom of the folk.

The harsh criticisms against urban and foreign plays resulted in few, if any, of them being performed in Yan'an after 1942.[12] General Nie Rongzhen (1899–1992), commander of the Jin-Cha-Ji (Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei) Border Region, perhaps detecting that the pendulum had swung too far, aired a rare difference of opinion in August 1942. While admitting that drama should be "popularized" to serve the people, Nie nevertheless insisted that "putting on a great foreign play like Gorky's Mother once a year can certainly raise our artistic standards."[13] But Nie's voice belonged to the minority. The bone of contention now was not whether or not Gorky and Ostrovsky were great, conscientious writers; the mere fact that they were foreigners was enough to raise eyebrows among nationalistic drama critics in the Communist areas.

This controversy over foreign plays must be viewed within a wider perspective. For it was not simply a debate over the value of foreign literary forms. Rather, it reflected Mao's attempt to undermine the influence of Wang Ming and the International Faction, known commonly as the "returned Bolsheviks." Wang, namely, following Stalin's instruction, favored a resistance policy centering on the Guomindang, while Mao advocated a more independent line for the Chinese Communists, and hence avoidance of further subordination to the will of Moscow.[14]

The dispute over foreign plays also reflected Mao's drive to forge a new revolutionary experience based squarely on Chinese soil, which necessarily included the sinification of foreign ideas in general and Marxism in particular. In a report to the Sixth Plenum of the Sixth Central Committee in November 1938, Mao wrote:


There is no such thing as abstract Marxism, but only concrete Marxism. What we call concrete Marxism is Marxism that has taken on a national form, that is, Marxism applied to the concrete struggle in the concrete conditions prevailing in China, and not Marxism abstractly used…. Consequently, the Sinification of Marxism—that is to say, making certain that in all of its manifestations it is imbued with Chinese peculiarities, using it according to these peculiarities—becomes a problem that must be understood and solved by the whole Party without delay…. We must put an end to writing eight-legged essays on foreign models; there must be less repeating of empty and abstract refrains; we must discard our dogmatism and replace it by a new and vital Chinese style and manner, pleasing to the eye and to the ear of the Chinese common people.[15]

As a Communist, Mao fully endorsed the need for international class struggle. Yet China and the interests of the Chinese people remained his top priority. Internationalism and patriotism were not in conflict, he told Agnes Smedley in 1937, "for only China's independence and liberation will make it possible to participate in the world Communist movement."[16] The sinification of Marxism was thus more than the simple adaptation of a foreign political ideal to meet China's needs; it was also a definite manifestation of nationalism. For Mao, the sinification of Marxism was a defense against decadent Western bourgeois ideas, on the one hand, and a reassertion of national pride, on the other hand. The great tradition of China's past and the nation's bitter experience in the previous hundred years, he noted, should be brought to bear in the current struggle against imperialism. Hence, at the core of the Maoist-style socialist revolution lay not only the mass line, but also nationalism. In practice, nationalism often overrode Communist ideology when it came to making political or artistic decisions. Mao, of course, maintained that there was no inherent contradiction between the universality of Marxism as a political doctrine and China's peculiarities; indeed, their union was a sine qua non for a successful socialist revolution in China. The Yan'an experience led him to believe that the two blended well together.

The debate over foreign plays also underscored the desire of dramatists and party officials to find the artistic style best suited to the rural environment. In 1943, the Communist writer Zhou Libo (1908–1979) charged that students in Yan'an were drawn excessively to foreign classics, to the extent that some dramatists were captivated even by "the eyelashes of Anna Karenina"—an ominous sign of what he called


"book poisoning."[17] Zhang Geng voiced a similar concern. He warned against "blindly adopting foreign methods," pointing specifically to the Stanislavsky System, a drama training method popular among urban Chinese dramatists in the 1930s that emphasized every detail of speech and gesture and the actor's profound psychological characterization.[18] Following Western styles, Zhang cautioned, would mean falling victim to "foreign dogmatism" (yang jiaotiao) and ignoring China's harsh rural realities.[19] Of course Zhang, an early participant in the left-wing drama movement of the early 1930s and a member of the drama propaganda troupe in 1937, did not belittle the contribution of the legendary founder of the Moscow Art Theater. He did, however, believe that Chinese dramatists, rather than imitating a foreign model, should create their own style to address problems in the countryside.

Although Communist playwrights agreed that a new kind of drama was necessary, few in 1937 had a clear idea of what it should be. Yet they wasted no time in looking for a new formula that would meet rural needs. To be sure, the search was not a new undertaking; the CCP had been involved in the field of drama since the mid-1920s when Mao turned his eyes away from the city to look for revolutionary change in the countryside. Realizing the potential to reach a wide audience, the Communists intended to turn the theater not just into an entertainment center, but into a lecture hall. By 1938, therefore, a fledgling village drama movement was already in evidence in north China.

The founding of the Lu Xun Academy of Art (Lu Xun yishu xueyuan; commonly known as "Luyi") on 10 April 1938 marked a turning point in the Communist drama movement. Headed by the dramatist Sha Kefu (1905–1961), Luyi comprised four departments: literature, music, art, and drama. With Zhang Geng as the director of the drama section and experienced teachers like Cui Wei as instructors, the academy (which became known as "the art center of the northwest")[20] immediately emerged not only as the cradle of experimentation in art, but also as the headquarters of a full-scale drama campaign. A year later it was followed by the establishment of the All-China Resistance Association of Dramatists, Border Region Branch (Zhonghua xijujie kangdi xiehui bianqu fenhui) and other regional drama associations.[21]

Early Yan'an dramas brimmed with patriotic fervor. Even urban-centered productions or foreign pieces were often staged with an unmistakable intention of unifying people to resist foreign aggression.


When the Northwest Front Service Corps (Xibei zhandi fuwutuan), organized by the writer Ding Ling in 1937, traversed remote villages to spread the news about the war, it brought along emotion-charged short plays like "Joining the Guerrilla Forces" and "Arresting Traitors."[22] The same was true of the famous Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region Popular Drama Troupe (Bianqu minzhong jutuan). The troupe, founded in 1938 and headed by the poet Ke Zhongping (1902–1964), spent a lengthy period traveling through numerous counties to spread patriotic news, earning the endeavor the accolade of a "Small Long March."[23] From the beginning, however, it was clear that the Communists were not content merely to wage an anti-Japanese campaign. The proletarian cause was never far below the surface of the resistance battle. According to Mao and his associates, for a revolutionary struggle to be truly meaningful, it must embrace a larger cause. China needed profound social and political transformation if feudalism and imperialism—the twin evils that Mao believed under-lay the nation's problems—were to be vanquished. And this transformation must start with the countryside, where the majority of Chinese lived and where the sufferings of the people were most acutely felt.

Chinese Communist leaders firmly believed that the creation of a unified ideology required systematic coordination and careful planning from the top down. Even before Mao's famous "Yan'an Talks" of 1942, therefore, the Communists took steps to facilitate dramatic activities in the villages. Besides Luyi, they set up several regional art training centers to provide basic lessons to local cadres and artists (many of these also commemorated Lu Xun, the preeminent Chinese writer and a strong advocate of the leftist cause in his final years).[24] Well-reputed drama clubs such as the Northwest Front Service Corps and Mt. Taihang Drama Club (Taihangshan jutuan) organized rural cadre training classes, teaching peasant activists and theater enthusiasts basic directing, makeup, and singing techniques, thereby producing scores of trained or semitrained personnel for grass-roots activities.[25] "Model drama troupes" were simultaneously established in different border areas, charged with the task of teaching the peasants performing techniques, helping the village drama clubs to train directors and actors, and supervising their performances.[26] In addition, dozens of special teams were created to print basic drama materials for distribution throughout the border regions. The results were remarkable: in the Mt. Taihang Region, for example, more than 100 village drama clubs had been organized by the summer of 1940;


in Central Hebei, 1,700 by 1942; and in Beiyue (western Hebei and northeastern Shanxi), 1,400 by the same year.[27]

The numbers can be deceiving, however. The majority of the newly founded drama clubs were loosely organized, and many were relatively short-lived, lacking the managerial skills and firm ideological commitment required to sustain themselves. Worse still, as Sha Kefu pointed out, "the direction [of the drama movement] was unclear…. There was no mention of reforming art on the original basis of the peasants' tradition, and some cadres still retained a condescending attitude toward traditional folk artists and their crafts."[28] Although cadres and intellectuals were encouraged to go the villages to make contact with the peasants, many never took the assignment seriously. "[The assignment] was treated as if they were just 'taking a bath' [xigezao ]," lamented one critic.[29] Direction finally came from the top in 1942, when the CCP took on the role of arbiter of the arts.

As is now well known, in his historic "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art" in May 1942—part of the newly initiated Rectification Campaign—Mao stated explicitly and forcefully the basic party canon for literature and art. The Party was to oversee all cultural activities, and literature and art should unswervingly serve revolutionary causes. It was the task of writers and artists, Mao pronounced, simultaneously to "popularize" their products and "raise the standards" of the people. Although Mao's specific concern was with political issues, his "Talks" were all-embracing and stipulated a new direction for all kinds of literature and art, popular culture included. Mao called on intellectuals and cadres to serve the interests of "the broadest masses," to present their ideas in simple language comprehensible to all, to praise the bright side rather than to expose the dark facets of socialist reality, and to go to the countryside "to observe, experience, and study." He continued:

Our specialists in drama should pay attention to the small troupes in the army and the villages. Our specialists in music should pay attention to the songs of the masses. Our specialists in the fine arts should pay attention to the fine arts of the masses. All these comrades should make close contact with comrades engaged in the work of popularizing literature and art among the masses.[30]

Mao's "Talks" effectively consolidated the CCP's ideological ground and provided guidance to intellectuals and party cadres embroiled in heated debates over literary policy. Studying Chairman Mao's


"Talks," one dramatist recalled years later, was "like a sick person suddenly discovering the right medicine."[31] Although the "Yan'an Talks" reached different border areas at different times and were not officially published until 19 October 1943,[32] they nevertheless had a profound impact on the course and nature of the rural drama movement. Perhaps no effect was more visible than the renaissance of the traditional yangge.

Yangge (rice-sprout songs) was a song-and-dance form of folk entertainment from north China. Performed during the lunar New Year in villages and cities alike, it was beloved by all the people. Although yangge dances varied from place to place—the northern Shaanxi version, for instance, was performed with considerable rhythmic freedom, whereas the Jin-Cha-Ji type was more rhythmically controlled[33] —each generally involved a troupe of twenty to thirty male performers, with men playing women's roles. Led by an actor known as santou (the umbrella), who in fact did carry an umbrella to guide the troupe's movement, performers, sometimes in pairs, twisted and danced according to a set of prescribed steps accompanied by drums and gongs. Clowning was also an integral part of the dance. One of the most popular folk entertainments, yangge dances were always tumultuously received by the audience. Colorful and gaudy costumes made the procession exceptionally attractive, and erotic moves and flirtation during a dance often drew resounding applause.[34]

A long history notwithstanding, yangge were not widely known to the Chinese intellectual world until the Mass Education Movement headed by James Yen made a serious effort to collect them in Dingxian, Hebei in the mid-1920s. The Dingxian researchers, motivated as they were by their anti-illiteracy campaign, discovered that these well-liked yangge dances and plays, an orally transmitted art, if carefully reformed could be an ideal tool to promote education. A valuable collection of yangge plays entitled Dingxian yangge xuan (Dingxian Plantation Songs) was published in 1933 to record their findings.[35]

Inspired in part by the Dingxian reformers, years later the Communists in Yan'an turned this popular folk art into a political and social medium to promote socialism.[36] A certain folk artist, Liu Zhiren, is said to have been the first in Shaanxi to incorporate political content into the old yangge as early as 1937,[37] but systematic yangge reform did not occur until 1943, when Luyi began to experiment with a series of new yangge plays.[38] Needless to say, the new type of yangge that would soon emerge was radically different from its predecessor.

In sharp contrast to what the Communists repudiated as old-


fashioned and harmful "flattery yangge " (saoqing dizhu), which focused on deplorable servility to landlords, a new type of "struggle yangge " (douzheng yangge) emerged,[39] aimed, as one writer asserted, "at reshaping the mind of the people."[40] Marked changes were made: the troupe leader's umbrella was replaced by a sickle and a hatchet, symbolizing the dawning of a new age; the clowns and clowning acts were discarded because, the critics maintained, they defiled the image of the common people; erotic gestures and love dances were likewise eradicated in favor of heroic stories of unstinting patriotic service to the nation. In the popular Brother and Sister Clear Wasteland (Xiongmei kaihuang), a play that commends tireless production and cherishes the spirit of cooperation, the original cast of husband and wife was changed to brother and sister—to avoid, said Zhang Geng, presenting "a wrongful image of flirtation."[41]

Yangge plays appeared in abundance in 1943 and 1944, a time when the resistance war was suffering a stalemate. Although there was no dearth of anti-Japanese struggle in the new yangge plays, the emphasis had shifted to something quite different: building a new society with a new political philosophy. Besides two old mainstays—glorifying production and condemning the oppression of the landlords—Communist yangge plays manufactured a host of new themes to paint a bright society bursting with energy and joy: sexual equality (Twelve Sickles [Shi'erba liandao ]); female model workers (A Red Flower [Yiduo honghua ]); anti-illiteracy campaigns (Husband and Wife Learn to Read [Fuqi shizi ]); the founding of the new peasant associations (Qin Luozheng); local elections: an indication of democracy at work at the grass-roots level (A Red Flower); rural hygiene (An Old Midwife Enters the Training Class [Laoniangpo zhu xunlian ]); the harmonious relationship between the Red Army and the people (Niu Yonggui Is Wounded [Niu Yonggui guacai ]); and the correct leadership of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party (An Honor Lamp [Guangrong deng ]).[42]

At the same time, a wealth of rich symbols—like the sickle and the bright lamp—were carefully incorporated into the plays to create striking new perceptions. Colloquial language was used, and the inclusion of popular tunes drawn from Meihu (the local opera of Shaanxi) provided a familiar indigenous flavor. The plays' ever-present optimism helped to portray the border region, though backward and impoverished, as a society full of promise and vigor. Indeed, the fact that the majority of these new yangge plays (such as Ma Ke's [1918–1976] Husband and Wife Learn to Read) drew inspiration from local culture


made them all the more significant: it showed that Mao's "learning from the masses" campaign was yielding political fruits.

To add authenticity, many new pieces relied heavily on actual events. Zhong Wancai Starting from Scratch (Zhong Wancai qijia) is a case in point. Zhong Wancai, a native of northern Shaanxi, was a sluggard and an opium addict—a type of social outcast known in the border areas as erliuzi (a bum). But thanks to the unceasing persuasion of the party cadres, Zhong finally gave up opium and became a model worker. He even earned himself the title of propaganda chief in the county, teaching others how to increase their food production. The dramatic turnaround of Zhong Wancai was singled out for praise by the Party as one of many similar success stories under the new government.[43] Zhou Yang (1908–1989), the cultural commissar, proudly declared that in this new society "people are no longer being treated as clowns. They are emperors!"[44]

While the Communist dramatists painted a rosy picture of the border region, they were unrelenting in their denunciations of the Guomindang government. As relations between the CCP and the GMD deteriorated during the last phase of the war, scathing attacks against Jiang Jieshi became increasingly common in the yangge plays. In An Honor Lamp, for example, Jiang is openly referred to as "a traitor, who sold China to American financial cliques."

This burst of creativity stemmed largely from the CCP's strong endorsement of the yangge form and from efforts made by such touring drama troupes as Luyi's Work Team (Luyi gongzuotuan), headed by Zhang Geng.[45] By 1944, numerous yangge troupes had sprung up. In two northern Jiangsu counties (Maji and Jiaoxiang) in central China alone, for instance, more than thirty female teams emerged.[46] Three yangge plays—Brother and Sister Clear Wasteland, A Red Flower, and Niu Yonggui Is Wounded —were even staged in Chongqing in the spring of 1945 under the auspices of the New China Daily.[47]

The Communist village drama movement, however, involved more than just the production of yangge plays. Based on yangge and utilizing Western operatic techniques, a new type of drama known as "new opera" (xingeju) emerged. The phenomenal success of The White-haired Girl (Baimaoniü, 1945)—the story of a servant girl who, after being forced by a tyrannical landlord to flee to the mountains where her hair turns white, returns to take her revenge with the help of the Red Army—contributed to the popularity of this new opera type and reaffirmed Mao's notion of developing a new national form of art.


As in the Guomindang-controlled areas, traditional Beijing operas and regional dramas, their enduring popularity too obvious to be ignored, were revived and promoted as well. Beginning in the late 1930s, the Communists set up drama societies to remodel folk plays in the light of the current social and political struggle.[48] Perhaps the most famous effort was the Beijing Opera Study Society (Pingju yanjiuhui), established in Yan'an in October 1942 and having two major aims: "to propagate the resistance cause and to carry on a distinguished tradition." In the early 1940s, determined to overcome what it called "the outdated idea that Beijing opera has nothing to do with revolution,"[49] the society unleashed a series of reforms and infused the old dramatic form with new political content. Among others, two highly successful pieces appeared. Driven up Mt. Liang (Bi shang Liangshan, 1943), the first opera to emerge from this new endeavor, is based on a famous episode from Mao Zedong's own favorite. The Water Margin. It is a story about a military officer, Lin Chong, who, after being pursued by corrupt government agents, decides to join a group of bandit-heroes on Mt. Liang. The new opera, however, instead of focusing on Lin's personal adventure and individual heroism, praises the awesome force of the common people—for it is only when Lin Chong joins hands with the protesting masses that he is able to defeat the pursuing troops and begin a new life.[50] The second equally successful piece, Three Attacks at Zhu Mansion (San da Zhujiazhuang, 1944)—also based on a story from The Water Margin —describes the familiar theme of popular revenge against a landlord and the power of peasant uprisings.[51]

This outburst of drama activity in the Communist areas did not go unnoticed by the outside world. Gunther Stein, reporting for the Christian Science Monitor, was fascinated by yangge plays when he was allowed to visit this blockaded land in the spring of 1944. He reported enthusiastically: "Each time I saw [the play] performed I was under its spell like everybody around me…. A good yangko [yangge ] party goes on for hours with several shows, in a gay and happy community atmosphere such as I have never seen elsewhere in the Orient."[52] The artist Jack Chen was equally impressed by the seemingly exuberant spirit and the profusion of artistic productions in this border region.[53] And Huang Yanpei (1878–1965), one of the representatives of the People's Political Council who visited the Communist capital in early July 1945, lauded Three Attacks at Zhu Mansion, which he saw presented at Yan'an, as "a truly powerful weapon [in


winning the hearts and minds of the people]."[54] These observations, superficial though they are, reflect well the buoyant atmosphere of success and hope created by the Communists.

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6— Popular Culture in the Communist Areas
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