previous sub-section
6— Popular Culture in the Communist Areas
next sub-section

Creating a New Society

The notion of a new society undergoing thorough, exciting change and a land peopled by men and women pursuing a noble dream was reinforced by other popular culture forms. Many of these forms were brought to life through the familiar technique of "filling old bottles with new wine." Again, the Three-Character Classic was a favorite subject.

One of the earliest Communist Three-Character Classics to appear was a block-printed Workers and Peasants Three-Character Classic (Gong nong sanzi jing), issued in 1930 by the soviet government in Xingguo county, Jiangxi province. Instead of the familiar moral tone in the opening sentences in the Confucian version—"Men at their birth are naturally good/Their natures are much the same; their habits become widely different"—the new text, predictably, carries a strong political message from the outset:

In this world,
Human beings are the cleverest.
Among them,
Workers, peasants, and soldiers are the creators.[136]  

Perhaps inspired by the popularity of Lao Xiang's Anti-Japanese Three-Character Classic, the Communists in the Shaan-Gan-Ning Bor-


der Region also came out with a work bearing the same name in 1940. At first glance, it seems to be filled with the same anti-Japanese rhetoric and passion as Lao Xiang's; but closer scrutiny reveals the party line running strongly through the Communist Anti-Japanese Three-Character Classic. Glorifying the Chinese Communist Party in its unswerving struggle against the Japanese, the 180-line propaganda piece is a glowing encomium to Mao's correct and wise leadership, including his theory on "protracted war."[137]

The majority of the Communist Three-Character Classics were short, ranging from 130 to 260 lines. They became increasingly anti-Guomindang in tone after 1945 and seemed to inflame public feeling in the border regions. In 1944, the blind storyteller Han Qixiang turned the Anti-Japanese Three-Character Classic into a story. "It was warmly welcomed by listeners," he recalled later in his autobiography.[138]

The political intention of the Communist Three-Character Classics was obvious. So was that of street poetry. Inspired by traditional Chinese wall poems and the work of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), a Futurist turned socialist, Tian Jian and Ke Zhongping introduced a new kind of "street poetry" (jietoushi) in Yan'an in August 1938. According to Tian Jian, a street poem was "a short, popular, rhymed poem intended for propaganda and agitation purposes." Written on the wall or handed out on a sheet of paper, it had to be brief yet potent in meaning. It acted, said Tian, "like a bayonet on the battlefield." It was with this combatant spirit in mind that the two poets launched the first "Street Poetry Day" on 7 August 1938. "Instantly," as Tian recalled years later, "city walls and street corners were packed with street poems."[139]

As the name indicates, street poems were meant to encourage poets and writers to go to the streets, to merge art with reality. In Tian Jian's mind, a poet had to devote his pen to the service of the armed struggle against the Japanese and the capitalist system. His "A Volunteer" (1938) is a case in point:

Along Mt. Changbai [in Northeastern China],
Chinese sorghum thrives glowingly in the blood.
Amid wind and dust,
A volunteer soldier
Astride a horse passes through his hometown.
He has returned:
With an enemy's head
Dangling from his gun.[140]  


This poem carries powerful symbols and strength. Mt. Changbai, which fell into enemy hands in the early days of the Sino-Japanese War, evoked bitter memories in the minds of the Chinese; yet life and struggle, like the hardy sorghum, continued to flourish in the occupied northeastern China. A volunteer's valor and an enemy's defeat promised hope for the future. "A Volunteer" was one of the best street poems and, together with other equally passionate pieces, earned Tian Jian a reputation, in the words of the poet Wen Yiduo (1899–1946), as "the drummer of our age."[141]

The majority of street poems, however, were more direct in approach, devoid of the visual effect and rich symbols of Tian Jian's masterpiece. The following is an example:

A magpie cries on the branch,
A yellow dog wags its tail
With the arrival of the New Fourth Army,
People sing and hail.[142]  

In reality, then, street poems were propaganda slogans dressed in poetic form. To send street poetry to the people, Tian Jian formed poetry groups and called on others to "let art and the people merge together."[143]

But how could art and the people truly merge together? Should literary creation come from the people instead of from poets like Tian Jian and Ai Qing? Ai Qing, aware of this dilemma, answered the question this way: "New poets must come from the masses. What about us [intellectuals]? We are no more than a midwife."[144] As a writer who enthusiastically embraced the Maoist cause, Ai Qing seemed perfectly willing to play a subordinate role to the common people. But to many the idea of playing "midwife" was unpalatable, not to mention easier said than done. Intellectuals soon found that learning from the masses was a difficult and often frustrating experience.

If writing street poetry was still essentially an intellectual exercise, perhaps a better approach to learning from the masses, some argued, was to collect folk songs and the stories of folk artists. While the latter effort proved quite challenging, the gathering of folk songs turned out to be relatively unproblematic.

As was true with other forms of popular and folk culture, folk song collecting became a highly visible campaign in the Communist areas. Such an undertaking, of course, was by no means new, having been pursued in the early decades of the twentieth century by such intellectuals as Gu Jiegang and Liu Fu.[145] But here again, the Communists


sought to create an alternate mass culture based on a radical philosophy. Moreover, they paid special attention to local particularities. According to Jia Zhi, a veteran folklorist, interest in folk songs was evident during the Jiangxi Soviet era,[146] but systematic collecting did not begin until the Communists were fully in control several years later in northwest China. And understandably, interest only grew after Mao's "Talks."

Folk songs, already one of the most popular forms of folk entertainment, became a basic ingredient in many new yangge plays, as the appearance of the popular tune "Embroidering a Purse" ("Xiu hebao") in Zhong Wancai Starting from Scratch demonstrates. More important, the Communists now began to collect folk songs systematically and on a large scale. Tian Jian and Li Ji (1922–1980) were two particularly avid collectors. One product of their labors was a published compendium of folk songs acquired by Tian Jian in the Jin-Cha-Ji Border Region in 1945.[147] Li Ji's efforts were even more ambitious and successful. Li was particularly interested in a type of northern Shaanxi folk song known collectively as shuntianyou (literally, "follow-heaven-roam," also known as xintianyou), which, inspired by Mao's "Talks," he roamed the countryside to collect. "The more I collected," he exclaimed, "the more fascinated I became by them."[148]Shuntianyou, one of the three most popular two-sentence folk song types in northern China,[149] proved an ideal tool for the Communists to inculcate socialist passion, for by stringing the (generally rhymed) couplets together, the shuntianyou performer can spin a narrative story. It was with this narrative nature in mind that Li Ji wrote his famous long poem "Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang" (1945), based on the shuntianyou form.

"Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang" concerns the familiar confrontation between the avaricious landlord Second Master Cui and the poor peasant Wang Gui. It also tells of the romance between Wang and the peasant girl Li Xiangxiang, a well-loved theme in the Chinese folklore tradition. At the end of the story, Wang Gui, helped by the Communist guerrilla forces, defeats the evil landlord, and Wang and Li live happily ever after. Li Ji's poem received widespread attention, partly because of the many interesting twists and turns in the story and partly because of its heavy dose of revolutionary romance. What made Li Ji's composition unique, Guo Moruo rightly observed, was not his technique but his message. The poem was fraught with what Guo called "people's consciousness." "This is a piece that signals the 'turning over' [fanshen ] of literature and art."[150] Though Guo's comment had


a political focus, the true explanation for the popularity of "Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang" must be Li Ji's adroit use of the popular shuntianyou style of folk song. So impressed was Li Ji with shuntianyou, in fact, that he went on to publish a fine collection of them entitled Two Thousand Follow-heaven-roaming Songs (Shuntianyou er qian shou, 1950).

For Li Ji and his comrades, folk song collecting was more than an artistic exercise. It was overwhelmingly a social and political activity. Consider Selected Folk Songs of Northern Shaanxi (Shaanbei min'ge xuan), a famous collection compiled by the Luyi in 1945, for example. Though this compendium might seem to bear superficial resemblance to the earlier one initiated by Lu Fu and Gu Jiegang at Beijing University, He Qifang (1912–1977), a poet and the head of the literature department at Luyi, was quick to point out that the two differed substantially both in methods of collecting and in content, and hence had different results. He Qifang argued that while the earlier collection assembled mainly children's songs gathered from urban university students and high school teachers, the Yan'an project sent students to the remote countryside to collect genuine folk songs from farmers, porters, and peasant women. The songs were received, therefore, from the mouths of the people rather than through the memories of intellectuals. "They [the Luyi students] went down to the countryside in northern Shaanxi, established a friendly relationship with the people, lived with them…and listened to their songs [before they recorded them]."[151] For He, this project linked students and the folk together. To be scientific, the collectors were instructed to record exactly what they heard. The result was an uncommonly reliable record of folk songs of northern Shaanxi.[152] Nevertheless, despite the inclusion of some traditional love songs and erotic songs, or what the editors called "old folk songs," their emphasis was unmistakably on new examples.

The juxtaposition of old and new songs was intended, as the editors admitted, "to mirror past and present life in the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region."[153] Thus the collection bore a strong political stamp. Indeed, the contrasts between the old and the new are stirring. "Contracted Laborer's Song," for example, tells a painful story of the past:

A contracted laborer's life is full of bitterness,
Oh, what a painful life!
Beginning in January and ending in October,
My life is as hard as that of an ox or horse,
And my food is as bad as a pig's or a dog's.


Under a new government, however, the future holds enormous promise, as the first part of "The Four-Season Production Song" tells us:

Peach blossom blooms in spring.
A new government directive has just arrived:
Mobilize the masses for production!
Everyone is full of exhilaration.
Peasants labor hard and long,
Becoming model heroes and
Spreading their names.
Being showered with accolades and songs.

The folk song drive was later turned into a political attack against the Nationalists as the relations between the CCP and the GMD deteriorated after the war, with the Communists denouncing Jiang Jieshi for everything from operating a police state to bankrupting the nation's economy.[154]

The folk song collecting campaign in the Communist areas was important not so much for what it accomplished as for what it symbolized: a major commitment by intellectuals to go to the people and record their feelings and thoughts—an example of how Mao's "mass line" concept actually bore tangible results. This kind of commitment also spilled over into the storytelling campaign. But here it involved a different set of questions: How could traditional storytellers be brought into the Communist camp? Should their old repertoire be modified? What was the role of intellectuals vis-à-vis folk artists?

While intellectuals in the Guomindang-ruled territories used drum singing to fire patriotic passion, the Communists relied instead on storytelling. The value of this folk art form, which had a long and popular tradition in China,[155] was recognized officially at a meeting of Communist writers in Yan'an in September 1944.[156] As an instrument of propaganda, however, storytelling paled in comparison to yangge, for it was never as organized and well orchestrated by the Party. Yet it had a few distinct advantages. While yangge were performed only at festival times or in the New Year to celebrate the beginning of a new cycle, stories could be told anyplace and at any time. Moreover, whereas a yangge troupe required at least three to four and often twenty to thirty members to stage a show, storytellers could perform alone, traveling around the countryside to charm crowds with their individual talents. Finally, while a yangge performance necessitated extensive preparations and substantial props, a storyteller was normally accompanied by nothing more than a simple three-stringed plucked


instrument (sanxian). "To a certain extent," the writer Zhou Erfu (1914-) contended, "the simple nature of storytelling meets the needs of the common people far better than yangge. "[157]

The popularity and high mobility of storytelling made it an ideal tool for mass education. And the abundance of storytellers made it an even more effective means for reaching obscure corners of the countryside. A casual survey in northern Shaanxi in 1941 revealed that Yanchang and Yanchuan counties had more than ten storytellers each, while Suide topped the list with ninety.[158] Many of these performers were peripatetic blind singers who, armed with a broad repertoire of stories, made their living by bringing laughter and excitement to remote villages and towns where peasants otherwise endured a rather monotonous life. Before the Communists could make wide and thorough use of this popular folk art, however, they insisted on revamping it thoroughly, infusing it with new spirit and new content. For them, many traditional stories were filled with what they called "poisonous ideas," propagating harmful Confucian notions and encouraging fatalism. "Well-wishing Storytelling," (Ping'an shu), for example, preached superstition and servility. "They were active promoters of feudal thoughts," Zhou Erfu charged.[159]

The reform began in earnest after 1944. First storytelling training classes were set up to assemble folk artists. In 1945, a Storytelling Group (Shuoshu zu) was formed under the direction of the Cultural Federation of the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region. This group co-ordinated the reform movement, establishing a tie between the storytellers and the Party and serving as a school where socialist ideals and revolutionary thought could be transmitted to traditional storytellers. A series of recordings was also made to preserve this art.

Perhaps the most successful case to emerge from the reform was Han Qixiang (1915–1989), an illiterate and blind storyteller who became the most celebrated young folk artist in the border area. A man with a phenomenal memory, Han could recite with ease more than seventy stories and sing fifty different kinds of folk tunes.[160] In 1940, at the age of twenty-five, Han arrived in Yan'an from his native town of Hengshan in northern Shaanxi. The Communist revolution moved him deeply. Under the guidance of the Storytelling Group, Han abandoned his old repertoire and began to compose new stories, producing twenty-four between July 1944 and December 1945—more than 200,000 words.[161] Although storytelling was an oral tradition of collective creativity, Han was able to stamp his works with a distinctive, individual flavor. He based his stories partly on actual events and part-


ly on fiction, but optimism for a new socialist system knit them together as a coherent whole. Endowed with local flavor and full of propaganda rhetoric, Han's stories painted the picture of a backward border area vibrant with life and happiness. Among his many "new storytelling" works, "The Reunion of Liu Qiao" ("Liu Qiao tuanyuan," 1945) and "Zhang Yulan Participates in the Election" ("Zhang Yulan canjia xuanjuhui," 1946) are the most famous.

Based on a local Shaanxi drama, "The Reunion of Liu Qiao" tells of the hardworking, beautiful young woman Liu Qiao who, tricked by her avaricious father, breaks her arranged engagement with her impoverished fiancé, Zhao Zhu, whom she has never met. When her father forces her to marry a wicked, wealthy middle-aged shop owner instead, she escapes unscathed with the help of a friend. Later, Liu Qiao accidentally runs into her fiancé, now a labor hero, and realizes that she had been fooled by her father. Finally, with the help of the local Communist government, justice prevails. The young couple is happily reunited, and Liu's father repents and promises to start anew. The story comes to a happy end for everyone, concluding, just as it began, with an enlivening melody:

Plucking a three-stringed instrument hear my song,
I roam the countryside all year long.
Telling stories has an unmistakable objective:
Promoting culture and entertaining common folks.
Oh! Our border region is such a marvelous place,
Men ploughing and women weaving all day long.
Everyone is well clothed and properly fed,
Practicing democracy and celebrating new days.[162]  

While "The Reunion of Liu Qiao" condemns the feudal tradition of treating marriage as a business transaction, "Zhang Yulan Participates in the Election" emphasizes the right of women to take part in politics. Set in the northern Shaanxi area, this story portrays an old-fashioned, jealous husband, Feng Guangqing, who refuses to allow his politically active and strong-willed wife, Zhang Yulan, to attend political meetings held by the local Communist government. A stubborn man but without much confidence, he never hesitated to beat his wife to exert his traditional male authority. Undaunted, Zhang Yulan, instructed by Communism, firmly believes in the equality of the sexes. She not only takes part in meetings, but also speaks out against the wrongdoings of the county head, winning wide applause from the audience. Her husband is at first enraged by her "unruly" behavior but later admits his


own mistakes. This story, too, ends happily with the couple enthusiastically participating in the election meeting together. It concludes with the following ditty:

The border region is bursting with democracy and peace, Practicing democracy is for the sake of the people.[163]

If these stories appear crude and simplistic, their political messages are nevertheless direct and powerful. Both tell their listeners that the remarkable achievements in the remote, backward border areas were brought about by the selfless efforts of the Communists under the wise leadership of Chairman Mao. The Guomindang regime, by contrast, is condemned as insensitive to the needs of the people, corrupt, and incompetent. An old man vents his grievances during a political meeting in "Zhang Yulan Participates in the Election":

In 1942,
A terrible drought hit Hengshan.
The Guomindang demanded food and money,
Forcing our family to flee![164]

Han Qixiang also berated the Nationalist regime, dismissing it as oppressive and downright dishonest, in other works such as "A Current Affair" ("Shishi zhuan").[165] This harsh criticism of the Guomindang contrasted sharply with the unreserved praise he showered on the new Yan'an government.

Han Qixiang, of course, was not the only folk storyteller to be recruited and reformed by the Communists. Other well-known story-tellers included Yang Shengfu and Gao Yongchang. Each came out with his own version of praise for the arrival of the new social order.[166]

Communist officials encouraged intellectuals to help old storytellers like Han Qixiang immerse their work in the socialist ideal. In essence, intellectuals were asked to act as a bridge between the Party and the folk artists. At the same time, they were also advised to integrate with the masses. A number of writers (notably Lin Shan [1910-] and Gao Mindful [1905–1975]) were assigned to help Han Qixiang write his stories.[167] Gao Mindful played an important role in the shaping of "The Reunion of Liu Qiao," for instance, and he also assisted Yang Shengfu in editing that blind storyteller's works. Yet overall, the encounter of these two worlds was far from harmonious.[168] Although Gao Mindful said that he was pleased with his collaboration with Han Qixiang and believed there was a great future for what he described as "the close collaboration between intellectuals and folk artists,"[169] others were


less optimistic. Zhou Erfu was frank enough to admit that intellectuals approached old-style storytelling in two ways: either they belittled it as unworthy, or else they called outright for its abolishment.[170] The notion that peasants were hopelessly backward and notoriously superstitious country bumpkins prevailed among certain intellectuals; the fact that many storytellers were also fortune-tellers (Han Qixiang included)[171] only added fuel to the fire. At the beginning, in fact, Han was referred to by Communist cadres as "Mr. Fortune-Teller" ("Suanming xiansheng")—hardly a sign of respect.[172]

Conversely, folk artists were not entirely happy with the intrusion of outside intellectuals into their territory. For them, a Shanghai high-brow who knew nothing about rural China yet posed as an expert on local folk forms was unacceptable. Some, in fact, did not hesitate to offer a few suggestions to their urban mentors. One such case was Liu Zhiren, the yangge innovator and an early collaborator with intellectuals whom we met before. He made several recommendations for the yangge movement, including using youngsters to perform because "their movements are more supple and attract the viewer."[173] Ellen R. Judd, in her study of the subject, suggests that the conflict between folk artists and Communist intellectuals also stemmed from their different conceptions of art. While the former thrived on performance, the latter were more interested in the political content of the reformed text.[174] A fruitful collaboration required a thorough transformation on both parts, a process which would take years to accomplish.

While the elite-folk relationship was less than harmonious, the relationship between the government and folk artists was completely different, for it was built on neither collaboration nor willingness, but on obedience. Compliance became a test of one's loyalty and commitment to the Party. Disobedience was a crime that few dared to commit. The setting up of a Storytelling Group in 1945 by the Yan'an government was thus more than a means to facilitate artistic reform; it was a way to ensure the success of a socialist experiment with a popular folk art. As in the case of yangge plays, cartoons, and newspapers, the Communists believed that without supervision from the top, the reform of storytelling would go awry. The Party, especially after 1942, tolerated no public dissent from its followers.

previous sub-section
6— Popular Culture in the Communist Areas
next sub-section