To be or not to be: Making and Unmaking the yangbanxi
University of Heidelberg
THIS IS A MANUSCRIPT IN PROGRESS
originally prepared for the 1998 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association
Seattle, Jan 8-11, 1998
PLEASE DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHOR's CONSENT!
The yangbanxi (model works) have for a decade monopolized China’s theatrical and musical stage. During the heights of the Cultural Revolution, each one of them would have been watched by every Chinese man, woman and child more than twice a year on average. Notwithstanding our esthetic or political judgment, they are an element in Chinese cultural history that cannot be—but often is—overlooked. It is undeniable that the yangbanxi have influenced the musical taste of the greater part of China’s population in the period since the Cultural Revolution. Repercussions can be traced in some of Wang Shuo’s most popular works and in China’s pop and rock music. They are also obvious in her serious music, as in Zhu Jian’er’s (*1922) First Symphony (1977-1986). More importantly, however, for the purpose of this paper, the history of the model works can be traced back to a time long before the Cultural Revolution as well. The comfortable presumption that the Cultural Revolution Mao launched officially in 1966, was simply a distorted and atypical phase of political extremism and forced mobilization, distinct from the years before and after that “unfortunate period,” is misleading, most certainly as concerns artistic production: already in the 1940s, and especially since Mao’s Yan’an Talks in 1942, Chinese traditional theatricals had been adapted to fit new ideological contexts, and long before the Cultural Revolution began, all the important theoretical principles underlying the model works had already been formulated. The history of most of the yangbanxi goes back many years to earlier attempts at “modernizing” Chinese culture. Indeed only a single one of them cannot be traced back to earlier artistic works. In the course of this paper, I will thus show that the yangbanxi were really much less the outcome of the Cultural Revolution, than its input. It is due to the difficulty of obtaining copies of the filmed versions of the model works that most scholarly writings have dealt with them in their socio-political context on a theoretical basis, or else, as texts. This paper is an attempt to delineate, in addition to these aspects, the artistic nature of one of the earliest and most influential yangbanxi on the basis of its 1970 film-version. The model opera Zhiqu weihushan, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” will be compared with some of its predecessors in order to uncover the “special” methods through which China’s government during (and before) the Cultural Revolution attempted to mold her citizens’ consciousness and thus to transform society. I will show, that the yangbanxi were everything else but the product of an iconoclastic, and xenophobic era: they were based in great parts on traditional Chinese as well as “Western” musico-dramatic heritage. I will also argue that the model works were fashioned in a way prescribing certain fixed meanings by multiplying them on all possible levels of the work, performative, musical, textual and theoretical. I will begin with a thumbnail-history of the “making of the yangbanxi” followed by a section “unmaking” or deconstructing the different levels of meaning in Zhiqu weihushan and some of its predecessors thereby making out the rules deciding the question of “to be or not to be” a yangbanxi.
1. Making the Yangbanxi
From 1949 to 1955, the Chinese government set up committees and agencies in Beijing and other centers throughout the country to oversee the ‘reform’ of Chinese opera. Many a traditional opera was transformed, according to the slogan “Gu wei jin yong, Yang wei Zhong yong” (“to wield through the old to create the new and through the Western to create a Chinese national art”). Traditional works were revised, mainly in plot, and new operas with contemporary, revolutionary themes were written. But as reforms were not unidirectional, the insecurity as to the concrete content of “healthy theater” led to a situation in which only very few new works were created, while many traditional works were temporarily discarded. This situation improved slightly during the Great Leap Forward (GLF) when opera production quotas were introduced: quite a number of the yangbanxi are indeed based on modern operas produced during this time. Nevertheless, the goal of achieving a ratio of 20-50% of operas on modern themes to be performed within three years, was never reached. It was during this time, too, that Mao gave out a directive to adhere to “revolutionary realism and romanticism,” to present life realistically but model-like (yangban, was a term used for the model fields introduced during the GLF) and “on a higher plane.” Still unhappy with artistic developments (or rather, the lack of them), Mao complained in the early 1960s, that China’s stage was dominated by “emperors, kings, generals, chancellors, literati and beauties.” He wanted opera to create proletarian heroic models who would “serve the (proletarian) masses” (wei renmin fuwu). That was to be the basic task, the genben renwu of all literature and art. Mao demanded a more rigid policy of destruction of the old in order to construct a new revolutionary and national art. Hence, his wife Jiang Qing began her crusade into dominating the artistic world in China. She took to revising a number of Beijing Operas on contemporary themes, the first two being Hong Dengji and Shajiabang in 1963. Her third project was Zhiqu weihushan (Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy) based on Qü Bo’s novel Linhai xueyuan (Tracks in the snowy forest) of 1957, her fourth Qixi baihutuan (Raid on the White Tiger Regiment). These four works were performed at an Opera Festival in Shanghai in the summer of 1964 (5.6.-31.7. 1964) and, already then, they were called model works, yangbanxi. This indeed led to angry remarks by Peng Zhen, the head of a group of five responsible for the coordination of cultural affairs, set up in the early 60s. He complained: “What the hell are these models? I’m the head of the arts in this place, and I know nothing of models.” He continued comparing Jiang Qing’s model works to “pure boiled water,” an accusation she readily retorted in saying: “Only when you have pure boiled water can you make tea and wine. No one can live without pure boiled water.”
At a forum of theatrical workers participating in the Shanghai Festival, Jiang Qing gave her first influential speeches on the Revolution of Beijing Opera. During the festival she also discovered a number of new operas to her liking which she started revising in 1964-65, Haigang (At the Port), her fifth model work among them. Her next project, another discovery from the festival, was the ballet Hongse niangzi jun (The Red Detachment of Women). In 1965, Jiang Qing initiated the reworking of Shajiabang into a symphony, the result of which was “hailed as a celebration of people’s war, that filled the concert hall with an unaccustomed ‘smell of gunpowder’.” And in 1966, Jiang Qing yet again turned to ballet. Baimaonü (The White-haired Girl), her eighth project, has perhaps the longest history and most predecessors of all of the model works: it can be traced back to an adapted yangge composed in 1944 by (amongst others) Ma Ke (1918-1976) and there are several operatic and film-versions of it. In 1966 Jiang Qing was invited by Lin Biao to reside over a Forum on Literature and Art for the Armed Forces, a meeting which would acquire the importance almost of the Yan’an Forum and which “provided Jiang Qing with a national platform for advocating her favored model works.” Thus by the end of 1966, cultural affairs were no longer even nominally under the direction of the Group of Five under Peng Zhen, Jiang Qing’s arch-enemy. They were taken over by a group including Chen Boda, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, Kang Sheng and Jiang Qing herself. By the time the Cultural Revolution started, it was in some ways already completed: Jiang Qing had overturned the institutional basis of cultural production, Mao had assembled for her a set of theoretical directives, and she had sponsored the creation of the works of art to exemplify them, and had styled a name for them, too, yangbanxi.
2. Unmaking the Yangbanxi
What did it take to “be or not to be” a yangbanxi? In a close investigation of “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” I will attempt to excavate how, on the artistic level, a model work was intended to convey meaning, and show in how far the semantics of the model work were influenced or even purposely created by the contrasts or repercussions with previous cultural knowledge to be expected from its audience.
In a first step I will compare the model of the models—the 1970 film—with elements from the 1957 book by Qu Bo, the 1960 feature-film, as well as the text of two earlier model-versions published in Hongqi in 1967 and 1969 respectively. The model opera covers chapters 10-21 of Qu Bo’s book. It is set in Manchuria in 1946, where a group of PLA soldiers is fighting against a group of bandits in the following of the Guomindang (GMD). Yang Zirong (Master of the Glory), a clever PLA scout platoon leader, is sent by Shao Jianbo (Shao Sword-Wave), the regimental chief of staff, to enter the bandits’ lair and give the important information for the most favourable time and place of an attack against the bandit-chief, Guo Shandiao (Vulture with his throne on the mountain), and his gang. The plot of this model work—incidentally, a parallel with traditional operatic practice (e.g. operas taken from Xi youji or Shuihu zhuan etc)—is a reduction of a much longer literary text. The audience is supposed to know of and relate the performed part to the whole, but in the yangbanxi, certain elements are deliberately stressed or eliminated and the audience is to learn certain political lessons from these changes. One example for this practice is the scene in which Yang Zirong on his ride up to Tiger Mountain kills a tiger. In Qu Bo’s book, Yang’s horse is attacked by the tiger, Yang shoots but his pistol fails him. The tiger becomes angrier and angrier and only after repeated shots with his mauser does Yang manage to kill the beast. Yang inspects the animal and begins to shiver with fear. The same scene is depicted rather differently in the model opera. Yang kills the animal with a single shot and instead of shivering with fear, as his horse does, he is completely calm throughout the scene. The very fact that the audience will have the earlier depictions of him in mind makes Yang the unquestioned hero in the model work: it is by contrast that he rises all the higher, that he becomes the proper, the model hero of a model work. This is true for a number of other changes made in the final model opera version, too. There, Yang no longer sings “obscene ditties” or flirts with Vulture’s daughter (who has in fact disappeared completely). These actions which are elaborately described both in the 1960 feature film and in Qu Bo’s book, “turned Yang ... into a filthy-mouthed desperado and a reckless muddle-headed adventurer reeking with bandit odour from top to toe,” according to one exegesis. This, a proletarian hero could not be in the yangbanxi. Apart from Vulture’s daughter, a number of other protagonists in book and film no longer appear in the revised version of the model opera. Yet others are renamed or simply included under certain categories such as “soldiers,” “bandits,” “medics” etc. The result of such changes is self-evident: by reducing the numbers—especially of the negative characters—more space, time and emphasis can be given to the proletarian heroes. This accentuation has visual and textual repercussions, too: Vulture’s throne, which, in the 1960 film, is situated in the centre of the stage, is moved further and further backwards and to the (right!!) margins of the stage. Between 1967 and 1969 stage directions are changed from “The interior of the hall on Tiger Mountain, brightly lit” to “a gloomy cave lit by several lamps.” Moreover, some of the bandits’ murdering scenes, quite vividly depicted in both book and feature-film, are left out in the filmed model opera version. And if Vulture still had a number of arias in earlier versions, his singing part in the final version is reduced to three croaking lines. Whereas Yang enters the stage proudly and ceremoniously, with his arms raised and palm out, displaying his “good face” directly to his audience, Vulture is hunched over with an irregular gait, his ashen or blackened face avoiding the audience.
EX1 YBX 0.52-1.02 (p. 26-32) also different types of laughter film 0.49
Thus the negative characters are moved further and further into the background while the positive characters become ever more prominent. They have positive names, appear in the centre of the stage, in proper light, they talk and sing much more than the negative characters and they are friends of the masses. Yang’s closeness to the masses is exemplified by the inclusion in 1969 of his class background which is not mentioned in any of the earlier versions. Quite deliberately, the model work is created with the fact in mind that it is always viewed as a revision. By deletion and addition, it rises above its well-known predecessors in contrast. Yang’s closeness to the masses is emphasized because it is the basic task (genben renwu) of the model operas to create proletarian heroes. Negative characters disappear more and more into the dark, according to the principle of the three prominences (san tuchu), which holds that positive characters have to be given prominence over the rest of the characters, heroic characters have to be given prominence over the positive ones and among the heroic figures prominence is to be given to the main hero. And Yang Zirong’s battle with the tiger is styled into an apotheosis according to the premises of revolutionary realism and romanticism, presenting life model-like (yangban), “on a higher plane.” The question of “to be or not to be” for the yangbanxi depended on the proper adherence to all of these principles. At the same time, to confront the audience with ever new, and ever more orthodox variants of already well-known pieces was to create a type of semantic overdetermination, which would make it impossible not to understand these underlying premises; what was “to be” a model work was determined and highlighted by contrast with what it was “not to be.”
This semantic overdetermination is further multiplied in the selection and use of elements from traditional Chinese opera and from the Western musical tradition, chosen to fulfill their function in the model works according to the directive of “Yang wei Zhong yong, gu wei jin yong.” Thus, in the second part of this analysis I will compare the 1970 model work with these two “predecessors.” Again, this comparison mirrors the receptive frame in which the audience finds itself, always aware of the changes and similarities between original and adaptation. The fact that the yangbanxi furnish moral and role models to their audiences should not be surprising. Many a traditional opera had didactic purposes. Certain masks, costumes, movements, language and musical accompaniment would indicate negative and positive characters in traditional operas. By close adherence to some of these traditional symbols in the yangbanxi, even hidden enemies could thus be recognized from their first appearance. Red still stood for the good and loyal, green as in the tradition are the faces of the devillish, emphasized by lighting-effects. And even the modern costumes used in the model operas keep to certain traditional conventions, blue and green are the clothes of the virtuous and good (Chang Bao (Constant Treasure) wears a blue dress, the soldiers green uniforms) and the friendly old woman (Li Yongqi’s (Li the Courageous) mother) wears pale blue just as she did in the traditional setting. Another of these methods of marking good and bad, taken from the traditional operatic repertoire is the use of a restricted role canon, of stock characters. Certainly, Communist theater no longer finds a place for the smooth and delicate dan, the weak female; but instead, a kind elderly woman appears and reappears, and so does the young woman, here Chang Bao (Everlasting Treasure) eager to join the battle (a brave qingyi-type who sings in the style of the xiaosheng). The dominance of female heroes in traditional opera is echoed in a dominance of female heroes in the yangbanxi, sided by the young courageous Party hero, here Yang Zirong, a modern xiaosheng. And, there is usually an old, wavering or outrightly vicious man: Guo Shandiao, bent over, and ugly like the chou. Pregnant with meaning, too, are some of the declamatory practices (nian) taken over from Beijing Opera. Close to twenty different types of laughter have been inherited from that tradition, there is friendly laughter, and wicked laughter, happy laughter and intelligent laughter etc. There is a stunning difference between the friendly laughter of Yang and Shao practicing Yang’s entering the bandits’ cave (Scene 4) and the bandits’ wicked laughter when they see Luan Ping, dead on the ground (Scene 10), a laughter which sends shivers down one’s spine.
EX2 (0.34, p. 20),Yang and Shao’s is the friendly laughter
EX3 (1.44/45?? p. 52) the bandits laugh a wicked laughter
In the use of China’s musical heritage, too, the semantics of traditional operas are employed for the purpose of conveying the one and only proper meaning in the yangbanxi. Traditional operatic percussion not only accompanies every kind of stage movement, from long battle scenes to the roll of an eye, it also reflects the actors’ thoughts and emotions, introduces sung passages and occasionally imitates the sounds of swords or nonexistent stage props such as a boat rocking in the water. Zhiqu weihushan makes frequent use of these traditional semantic functions of operatic percussion. The battle scene at the end is accompanied by “war percussion.” Luan Ping’s fear when he has to face Yang Zirong for the first time in Scene 4, the sudden shocks and shivers of fright he feels during the conversation, are depicted in percussion punctuation. And similarly, the scene, when Yang and Shao have decided on the plan of Yang’s going up to Tiger Mountain in disguise, ends with Yang’s words “This is a well-considered plan, it is decided” —after a short break these words are followed by a percussion beat: well-considered and decided.
EX 4 0.32-0.34 Luan Ping’s fear (p. 18)
Als Yang fragt ”Und was ist mit der Karte” folgt sofort ein harter Schlag. Luan antwortet zunächst ”Karte?” und gibt vor, ruhig zu bleiben, aber ein harter Schlagzeugschlag verrät ihn, “laß mich nachdenken...,” wieder unterbricht ihn ein Schlag.
Another musically-semantic element taken from the repertoire of Beijing Opera is the employment of certain arias. Beijing Opera features two types of arias, erhuang and xipi, both of which can appear in different metres (ban). Erhuang is often used to mark reflective and reminiscing moments. Fan erhuang in particular is used to relate tragic happenings. Chang Bao’s song of bitterness in Scene 3 is one such example. Apart from marking her song as one of truthful tragedy by the use of the aria-type, it also carries a second message, as it is sung in the singing-style of the traditional xiaosheng, traditionally a brave and witty young man. It thus becomes an effective sign of Chang Bao’s courage and firmness.
EX 5 0.14-0.18 (p. 12/13)
Fan Erhuang use of the violin for extreme flexibility, typical cello cantilene
Erhuang can also be used to introduce an important person in the so-called erhuang daoban, which begins with a line sung offstage. This aria-form is employed twice to introduce Yang Zirong (in Scene 5, when he rides up the mountain and in Scene 8, when he deposits the message to the other fighters) as will be shown later. The choice of aria-type in these instances thus becomes a sign to the audience, here marking the fact that Yang is indeed the most important person in the opera. Xipi, the second aria-type employed in Beijing-Opera, is faster and more excited than erhuang and hence used for scenes of tension and anger. Xipi-arias occur frequently throughout Zhiqu Weihushan: Yang’s excitement when he enters the bandits’ cave is marked in such an aria, (Scene 6) and his pretended fury at Luan Ping (Scene 10), his scolding tirade, is also effectively held in xipi. To preserve the traditional symbolism of certain aria types was a clever and effective way of employing their suggestive powers for one’s own semantic ends.
EX 6 1.46 (p. 52) Yang böse und erregt schimpft
But it is not just the semantic powers of traditional opera alone which are put to service in the creation of the yangbanxi: Yang Zirong’s soliloquy at the beginning of scene 8, for instance, is a good example for how Western instruments and Western-styled revolutionary songs are incorporated into the structure of a traditional erhuang-aria. The entire piece is accompanied by an orchestra dominated by strings and brass. Still in the off, Yang sings the first lines and enters with a short quotation in the horn from the revolutionary song San da jilü, ba xiang zhuyi (The Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention, 280). He is immediately reminded of his comrades and in deliberating the happy hopes of the impending battle, his feelings rise up in a long melisma (282). In antiphon with the woodwinds, an instrumental group often used to mark idyllic situations in both Western and Chinese musical iconography, he sings of the Party which “warms his heart and gives him hope.” He swears never to forget his courage, and to be cautious all the time, at which point there is a vigilant break. The strings then twice strike a pizzicato chord, indicating the dangerous, precarious situation in which Yang finds himself, voluntarily trapped in the cave of the bandits (292). After a long melisma on “the Glory of Mao Zedong Thought,” supported again by rising wind passages, he relates, that he is about to send off his message about the opportune moment for the battle to the comrades. Suddenly, for one bar, the musical scene changes drastically. The strings are silent, and only the low winds, the trombone, horns and bassoons as well as the sheng play the chromatic leitmotif of the bandits, which, in its original, has an ambitus of an augmented fourth, the interval also called diabolus in musica, the “devil in music” (176.209). Yang, aware of the danger around him, now decides to send his message off immediately in order not to “let the people and Party down.” On the word “Party”, the top-note of the aria, he sings a long melisma before he continues that “standing in the cold and melting the ice and snow, I’ve the morning sun in my heart.” Into the long sustained note on “sun,” the orchestra cites the line “China has brought forth a Mao Zedong” from “Dongfang hong,” the “National Anthem” of the Cultural Revolution. The phrase culminates into a rising glissando in strings and winds concluding with the spheric sounds of the xylophone and Mao’s apotheosis in musical terms is further underlined by Yang’s wide-open shining eyes and the reddening of the sky in the background.
EX 7 1.19-1.26 Scene Eight (p. 40-42)
1.19 Yang Zirong thinking of coming victory. San da jilü. Dongfang hong (1.24)
The musical tradition of Beijing opera is here amendated by the addition of Western instruments to the Chinese “orchestra,” which usually consists of jinghu, jing-erhu, yueqin and percussion, and by the application of certain European musico-iconographic concepts such as the “diabolus in musica,” idyllic woodwinds or transcendent xylophones (remember the magic powers of the glockenspiel—apart from the flute—in “The Magic Flute”). This use of orchestral language in the yangbanxi is heavily indebted to Western romanticism. Thus, meaning which we have seen generated by contrast to earlier versions of the story or by confirmation of traditional symbolisms from Chinese Opera, is here multiplied by the use of an “international” language, the Western musical tradition. In servicing the ideals of “Yang wei Zhong yong, gu wei jin yong,” a directive which had been adapted in some way or other by all socialist countries throughout the world in their particular attempts to define their new national cultures, and in adapting the premises of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism, which had been derived, too, from earlier (Soviet) socialist practices, the meaning and the message of the yangbanxi is lifted up to the level of a socialist Internationale (which—incidentally—is perhaps the most frequently quoted melody in the yangbanxi). Another example of this practice is Yang’s aria in Scene 5: it begins with a typical operatic percussion interlude. Then, the orchestra takes over and by use of regular eighth-movements and tremolos, it depicts—in musical iconography—Yang’s galopping with his horse (score 132,134-145). And as Yang is climbing the mountain, these eighth- and tremolo-movements are also soaring higher and higher (133.145). A romantic horn-melody creates an atmosphere which a listener versed in the romantic tradition of Western music will immediately associate with woods and forests (136-139). Erhuang is used in the first deliberating part of the aria to convey the hero’s profound emotion in singing “let the red flag fly all over the world.” This idyllic thought and his ardent words of hope for a utopian future are accompanied by the higher-pitched woodwinds (flute and oboe) to mark the idyllic situation. The beautiful picture finds its musical apotheosis in the spheric sounds of the vibraphone (160). After a short interlude, Yang shows his sudden excitement of being able to “wipe out the bandits,” in changing to a rather different musical mode, to xipi. The ancient rule that erhuang and xipi are not to be used in the same aria is broken in order to better reveal and display the inner emotions and the psychological development of the heroic character.
EX8 O.44-0.51 (p. 24-26)
steps different poses with the animal, laughter, change from xipi to erhuang , liangxiang at the end: dramatic pose (riding a horse revision of the film scene when he sings a playful and slightly obscene folksong (0.47), liangxiang)
Time and again, as in this scene, the semantics of the traditional musical setting are multiplied and enhanced by the use of elements from another musical tradition rather well-known to Chinese audiences through Soviet influence, that of Western romanticism. But these modifications which served to multiply the same messages again and again on ever new levels of understanding were not just applied to the music, but also to some of the other aspects of traditional operatic heritage preserved and yet reinvented in the yangbanxi. One such example are the telling gestures from Beijing Opera (zuo). On the one hand, one could observe that the bandits walk in the way that negative characters in Beijing Opera would also do, they sway, and totter about in an irregular gait (Luan Ping in Scene 4), and they would appear hunched—quite in contrast with the positive characters such as Yang Zirong who, time and again straightens himself up, opening his coat in a particular type of dramatic pose also adapted from traditional opera. Many of the typical stylized hand movements indicating certain moods and actions are also kept in the yangbanxi, but, on the other hand, the raised fist, indicating courage and revolutionary strength, which is not from the traditional canon, now becomes the most important and most expressive of them. Similarly, when Yang rides up to Tiger Mountain, his horse is invisible as in Beijing opera. In this traditional pantomime, the protagonist fulfills a double-role, he has to depict movements of both the horse and himself. The whip not only indicates the color of the horse in a sash, but also certain movements: a straight whip stands for normal riding, with the whip on the ground, the rider is getting off, a whip perpendicular to the stage indicates binding the horse, and the horizontal whip shows that the horse is eating. Yang’s dignified presence is here emphasized by the fact that he sits straight on his horse even when—and this is very different from traditional opera—the animal audibly takes fright at the tiger and neighs.
The demand to create works with a traditional face but pervaded by revolutionary, realism and romanticism is all-pervasive in the yangbanxi: similarly to the poor in traditional opera, who wore patched (silk-!) clothing, the poor in “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” wear patched but pretty and clean costumes. Jiang Qing complained that the costume designers she inherited had been trained only to embroider silks for aristocrats, or smart suits and dresses for the bourgeois. Thus, when they first had to make costumes for the poor, they simply tacked sloppy patches onto the belly of the jackets, evidence for the fact that they had no idea which parts of the clothes wore and thinned fastest under working conditions. Jiang Qing herself instructed them to patch up the elbows, knees and collars. The costumes were to look real but beautiful “true to life but on a higher plane.”
Another particular aspect of Beijing Opera which had been preserved and yet modified in the yangbanxi is the use of acrobatics, da. The yangbanxi all pick up on the elaborate and impressive array of moves and jumps to be found in the repertoire of operatic acrobatics. One breathtaking display of the actors’ acrobatic skills is the final fight on Tiger Mountain in which we find a clear demarkation of intelligent and unintelligent (for respectively endowed characters) fighting strategies by use of conventional movements. Another instance of the use of these traditional acrobatics, one of the most beautiful scenes of the entire work, shows the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Armee during their ascent to Tiger Mountain on cross-country skis (Scene 9). In accordance with the prop-less tradition of Beijing Opera, the actors for the final filmed version relate: “For the skiing dance we opposed the use of ski poles or any other naturalistic props which would impede the movements of the dancers.” And yet, this scene was adapted to the life-on-a-higher-plane-realism prescribed by Mao, too. The actors remember: “We also firmly ruled out any of the traditional somersaults and leaps before the skis were removed, for this would be a formalistic departure from reality.”
EX 9 skiing 1.38-1.43 film 1.29
EX 10 fighting 1.53-1.57 film 1.51
The use of traditional elements taken over from Beijing opera serves several purposes. First of all, Jiang Qing’s choice of opera would serve the masses: Beijing opera was an immensely popular form of art. Secondly, however, the use of traditional elements served to confirm certain well-known messages, while the adaptation of tradition under the precepts of revolutionary realism and romanticism served to multiply these on a more global—socialist—level.
“To be or not to be”—What the yangbanxi are and what they are not. Whatever may be the political judgement of them, the model works, and especially the filmed versions of the 1970s are indeed each a Gesamtkunstwerk, the artistic perfection of which accords not only with certain political but also with aesthetic standards. The yangbanxi are everything else but the product of an iconoclastic, and xenophobic era as which the Cultural Revolution is so often described. Instead, they are manifestations of a hybrid taste which calls for the transformation of Chinese tradition according to Western standards, a taste which for a century has led to the creation of a Chinese music of Western imprint. Time and again this music—to be found in Taiwan, the PRC and the Chinese communities abroad—has applied methods rather similar to those used in the yangbanxi. The model works are thus not to be considered the perversion of the Maoist experiment of re-inventing a new, Chinese but revolutionary, culture, instead, they have their rightful place in a long series of attempted syntheses of Western and Chinese heritage amongst which the opera reforms of a Mei Lanfang count as much as the Yellow River Cantata, the Butterfly Violin Concerto, Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Theatre, Liu Suola’s Beijing operatic pop or Tan Dun’s Marco Polo.
Secondly, I argued that constant revisions, the making and unmaking, the question of “to be or not to be” played an important role in the reception of the yangbanxi. The gap between original and revision would serve as a not all too subtle hint as to its meaning, and this meaning would be repeated over and over again, on all possible levels of the work. The model works are unique in their univalence on all of these levels. And thus the model works are rather different from performative art in one very crucial aspect, they don’t allow for a freedom of interpretation, they deny the idea of the instability of the text, they prescribe to their “interpretive community” in every detail one and the one only interpretation. This semantic overdetermination--further aided by the fact that the model works were everpresent, in local performances and daily radio emissions, as films, posters, short stories, comic books, records, picture collections, piano adaptations and cut-out figures--becomes blatantly evident in “How-to-guides” to the performances of the model works, which would prescribe exactly how much wattage the lighting has to have, how one is to apply the make-up for actors, where they have to stand and how they have to move. This semantic overdetermination--which, ironically, led to the MacDonaldization of Chinese art, as it would make sure that one would see, if not eat, the same wherever one went--this semantic overdetermination was to assert and to reflect the total control over the content, purpose and mechanisms of cultural production exerted by the self-sanctioned makers of culture under Jiang Qing.