How Did The Chinese Communist Party Impact Chinese Theatre?

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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in China on 1st October 1949 and have been in power ever since; their strict censorship of the public has undeniably limited the creative freedom of the performing arts. In this essay I will explore the immense impact the Chinese Communist Party had on the progression of Chinese dramatic art.

The most popular form of drama/musical theatre in China is known as Xiqu or Chinese opera and it is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world alongside Greek tragic-comedy and Indian Sanskrit Opera. Xiqu became incredibly popular when Tang Dynasty’s Emperor Xuanzong from 712 to 755 created the first national opera troupe called the “Pear Garden”. Now, more than a millennium after Xuanzong’s death Chinese opera performers are still referred to as “Disciples of the Pear Garden”. Early forms of Chinese theater are simple, however over time various art forms started to be incorporated, such as music, song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, as well as literary art forms to become traditional Chinese opera. There are many regional divisions of opera each with their differences eg. Beijing opera, Shaoxing opera, Cantonese opera and Kunqu.

Before the rise of the communist party, Chinese theatre was performed all in formal language and an assortment of different coloured masks and face paints were used with each colour representing something different for example: white is the colour the villain was usually painted as it represents evil- the bigger the area painted, the crueler the character. Green represents having no self-control, red stands for loyalty and bravery and yellow stands for either boldness, intelligence or ambition. Then at the start of the 20th Century students began learning and performing Western plays. After the May Fourth Movement, where the Chinese public protested against the governments weak response to the Treaty Of Versailles agreement that allowed Japan to occupy areas of China, lots of Western plays were staged in China and Chinese playwrights started to draw inspiration from Western theatre. The most popular playwright who was influenced by the West is Cao Yu, he wrote: Wilderness, Sunrise, Peking Man and Thunderstorm. After the creation of the CCP, the Communist Red Army started to put on theatrical productions to politically indoctrinate the public in the 1930s; this meant that by the 1940s theatre was well established in the CCP-controlled areas.

When the People’s Republic of China was finding its feet after the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War against the GMD Party, the advancement of Chinese opera was encouraged, this meant that traditional operas continued to be performed and lots of new operas on historical and modern themes were written. During the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese opera was an extremely popular art form and it was typically the first art form to reflect changes in Communist policy. This can be seen in the Hundred Flowers Campaign in the mid-1950s which brought about the creation of Jilin opera and the most striking example of this was the onset of the Cultural Revolution sparked by the Beijing deputy mayor Wu Han and his historical play: Ha Rui Dismissed from Office. During the Cultural Revolution there was a crackdown on the “bourgeois” class and activities and to take joy in something not related to the progression of the Communist Party was seen as “bourgeois”. There was now no freedom of expression in all art forms as art for the sake of beauty was discouraged; art now had one purpose: to glorify the Communist Party.

In 1956 the Hundred Flowers Campaign was announced publicly- Mao famously said to let “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science” therefore encouraging intellectualism, the arts and criticism of the Communist Party, Chinese opera blossomed anew. Mao was believed to have started the campaign to root out any “counter-revolutionary elements” after he had seen Russia’s situation: after Stalin’s death the new leader- Khrushchev -wrote a destalinization speech and there was a revolt in Hungary both in 1956. In July 1957 Mao ordered a halt to the Hundred Flowers Campaign and launched an Anti-Rightist Campaign saying that anyone who has been critical of the Communist Party should be purged, all of the artists and intellectuals who had spoken out were labelled as anti-rightists and dealt with accordingly. A total of 300,000 people had been purged by December 1957 and were faced with punishments from being sent to labour camps to criticism or even execution.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched in May 1966 by Mao because he wanted to preserve himself in power for the rest of his life by removing any potential opposition, to obliterate any traces of the damaging record of the Great Leap Forward (a failed campaign that caused the deaths of millions), to ensure that the revolution would continue after his death and to prevent China from making the same mistakes as revisionist USSR. Mao saw to do this by getting rid of the “Four Olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits this saw the study and practice of theatre outlawed especially as the Cultural Revolution was sparked by a Beijing opera piece. The CCP commissioned Professor Wu Han to write an opera about Ha Rui who was a minister during the Ming Dynasty who was fired for criticising the Emperor. However audiences saw the play “Ha Rui Dismissed from Office” as a criticism of Mao’s leadership and Mao criticised the play in 1965, Wu Han was fired. After the Wu Han affair most opera troupes were forcibly disbanded and script writers and composers were purged and performances were outlawed. Western-style plays were condemned as “dead drama” and “poisonous weeds” and were not performed.

The only Chinese operas that were allowed to be performed were the revolutionary model operas under Jiang Qing’s direct supervision. Traditional operas were outlawed but revolutionary opera, similar to Peking opera, was promoted but the material was heavily censored. Beginning in 1967, a total of six Model operas were produced in the first three years the three most popular being: The Legend of the Red Lantern, Shajiabang, and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The model operas were broadcast everywhere- on the radio, they were made into films, blasted from public speakers, studied at schools and factories and it became the only source of theatrical entertainment for 800 million people. Due to the Cultural Revolution, the bourgeois, elitist class had been destroyed meaning that the model operas were made accessible for everyone causing it to become a popular political art.

An Author called Huo Wang, wrote “Model operas are the only art form left in the whole of China. You cannot escape from listening to them. You hear them every time you turn on the radio. You hear them from loudspeakers every time you go outside” in 1998 in reference to the Cultural Revolution era. Furthermore, another author called Anchee Min describes in her book Red Azalea, her encounters with Mao’s propagandist Revolutionary Operas. She initially fell in love with the six model operas but felt very confused as she writes “Entertainment was a ‘dirty bourgeois word’,” but the model operas were meant to be linked to the revolution, they were meant to be “a proletarian statement”. Therefore Min felt extremely confused in choosing whether to praise the revolutionary operas or not and whether they were “meant to be or not to be a revolutionary.”

After the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death the Gang of Four were denounced as a major “counter-revolutionary force” of the Cultural Revolution and they were officially blamed by the Politburo for the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The fall of the Gang of Four on the 6th October 1976 brought about lots of celebrations all across the streets of Beijing as this marked the conclusion of a chaotic political era in China. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Beijing opera was placed within the national repertoire and saw regained interest and popularity and it could be seen on the television and at the theatre. The study of Chinese theatre was allowed again and older performers came together to pass on their knowledge to the youth and traditional operas were freely performed once again. However some of the scriptwriters and composers were criticized and had their work censored for writing about the events of the Cultural Revolution as most people wanted to take their minds off the political events of the past few years.

Nowadays, over thirty forms of Chinese opera continue to be performed daily throughout China. The most popular forms of opera in modern China are: Huju opera from Shanghai, Cantonese opera, Qinqing opera from Shanxi and Peking opera from Beijing. However there is concern that the theatrical form that is opera could be dying out as the vast majority of young people are more inclined to watch a TV show, film or play computer games for entertainment rather than going out to see an opera. To try and encourage the youth to become more interested in Chinese opera the Chinese government is using grants and contest but ultimately Chinese theatre is a dying art form. The Cultural Revolution had a devastating and lasting effect on opera as many scriptwriters, composers and performers were purged and lots of theatrical work was lost for example the repertoire of Qinqiang used to include over 10,000 operas and now only about 4,700 of them are remembered.

To conclude, the Chinese Communist Party had an extremely damaging impact upon the popularity of Chinese opera. Chinese opera was the most popular art form in China before the rise of the Communist Party, it is inevitable that the advancement of technology took away interest from Chinese opera however with 800 million people living in China the art form shouldn’t be dying out so rapidly it is due to the Communist Party that there has been a decrease in the popularity of Chinese opera as the Cultural Revolution encouraged people to lose their interest in opera and labelled entertainment that was Communist propaganda as ‘bourgeois’.

Although the Communist Party had an incredibly damaging impact on the popularity of Chinese opera, the Party destroyed the notion that opera was for the wealthy and made it more accessible for the non-wealthy. Furthermore, the Communist Party had a lasting impact on the content of operas inspiring them to show changes in political policy and promote Party ideology which has continued into the operas of today but creators of Chinese opera now have more freedom in the work they wish to produce. Therefore the Chinese Communist Party had a devastating impact upon the popularity of Chinese opera, but the Party made Chinese opera more accessible for a wider audience and the Communists changed opera into a propagandist art form.

Cite this paper

How Did The Chinese Communist Party Impact Chinese Theatre?. (2020, Sep 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-did-the-chinese-communist-party-impact-chinese-theatre/



What the Communists did to the Peking Opera?
The Communists reformed the Peking Opera by removing aristocratic and feudal elements and promoting socialist themes. They also created state-funded troupes to perform the opera for the masses.
Who influenced Chinese Theater?
The main influences on Chinese Theater were from the countries of India and China.
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