- Azalea Mountain and Late Mao Culture
In a recent memoir essay, the Liaoning writer Liu Jialing paints the mid- and late 1970s as a transitional period in China. He recalls that women with the so-called "Ke Xiang style of hair" (Ke Xiang tou) filled Chinese streets in 1975, prefiguring many more social changes to come in the years that followed.1 Others who lived through the waning years of the Mao era (1949–76) also have remarked on the changing styles of women's hair; the layered cut with curled, immaculate bangs is often mentioned as the look pursued by young women in mid-1970s China. The cut is a far cry from the signature bob of the early twentieth century, and it should not be confused with the clean-cut short hair seen in images of female workers and soldiers in propaganda posters from the entire Mao era, either.2 The "Ke Xiang style of hair" is almost shoulder length, layered enough to encourage movement. For some, this not-so-subtle change in women's hairstyles signaled a loosening of the political grip on a populace so accustomed to a culture of conformity. One scholar even argues that the lengthened and softer hairdo prefigured the return of the Republican-era star system in the late 1970s.3
"Ke Xiang," who came to be a buzzword in mid-1970s China, was none other than the heroic Party representative in one of the last model works (yangbanxi) produced in the Mao era, Azalea Mountain (Dujuan shan). The fact that this fictional Party representative also assumed the role of a fashion icon who inspired a nationwide "hair revolution" epitomizes the peculiar cultural dynamics in late Mao China. While this essay is more than a meditation on the politics of hair, a shared fascination with the length of women's hair was at the very least indicative of a generational yearning for the arrival of a new brand of heroes and heroines who would look somewhat different.
Beaming with a revolutionary resolution typical of the central characters of all model works, and injected with a hint of softer "feminine charm" that was considered refreshing for her time, Ke Xiang, portrayed by the young artist Yang Chunxia, leapt onto the scene of late Mao popular culture with a great deal of visual appeal and auditory persuasion. Her signature haircut aside, the audience was also enchanted by her finely tailored pastel-hued blouses, accessorized by a leather belt accentuating a thin and soft waistline. One contemporary [End Page 402] commentator noted her pale, slim wrists and slender, willowy figure, calling her a "boney beauty" (gugan meiren), in line with the sexy pop icons of today's world, and thereby setting her apart from her "sturdier" counterparts of the Mao era.4 Ke Xiang's makeup onstage highlighted a pair of brilliantly piercing eyes, made more prominent in the close-up shots of the subsequent cinematic version of Azalea Mountain. Perhaps most compelling of all was Yang Chunxia's versatile vocal representation, heard through the radio waves that infiltrated all corners of everyday Chinese life in the early and mid-1970s. A generation of young vocal artists was said to have grown up aspiring to emulate her vocal range and versatile performance style.5 Ke Xiang/Yang Chunxia's followers were further enthralled by a refined stagecraft that combined dance movements with rigorous acrobatic skills. Yang Chunxia's portrayal of the revolutionary heroine acquired an iconic status at the time, and its popularity would come to signify both the height of a revolutionary mass culture and the demise of an overtly politicized era.
The molding of Ke Xiang as a cultural icon, then, cannot be separated from Azalea Mountain being cemented as a key text in a history of operatic reinventions. The overwhelming attention given to the hairstyle of the heroine speaks to the continuing popular appeal of a traditional operatic form thoroughly revamped and repopularized within a tightly controlled system of production, exhibition, and dissemination. The sensuous appeal of Ke Xiang's characterization went hand in hand with the increasing hybridity of the model opera as a cross-fertilized genre.6...