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  • Cultural Revolution Model Opera Films and the Realist Tradition in Chinese Cinema
  • Jason McGrath (bio)

A Western journalist traveling in China in 1967 gave the following description of a performance of revolutionary skits in Shanghai's Great World entertainment complex (formerly the epicenter of semicolonial decadence during the Republican era):

I have never seen in China an audience as totally engrossed as this one. They did not applaud much, but it seemed as if they thought they shouldn't interrupt. They stared fixedly at the stage with faces completely rapt; each new scene creased their brows, wiped them smooth, furrowed them again more deeply, all in unison. Heads stretched forward so that not a single detail would escape their eyes.1

Coming as it does from a reporter in lockstep with Cold War-era Western ideology, it is not surprising that this account provides a stereotypical representation of the Maoist masses as brainwashed automatons. In this description the "unison" with which spectators' brows furrowed is clearly intended to indicate a seamless transmission of political ideology, a case of almost unprecedentedly successful propaganda (though it goes without saying that similarly rapt and uniform attention might well be apparent in the audience of a Hollywood blockbuster at the local multiplex).

It is easy enough to critique the ideological bias of the reporter himself as evidenced in this description, which is not necessarily any more reliable than a contemporaneous account in the Chinese press would have been. In fact, both would have emphasized the extent to which the revolutionary stage performance engaged the Chinese masses and inculcated Communist revolutionary values in them, and certainly we can safely presume that the theatrical productions of the Cultural Revolution—in particular the yangbanxi or "model performances" and the films that were made from them—were indeed effective vehicles for revolutionary indoctrination. However, it is interesting to contrast the above description with some anecdotal accounts of men who consumed yangbanxi as youngsters and then recalled their experiences years later. In the documentary Yang Ban Xi: [End Page 343] The 8 Model Works (dir. Yan Ting Yuen, 2005), a thirty-nine-year-old artist recalls that his first sexual feelings were aroused by the revolutionary ballet Red Detachment of Women (Hongse niangzijun) because the dancing women wore skin-revealing military shorts: "At last we'd discovered something real in the Revolution." Similarly, reform-era actor/director Jiang Wen has claimed that a viewing of Red Detachment of Women "was the first time I ever experienced sexual feelings."2

Whether such accounts of erotic awakening were unique to these men or perhaps merely demonstrate something universal about the mindset of teenage boys, we can for the sake of argument position the sexual arousal of these yangbanxi viewers as an opposite extreme to the rapt, brainwashed attention of the audience described by the Western reporter cited above.3 Indeed, one is tempted to speculate that the reporter in fact had no idea what thoughts might lie behind the furrowed brows of the spectators he observed or what sorts of "details" would not have "escaped their eyes." On the other hand, we could also conjecture that viewers of the yangbanxi films—as well as all the other spinoffs, from regional opera adaptations to posters and magazine illustrations—by the early to mid-1970s might have experienced these things much differently than had the original theater audiences of the mid-1960s. Considering the repetition involved in multiple viewings, as well as countless "cross-genre product tie-ins" for the model operas, the works' ideological messages might well have become so banal that sheer boredom would have led viewers to concentrate on seemingly inconsequential details such as the revealed skin on actors' limbs. Paul Clark refers to an "ideological commodification of culture in the Cultural Revolution" that in fact paved the way for the market commodification of the post-Mao reform era.4

This essay will make a related argument regarding the ideological implications of the form of the yangbanxi films of the early 1970s. Considered within the context of the tradition of Chinese revolutionary cinema going back to the left-wing cinema movement of the 1930s, the yangbanxi films culminate what I...


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