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  • "Eight Stage Works for 800 Million People":The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Music—A View from Revolutionary Opera
  • Barbara Mittler (bio)

When we talk about the Cultural Revolution, we often talk about the restriction of traditional culture, but really, it continued to live: sent-down youth would listen to a lot of local performances of opera. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, there was deliberate support for some parts of tradition and then there was another culture, too, that was still there, if not officially acknowledged.

(Musicologist, b. 1950s)1

There were no restrictions as to the playing of either particular instruments or pieces. All the etudes which we played came from the West. We just played everything.

(Artist, 1959–)2

Chen Kaige's 1993 feature film Farewell My Concubine (Bawang Bieji) is framed by a scene showing two Chinese opera singers rehearsing in the early 1980s: for twenty years they have not played the traditional opera Farewell My Concubine together, so they remember, and this was "due to the Gang of Four." According to them, "now it is better."

Indeed, for a number of years since the early 1960s and especially during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (wuchan jieji wenhua da geming), for which the "Gang of Four"3 under the leadership of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's last wife, is now officially held responsible, the performance of operas with traditional themes was heavily censored.4 In their stead, a set of revolutionary model operas (geming jingju) was promoted. These operas told stories from China's recent past. They depicted the Chinese people's determined struggle against outer and inner enemies, glorified the close cooperation between the People's Liberation Army and the common people, and emphasized the decisive role of Mao Zedong and his thought for socialism's victory in China. No longer did these operas bring "emperors, kings, generals, chancellors, maidens, and beauties" (diwang jiangxiang yahuan xiaojie) onto the stage; instead, they presented heroic workers, peasants, and soldiers, as Mao had long since demanded.5 [End Page 377]

These revolutionary operas, as well as a number of revolutionary ballets and symphonic works that had been selected as staged model works (eight in number at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, eighteen by the time it ended),6 have come to epitomize musical life and creative production during the Cultural Revolution. They were omnipresent across all genres at the time—one could buy them on cheap LPs and as comic books; one could see their heroes on posters, postcards, and stamps; on cushions, plates, teapots, cups, and candywraps; as cutout and ceramic figures; on wash basins, handbags, cigarette packs, vases, and calendars. In a process one could call "ideological branding," they were available on almost all items of daily use.7

They would be performed in schools, in factories, and on the fields. During work breaks, groups of people would stand together and recite from them. They were carried everywhere by special performing troupes, they became the staples of daily radio broadcasts, and on the streets they were blasted from loudspeakers. The teaching of musical instruments, too, was based almost entirely on variations of revolutionary songs or melodies from the model works—at least officially.

Every revised version became a national event, promulgated on the first page of China's most important newspaper, the People's Daily. The complete librettos of the model works were reprinted in the party's highest theoretical organ, the magazine Red Flag. In the fall of 1968 a decision was made for a new step to further popularize them (realized beginning in 1970): after numerous revisions, the finalized versions would be filmed and distributed nationwide, thus reaching, theoretically at least, even the remotest corners of the country.8 In the second half of the Cultural Revolution, the ten operas among the eighteen model works were also readapted into different local styles, and within a few years about a hundred local opera forms had begun to thrive again, mainly for this purpose.9

For an entire decade, then, these model works dominated China's theatrical and musical stages.10 The polemical phrase "eight stage works for 800 million people" (ba yi renmin ba tai xi...