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  • Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and The Afterlives of Propaganda by Xiaomei Chen
  • Xing Fan
STAGING CHINESE REVOLUTION: THEATER, FILM, AND THE AFTERLIVES OF PROPAGANDA. By Xiaomei Chen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. 384 pp. Cloth, $60.00.

A student of mine once wrote, "When I read this play, the word lingering in my mind is 'pro—pa—gan—da." She was responding to Azalea Mountain (a model modern revolutionary jingju during the Cultural Revolution), a reading assignment for my course "Art and Politics in China." Indeed, scholars, educators, students, and general readers who are interested in the People's Republic of China cannot avoid the topic and its challenging questions: What does propaganda mean in the realms of dramatic culture and performance history in China? Why do we study propaganda performance? And, what may we learn from this study? Xiaomei Chen's Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda offers sophisticated and provocative answers which also urge and inspire us to explore further. In this excellent work of scholarship, Chen situates propaganda studies at the intersection of the Chinese Communist Party's historical narratives and theatre performances based on party-history. The primary focus is postsocialist performance—from the 1980s to the present—and, as the following summary indicates, some performances during the high Mao period (1949–1976) are also examined.

In the introduction, Chen advocates an open-ended approach to propaganda studies and contextualizes propaganda theatre performance in postsocialist China within the global influence of The Communist Manifesto. She also identifies intricate connections between plays about revolutionary leaders in the PRC and the legacies of the three founding fathers of modern theatre during the Republican period. Chen vigorously argues that propaganda, instead of as a "monolithic, top-down, and meaningless practice" (p. 1), can be studied as a "complex, dialogic, and dialectical" (p. 1) process of forming a mainstream ideology with popular appeal that lingers in personal memories. On the global socialist stage, Chen points out, propaganda theatre performance in China, while promoting and updating The Communist Manifesto, bears palpably capitalist characteristics. Countering the conventional wisdom that propaganda performance is forced upon artists by the PRC politics, and based on a discussion of the creative paths of Tian Han, Hong Shen, and Ouyang Yuqian, Chen identifies the leftist literary and dramatic tradition of the Republican period as the beginning point of constructing a socialist canon.

In chapter 1, Chen examines the evolution of Chen Duxiu's representation from villain to hero. A co-founder of the Chinese [End Page 233] Communist Party and its primary leader during 1921–1927, Chen was depicted, amidst the cult of Mao during the 1960s, as a "rightist opportunist" responsible for the failure of the 1927 Great Revolution, with his ground-breaking leadership sidestepped and replaced by Mao's. In the early 1980s, this approach continued when the post-Mao CCP tried to remedy Cultural Revolution damage by reversing the verdicts of those persecuted during the ten-year period, though ignoring those eliminated earlier from the party. Beginning in 1991, with support from a new generation of leaders and greater political pluralism, Chen's life story was re-dramatized; now he was a pioneering revolutionary of whom Mao was a faithful student and admirer. And currently, in the twenty-first century sentiment of national identity politics, Chen is portrayed as an anti-Stalinist hero who insisted on China's independent path, and the Comintern's interference is now identified as the reason for the Great Revolution's failure.

In chapter 2, Chen organizes Mao Zedong's representations in postsocialist performance pieces around three themes. Those performances, in particular those of the new genre "political commentary plays," which portray Mao as a peasant uprising leader who keeps reminding himself and his comrades of the grassroots, critique not only Mao but also the problematic post-Mao reality. In so doing, they offer critical insights, which, paradoxically, meet the current regime's urgent need to win back the Chinese people's trust by reinforcing the CCP's purported mission of serving the people. Those performances dealing with the challenging phase of Mao's life during the PRC period tend to...


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