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  • Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda by Xiaomei Chen
  • Rosemary Roberts
Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda by Xiaomei Chen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, Pp. xiv + 363. $60.00 cloth, $59.99 e-book.

Xiaomei Chen begins Staging Chinese Revolution with an acknowledgments section that reveals her distinctive positioning as author in relation to her subject matter. Very much in the manner of Ruru Li’s excellent study of Beijing opera performance in modern China, Xiaomei Chen’s book combines the intimate subjective understanding of the insider with the objective and critical eye of the outsider.1 Chen’s acknowledgments, along with personal recollections scattered through the book, locate a crucial part of her own life experience as part of the “big family” of the China Youth Art Theater in Beijing during the 1950s and 1960s, when it was performing many of the “red classic” (hongse jingdian 红色经典) plays under discussion in Chen’s book. This intimate personal knowledge of China’s theater world informs Chen’s central argument: political propaganda in Chinese theater and film has never been just a task imposed from the top down; rather, it has been a complex and fundamentally willing collaboration between Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elites and a performing arts community that was ideologically committed to communist ideals and a socialist society. Playwrights, directors, and performers were not and are not hapless victims of the regime. Instead, they are active participants in the creation of political propaganda that functions through changing political and social environments to support the Party-state.

To substantiate her argument, Chen investigates the most extreme forms of communist theater and film propaganda of the post-1949 era: historical narratives of Party leaders and revolutionary music-and-dance epics. Representations of former Party leaders Chen Duxiu 陈独秀, Mao Zedong 毛泽东, and Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 each form the central focus of a single chapter, while a separate chapter discusses the [End Page 204] three major music-and-dance epics, The East Is Red (Dongfang hong 东方红, 1964), The Song of the Chinese Revolution (Zhongguo geming zhi ge 中国革命之歌, 1984), and The Road to Revival (Fuxing zhi lu 复兴之路, 2009). An epilogue briefly considers how the representation of the revolution’s “founding mothers” has dwindled to traditionally gendered “supporting roles” (p. 287).

Chen’s introductory chapter begins by locating her research within contemporary propaganda studies and then previews the core chapters listed above. Its most valuable contribution, however, lies in the second half of the chapter, which delves into the contemporaneous beginnings of the CCP and modern Chinese theater during the 1920s to demonstrate that close ideological and often personal links have existed between the two since their inception. Through an analysis of the work of the three “founding fathers” of modern Chinese theater, Tian Han 田汉, Hong Shen 洪深, and Ouyang Yuqian 歐阳玉倩, Chen argues:

Tian and his cohorts visualized and staged a socialist blueprint in the leftist literary and dramatic tradition of the Republican period that paved the way for the construction of a socialist canon through his early writings during the first decades of the twentieth century, the war years, and the early years before and after the founding days of the PRC.

(p. 30)

Further, Chen argues that these three founding fathers trained generations of theater artists in the realist tradition. Their students have, in turn, gone on to participate in the creation of modern and contemporary canons, continually producing theater, film, and TV productions on revolutionary histories and the CCP leadership.

Examples of the links between the early generations of Party elites and the theater world are well known. Mao trusted Tian Han to recommend which of two thousand submissions should be chosen as the design for the new national flag, and Zhou Enlai 周恩来 supported the use of Tian’s lyrics for the new national anthem (p. 31). Zhou Enlai himself is also known to have performed in progressive plays as a university student during the May Fourth period, and he personally over-saw the production of The East Is Red in 1964. In an era when theater was the primary vehicle available for spreading the socialist message— a message to which both theater professionals...


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