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  • Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda by Xiaomei Chen
  • Emily Wilcox (bio)
Xiaomei Chen. Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film, and the Afterlives of Propaganda. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. xii, 363 pp. Hardcover $60, ISBN 978-0-231-16638-6. E-book $59.99, ISBN 978-0-231-54161-9.

Staging Chinese Revolution is the type of extraordinary book that can only be written by a senior scholar who has spent the better part of a lifetime amassing expert knowledge and first-hand experience in a particular field. As the third monograph and eighth book-length publication of Xiaomei Chen, a leading U.S.-based scholar of modern Chinese culture and performing arts, it represents a culmination of Chen's decades of research on twentieth and twenty-first century Chinese theater, as well as her enduring commitment to render the creativity and complexity of the modern Chinese stage legible and meaningful to international audiences. Rather than merely repeating Chen's earlier work, however, Staging Chinese Revolution paves a genuinely new path, by both embarking on unfamiliar material and treating familiar works in fresh and exciting ways. Because of its commanding scope and unusual interdisciplinary approach, the book reaches beyond the field of performance scholarship to speak to larger questions in the study of modern and contemporary China more generally.

Although the term "history" does not appear in its title, Staging Chinese Revolution is as much about history and historical memory as it is about the performing arts. This is because the core focus of Chen's book is on the relationship between modern and contemporary Chinese history and its theatrical representations, particularly how information about the past revealed in newly available archives, personal memoirs, and revised party histories finds its way into mainstream cultural understandings by way of performance. As Chen convincingly shows, the performing arts—including live theater as well as film and television—serve as one of the most important spaces in which popular culture understandings of the recent past and contemporary present in China are constantly being scripted, manipulated, negotiated, and questioned. Thus, performance offers a barometer of current understandings of the Chinese past, as well as indications of where tension and debates exist regarding accepted or official versions of history. By analyzing stage and screen representations of famous as well as forgotten historical people and events, Chen shows how the performing arts in contemporary China are at the center of a society-wide process of understanding and coming to terms with recent history, especially that of China's communist revolution, the socialist era, and the postsocialist reform period. Chen shows how historians, scriptwriters, actors, and audiences all contribute to creating a contemporary Chinese [End Page 290] performance culture that is actively engaged in uncovering new knowledge about the past, as well as in evaluating to what extent today's China fulfills, disappoints, or disregards the aspirations of past generations.

The book is organized in a somewhat unconventional way in that it is largely driven by the content of the performances, films, and TV dramas it analyzes, rather than being structured around specific genres, artists, or chronologies. Thus, for example, the first three body chapters take up representations of three famous historical figures—Chen Duxiu, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping—and the fourth body chapter takes up the theme of narrations of Chinese Communist Party history as a whole. Only the fourth chapter focuses on one particular type or genre of performance—the "grand revolutionary music-and-dance epic" (daxing geming yinyue wudao shishi 大 型革命音乐舞蹈史诗), represented by the three hugely influential productions 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). Each of the other chapters looks at a wide range of different genres, including spoken drama, Chinese opera, feature film, documentary film, television drama, television documentary, etc., focusing more on how the same historical people and events are scripted and performed in different or intersecting ways in different works. In Chen's account, it is essential to treat these many genres of performance in relation to one another, because this is in...


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pp. 290-293
Launched on MUSE
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