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  • Staging Revolution: Artistry and Aesthetics in Model Beijing Opera During the Cultural Revolution by Xing Fan
  • John B. Weinstein

Xing Fan begins Staging Revolution: Artistry and Aesthetics in Model Beijing Opera during the Cultural Revolution with a performance anecdote. She recounts the night in 2001 when she saw The Red Lantern, among the most famous of the ten model jingju, performed at the Yisu Grand Theatre in Xi'an. (Though the term jingju has often been translated into English as Peking Opera or Beijing Opera, Fan joins the growing number of scholars who choose to call it jingju.) That night in Xi'an, a packed crowd of over a thousand intently watched the production, at times singing along, at other times discussing with fellow audience members how this night's cast compared with the original cast that had premiered The Red Lantern during the Cultural Revolution, when the ten model jingju were part of the eighteen Model Revolutionary Works (geming yangbanxi) considered exemplary by the Chinese Communist Party of the People's Republic of China. Far from a historical artifact of a time period many would prefer to forget, The Red Lantern was a living, flourishing work of art.

The phrase "work of art" is key. Fan's opening anecdote sets the stage for her eventual assertion that these model jingju had, and still have, artistic merit. Raising that assertion to a higher abstraction, Fan writes, "In this context, I argue that literature and art in service of politics are not automatically devoid of literary or artistic merit" (p. 3). Fan's assertion definitely ran contrary to my own previous perceptions of these works; I had subscribed to a not infrequent scholarly view that model jingju were simplistic political works viewers only enjoyed watching because they were required to do so. I sheepishly say this having even co-translated The Red Lantern for a major anthology. Working her way through each element of model jingju—script, acting, music, design, and directing—Fan demonstrates, in extensive detail, how the highly trained and deeply earnest jingju artists created artistic merit in the new model jingju. That is the most significant accomplishment of this book, brought about through extensive archival and interview-based research with the original creators of the works. [End Page 267]

In part I, entitled "Jingju, Modern Jingju, and Model Jingju," Fan recounts the development of jingju against a historical and political background roughly spanning 1940 to 1970; each chapter in this part concludes with an extensive example from a selected play. In chapter 1, "Jingju at Yan'an," Fan disputes Mao Zedong's claims that jingju was revolutionized in Yan'an, both because traditional repertory still dominated, and because changes made for newer jingju were in content only, not form. Fan's concluding example, from the 1944 work Driven to Join the Liang Mountain Rebels, illustrates how, without an artistic way to make the masses' viewpoint more central than the classic hero's, there was no revolution in form to match the revolution in content. Chapter 2, "Jingju during the Xiqu Reform," recounts challenges of reforming xiqu (the larger genre encompassing jingju among other regional forms) in the early years of the PRC, a time period marked by discussions of whether modern lives could be presented through jingju's signature style. Ma Yanxiang advocated for comprehensive reform of each element, and the chapter concludes with Fan's analysis of Ma's many innovations in script, performance, and music when directing Three Mountains, which premiered in 1956.

Chapter 3, "Modern Jingju in Years of Uncertainty," looks at the period from 1956 to 1963, a time period of great political instability and vacillation. By 1963, the debate over whether it was possible to portray modern life through jingju was over, and focus shifted to how to make it happen artistically, with music, singing, and speech all contested areas. The chapter concludes by analyzing the artistic choices made in developing The White-Haired Girl to portray modern characters convincingly while...


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pp. 267-270
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