Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • Resisting Spirits: Drama Reform and Cultural Transformation in the People’s Republic of China by Maggie Greene

Resisting Spirits offers an analysis of cultural transformation in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the early 1950s to the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) through the lens of supernatural dramatic literature, an important and popular genre of the Chinese literary canon. Maggie Greene argues that “the creation, discussion, and reception of these potentially troublesome plays underscores the experimental nature of cultural production in the high socialist period, as writers and artists attempted to figure out what parts of the canon were key and how art could be redeployed to resonate with contemporary concerns—all while dealing with unsettled and often contradictory policies” (6). Cultural reconstruction under the new regime in the PRC has thus far been a fascinating yet obscure picture. Resisting Spirits tackles the task with an original methodology, sharp analyses, and solid sources, deepening and complicating our understanding of cultural transformation in the first decade and a half of the PRC.

The main body of the study consists of six chapters organized chronologically. Chapter 1 contextualizes the 1949–53 theatre reform movement by referring to pre-1949 reform attempts, introducing the different challenges facing the fledgling government, senior cultural workers and officials, and local troupes. Using adaptations of the folktale “The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid” as a case study, Greene demonstrates how the distinction between mythology and superstition functioned as the sticking point in debates around supernatural dramatic literature. Chapter 2 extends this discussion by examining debates about ghost plays in the succeeding [End Page 118] decade, using Ma Jianling’s Wandering West Lake (1953, revised 1958) as the primary case study. Tracing Ma’s removal of the ghost in the 1953 version and the ghost’s return in the 1958 version, as well as the criticisms that both versions received, the chapter illustrates continuing efforts by critics and artists to separate the theatrical ghost characters from superstitious customs in daily life.

Chapter 3 considers the high point of supernatural dramatic literature in the sanguine transitional period of the early 1960s, offering a close reading of Meng Chao’s Li Huiniang (1961), with particular attention to how the playwright proves the compatibility of elite classical literature and the contemporary present on the socialist stage. Discussing Li Huiniang in parallel with Stories about Not Being Afraid of Ghost, a collection of ghost tales, Greene illuminates the fundamental question that ghost plays in this period provoked: “Was the audience meant to identify with the ghost, as an expression of the masses’ historical frustrations? Or should ghosts stand as metaphors for real-life antagonists?” (81).

Chapter 4 spotlights the pivotal year of 1963, a transitional period for supernatural dramatic literature and its creators. Greene demonstrates that the policy of banning ghost plays marked the beginning of the cultural sector’s increasing radicalization. At the same time, she uses critical essays published in the national newspaper Guangming Daily to illustrate the continuity in tone and structure between the 1950s debates about supernatural drama and those of 1963. Based on documents of local troupes’ meetings and internal discussions, this chapter also supplements its picture of elite discourse with local artists’ expressions of exhaustion, concern, and disagreement about shifts in policies.

Covering the period from late 1963 through the early years of the Cultural Revolution, chapter 5 observes the radical changes in cultural discourse that took place as the targets of cultural criticism shifted from the form or theme of a piece to the writers and artists themselves. A thorough survey of the criticisms of Meng Chao and his Li Huiniang from 1963 to late 1965, for example, illustrates how Meng’s “incorrect, antisocialist viewpoints” (131) took center stage. By calling attention to this shift, Greene proves that the radicalization effort that culminated in Yao Wenyuan’s 1965 essay on Hai Rui Dismissed from Office—traditionally identified as the prelude of the Cultural Revolution—began much earlier than many have imagined.

Chapter 6 focuses on the several years immediately following the Cultural Revolution, with close attention to Hu Zhifeng’s Li Huiniang (1981). The chapter analyzes the warm reception of Hu’s version of the story with particular focus on its changing political, cultural, and ideological contexts. Greene reveals the fascination that ghosts and mythological characters continued to hold for culture workers, even as “ghost opera could be deployed as yet another avenue to attack disgraced former leaders” (156).

In reading literature produced in high socialist China, especially those works that brought trouble to their writers, it has been common to frame interpretation in the light of their contemporary political storms. While acknowledging the value of this approach, Greene argues for the practice of “just reading” or “surface reading” (18), arguing that “to focus on what an author might have been implying, as opposed to what the text overtly states, is to gloss over an important part of the discourses and practices of literary production” (10). This method is essential because it urges us to read a playscript, a performance review, or a literary critique with close attention to each actual line as given instead of reading between the lines, thus breaking through the mode of interpreting them as coded political comments (which is ironically also how they were being treated during the Cultural Revolution).

In analyzing the experimental nature of literary creations and the debates surrounding supernatural literature, Greene moves beyond the tendency to interpret cultural phenomena as the consequence of political campaigns, a practice that often over-simplifies the cultural history of the PRC into a chronology of “campaign times” (9). Her insightful analyses establish connections between the high socialist period and the pre-1949 reform effort, between the time periods before and after political campaigns during the first decade and a half of the PRC, and between the high socialist period and post–Cultural Revolution China. For example, ghost plays created in the early 1960s—including Meng Chao’s Li Huiniang (1961)—are often examined as commentaries on the Great Leap Forward (GLF). Based on her analyses of the subject, tone, arguments, and rhetoric of multiple ghost play debates, Greene convincingly argues that to read these ghost plays as responses to the GLF is to misapply a 1965–66 framework to these earlier works, neglecting the fact that ghost plays created in the early 1960s are a part of the wave of literary experimentation that had been taking place since the 1950s. The 1965–66 framework has therefore been misleadingly coloring post–Cultural Revolution discourses and historiography.

High socialist China’s cultural sphere is notoriously confusing, with constant changes in the cultural policy narrative, fissures in policy interpretations from various bureaucratic levels, and vague rhetoric—to say the least—in literary and artistic [End Page 119] criticism. Resisting Spirits offers a nuanced understanding of this period’s dramatic literature and performance through a wealth of sources, including published newspaper and journal articles, records of closed-door meetings, published scripts, rehearsal editions of scripts used by performing troupes, personal memoirs and reminiscences, and archival documents. These sources reveal for us a multilayered, mutable cultural landscape from various perspectives and voices. Meticulously researched, elegantly composed, thought-provoking, and critically engaging, Resisting Spirits is a must-read for anyone interested in Chinese theatre and dramatic literature, the cultural history of the PRC, Chinese modernism, and art and politics in general.

Xing Fan
University of Toronto

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