Friday, June 29, 2018

The Eight Model Plays

The various forms of Chinese opera that developed over centuries were nearly eliminated during the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong.

This was in spite of the fact that practitioners of Chinese opera have had tremendous influence on Western drama. One of the most famous performers of the 20th century was the Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang, who toured in Japan, the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union, becoming a major influence on Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre.

Mei Lanfang might have wowed communist artists in the West, but that didn't matter in China. After Mao took over the mainland in 1949, all forms of theatre became threatened. Many political zealots believed everything that smacked of the pre-revolutionary past must be reformed or destroyed completely.

Beginning in 1966, Mao launched a "Cultural Revolution" that sought to purge China of all elements of capitalism and traditionalism. He appointed his wife, Jiang Qing, to modernize the country's theatre and ensure that it become staunchly communist. She engineered eight model plays meant to be exemplary representations of the ideal new drama. All other dramas were banned. As some observers later joked, eight million people watched only eight shows.

The eight model plays consisted of five operas, Shajiabang, The Legend of the Red Lantern, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, Raid on the White Tiger Regiment, and On the Dock. There were also two ballets, The Red Detachment of Women and The White-Haired Girl, as well as a symphonic version of Shajiabang. After 1969, the government allowed other plays modeled after these eight, but the eight model plays continued to dominate the repertoire.

It was not until after Mao's death in 1976 that China began to reverse the disastrous effects of the Cultural Revolution. By that time, many of the artists who knew the older operas had died, been imprisoned, or sent to work doing menial jobs.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the Chinese government spent a great deal of money and effort to revive traditional opera. Today, it remains a valued cultural heritage, no thanks to the "reformers" of the past.