Revolutionary opera

Revolutionary opera

Revolutionary opera refers to the model operas (Simplified/Traditional Chinese: 样板戏/樣板戲) planned and engineered during the Cultural Revolution by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong.[1] As Communist Party-sanctioned operas, they were considered "revolutionary" and modern in terms of thematic and musical features when compared with traditional operas.

In total, eight revolutionary operas were made, and, according to some sources, they were the only forms of artistic expression allowed in China at the time.[2] Traditional Beijing opera was considered "feudalistic and bourgeois," and was banned.[1] The operas were made in accordance with Mao's provision that "art must serve the interests of the workers, peasants, and soldiers and must conform to proletarian ideology."[1] The limited number of operas (8) thus led to the coinage of the term Eight Model Operas (ba'ge)

The operas are often taken as paradigmatic of the Party-dominated art of the Cultural Revolution, and have been condemned as an aesthetic and cultural aberration.[3]



Jiang Qing was the chief advocate and engineer of the transformation from traditional opera to revolutionary opera, and chose the Beijing opera as her "laboratory experimentation" for accomplishing this radical change in theater art.[1] Traditional Beijing opera was revolutionized in both form and content. Eight yangbanxi (样板戏/樣板戲), or model operas, were produced in the first three years of the Cultural Revolution. They consisted of:

  • six modern operas:
    • The Red Lantern (simplified/traditional Chinese: 红灯记/紅燈記)
    • Shajia Village (沙家浜)
    • Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategies (智取威虎山)
    • Raid on the White Tiger Regiment (奇袭白虎团/奇襲白虎團)
    • Praise of Dragon River (龙江颂/龍江頌)
    • On the Dock (海港)
  • and two ballets:
    • Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军/紅色娘子軍)
    • White-Haired Girl (白毛女)

After 1969 several other model operas were produced, including Azalea Mountain, Ode to the Dragon River, Battle in the Plains, and Bay of Panshi, following the original model in content and form. However it was the above (bulleted) eight plays that were most commonly played.[1]

The new revolutionary theatrical forms were praised as "shining victories" of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong Thought. An article published in the Red Flag journal under a pen name stated, "The glorious achievement of revolutionary operas marked a revolution in art by the proletariat. It is the major component of our country's proletarian cultural revolution. . . . In the series of revolutionary model operas nurtured by beloved Comrade Jiang Qing, the image of proletarian heroes is established; the stage that has been controlled by landlords and representatives of the bourgeoisie for the past thousand years is now gone. The real master of history has entered the field of art and started a new era in the history of art".[1]

Eight model plays

The Red Detachment of Women

The "Eight model plays" (Chinese: 八个样板戏; pinyin: bā gè yàngbǎnxì) were the most famous of the few operas and ballets that were permitted during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976). They all have communist or revolutionary themes.

The official versions of the operas were all Beijing operas and were produced by either the China Beijing Opera House or Shanghai Beijing Opera House, although many of them were subsequently adapted to local provincial types of operas. The ballets were produced by either the Central Ballet Troupe or Shanghai Ballet Troupe.

In addition to the traditional format of Beijing opera, The Legend of the Red Lantern was adapted to a piano-accompanied cantata by the pianist Yin Chengzong, which was basically a cycle of arias excerpted from the opera. And Shajiabang was musically expanded to a symphony with a full Western orchestra, a format similar to the ninth symphony of Beethoven.

Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, the ballet Red Detachment of Women was adapted to a Beijing opera, and the Beijing opera The Azalea Mountain was adapted to a ballet, but they did not have a chance to become as popular as their earlier versions, and the ballet version of The Azalea Mountain never got officially released.

Although these works bear unmistakable political overtones of the time when they were created, they nonetheless had significant artistic values, and for this reason, some of the works remain popular even today, over thirty years after the Cultural Revolution.

The three most popular Beijing operas are The Legend of the Red Lantern, Shajiabang, and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. And the ballet that still shows a considerable vitality today is the Red Detachment of Women, the one that was presented to Richard Nixon, President of the United States, who visited China in 1972, seven years before the normalization of the Sino-US relationship. This performance was reenacted in a slightly surreal form in John Adams's opera Nixon in China (1985-87).

The eight model plays were the subject of the 2005 documentary film Yangbanxi, The Eight Model Works.

Deployment in China

Model operas were performed on stages, broadcast on the radio, made into films, and sung by millions. They were the only available theatrical entertainment for 800 million people, the entire population of China at the time.[1]

Unlike European opera, which was essentially entertainment for the elite, modern Beijing opera had become a popular political art. Many ordinary Chinese citizens were familiar with the arias in these model operas and would sing them at home or on the streets.[1]

Author Huo Wang, a citizen in China at the time, wrote in 1998 in reference to the cultural revolution era: "Model operas are the only art form left in the whole of China. You cannot escape from listening to them. You hear them every time you turn on the radio. You hear them from loudspeakers every time you go outside"[1]

In her book Red Azalea, Anchee Min describes her personal experiences with Mao's didactic creation, the revolutionary opera. She became a fan initially because there were not many other forms of diversion. ‘Entertainment was a 'dirty bourgeois word', but the revolutionary operas were supposed to be something else, "a proletarian statement." To love or not to love the operas was a serious political attitude, Min writes, and "meant to be or not to be a revolutionary."

For a decade the same eight operas were taught on radio and in school, and were promoted by neighborhood organizations. Min writes:

"I listened to the operas when I ate, walked and slept. I grew up with the operas. they became my cells. I decorated the porch with posters of my favorite opera heroines. I sang the operas wherever I went. My mother heard me singing in my dreams; she said that I was preserved by the operas. It was true. I could not go on a day without listening to the operas. I pasted my ear close to the radio, figuring out the singer's breaths. I imitated her. The aria was called 'I won't quit the battle until all the beasts are killed.' It was sung by Iron Plum a teenage character in an opera called The Red Lantern. I would not stop singing the aria until my vocal cords hurt. I went on pushing my voice to its highest pitch. I was able to recite all the librettos..."

Modern repackaging

Some of the eight model revolutionary operas have been scrubbed clean of their political baggage and sent on tours around the world.

According to Liu Kang from Duke University:

During a 1996 North American tour, the China Central Ballet repeatedly performed The Red Detachment of Women as its grand finale, which caused postmodern audiences in Los Angeles and New York to marvel at the opera's innovative multipositionality and hybridity, in which revolutionary ideologies, exotic nativist music and dances of the Li ethnic minority on Hainan Island, and high European styles and modalities coalesce in a neo-Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.[4]

List of model plays

The "original" eight model plays

Beijing operas



  • Shajiabang

Other model plays

Beijing operas


  • Song of the Yimeng Mountain
  • The Brother and Sister on the Prairie

See also

External links



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lu, Xing (2004). Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. University of South California Press. pp. 143–150. 
  2. ^ Shu Jiang Lu, When Huai Flowers Bloom, p 12 ISBN978-0-7914-7231-6
  3. ^ Mittler, Barbara. "Popular Propaganda? Art and Culture in Revolutionary China", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia: Dec 2008. Vol. 152, Iss. 4; pg. 466
  4. ^ Liu, Kang. "Popular Culture and the Culture of the Masses in Contemporary China", 2, Vol. 24, No. 3, Postmodernism and China (Autumn, 1997), pp. 99-122. Duke University Press


  • Clark, Paul (2008). The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-87515-8. Explores the culture produced including the eight "model operas."
  • Lu, Guang (1997). "Modern Revolutionary Beijing Opera: Context, Contents, and Conflicts." Ph.D. dissertation. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University.

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