Chinese Music During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - The "New" Art

The first part of this article is here.

During the Cultural Revolution, music creation came almost to a standstill, in comparison with the vast output just a few years earlier. Of the music that was publicly created, there was none which was not used for the Party's political agenda.
The “new” culture was for a transformed, proletarian art form and its most significant realization was in the field of music and opera because this was the area in which Jiang Qing concentrated her energies and political ambitions on, being an actress herself once. Even before the start of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing had made, in her first public speech to a group of Peking opera actors, that “our operatic stage is occupied by emperors and kings, generals and ministers, scholars and beauties, and, on top of these, ghosts and monsters! It is our view that opera on revolutionary contemporary themes must reflect real life in the fifteen years since the founding of our Chinese People's Republic, and that images of contemporary revolutionary heroes must be created on our operatic stage. This is our foremost task.”
Many left-winged radicals were of the same opinion and even at that time, way before the Cultural Revolution, several such musical works and operas were already produced, including "The Red Lantern"(紅燈記), "Shajiabang"(沙家浜), and "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy"<(智取威虎山). These three in particular caught Jiang Qing's attention and they were later to be named among the model operas of the Cultural Revolution. Once the Cultural Revolution was started and the bureaucratic ranks purged of her opposition, Jiang Qing started working on the development of several musical projects. Many of the old operas which had caught her eyes before the Revolution were taken up and revised, and Jiang Qing would involve herself right with the smallest details. Like the modern operas, Jiang Qing also began to interest herself in the Western symphonic music before the Cultural Revolution. By the Cultural Revolution, music workers of the Philharmonic, keen to keep it alive, decided to take a page out of Peking opera, which had assimilated various kinds of folk music. As Lu Gongda explained in his 1967 article, “To better bring out the ideas of people's war and portray the heroes better and more adequately and vividly, we refused to be limited by the convention of bourgeois symphonic music that the theme must be expressed solely through musical images. We added whatever art form could serve proletarian politics well, including traditional Chinese instruments, voices and chorus recitation, a backdrop with projected scenes.” Even though these operas and musical works were “new creations” during that era, many of them were works that were already present before the start of the Cultural Revolution – works that Jiang Qing had seen before and had approved of their content, and had done some editing to perhaps part of the script, or the choreography or gave some opinion to the musical content – hence they were not entirely a new creation. The very few works that could be considered new creations were perhaps, the pipa concerto "Little Sisters of the Grassland" (草原英雄小姊妹), dizi pieces such as "牧民新歌", "揚鞭躍馬運糧忙", "苗岭的早晨", the suona piece, "山村來了售貨員", the guzheng piece "東海漁歌", and erhu pieces "奔馳在千里草原", "懷鄉曲", "戰馬奔騰", "春到沂河", violin pieces "千年鐵樹開了花", "陽光照耀在塔什庫爾干"; mass songs such as "祝福毛主席萬壽無疆", "萬歲毛主席", "我愛北京天安門", "火車向著韶山跑", "紅星歌", and ensemble pieces such as "豐收鑼鼓", "漁舟凱歌" and "亂雲飛". Of music created before, which was approved during the Cultural Revolution, there are more examples. A few of such works can be seen in the music of the model operas, in the erhu piece “The Golden Sun in Beijing” (北京有個金太陽), in the traditional instrumental ensemble piece “Red Flowers Blossoming in Dazhai” (大寨紅花遍地開), in the “Yellow River Chorus” (黃河大合唱), to name a few. By the mid-1966, Jiang Qing's productions were already being referred to as “model revolutionary theatrical works”, “model revolutionary operas” or simply “model operas” (樣板戲). These model operas by definition did not include only modern operas but other genres as well, such as ballet, symphonic music and even concertos. After the performance of the 8 model operas on 1 May 1067, her work in these model operas were officially acknowledged with an editorial by the People's Daily: “Holding high the great banner of Mao Zedong Thought, Comrade Jiang Qing has advanced bravely to participate in this performing arts revolution. She has created, for the first time in history, eight shining-star models for Peking opera, ballet and symphonic music. She has captured the most stubborn citadel of theater arts, Peking opera; surmounted the highest peak of performing arts, ballet; and that of the most sacred “pure music”, symphony.” Most literature at that time about these “model operas” was not far from the description above. Criticising any model operas was out of the question and works which were not based on revolutionary ideas were all condemned for their bourgeoisity and anti-revolutionary ideas. It was an absolute good or bad, right or wrong, and nothing in between. Besides the prescribed “model operas”, various other forms of artistic performances were still taking place all over China at this time. Various opera troupes were still playing, and though traditional texts were banned, new modern librettos were written. Most of the time, these were accompanied by music from the traditional operas. Hence during this period of time, under the guise of new operas, traditional music was preserved and passed on. Aesthetic and Social Values of the Model Operas

Although termed “model operas”, this genre did not include purely operatic forms. In fact, it is a conglomeration of the forms of performing art in which Jiang Qing had a hand in and manipulated for her personal political domain. The 8 model operas during the “First Wave” include the modern operas "紅燈記", "沙家浜", "智取威虎山", "海港" and "奇襲白虎團", the ballet "紅色娘子軍" and "白毛女", and the symphonic music "沙家浜". Hence model operas could refer, not only to modern operas developed from Peking opera, but also to ballet and even symphonic music.

The “Second Wave” of model operas came around the 1970s when Jiang Qing ordered Yu Huiyong (於會泳) and a few other artistic workers in the production of 9 new works, namely the modern Peking Operas "紅燈記", "海港", "杜鵑山", "平原作戰" and "磐石灣", the ballets "白毛女" and "沂蒙頌", the choral piece with piano accompaniment "紅燈記" and the piano concerto “黃河".

These 9 works were also not entirely new, as they were revisions of operas and music that had existed even before the Cultural Revolution. In the production of these model operas, Jiang Qing once said, “Glasses are made by men, but who has ever seen the creator of the glass carving his name on it?”
Perhaps also afraid of the rising power of the person who has created a successful model opera, many of those who worked hard to get a successful work running often found themselves not long after, being the target of numerous crimes they did not even know they committed. Hence it is almost impossible to find out who actually was involved in the creation and editions of which parts of each model opera, not only because no one labels their own name on it, but also because no one dared to take credit. Exact composition date was also difficult to determine since these works were mostly in existent before Jiang Qing took them under her hand and ordered lengthy revisions and re-revisions over the years.

Although Jiang Qing often has been hailed as the creator and producer of these model operas, her role in the actual artistic production of the earlier model operas was in fact, very little. Many of the works such as were produced before the advent of the Cultural Revolution but during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing took them up, modified them according to her “artistic ideals” and fitted them into the mold that was to be put over all sorts of artistic creation over those 10 years.
However, just as it was incorrect to say that Jiang Qing created all of these model operas, it was equally incorrect to say that she simply took what was there and adapted them to suit her needs. There were continual revisions to the existing model operas, some which were based on Jiang Qing's ideas, others by the various composers under the directives of what Jiang Qing allowed and disallowed them to do. Because of this tight rein in what is “correct” and “incorrect” in artistic productions, new works that were created had to fit into this overall structure which hence influenced the resulting works.

The "Red Detachment of Women"(紅色娘子軍) for example, was a ballet which was not created by Jiang Qing, but later, under the direction of Jiang Qing, been edited and revised. Though not the creator, she was the most “important” decision-maker with regards to everything in the revision process. During President Nixon's visit to China in 1972, it became a showpiece of Chinese achievements. Nixon was recorded as saying that Jiang Qing was “undeniably successful, in her attempt to create a consciously propagandistic theater piece that would both entertain and inspire its audience.”

Once these model operas appeared, they quickly dominated the entire nation. Exacerbated by the lack of other forms of entertainment, these model operas permeated national consciousness. This also promoted the training of countless young performers. With the conservatories no longer functioning, many young musicians had to learn from friends, relatives or other professional musicians. Although they were not allowed to play concertos or symphonies in public, they could still practice etudes and some even learned to play Classical masterpieces privately. At the same time, since model operas were largely based on Peking opera music and folk songs, many also gained a deeper understanding of traditional Chinese music. The training of so many young people in both Western instruments and Chinese music was unprecedented in China's history. Though its purpose was revolutionary, its greatest impact was on music and would only be understood when the Cultural Revolution finally ended.

In addition, even though this new form of opera was highly stylized, with only a single motive in the minds of the creators – for revolutionary purpose – it was nonetheless a genre in itself that was unique and singular. It successfully fulfilled the goal of propagandization, and within the rigid boundaries of what could be written and what could not, the music that emerged was in fact, of the highest quality. Definitely, if the Western framework of good musical creation was to be put on these works, they would be deemed worthless since the harmony was atrocious, the orchestration was simple, and the music sounded propagandistic. But if we look upon the ideals and believes of the Chinese on the value of music, this was in fact one of the most successful forms of music ever created in the history of Chinese music since the goals for which they were created for – to propagate revolutionary ideas – were basically fulfilled.

Artistic Ideology

During the period of the Cultural Revolution, many contentions about absolute music arose, which were not purely aimed at the musical or the artistic, but rather, at the societal and political level. Absolute music is a concept of music widely utilised in the West, a form of music with no extramusical references but is simply music for music's sake. In contrast, Chinese music was almost never without a programme or an extramusical idea, message or story behind it.
Music was never perceived to be art for art's sake or sound for sound's sake. Titles and programme notes were not simply meant to be suggestive guides to the audience, but to provide the appropriate interpretation at a given time.
This concept of programmaticism was held even stricter during this period of time and no music without an approved programme could be performed.

"The woman manipulating the directions of artistic activities during the Cultural Revolution was an ex-actress, who had some basic ideas of what she liked and disliked about certain works. However, her fancies were simply based on her gut feelings and she had no real theoretical backing behind the instructions she hands out. However, there were some constant points that she attempted to make throughout all the works." Hence when Yu Huiyong wrote an article on the artistic notions of these model operas, he decided to label these as Jiang Qing's core theory, the “san tuchu” (三突出). Jiang Qing saw the usefulness of this and very soon, she applied this theory over all the artistic creations and called it her own.

In “san tuchu”, it demands that first, the positive characters had to be given prominence, second, the heroic characters had to be given prominence among the positive roles and finally, the main hero had to be given the most prominence among all the heroic characters. In the music, this “san tuchu” could be observed clearly. Positive characters are depicted with “positive” instruments which are clear sounding and in the high range. Leitmotifs, as western borrowing, plays an important role in many of the model operas. They depict the different characters and simply through the development of the leitmotifs themselves, one could follow clearly, the storyline of the entire ballet or play.
With the popularity of this “san tuchu” comes a whole range of other “san-isms”, all coined by different people but finally being adapted as Jiang Qing's own. “San duitou” (三對頭), “san dapo” (三打破), “san peichen” (三陪襯) and “san chuxin” (三出新) to quote a few more prominent ones, were a few which came up and soon used to govern the creation of the model operas rigidly, not only in the theatrical aspect but in the musical aspect as well.

San peichen” was built upon “san tuchu”, and it involves the contrast of characters – contrast between the good and the evil, among the good, there must be contrast of the heroes with the ordinary people, and among the heroes, there must be contrast between the greatest hero from all the others. Hence within the music of these model operas, the music of the good will be “positive” sounding but even so, within them, that of the greatest hero will have to sound the most positive and most heroic.

San duitou” was first, the alignment of the characters with their ideals, second, the alignment of the loves and passions of the character with revolutionary ideals and third, the alignment of the setting with the current era. Thus a hero would be one who was revolutionary, one who was bourgeois would die in the end. All the plays would have to be about China in the 60s and no characters would have any gray areas, they would either love the Party and go all out for their ideals, or they would be anti-revolutionaries. Similarly, the music would portray very clearly these ideas. Themes that were easily recognisable to the common people were good, because there would be no contradiction and as a result of this, music was not only extremely programmatic but also extremely easy to understand.

San dapo” was to remove all forms of stylistic characteristics of various operatic traditions, to remove traditional forms in the operas and to remove various forms of operatic movements and to make it realistic. Within the music, this was done by removing the traditional instruments from the operatic setup, but instead use western instruments such as the violin. To Jiang Qing, it was a reflection of how learning from the West was incorporated into nationalistic ideas, and also because she felt they sounded more heroic and more suited for the task at hand.

San chuxin” refers to the portrayal of the new era, new life, and new people, a contrast to the old tradition of China.

Even though these theories sound ludicrous to present day audience, it did in fact serve as a guide for the production of all the model plays during that era, resulting in the development of a form of highly stylized genre of opera and music. All the model plays underwent lengthy revisions overseen by Jiang Qing and her colleagues and came to share certain key characteristics designed to “inspire men to struggle...[to] make hatred of oppression shine through the tears in the audience's eyes.”

Principal Musical Features During the Cultural Revolution

The music of this period had a few traits in common. Some of these were the notion of collaborative composition, musical borrowing, the use of leitmotif, and the use of Western instruments. Even though Jiang Qing's own knowledge of music was considered minimal in the eyes of the musicians, she still had strong opinions on musical aspects, some of which were particularly silly, such as trying to ban trombones because she did not like their sound.

She also believed that Western instruments were superior to Chinese instruments, their sound to be more heroic, which was one reason why these model operas ironically used Western instead of Chinese instruments. However, in most of the model operas, Chinese instruments were also used alongside the western instruments.< The music all had to be “heroic” sounding. Anything which was sentimental or perhaps more pensive were regarded as dangerous to revolutionary ideals. Composers adhered closely to the “artistic ideals” forwarded by Jiang Qing as mentioned earlier, and character pieces were a absolute must and the programme all had to do with Mao, or the greatness of the Party and the Revolution. The music had to be easily accessible, since the main motive of the music was for the entire proletariat to be able to understand and appreciate. Melodic Features

Musical borrowing was one of the central themes in music of this era. Rearrangement of old tunes was plentiful, not only because it was probably safer to rearrange something which was approved rather than write anything new which they could not be sure if it would lead them into trouble or not, but also perhaps due to the artistic believes of the Chinese.

In the west, an artist is raised to the ranks of the hero. He is the creator, the one who gives life to the art work he produces. But in the Chinese tradition, originality may not be a standard virtue.
According to Leys, the quality the Chinese judges art by “does not reside in a creation of new signs but in a new way of using conventional signs [...] in Chinese art, the emphasis is always on interpretation rather than on invention.”

Unlike western compositions where composer-centredness is prime, in Chinese music, the work is placed above the creator of the music. Oftentimes, a work may be so familiar in tune to many, but the composer remaining unknown.

Hence what hails as good art in the west may not be similarly regarded in China. Narcissism, a sign of the modern western world is a potential threat in modern China. Like everything else, to hold one's composition higher than anything else, is a dangerous form of thinking. What was more important was the interpretation of what the music signifies, rather than the music in itself.

In "The Red Detachment of Women", the composers utilize revolutionary and military songs such as the Chinese national anthem at the beginning and the Internationale at the end in order to convey realism and to make the musical ideas easily accessible. Both the beginning of the overture and the leitmotif of the Red Detachment are reminiscent of the rhythmic and intervallic structure of "The March of the Volunteers" by Nie Er. The entire framework of Chinese Communism draws the understanding and recognition of the Chinese who could probably recognize immediately allusions and quotations of certain revolutionary music, such as the hints of the theme from Nie Er's "The March of the Volunteers".

To make the entire model opera more easily accessible, especially those model operas which are modern operas and ballets, there is an extensive use of the idea of the leitmotif. Frequently, there would be a melodic theme for a character which will then recur each time the character appears. It may be modified according to the storyline, but it will still remain easily recognisable with the original. Not only does this provide the audience with a coherent link to the music, but also tells the audience unmistakably, which are the heroes and which are the villains. Dissonances and awkward harmonies are usually used to symbolise treacherous characters while the heroes would often be portrayed with consonances and pleasing melodies.

"The Red Detachment of Women", representative of many of the works during that era, was conceived within several frameworks. Written with late Romantic conventions, the Chinese audience, for whom such sounds were familiar, would immediately be able to decipher the musical message contained within. The use of tritones for example, distinguishes the evil from the good. Chinese folkmusic and certain concepts only intelligible to the Chinese themselves due to the propaganda during this period would decode certain political messages as well for the audiences.

Textures are transparent and the harmonic language of "The Red Detachment of Women" is also easily accessible. The primitive orchestral writing in Western standards are in fact, reminiscent of the linear structuring of Chinese music. In traditional Chinese music, there is often linear scoring of melodic lines and opposed to Western harmonic movement, and the notes are supported by the different timbres rather than by different notes which form the harmony. With the influence of Western music since the beginning of the 20th century, onto such linear scoring have been added Western sounds and harmonies, creating a new soundscape in Chinese music.

Instrumentation and Medium and Form

Since the beginning of the 20th century, music in China has undoubtedly learnt and absorbed into their own, certain Western styles and traditions. Merging it together with the traditional, music of this era has become distinctive in its own way.

The symphonic work "Shajiabang" for example, written from the modern opera of the same name, contains many beautiful singing passages portraying the heroes of the New Fourth Army and the Party underground workers. Skillfully woven together, these different media form a complete production with symphonic music as the main part. The singing is still in Peking opera style, and Chinese cymbals, gongs, drums, the hu-qin (胡琴) and suona (嗩吶) have been added to the orchestra. All these have now become integral components of the symphony.”

Like "Shajiabang", other model operas are also a conglomeration of various performing media – dance, theatre, music, literature – all merged together. Such a combination of different performing media was not new, but during the Cultural Revolution, it was emphasised so much that it permeated national consciousness, since nothing other these model operas could be enjoyed safely.

Being a success, the symphonic "Shajiabang" sparked efforts to create more revolutionary works using Western musical instruments and symphony orchestras.
"The Red Lantern with Piano Accompaniment" was premiered in July 1968 and its inspiration, as recalled by the composer Yin Chengzong was such, “My comrades and I have often discussed the question: Is it possible to make the piano serve the workers, peasants and soldiers? We looked at it this way: The piano was created by working people. Why can't it serve the working people, proletarian politics and socialism?... The successful revolution in Peking opera was like a clap of spring thunder shaking the whole world. It gave us courage and inspiration. We thought: Armed with Mao Zedong's thought and under the leadership of Comrade Jiang Qing, the literary and art workers could break through the most stubborn fortress such as Peking opera. What other fortress can't we conquer?”

"The Yellow River Piano Concerto", an adaptation of Xian Xinghai's "Yellow River Cantata" was also created under the guidance of Jiang Qing. In this concerto, the formal structure and instrumentation used is Western - they wrote four organically linked sections reminiscent of the conventional Western tradition of the different movements in a symphony, and made full use of the expressive potential within the concerto form, with the piano accompanied by other instruments. They also adapted the western cadenza technique in the boatmen's song to depict the tumultuous river and the boatmen's victory over the rapids. However, besides that, the group of composers also used Chinese traditional instruments such as the zheng (箏) and yangqin (揚琴) to enliven the melodies and bring out the youthful exuberance of the liberated area. Finally, they also added the melodies of "The East is Red" and "The Internationale" to evoke the splendid image of China's working class and broad masses fighting for the liberation of all mankind on the side of all oppressed nations and peoples of the world.”

Like the other model operas, the line between what is Western and what is truly Chinese starts to be blurred.

When Harold Schonberg reviewed this concerto for "The New York Times" in 1973, he commented that it was “movie music... a rehash of Rachmaninoff, Khachaturian, late romanticism, bastardized Chinese music and Warner Brother climaxes”. Nonetheless, the concerto was significant in its own way. It introduced Western-style orchestral music to millions of Chinese and like the other model symphonic works and the model operas in general, it ultimately proved more important in promoting Western-style music than revolution. Furthermore, to judge the aesthetic values of Chinese music, it is impossible to separate it from the realistic and the idealistic. To simply judge an artistic creation from the basis of musical notation will not suffice. Likewise, an attempt to compare Chinese music with Western musical ideas, either in composition process or historical development, will not yield significant harvests in a true understanding of Chinese music.

The End of a Chapter

From the 1970s, there started bit by bit, diplomatic visits from other countries. With the discovery of Lin Biao's coup attempt and his death in 1971, followed by the death of Chen Yi in 1972, Mao apparently turned around in his stance. Although the Cultural Revolution would not be over for a few years, this was an important turning point for from then on, its force began to ebb.
By 1975, Mao was once again reconsidering the path the Cultural Revolution had taken and complained that “the slightest mistakes are dealt with by criticism. There is no more blooming of a hundred flowers. The others cannot bring up their opinions; that's no good. There is a fear of writing articles, writing plays, novels, poems, and songs.”

With the death of Zhou Enlai on January 8, 1976 and the passing on of Mao on September 9, 1976, Jiang Qing and the four radical leaders, the Gang of Four were arrested and charged with having perpetrated innumerable crimes of the last decade. Finally, after an entire decade, the people's nightmare was over – the Cultural Revolution had officially ended. With the Central Philharmonic Orchestra performing Beethoven's Symphony on March 26, 1977, it not only marked the end of the Cultural Revolution but also the beginning of a time of rebuilding.

The Cultural Revolution was a singular era in history, and in the arena of music, was unique in the fact that the entire creation and production of all forms of art was held under a tight rein. There was to be one model, one ideal, one goal in the artistic creations, music included. After the Cultural Revolution, there was no longer absolute control by the government over the arts and compositions did not have to be as single-minded as those that appeared in the past decade. However, a decade was a long time and musical development, in its own way, over that time was to affect the music that came after.

Music to a nation is like a part of the face of a nation. Take it off and you get an incomplete picture of the nation. It evolves and changes as the fabric of the society moves and changes. Even while some believe music and the arts should be higher than politics or society, it will still inevitably be affected by the society and the political situations it finds itself in.

Chinese music cannot simply be judged based on the inherent music, or the forms, or the styles, or the harmonies. To the Chinese, music is never simply music, but it is something serving a greater purpose. Whether the purpose was for purification of the mind, or for motivating workers in their labors, or for increasing the knowledge about something, or to serve the society, the nation and greater political goals, Chinese music is never free from these ideological baggage. The difficulty in studying Chinese music has always been how to judge a piece of music. Naturally, many would adopt Western techniques of looking at a piece of music, of analyzing a piece of music – after all, such scholarly research on music has been in place in the West for a long time and it has only begun in China – but to simply do this would be inadequate and not doing justice to what Chinese music really is.

Chinese music perhaps, is not certain genres of music by certain composers, but rather, like the collectivistic values of the Chinese, a collectivistic entity. It is made up, not only of the notes that are written, or the sounds that are played, but also of the entire Chinese society, its philosophy, ideals and hopes. Take Xian Xinghai's "Yellow River Cantata" out of the context and society it was written and one would find simplistic harmonies, bad orchestration and formulaic melodic lines, much like the homework of a good composition student. However, put the piece of work into the society, the political situation, the ideals of the Party at Yan'an, and you get a piece of music which was so powerful, so moving, that it inspired countless others in their pursuit of their ideals. This is perhaps then, what Chinese music really is. A collectivistic coming together of the notes on paper, the sounds from the instruments, with the dreams, ideals and hopes of the people, all merging together with the society and the nation.


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1 comment:

  1. well done. I really didn't like Chinese opera til I heard the Model Works

    john huie