Chinese Music During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - Leading On to the Revolution

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution between 1966 to 1976 is a singular era in history. It was a time when artistic creation and production were heavily sanctioned, historical artifacts and sites devastated because they had feudalistic claims and the education system virtually halted with university entrance exams being cancelled and books destroyed. Music, like all other art forms, did not escape censorship during the Cultural Revolution, and naturally, it was influenced and shaped by the social and political factors of that time. Chinese music, of that era has been branded by many as artistically inferior when compared to music from the West, and used as a mere tool for Party propaganda.

At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing, in order to secure her position as the leader of the revolution and to suppress the rising wave of opposition against her, took up a few modern operas under her hand and used them as a “tool for the people's revolution”.

Building upon the Mao frenzy of that time, Jiang Qing's brilliant political move of using Mao's name and the operas ensured her firm place immediately within the political arena and drowned out the wave of resistance which had been brewing. With the performance of the modern Peking Operas "智取威虎山", "海港", "紅燈記" and "沙家浜", the ballets "白毛女" and "紅色娘子軍", and the symphonic work, "沙家浜" on 1 May 1967, the eight “model operas” were born. From then, new artistic creations were modeled after these 8 works, but throughout the decade spanning the Cultural Revolution, these 8 model operas were continually revised and performed all around China.As this was a heavily sanctioned period in Chinese history, not many new compositions were created. Music of that era hence comprised not only of new compositions, but even more of music which had been written before the Cultural revolution. These were essentially compositions deemed suitable for the purpose of promoting revolutionary ideas and they included music for modern operas, symphonic music, ballet music, as well as songs for the masses and a few works for various instrumental combinations.

It may be noted that literature on the music of this era has been scant, especially since this was a period perceived by many as a time when Chinese music was produced under the “hindering hand of the Party”, resulting in music of "marginalized worth". However, I believe that Chinese music, while being used to a great extent for political means, has its own artistic value. In order to establish aesthetic standards, we shall need to examine not only the works produced, but also to understand the societal and cultural contexts for which the music was composed and performed.

Towards the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

As quoted by Mao Zedong, “We must apply appropriate foreign principles and use foreign musical instruments. Learning good things from foreign countries was a necessity and would ultimately benefit China. It was fine to study foreign music and fine to use foreign musical instruments which, after all, are just tools. It was also perfectly acceptable to appreciate and to perform foreign music – indeed, much of the music of early China had come from foreign countries, and this had only enriched China's own music.
You have to learn many things from foreign countries and learn them well. You can thus broaden your horizon. But the Chinese people won't welcome any mechanical transplanting of things foreign into our Chinese art... The arts are inseparable from the customs, feelings and even the language of the people, from the history of the nation... Of course we favor music with a national character. As Chinese we would be in the wrong otherwise.
We must oppose dogmatism and conservatism. Neither will do China any good. Studying things foreign isn't equivalent to copying them all. We learn from the ancients to benefit the living, and we learn from foreigners to benefit the Chinese people.”
Since the Fourth May Movement in 1919, China has opened its doors to Western influences and ideas. From the beginning of the twentieth century, many musicians were sent to European countries to be trained. These musicians returned to China with new knowledge of Western music. Together with their previous background and understanding of Chinese music and their patriotism for their country, they started to transform the musical scene in China. Xiao Youmei (蕭友梅), Zhao Yuanren (趙元任), Liu Tianhua (劉天華), Huang Zi (黃自) and later, Nie Er (聶耳), He Luding (賀綠丁), Xian Xinghai (冼星海), Ma Sicong (馬思聰) and Tan Xiaolin (譚小麟) were a few of such composers whose love for their country and traditional roots allowed them to value the importance of learning from the West, while yet at the same time, coming up with a musical language that they could call their very own.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the musical scene in China underwent several changes. Existing music institutions which came to a standstill during the war were revived and new ones established, to serve as the basis for professional education and development. With the merging of the Lu Xun Arts Academy music troupe and the music departments of several universities throughout China, the first new professional music institution was established – the Central Conservatory of Music. The Shanghai Music Conservatory, the nation's first music school, was also revived and during that time, many good musicians were being nurtured.

The building of musical foundations for New China during that time was filled with difficulties and complications with shifting political campaigns, deep-rooted philosophical differences, as well as the departure of many foreign musicians. However, due to the alliance with China's “Big Brother”, the Soviet Union, there was substantial amount of aid in this respect, as in other areas of China's development. Many experts from the Soviet Union contributed to almost every area of New China's early development. It was estimated that over the course of the 1950s, approximately 10000 Soviet and East European advisors came to work in China.
In the area of music, experts from the Soviet Union were instrumental in building not only orchestras, but also ballet and opera companies and virtually the entire Performing Arts system. Lessons in the conservatories were modeled after the Soviets and Soviet teachers detailed a method of musical training and provided most of the materials to Chinese conservatories and music departments.
The influence of these musicians from the Soviet Union was so great that the sound of China's music soon began to change. Not only were works by many Western composers sidelined and Russian compositions favored, the sound of the orchestras was transformed as well. The brass sounded different, and the sound became brighter, bigger and stronger.
However, not everyone favored Soviet assistance alike. The violinist Tan Shuzhen for example, was unimpressed by their lack of knowledge and command of the general Classical repertoire. Many of the younger musicians from the Soviet Union were never exposed to the big giants of Classical music, but were inclined towards Russian tastes alone. Others, especially those musicians north of Beijing, where the roots of Classical music were not as deep as that in Shanghai, welcomed Soviet assistance more. One of the main points that touched many musicians in China was the contribution of the Soviets in building the infrastructure for musical developments in China, and helping many young talents to launch their careers.

Because of the Soviet influence, musical ideology in China started to change as well, or rather to reaffirm itself. Western influence since the beginning of the twentieth century made people see that music could be purely intended for the sake of Art, and appreciate the aesthetic value of music. The USSR however, believed that music was to “serve a greater purpose”, that politics and society cannot be severed from the music. This simply reaffirmed the philosophical ideas of old, that music had to “do something” and was not an absolute art form in itself.

With the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the cultural atmosphere relaxed and many new works were composed and performed and the arts began to blossom. Mao Zedong also encouraged musicians to learn and apply from others, but to retain the characteristics of China's musical legacy at the same time.
This era was also one of growth for musical institutions. Conservatories were founded in Shenyang in 1958, Chengdu in 1959 and Xian in 1960. Semi-professional orchestras and operas were also established at work units throughout the nation – the Coalmine Workers Cultural Troupe, the Modern Opera Group of the China Railway Workers and the Worker's Orchestra of the Peking Automatic and Electric Works for example. Professional symphony orchestras, ballets and opera companies were also founded in major cities.
These groups became the basis for performances of the model operas which were to come during the Cultural Revolution.

Music for the People

Following hence, many orchestral pieces were written and performed. From the period between 1959 and 1962, there were roughly a dozen symphonies, six symphonic poems and 14 cantatas being premiered. One of the most representative works of this period was the violin concerto by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, "The Butterfly Lovers Concerto". This was a work which was influenced both by foreign technique and Chinese music, true to the spirit of what Mao expounded in his talks. As He Zhanhao puts it, “I came from folk music and went to the Conservatory. So, I sang Yueju but played the violin. When I got to the conservatory, I studied foreign technique very hard. But I asked, who am I studying this for? Am I going to play Bach and Beethoven for the peasants? I play it and they listen. I asked if it's good and they all nod their heads. I ask if they understand, they all say no. But they love to hear Yueju! Of course, the violin is very special and beautiful. So this influenced our thinking – how could we use folk music with the violin? How could we nationalize the violin?”
As could be observed, the musical life of China during that time was far from being shallow and unimaginative. This was a period where the ideology of music serving the people and the country was fully carried out. The development of a new style of Chinese music, one which attempted to bridge the traditional with the new knowledge acquired from the West, was still in its infancy. Many works which were produced at that time could not be said to be beautiful original works in a new style, but rather, strained, laborious attempts at copying the West, with the insertion of traditional elements. However, it was the ideals behind this music which was all-important. Music which was composed for the needs of the society, the directions of the Party, was considered worthwhile music.

It could be seen that music, like all other artistic creations in China, were not simply art for art's sake, but believed to “serve a greater purpose”. This was by no means a new philosophical idea, but one which has been handed down since the beginnings of Chinese music. In “yuefu” (樂府) music for example, music was for cleansing the soul, for purifying the mind, and not simply music for music's sake. In Communist China similarly, music was not simply for music's sake, but to create a revolutionary spirit in the people, to serve political and societal purposes.

Beginnings of the Cultural Revolution

For the musicians in China, the decade of the Cultural Revolution was the darkest hour they had faced yet. At the beginning, most thought this to be a minor movement, no one suspecting the extent of its reign and the deaths it would cause. Many good musicians who returned to China with the hope of doing something for their homeland, found themselves to be the targets of the revolutionaries.
On November 10 1965, an article “On the new historical opera was published. This article was not so much a review as it was a target for a renowned scholar of the Ming Dynasty, Wu Han. This unfortunate historian, the author of the play "Hai Rui Dismissed From Office", was merely a convenient scapegoat, to serve as an impetus for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong, although having tacitly agreed back at Yan'an, the headquarters for the Communist Party during the War of Liberation, that she would stay out of politics, began trying to involve herself in cultural affairs from the start of the 1960s. Peking opera was her first target since Mao had shown particular concern with it and it was easily labeled “feudal” with its stereotyped roles and historical plots. Her own words about her role in the Cultural Revolution were that she simply wanted to be “just a plain soldier, a sentry of the Chairman patrolling on the ideological battle front.”
Many however, see the revolution as a power struggle and a political intrigue, rather than one that serves the name it carries – a Revolution. Mao himself also had his own reasons for starting the Cultural Revolution. Between both of them, began one of the most tragic decades for the arts in China.

In the early months of 1966, Jiang Qing became the cultural advisor to the People's Liberation Army and informed the nation that the PLA was here to battle the struggle in China's cultural arena. Armed with the purpose of removing capitalism from the nation's culture, the burgeoning revolution found supporters in many segments of officialdom and society and its momentum was increasingly difficult to hold back. Hence by the summer of 1966, the Cultural Revolution was well underway and no one could stop it.

Following the bulletin disseminated in 16 May 1966, Jiang Qing and Lin Biao held a talk describing all the forms of art that were against the Communist and proletariat ideas. Their criticism, as with most of the criticisms following this era, was extremely one-sided and condemns every single thing that appeared to be “bourgeois” or rightist. On the other hand, every aspect of art that appeared to encourage communism, Mao, or the proletarian ideas was praised. It was degenerate to have artistic creations talking about neither heroes nor villains, but normal middling, in between human relations, just as it was un-revolutionary to portray love and life and death which did not do with the revolution. Many artistic creations since 1949 were condemned because Jiang Qing felt they did not promote revolutionary ideas.
In addition to this, Jiang Qing also came up with a few artistic ideals she felt all artistic workers have to follow for their creative products to be in line with the revolution. Entirely based upon her own ideas and what benefits her own political motives, she came up with certain theories for every artistic creation that was to be brought forth during this era.

Dark is the Hour

The spirit that drove through the entire country during that period was nothing short of manic. Especially when one was being branded by the Party, many other similar accusations would follow, some by those who wanted to appear on the side of the revolution, some because of personal grudges they hold against the accused, while others just were being swept along by the mania.
Simply dressing like a Westerner was enough to get one be accused of being bourgeois and be locked up, something Tan Shuzhen personally experienced.
Not all survived the ordeals like Tan and by the first few years of the Cultural Revolution, many musicians, professors and students were driven to take their own lives. Others were driven to mental breakdowns through the abuses and punishments they had to live through. There were yet some like He Luding, who refused to succumb to the accusations of the Red Guards and fought on through the end, and there were others who choosed escape, like Ma Sicong. Even more like Li Delun were branded as “black elements” and essentially came to believe in their own guilt.

It is generally the destructive aspects of the Cultural Revolution that are discussed whenever the era is mentioned, which is understandable, even proper, since so many innocents suffered and died and such vast damage was inflicted on China's cultural heritage. But, the stated intent of the Cultural Revolution – however poorly realized – was not simply to destroy, but also to create.
Composition of new music that stirs up revolutionary emotions and ideas were encouraged; the model operas were a new genre of artistic creation; and there was unprecedented merging and development of instruments and forms in the music that was being produced.

The second part of the article is here.

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