Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 28, 2006

Yang Ban Xi

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 5:08 pm

Opening at NYC's Film Forum on Wednesday, March 29, "Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works" takes a fresh look at the "model opera" of the Cultural Revolution. Drawing upon interviews from both the aging participants and younger devotees of the genre, as well as excerpts from films based on the eight most famous works such as "Red Women's Detachment," it clearly demonstrates a kind of "Ostalgie" for China's revolutionary past. Since the top leadership of the Communist Party is now at least paying lip-service to their Maoist roots and calling for a halt to capitalist excess, it should not come as a surprise that the once-reviled Maoist culture is also being reevaluated in a more positive light.

Director Yan Ting Yuen was born in Hong Kong and moved to Europe with her family at the age of five. Her point of view is obviously ambivalent. Despite a clear, postmodernist distrust of propagandizing, she cannot help but make the case for works that defy her own sensibility. This tension makes for a riveting documentary.

The power of the model operas is undeniable. No matter how stilted the propaganda that comes out of the mouths of the singers, it has the same sort of raw power as some of Shostakovich's more explicitly political works. His oratorio "Song of the Forest" is an obvious inspiration for the Chinese socialist operas. Using upbeat harmonies in major keys and simple rhythms, such works can appeal to a mass audience in a way that more cerebral works cannot. The music and dance are wedded perfectly to themes involving virtuous peasants struggling collectively against evil landlords and fascists.

Yuen's interviews with some of the most famous principals of Yang Ban Xi reveal a mixture of pride and remorse. Xue Qinghua, a ballet dancer, became the lead in "Red Women's Detachment" at the age of 18. It is made clear through her reflections back on this period that she was committed to the politics even though her main goal was success on the stage, as would be the case for any young artist. After the "Gang of Four" was toppled, her career went into a tailspin because she was so closely associated with them artistically. Just as the Cultural Revolution would find scapegoats, so would the movement that replaced it. After Xue Qinghua was forced to work as a seamstress, she was denied a raise after co-workers denounced her as a collaborator with the "Gang of Four".

The "Gang of Four" included Mao's widow Jiang Qing, who serves as a kind of commentator throughout the film. Using a voice-over based on what she purportedly believed in, she comes across not surprisingly as a shrill and monochromatic dictator. Although it is difficult to make the case for her today, one might be inclined to be a bit more forgiving in light of the sheer ambition of her goal, which, as the film makes clear, was nothing less than the creation of a uniquely Chinese popular art.

Perhaps the best way to approach the model opera is in the same vein that recent scholarship on the left by people such as Alan Wald has approached socialist realism and the proletarian novel. If the tendency in the 1950s was to reject such works out of hand as kitschy or unimaginative, a second look at Mike Gold's novels, for example, reveals a powerful indigenous and authentic voice of the working class. One might encounter Chinese Maoist opera in the same terms.

That at least is how Xu Yi Hui, a young conceptual artist in Beijing, sees it. Famous for his porcelain versions of The Little Red Book, which are a postmodernist interpretation of socialist kitsch, he admits being a huge fan of the Yang Ban Xi growing up. He explains that part of the attraction was being able to watch beautiful women in revealing costumes. For pubescent youths in China at the time, these operas seemed to have served the same role that Playboy did in the U.S.

In the middle of this fascinating documentary and at its conclusion, director Yuen makes the supremely wise decision to allow young artists in China to convey her own ideas through music and dance. Using a rock adaptation of Yang Ban Xi music, a troupe of dancers does their own hip-hop interpretation.

Young dancers interpret Yang Ban Xi

Without a doubt, she has accomplished the goals set forward in the press notes that accompanied the screener I watched:

"I wish to state that I hope to create another image, that of an urbane culture in a modern China. A China that has won the Olympic Games of 2008 (and is tearing down all the old housing districts in the capital to present a clean and modern capital to the world). A China in which virtually all the teenage girls and boys drink Starbucks coffee on every street corner at a hefty price (because as an only child they each receive considerable allowances from the incomes of not only their father and mother, but also that of two pairs of grandfathers and grandmothers). A China in which nothing is allowed, but therefore everything is allowed (as long as you know the right way of getting it). A China filled with contradictions, which tries to unite the old with the new and therefore, pragmatic as it is, has to rewrite history again."

1 Comment »

  1. […] The Unrepentant Marxist’s Analysis […]

    Pingback by Evan Hanson | Yang Ban Xi — June 14, 2008 @ 2:13 am

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