Hatred in model operas

« previous post | next post »

From blood and gore to hatred.

In China, revolutionary operas or model operas (Chinese: yangban xi, 样板戏) were a series of shows planned and engineered during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong. They were considered revolutionary and modern in terms of thematic and musical features when compared with traditional Chinese operas. Many of them were adapted to film.

Originally, eight revolutionary operas (Chinese: Ba Ge Yangban Xi, 八个样板戏) were produced, eighteen by the end of the period. Instead of the "emperors, kings, generals, chancellors, maidens, and beauties" of the traditional Peking opera, which was banned as "feudalistic and bourgeois," they told stories from China's recent revolutionary struggles against foreign and class enemies. They glorified the People's Liberation Army and the bravery of the common people, and showed Mao Zedong and his thought as playing the central role in the victory of socialism in China. Although they originated as operas, they soon appeared on LPs, in comic books (lianhuanhua), on posters, postcards, and stamps; on plates, teapots, wash basins, cigarette packages, vases, and calendars. They were performed or played from loudspeakers in schools, factories, and fields by special performing troupes. The Eight Model Operas dominated the stage in all parts of the country during these years, leading to the joke "Eight hundred million people watched eight shows."


I still remember the reactions of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution if they would hear so much as a single line from these eight operas.  Since that was all the music and drama they heard for a decade, they would stop up their ears and turn away, with some even shaking from the trauma of the memory.

The terror of the eight model operas was due not just to the extreme monotony they induced, but because of the hatred with which they were infused.  Here is a sampling of some highlights from the eight operas.  Even if you don't know a single word of Chinese, you will still hear the actors hiss out the syllables of chóuhèn 仇恨 ("hatred"), bàochóu 报仇 ("revenge"), and so on.  Now that "blood" has become a common theme of Xi's speeches, my moderate, educated friends in China fear that "hatred" will once again soon take center stage as it did during the Cultural Revolution.  In fact, I have it on good authority (people who have attended them) that — at the behest of the Supreme / Paramount Leader — the model operas are already once again being staged in the PRC.  One more step back to the terrifying days of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which came to an end only with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.


Selected readings


  1. John Swindle said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 8:55 am

    The form was also known as modern revolutionary Beijing opera (革命现代京剧 gémìng xiàndài jīngjù). The "sampling of some highlights" explicitly highlights the theme of hatred, but it's surely a prominent theme.

  2. cameron said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 10:23 am

    The Red Detachment of Women was a model opera that was performed for Richard Nixon when he visited China in '72. It features as an opera-within-an-opera in Nixon in China by John Adams and Alice Goodman.

  3. Dan Milton said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 3:22 pm

    Forgive me for a question maybe of interest only to myself, but the readers of this post seem my first chance to get an answer.
    Twenty-five years ago or so, when I was trying to learn some Chinese, I had a pair of Chinese slippers. As the inner sole wore through, I saw it was lined with newspaper. No complete sentences, many unreadable partial characters, but I concluded it was part of a review of a Beijing Opera company production of “The Fisherman becomes a Teacher”.
    I’d be thrilled if someone could confirm I wasn’t kidding myself.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 8, 2021 @ 6:07 pm

    @Dan Milton

    Since at least medieval times, it has been customary to use old documents to line the inner soles of shoes. As to whether the particular newspaper lining your slippers is a review of "The Fisherman becomes a Teacher", you'd have to get someone who reads Chinese to take a look at it.

  5. Rodger C said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:48 am

    I think Dan can read Chinese and just wants to know if there was really an opera by that name.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 3:08 pm

    One of the eight was 智取威虎山, usually Englished as "Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy," which somehow became a very loose inspiration for Brian Eno's cult-favorite 1974 album of the same name.


  7. Noel Hunt said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:19 pm

    `…usually Englished as…'—This usage is incorrect, it should be 'Englishified as'.

RSS feed for comments on this post