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“The Brightest Sun, The Darkest Shadow”: Ideology and the Study of Chinese Theatre in the West during the Cold War

  • Siyuan Liu


This is the new Communist drama, and the picture is frequently artless and sterile, without depth, without truth, and without reality.

—Walter and Ruth Meserve, 1970

Peking opera now is a mixture of drama, music, dance, acrobatics, poetry, propaganda and revolutionary history, with indefatigable heroes (more adroit than James Bond, and with a purpose he never dreamed of) and fabulously wicked villains—the whole socking out a message of exemplary struggle and courage.

—Lois Wheeler Snow, 1972
The study of Asian theatre as an academic field independent of English and Asian Studies arose in the West, particularly the United States, after World War II, in part as a result of the U.S. occupation of Japan and cold war–era funding policies aimed at spreading democracy in Asia. The notable exception was research on theatre in the People's Republic of China (PRC), which was restrained by the McCarthyist Red Scare, which greatly constricted China studies, and the PRC's self-imposed closure to the West, which made field and archival research virtually impossible. However, these conditions changed dramatically in the early and mid-1970s when the combined effect of China's midcourse correction during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and Nixon's 1972 trip to China prompted a small boom in the translation, publication, reporting, and research of Chinese plays and performance. At the same time, as the two epigraphs above indicate, this first group of writings on Chinese theatre was made largely problematic by a number of factors: the inherently ideological nature of Chinese theatre during the Cultural Revolution; the diverse ideological, academic, and theatrical background of the authors working on the subject during a similarly volatile era in the West; an overreliance on official Chinese publications (usually as the only source available); and restricted access to China for all but a small number of Westerners. Although insightful and well-researched writings certainly existed, much of this body of work reflects the ideological preoccupations of Euro-American intellectuals in the cold war era. The latter manifested themselves either through oversimplified condemnation of communist theatre as artless propaganda or through radical leftist eulogy of China's supposed success in combining theatre and ideology, making theatre serve the people, and promoting amateur performance to stimulate production.


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1. Meserve, Walter J. and Meserve, Ruth I., eds., Modern Drama from Communist China (New York: New York University Press, 1970), 1.

2. Snow, Lois Wheeler, China on Stage: An American Actress in the People's Republic (New York: Random House, 1972), 23.

3. For more background information, see the special symposium issue of Asian Theatre Journal (28.2 [Fall 2011]) entitled Founders of the Field: First-Generation Asian Theatre Scholars in the United States, especially the introductions to its three sections on Japan, China, and Southeastern Asia. See also Brandon, James, “A New World: Asian Theatre in the West Today,” The Drama Review 33.2 (1989): 2550.

4. One of the triggers for the midterm correction was the failed coup by Lin Biao, Mao Zedong's heir apparent and Defense Minister, in September 1971.

5. For more discussions of time, place, archive, identity, and narrative as the five essential elements of theatre historiography, see Postlewait, Thomas and Canning, Charlotte M., “Representing the Past: An Introduction on Five Themes,” in Representing the Past: Essays in Performance Historiography, ed. Canning and Postlewait (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 134.

6. Arlington, L.C., The Chinese Drama from the Earliest Times until Today (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1930; reprint, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1966); Arlington, L.C. and Acton, Harold, eds. Famous Chinese Plays (Peiping: H. Vetch, 1937).

7. Brandon, “New World,” 29–30, quotes at 30.

8. The actors he watched and befriended in Hong Kong include the jingju actors Ma Lianliang and Zhang Junqiu, and the kunqu actor Yu Zhenfei, all first-rate stars. Because of the lack of popularity of kunqu, a centuries-older style of opera, Yu Zhenfei was performing mostly in jingju as a xiaosheng (young man) actor.

9. Scott, A.C., Traditional Chinese Plays, 3 vols. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967–75).

10. For more on Scott, see Liu, Siyuan, “A.C. Scott,” Asian Theatre Journal 28.2 (2011): 416–25.

11. Yang, Daniel S.P., “Peking Drama with Contemporary Themes,” The Drama Review 13.4 (1969): 167–72. Apart from the Introduction, the other four chapters of his dissertation are “The Background of the Peking Theatre,” “Communist Reform of the Traditional Theatre,” “The Revision and Proscription of the Old Repertoire,” and “New Plays in Traditional Style.”

12. Meserve, Walter J. and Meserve, Ruth I., “Ts'ao Yu: Dramatist in Communist China,” Comparative Drama 2.2 (1968): 115–21.

13. The editors were criticized in reviews for also including two plays from other eras—Snow in Midsummer (better known as Injustice Done to Dou E) by the Yuan dynasty playwright Guan Hanqing (ca. 1225–1302) and a short dialogue The Passer-by by the modern writer Lu Xun (1881–1936), which has never been classified as a play. See Tung, Constantine, “Modern Drama from Communist China (Review),” Journal of Asian Studies 30.3 (1971): 675–7, at 676; Brandon, James, “Asian Theatre: A Review of Current Scholarship,” Educational Theatre Journal 28.3 (1976): 423–9, at 428.

14. Meserve, Walter J. and Meserve, Ruth I., “China's Persecuted Playwrights: The Theatre in Communist China's Current Cultural Revolution,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 5.3 (1970), 209–15.

15. Yang, Daniel S.P., “Censorship: 8 Model Works,” The Drama Review 15.2 (1971): 258–61, at 258.

16. John J. O'Connor, “Ballet from China: Dance Seen by Nixon Is Splendid Show,” New York Times, 13 March 1972.

17. Faubion Bowers, “For the Nixons, a Maoist Ballet,” New York Times, 23 February 1972.

18. The most noticeable articles include Meserve, Walter J. and Meserve, Ruth I., “Communist China's War Theatre,” Journal of Popular Culture 6.2 (1972): 313–24; Meserve and Meserve, “Uncle Tom's Cabin and Modern Chinese Drama,” Modern Drama 17.1 (1974): 5766; idem, Lao Sheh: From People's Artist to ‘An Enemy of the People,’” Comparative Drama 8.2 (1974): 143–56; idem, The White-Haired Girl: A Model for Continuing Revolution,” Theatre Quarterly 6.24 (1976): 2634; Mackerras, Colin, “Chinese Opera after the Cultural Revolution (1970–1972),” The China Quarterly 55 (July–September 1973): 478510; Tung, Constantine, “The Hidden Enemy as Villain in Communist Chinese Drama,” Educational Theatre Journal 25.3 (1973): 335–43; Wilkinson, J. Norman, “The White-Haired Girl: From Yangko to Revolutionary Modern Ballet,” Educational Theatre Journal 26.2 (1974): 164–74; Howard, Roger, “Agitation and Anaesthesia: Aspects of Chinese Theatre Today,” Theatre Research International 2.1 (1976): 5364; and Howard, “Propaganda in the Early Soviet and Contemporary Chinese Theatre,” Theatre Quarterly 7.27 (1977): 5360.

19. The Red Pear Garden: Three Great Dramas of Revolutionary China, ed. Mitchell, John D. (Boston: David R. Godine, 1973); Five Chinese Communist Plays, ed. Ebon, Martin (New York: John Day, 1975). For Snow, see note 2.

20. Colin Mackerras, Amateur Theatre in China 1949–1966, Contemporary China Papers No. 5 (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1973); Howard, Roger, Contemporary Chinese Theatre (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978).

21. Mackerras, Colin, The Rise of the Peking Opera, 1770–1870: Social Aspects of the Theatre in Manchu China (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972). For more information on Mackerras, see Liu, Siyuan, “Colin Mackerras,” Asian Theatre Journal 28.2 (2011): 427–36.

22. The major Chinese national publications at this time on which most of these researchers relied include The People's Daily (Renmin ribao), Guangming Daily (Guangming ribao), The Red Flag (Hongqi) magazine, and the English literary magazine Chinese Literature. Another important publication during the Cultural Revolution, The PLA Daily (Jiefangjun ribao) of the People's Liberation Army, received little attention in this group of writings.

23. See notes 18–19.

24. Ebon, Martin, Lin Piao: The Life and Writings of China's New Ruler (New York: Stein & Day, 1970). For his anthology, which includes his “Introduction: The Brightest Sun, the Darkest Shadow” (vii–xxi), see note 19.

25. Leiter, Samuel L., “John D. Mitchell,” Asian Theatre Journal 28.2 (2011): 322–31. Notice that while Leiter praised Mitchell for his effort and love of theatre, his general appraisal of the latter's language and theatrical capabilities, including his 1972 semistaged reading of The White Snake, is decidedly mixed. On Mitchell's focus on “style,” Leiter writes: “His concern was not with content so much as with theatrical manner—‘style’ was his watchword—and he grew increasingly obsessed with bringing awareness of the many styles he encountered to American actors, hoping to counteract the influence of actor training such as was represented by Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio” (p.cit., 323).

26. Strassberg, Richard E., “Introduction,” in Red Pear Garden, ed. Mitchell, 1138, at 31.

27. Leiter, 323; Strassberg, 27.

28. The term “pear garden” (liyuan) refers to the first known royal acting academy in the Tang dynasty founded by Emperor Xuanzong (712–55). Since then, it has become synonymous with traditional Chinese theatre.

29. Howard, Contemporary Chinese Theatre, 46. The term “propaganda” was used during this period and in Howard's book as a standard translation for the Chinese term xuanchuan with no negative connotation. Howard includes a photograph on page 55 of his book that is virtually identical to my Figure 1, obviously from the same performance, with the caption: “Theatre as a working aid: Weavers' Dance by the amateur propaganda team of the Peking Vinylon Factory, celebrates the textile workers' mastery of their machines.”

30. Ibid., 53.

31. Ibid., 52.

32. Chengliang, Yuan, “Jiang Zuhui: qingxi balei wushi zai [Jiang Zuhui: Fifty Years in Ballet],” Zhuanji wenxue [Biographical Literature] 12 (2000): 3641, at 40.

33. “To learn from the Masses” was one of the most commonly used quotations from Mao Zedong that Chinese intellectuals and artists were supposed to follow during the Cultural Revolution. The quote traces back to the Yan'an era of the early 1940s. See Mao's talk in a cadre's meeting on 8 February 1942 entitled “Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing” (, retrieved 2 October 2012).

34. “Zhonggong zhongyang guanyu wenyi tuanti wuchan jieji wenhua dageming de guiding (gong taolun he shixing yong)” [Provision of the CCP Central Committee on Artistic Organizations in the Proletariat Cultural Revolution (For Discussion and Pilot Use)], 17 February 1967,, retrieved 18 May 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Chinese to English are mine.

35. Shuangbai, Feng, Xin Zhongguo wudao shi (1949–2000) [A History of Chinese Dance (1949–2000)] (Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 2002), 68.

36. Howard, Roger, Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese People (London: Allen & Unwin, 1977), 11.

37. Howard, “Propaganda,” 58.

38. Howard, Roger, “Individual Creation, Socialist Action,” Theatre Quarterly 6.24 (1976): 7677, at 76–7. For the Theatre Quarterly forum, see Theatre Quarterly Symposium, Playwriting for the Seventies: Old Theatres, New Audiences, and the Politics of Revolution,” Theatre Quarterly 6.24 (1976), 3573.

39. Howard, “Individual Creation, Socialist Action,” 77.

40. Howard, “Agitation and Anaesthesia,” 58.

41. Ibid., 54.

42. Howard, Contemporary Chinese Theatre, 53–4.

43. Mackerras, Amateur Theatre in China, 1.

44. Mackerras, “Chinese Opera after the Cultural Revolution,” 500; Mackerras inserted the bracketed copy.

45. See Snow, 18–21; Howard, Contemporary Chinese Theatre, 72–80.

46. Mackerras, Amateur Theatre in China, 32–3.

47. Mackerras may have used “after the Cultural Revolution” in the title even though the era did not officially end until 1976 because of the brief relaxed period after the failed September 1971 coup, when pragmatist policies briefly gave the impression that the Cultural Revolution had ended.

48. One such person was Li Xifan (Li Hsi-fan), “‘responsible person’ of the literature and arts section of the People's Daily.” Mackerras, “Chinese Opera after the Cultural Revolution,” 483.

49. Ibid., 501.

50. See Liu, “Colin Mackerras,” for further discussion of this issue.

51. See Howard, Contemporary Chinese Theatre, 81–92; and Snow, 18–21. Snow's discussion of individual model plays includes large sections on Jiang Qing's involvement.

52. Mackerras, “Chinese Opera after the Cultural Revolution,” 486.

53. Ibid., 486–7.

54. Ibid., 480.

55. Ebon, “Introduction,” in Five Chinese Communist Plays, xxi.

56. Meserve and Meserve, Modern Drama from Communist China, 1.

57. Ibid., 7. The opera version was written in 1944 and formed the basis for the model ballet in the 1960s.

58. Meserve and Meserve, “Lao Sheh,” 148–9.

59. For a discussion of the relationship between the play Dragon Beard Ditch and the reconstruction project, see Chapter 1 of Braester, Yomi, Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010).

60. Meserve and Meserve, “Lao Sheh,” 154.

61. Ibid., 143.

62. One can find this style of conspiracy reading in studies of the historical jingju play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office (Hai Rui baguan), about the Ming dynasty official Hai Rui's dismissal from office because of his anticorruption campaign. Written in 1961 by the historian and deputy mayor of Beijing, Wu Han, the play was criticized in a 1965 article that became the first shot of the Cultural Revolution. Using intentionally distorted logic and conspiratorial reading, it accused the play of being a “poisonous weed” aimed at Mao's policies and his dismissal of Defense Minister Peng Dehuai in 1959 because of Peng's criticism of Mao's policy during the Great Leap Forward (1958). While some post–Cultural Revolution scholarship went to great lengths to debunk these accusations, other scholars continued to perpetuate a conspiratorial reading of the play in a wishful pursuit of anti-Mao heroes, even calling the play part of “China's opposition movement” and claiming that its playwright Wu Han had “proved beyond any doubt that he lived up to the ideals of the historian, the scholar, the man he himself understood best by the name of Hai Rui.” See Chen, Lin, “Hai Rui Dismissed from Office and China's Opposition Movement, 1958–1959,” in Drama in the People's Republic of China, ed. Tung, Constantine and Mackerras, Colin (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 46–7.

63. Snow, 103–4.

64. Quoted in ibid., 103.

65. Ibid., 105.

66. Howard, Contemporary Chinese Theatre, 49.

67. Snow, 33–4.

68. Ibid.

69. Belden, Jack, China Shakes the World (New York: Harper, 1949), 4.

70. Snow quotes a long sentence on her page 33 from Belden's book: “The extent and depths of these passions could be felt and seen and heard in the trampling rush of peasant feet toward the landlord's manor; in the dying gasp of a village noble whose body, as well as whose land, was divided by club-swinging peasants; in the flash of a pig knife plunged into the heart of a clan leader whose ancestral tablets the farmers might normally have worshipped; in the shriek of a girl whose mother led Chiang Kai-shek's secret service to chop off her daughter's head and pull out her intestines; in the religious groans of village witches who called down gods to their incense tables and chanted in sepulchral tones: ‘Chiang Kai-shek comes!’; in the snick of scissors wielded by women cutting off the flesh of village oppressor; in the lamentations of village brides beaten by their husbands and in their murderous cries of vengeance as they organized themselves into Women's Associations and beat, scratched and tore the flesh of their hated lords and masters; everywhere on the good Chinese earth, across the plains, the mountains and the fields, these passions rose up as a new and unconquerable force.” Belden, China Shakes the World, 4.

71. Snow, 209.

72. Ibid., 210.

73. Brandon, “New World,” 29.

74. Rimmington, D., “Contemporary Chinese Theatre by Roger Howard,” (book review) Chinese Quarterly 81.1 (1980): 151.

75. Howard, Contemporary Chinese Theatre, 121.

76. This tendency is also apparent in studies of China's post-1949 dramatic reform that denounce government policies and their consequences without substantive evidence.

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“The Brightest Sun, The Darkest Shadow”: Ideology and the Study of Chinese Theatre in the West during the Cold War

  • Siyuan Liu


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