REVOLUTIONARY OPERA AND MAOIST AND COMMINIST THEATER IN CHINA

REVOLUTIONARY OPERA IN CHINA

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Tiger Mountain Revolutionary Opera
Revolutionary Opera created by Communists in the Cultural Revolution gloried farmers, workers and soldiers rather heros from the feudal aristocracy. The plots revolved around class struggle and revolution and had titles like such as “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”.

The popular play that many scholars say triggered the entire Cultural Revolution was “The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office”, a drama by historian Wu Han about an obscure Song dynasty official. The play was widely seen as as a traitorous critique of Mao's dismissal of Peng Dehuai, a military leader who criticized the Great Leap Forward.

Mao’s wife Jiang Qing was put in charge of the arts during the Cultural Revolution. She and her group of loyalist intellectuals and artists controlled everything: film studios, operas, theatrical companies and radio stations. Jiang reviewed more than 1,000 operas and concluded that nearly all of them were unacceptable because they dealt with "emperors, officials, scholars and concubines." She commissioned a series of "revolutionary modern model operas” with heroic figured that displayed socialist virtues. These operas were based on Peking opera but featured Western devises that were deemed appropriate for furthering revolutionary goals.

Jiang Qing decided that eight operas were the only permitted forms of art in China, and they are heavily associated with the ideologically-charged violence of the period. Among the eight operas authorized by Jiang were “The Girl with White Hair” (about a woman who loses her natural coloring because of an evil landowner), “Red Women's Detachment”, and “Songs of the Long March”.
The operas were adapted for symphony orchestras, dance troupes, piano music and even ethnic minority songs. In the 1960s, Chinese teenagers listened to songs form these operas while Americans were listening to the Beatles and the Supremes. Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker, “Red Detachment of Women” has “a kitschily charming score in a light-classical vein, with an array of native-Chinese sounds.”

Under the Communists the practice of using either all-male or all-female cast was abolished

Even today national troupes "perform paeans to brave soldiers who saved the country from floods." The music also remains alive. Red Rock and Roll is a collection of Cultural revolution songs covered by modern musicians.

Theater and the Early Communist Party

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Leftist ideologies were common among intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. Even from its rise in the early 1920s the Communist Party of China realised the value of theater as a weapon for social change. Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) set the guidelines for the Communist theater and proclaimed complete party control over the arts, a policy which reached its nightmarish culmination during the Cultural Revolution in 1966–1976. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Folk arts were revised to propagate revolutionary ideas. Some of their traditional features were maintained but much was modernised. Traditional opera styles, such as Peking Opera as well the clapper opera and other regional forms, were used as a basis for new dramas on contemporary themes and often aimed as propaganda against the Japanese. **

New Peking operas were created. An acclaimed example is Forced Up Mountain Liang, Bishang Liangshan (Pi-shang Liang-shan), which was based on a historical epic, Outlaws of the Marsh, Shuihu zhuan (Shui-hu chuan). Although it portrayed events in the distant past, it acutely propagated rebellion against the feudal system. It had its premiere in 1945. **

In the same year a new geju or song drama, The White-Haired Girl, Baimao nü (Pai-mao nü) was performed for the first time. Its music was based on traditional folk melodies and it was accompanied by an orchestra which combined Chinese and Western instruments, while its costuming and décor aimed at realism. It was a great success and it was later revised and finally transformed into a revolutionary model ballet. **

Returning Home on a Snowy Night

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Raymond Zhou wrote in the China Daily, “It must have looked like an escape from reality when Wu Zuguang wrote and first presented Returning Home on a Snowy Night in 1942. Fires of war were engulfing China, yet not a hint of either the Japanese invasion or Chinese resistance could be detected in the play. This was in the wartime city of Chongqing, where many of the nation's glitterati had found refuge, in contrast to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where Chinese filmmakers injected innocuous entertainment with somber overtones and subtle allusions to the woes of foreign occupation. [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, December 12, 2012 +]

“However, the story of a Peking Opera star in love with the concubine of an official not only survived, but has turned into a classic with increasing relevance. The craze for pop sensation and the hypocrisy of officialdom have never been truer today even though the romance at the heart of the story is so starry-eyed it borders on unbelievable. Well, it serves well as an antidote of eerie idealism at least. +\

“In contrast with these leading performances, two supporting roles provide comic relief as well as the uglier side of humanity. The butler who latches onto the next powerful person and sells out those who have helped him seem like a reincarnation of Monsieur Thenardier from Les Miserables, born into a Beijing household. The student who gives up everything to hover around the star, ingratiating himself into his circle and believing himself to be an indispensable part of the star ecosystem, is the predecessor of the modern lunatic whose dream is becoming a groupie. There are no sexual innuendos but he is dumb but hilarious. +\

2012 Production of Returning Home on a Snowy Night

Raymond Zhou wrote in the China Daily, “The new production by the National Center for the Performing Arts stands out for its stellar cast, among other things. Feng Yuanzheng, a pillar of versatility and subtlety on the Chinese stage, plays the official, or chief justice, to be specific, who has the sophisticated taste of an opera patron and the ambiguous sexuality of having four wives while chasing a female impersonator. Feng does not go the cheap way of caricature, but imbues the character with complexity. The last scene in which he, as a newly devout Buddhist, sends his butler to bury the homeless person found frozen to death in his ornate yard, without realizing it was the star he once adored and then expelled from the city, has true pathos. The hypocrisy, if it can be so called, is ingrained so deeply in our psyche that it is nothing like that seen in a typical melodrama. [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, December 12, 2012]

“The big surprise is Yu Shaoqun, who plays the 25-year-old opera star who grows up in a humble family and still retains his innocence and sense of justice. Yu, who gained fame by playing the young Mei Lanfang in Chen Kaige's 2009 biopic Forever Enthralled, looks stunning in full Peking Opera regalia. With opera training from a young age, though not Peking Opera and not in female roles, he pulls off the opening scene of the character on stage with strong credibility. The fantasy scene that closes the play, where he does a dance with the older self's corpse in the foreground, again in female garb, elevates the tale of love to a higher plane. +\

“The set, designed by Xue Dianjie, is traditional in the sense it does not impede the drama nor enhance it. It is much lower key than NCPA's two previous productions of straight plays. Both Jane Eyre and Wangfujing featured fluid or elaborate sets that made full use of the state-of-the-art stagecraft. Unlike its opera productions, NCPA's plays run into stiff competition as the city also has the Beijing People's Art Theater, a bastion of repertory plays, among several theaters and dozens of small ones with more avant-garde offerings, not to mention the touring productions from Taiwan's Stan Lai, which sweeps the mainland like a force of nature. +\

“NCPA hews to the tried-and-true with both mainstream aesthetics and commercial appeal in mind. In that sense, it is positioning itself as an haute version of the Beijing People's Art Theater, with several cast members borrowed from that institution for Returning Home on a Snowy Night. To broaden its lineup for a regular season like that of its operas, it needs to build on its strength by kicking in something more adventurous and wider-ranging in programming. +\

Theater and Dance in the Early Maoist Period

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The early phase of the People’s Republic, starting from its establishment in 1949, was an active time for the arts, as they were employed in the construction of the new society. The social status of theater workers greatly improved, as they had their undeniable role in the class struggle and were no longer regarded merely as prostitutes. The policies that Mao Zedong had formulated earlier became the guidelines for all the arts, and also for the theater, which was particularly appreciated for its educative value. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Regional theater forms were reformed, and modern forms, such as huaju or spoken drama and geju or song drama were encouraged, of course, but only if they followed the strict official guidelines. A completely new form of art was created, the full-scale wuju or dance drama, which clearly reflected the close cultural ties between the People’s Republic and the Soviet Union. **

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Committees were set up and festivals held in order to define the exact role of theater and dance in the new society. In 1950 the Ministry of Culture established the Traditional Music Drama Committee to plan a drama reform. It was agreed that even the traditional forms of theater should be reformed so that they promoted patriotism and served Communist ideology and revolutionary heroism. **

In the same year the First Nationwide Spoken Drama Festival made the Soviet influence apparent. Many productions reflected the psycho-realistic acting style, while realistic costumes and sets became the norm. Spoken drama was regarded as a suitable medium with which to portray modern life with its continuous class struggle. In 1952 the First National Music Drama Festival gathered together some 1800 performers from all over the country. **

In his speech in 1956 Mao Zedong launched the famous slogan: “Let a hundred flowers blossom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.” The following so-called “Hundred Flowers Period” was a rather liberal time. In the same year that Mao delivered his speech, the Kun Opera was revived in the famous production of Fifteen Strings of Cash attended by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Next year Lao She’s spoken drama Teahouse, already discussed above, had its premiere. Many music dramas and other spoken dramas were also created. **

The year 1957 also saw the premiere of the first Chinese large-scale dance drama, The Precious Lotus Lamp. It reflects many Western, mainly Soviet, influences. In movement vocabulary the ballet aesthetics were combined with national elements and flavour and pas de deux duos between the male and female leads were created in a similar way as in the Western ballet which was now also being taught in China. **

Prior to 1963 the official policy was to combine the modern and the traditional and to rewrite traditional works to reflect patriotism and Marxist ideology. Political censorship grew stricter, however, and after 1963 attitudes rapidly changed. Due to the power game manipulated by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch’ing), herself a former actress, all traditional forms of theater were gradually banned. The new guidelines for theater were announced at a festival of modern opera in Peking in 1964. Thereafter, only operas with modern themes were favoured. **

Theater During the Cultural Revolution

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: After the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) headed by the infamous Gang of Four, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, all traditional forms of theater were prohibited. Jian Qing had already inspected some 1000 Peking operas and suggested banning most of them. Now it was the Party’s literature committees that dictated what was allowed to be performed.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Jiang Qing interpreted Mao’s teachings extremely rigidly, which led to the politisation of theater to an extent that has never been seen, before or after, in the history of the arts. Five Revolutionary Model Dramas were created by the literary circles led by Jiang Qing. They included Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, Zhiqu wei Hushan (Chih-ch’ü wei Hu-shan), The Red Lantern Hongdeng ji (Hung-teng chi), Sha Jia Creek Shajia bang, (Sha-chia pang), On the Docks Haigang, (Hai-kang) and Raid on the White Tiger Regiment Qixi Baihu tuan, (Ch’i-hsi Pai-hu t’uan). **

Jiang Qing formulated new theatrical aesthetics for these model operas. Similarly, as the earlier traditional operas, the model operas were also based on fixed character types. However, the various earlier types, based on their social status and inner qualities, were now replaced with character types based solely on their class background.These rigid stereotypes include two main categories. The revolutionary and thus “good” characters are portrayed as standing in the middle of the stage in heroic, “revolutionary” poses, well lit with pinkish spotlights (red being a positive colour both in the traditional and later in the Communist colour symbolism). The “bad” characters, i.e. the class enemies, are placed at the side of the stage in ugly poses and dimly lit by bluish light (blue often being a negative colour in traditional opera masks). **

In the huge stage decors, costuming, and in make-up, “heroic realism”, were the only accepted style. The music is a mixture of traditional Chinese and Western music since, according to Jiang Qing, Western music was more suitable to express heroism than Chinese music. Many stage conventions, as well as acrobatics, were retained from the traditional Peking Opera, although in the fighting scenes guns and rifles now replaced the traditional weapons. **

The first model drama was ready to be performed in 1969. The model works came to include eight works altogether, regularly revived by the party committees to reflect the current trends of the party’s policy. They include the above-mentioned five model dramas, one symphony (Yellow River) and two Model Ballets, The Red Detachment of Women, Hongse niangzi jun (Hung-sê niang-tsu( chün) and The White-Haired Girl, which was reformed from an early song drama into a model ballet. Revolutionary ballets make full use of Soviet-style heroic classical ballet with pointe shoes and furious leaps. **

Besides the actual model works, huge spectacles combining different forms of the performing arts were also set up. The East is Red, Dongfang hong (Tung-fang hung) was an example of this kind of “revolutionary entertainment” which aimed to illustrate the success story of the revolution. Besides these model works and spectacles very few other works were allowed to be performed. Actors, writers and other theater workers who refused to join the teams, or were otherwise regarded as anti-revolutionaries, were persecuted and many of them died. **

However, many well-known actors played in the model dramas and their artistic level was the highest during the Cultural Revolution. No wonder that the model dramas are still rather popular today. Together with the model ballets, they are still performed every now and then. They are all available as recordings and even revolutionary opera karaoke was in vogue at the turn of the 21st century. **

Model Operas and the Cultural Revolution

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Model operas were a repertoire of politically acceptable pieces introduced into the oeuvre by Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing, during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution period (1966-76). The Cultural Revolution was a time when anything traditional was under attack and Peking Opera was no exception. Given the subject matter of classical operas, which told stories of emperors, concubines and generals, they were deemed as remnants of a feudal past which had no place in the new communist China. [Source: Pallavi Aiyar, Asia Times, July 19, 2008]

The majority of opera theaters were thus closed, and many famous stars vilified, some even driven to suicide. The performance of traditional pieces was banned and the new model operas introduced in their stead focused exclusively on revolutionary stories exemplifying communist tenets.

One of the main features of Chinese communist red operas is the incitement to hatred, according to Xing Lu, a scholar of communications at DePaul University who has written a book about rhetoric in the Cultural Revolution. “Hatred permeates every model opera,” she writes. According to her book, the basic message behind these pieces is that those designated as “class enemies,” or “villains,” must be eliminated through violent struggle, so a new society can be established. The plays were meant to foster a “deep hatred for all class enemies and love for the Communist Party,” Lu writes. [Source: Matthew Robertson, The Epoch Times, February 11, 2013] Wang Rukun, a senior teacher at the Peking Opera Vocational College, recalls how his training as a young boy at the same school was cut short by the Cultural Revolution. It took nine years to complete a full training regime at the time. Classes took up to 10 to 12 hours a day and all the students boarded in, separated from their parents. Their sole focus was on their art.

But after Wang spent only seven years in the school, the Cultural Revolution broke out and all regular opera performances were canceled. His own study of classical works came to an abrupt halt and he began instead to learn the eight model operas authorized by Jiang Qing, spending the next decade performing in the countryside and at factories for audiences of workers and farmers.

White Haired Girl

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The White Haired Girl is based on the legend of a white-haired female immortal. It tells of Yang Bailao, a tenant farmer who shares his life with his daughter Xi’er. The despotic landlord, Huang Shiren, attempts to forcibly take Xi’er for himself. On the eve of the Chinese Spring Festival, Huang forces Yang to sell his daughter as repayment of the debt Yang owes him. Yang drinks bittern and dies. Xi’er is taken by force to Huang’s house and raped by the landlord. [Source: EastSouthWestNorth]

The girl is in love with Dachun, a young farmer in her village, who tries to help her escape but fails. He goes to find the Red Army. Xi’er runs away from Huang’s house and hides herself deep in the mountains. She leads a miserable life, and her hair turns completely white. Two years later, Dachun returns to the village with the army unit he is in. He finds Xi’er and helps her get even with the hated landlord. They marry and lead a happy life after emancipation.

Today there are those that think the White Haired Girl should marry the evil landlord Huang Shiren as sympathy that used to exist for poor and oppressed people in the 1940's has been replaced by blind adoration of money. A student at Central China Normal University said, “If Huang Shiren were alive today, he is definitely somebody with excellent family conditions. He may also have handsome looks combined with elegance and refined taste. If he has money as well, why not marry him? Even if he is a bit older, it does not matter.

One Netizen wrote: “I agree. Never mind teenagers, but people have always yielded to money and power over time. Who isn’t beleaguered by the needs of life? You can’t blame The White Haired Girl for marrying Huang Shiren.” Another said, “Women nowadays want to marry money, and they don’t care who owns that money.”

In an informal Internet poll people were asked: Do you think that the White Haired Girl should marry Huang Shiren? In the poll, 40.6 percent said “Yes” agreeing with the statement---if you are going to marry someone, it should be some rich man?; 39.9 percent said, “No,” agreeing with the statement “your marital choice should not be based solely on money?; and 19.5 percent said “Not sure.”

Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy

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“Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” is one of the Eight Model Operas. The main storyline of Tiger Mountain follows the revolutionary Yang Zirong who infiltrates an encampment of Nationalist soldiers (inevitably labeled “bandits”) and then springs a bloody ambush. Set in 1946, the communist insurgency was three years away from overthrowing the Nationalist government and seizing power.

Describing one of the songs from the opera, Matthew Robertson wrote in The Epoch Times, As is typical in these performances, the first part of the song consists of reflections on nature...a few lines about snow, mountains, forests, and courage. At about three minutes into the song the joint aria begins, with the title, “Welcome spring, bringing change to the world.” [Source: Matthew Robertson, The Epoch Times, February 11, 2013]

And then it gets down to business. One singer sings: “The Party gives me wisdom, gives me courage.” He goes on: “To defeat the bandits, I first dress as one.” Another singer then rejoins for the second half of the duet: “Raid the bandits’ lair, absolutely turn it upside down!” A bright red decorative cloth is projected onto the back wall and columns as the camera pans out. Later in the story the communist heroes “destroy the bandits and capture the bandit chieftain Vulture,” according to a synopsis of the original libretto, which was “carefully revised, perfected and polished to the last detail with our great leader Chairman Mao's loving care.”

Brian Eno named one of his albums and the title track on the album "Taking Tiger Mountain by Stategy." He claimed to have seen some postcards of a revolutionary Chinese opera in a shop window in the early 1970s when he made the album.

Canadian Performs Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy at CCTV New Year Show

Matthew Robertson wrote in The Epoch Times, “Every year in China the communist regime stages a long variety show on the only national broadcaster, China Central Television, ringing in the Chinese New Year with a good helping of pro-regime propaganda.Joining the gaudy hosts and crooning singers in their annual Spring Festival Gala ritual this past Saturday was a Canadian opera virtuoso, Thomas Glenn. He co-sung part of an old communist “red opera” that was freighted with more meaning that he realized, or was told by his Chinese handlers. A red opera had not been on the Spring Festival Gala for the last three decades.[Source: Matthew Robertson, The Epoch Times, February 11, 2013]

The performance Glenn participated in, along with Yu Kuizhi, a well-known Beijing opera singer, was a section from “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.” “I don’t feel like this piece was chosen to ignite any sort of controversy,” he said. “I think the piece was meant to show an intercontinental friendship... certainly I’m ignorant of any propagandistic aspect.” He said that his main source of information about the performance was from his Chinese colleagues, and that he did not independently research the background of the song. He first learnt to sing that opera in 2011, as part of a Chinese regime-sponsored program called I Sing Beijing, which inducted 20 Western singers and had them perform Chinese opera, and is associated with the Confucius Institute.

Chinese netizens reacted angrily to the link. “These model operas were Jiang Qing’s primary tool for attacking Confucius, and now the Confucius Institute is having them performed,” one wrote. Another called it “raping Confucian thought.” Using a foreign face for the purpose adds to the propaganda value, Cheng said. “Every year they try to find some foreigners, pay them, and ask them to sing some songs that praise the Communist Party. That’s something that the Soviet Communist Party never did. They had some dignity about their communist rule.” Glenn said: “To be perfectly honest, I’m largely ignorant of the social context in which this comes into play. Know that I have a very deep fondness for the Chinese people. From my experience they love this song, and they love me singing it, and we had just a wonderful, wonderful time together.”

Theater After the Cultural Revolution

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The political situation and, consequently, cultural climate changed drastically after Mao Zedong’s death and the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976. In the same year a list of 41 Peking operas was published, which could now be included in the repertory of opera troupes instead of the model dramas and ballets. Gradually, interest in traditional forms of theater was revived and actors and teachers who were disgraced during the Cultural Revolution could return to their work. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

In this new, more open climate, dramatists and other theater artists have been able to handle the traumatic decades of Chinese history. At the same time, doors have been opened to Western influences including Western plays. Classics like Shakespeare and Moliére as well as more modern classics, such as Brecht and Becket, have been staged regularly. In the mid-1990s Arthur Miller directed his play Death of a Salesman in Peking. **

Western opera is also popular in China. In connection with the Beijing Olympics in 2008 a huge new opera house was opened in Beijing. It is but one addition to the approximately 3000 theater houses operating in China in the early 21st century. It is impossible to get a clear picture of all the activities going on in these theaters and among the myriads of folk groups and state-run troupes. **

Spoken drama is thriving, and much new repertory for it has been written. Modern dance in China had its roots in the Guangzhou in the 1970s. Young Chinese dancers and choreographers appear regularly at dance festivals around the world. Performance art has its exponents in China, often in close contact with the country’s very lively contemporary art scene. Even decades ago Chinese cinema won lasting international acclaim, and on the movie screen the fantastic fighting scenes of Peking Opera are reborn in the form of the kungfu action films. **

Amid all these forms of theatrical art and new trends traditional theater also flourishes. Peking Opera is still the most popular form of opera and it is taught all over the country. As mentioned earlier, the classical Kun Opera was included in the UNESCO List of Outstanding Examples of the World’s Intangible Heritage in 2001. It is, of course, impossible to predict what exactly will be the fate of traditional Chinese theater in this time of globalisation and commercialisation. **

Das Kapital for the Chinese Stage

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Director He Nian “ best known for his stage adaptation of a martial-arts spoof---plans to do a stage version of Das Kapital---Karl Marx, dense and heavy tome on the political economy--- with inging and dancing and elements from Broadway musicals and Las Vegas shows. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, March 17, 2009]

He told the Wen Hui Bao newspaper, “The particular performance style we choose is not important, but Marx's theories cannot be distorted.” Zhang Jun, an economics professor at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, is being drafted in to ensure the production is intellectually rigorous.

He said the play will be set in a company and will document the progress of its workers. In the first half they realize their boss is exploiting them and begin to understand the theory of surplus value. But far from uniting, as Marx enjoined them in the Communist Manifesto, some continue to work as before, some mutiny and others employ collective bargaining.

Das Kapital is not known for having fetching characters or a gripping plot. However it is not the first someone has though of making a play out of it. . A Japanese writer and translator is said to have adapted Das Kapital for the stage in the 1930s, and the result was subsequently translated into Chinese. In the mid 2000s a staging by a German theater group---in which each theater goer was given copy of Volume 23 of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels for each theater-goer---was described by the newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung as mostly ‘something of a lecture at times dry and boring.”

China’s Entertainment Soldiers

The Atlantic reported: “With all of the chatter surrounding China's "entertainment soldiers," it's worth asking: what are they? In fact, there is no such thing as an "entertainment soldier," at least not in official documents or PLA regulations. Authorities are more likely to refer to such personnel as "literary, art, and sport performers in the army. The word "soldier" is not entirely correct either. In China, both on-duty and reserve soldiers can be categorized into two types : army officers and civil officers. The former are required to undergo military training, and are subject to being sent to the battlefield in wartime. By contrast, the civil officer corps, to which most of the entertainment "soldiers" belong, do not attain any military rank. [Source: Tea Leaf Nation, The Atlantic, August 14, 2013 ]

“The PLA's penchant for cultivating and promoting literature and art work dates as early as 1927. When Chairman Mao was leading his Autumn Harvest Uprising, he ordered, "Putting on art performances is one of the missions for committees of regiments, battalions and companies at each level." A year later, the propaganda team of the Fourth Red Army was established and later admitted as a formal team within the Communist Party's military system. The team was responsible for PLA propaganda, and for providing entertainment such as singing and dancing for soldiers when there was no battle to fight as well as for writing and acting out drama.

“Ever since, the Communist Party has allocated plentiful resources to its "entertainment army" units. During World War II, entertainment soldiers, Regarded as "helpful in boosting morale," were given so much attention that most army units at the regiment level and above had their own drama clubs and art performer troupes. The Party has been a stalwart source of support, but the Chinese public appears to question whether entertainment troupes have outlived their usefulness.

“The PLA has not released details of its military spending, so there are no accurate statistics about PLA entertainment expenditures. The consensus guess is that the current scale of PLA entertainment troupes exceeds 10,000 people while the total cost of keeping the entertainment soldiers and army units of low operational capacity could amount to 10 billion RMB (about US $1.6 billion).

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Criticism of China’s Entertainment Soldiers

In August 2013, The Atlantic reported: “China's "entertainment soldiers," or wen yi bing, are back in the news. On August 7, a 14-year-old boy was found listed as staff on the personnel schedule of a local government-affiliated organization in Henan province in central China. When the public began to investigate the designation, the organization chief explained that the boy was specially admitted into the army as an entertainment soldier. Earlier this year, Li Tianyi -- the son of two well-known Chinese singers affiliated with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) who enjoy treatment equivalent to that of high-ranking officers — was arrested by Beijing police and accused along with four others of gang raping a young woman in Beijing. While the accusation remains unproven, it is enough to explain the mounting resentment against Chinese entertainment soldiers. It also may explain why, when South Korea announced the "death" of its 16-year-old "celebrity army" system last month, some Chinese paid more attention to the news than Koreans did. Han Xudong, professor at PLA National Defence [sic] University, was undoubtedly one of them. [Source: Tea Leaf Nation, The Atlantic, August 14, 2013 ]

“On July 25, Han published a commentary on Global Times, a newspaper that largely trumpets the views of the Chinese Communist Party, arguing that "the existence of entertainment soldiers is necessary and valuable. Han's views, while supported by some, also faced criticism and rebuttal from Chinese people. From breaking everyday rules, to allegedly providing sex for higher officials, to possible corruption, the reputation of Chinese entertainment soldiers seems to be falling by the day. On Sina Weibo, one user mocked: “Entertainment soldiers are necessary because first, they sing eulogistic songs and praise for authorities' conduct, presenting a false picture of peace and prosperity, and second, they entertain senior officers. Tax-payers are obliged to raise the army; the army, in return, is obliged to provide for military prostitutes.” Another user asked whether the function could be outsourced: "Have (the authorities) made a calculation? Is it appropriate to keep the entertainment army units or we should pay other professional troupes for performing for our soldiers?" Another user went further: " In peacetime, the sole value of keeping entertainment soldiers is for corruption!" There is some truth to this assertion.

To make matter worse, the aforementioned disgruntlement extends beyond the public to soldiers in the barracks. Commentator Feng Qingyang quoted a retired veteran complaining, "Servicemen are supposed to defend their country. Can they achieve this by singing? If [one] can become an officer just because [one] has a pretty face and can sing a few songs, what about those soldiers who devote themselves to their service during but encounter difficulties in getting a job after decommissioning?"

The PLA appeared to agree, at least several years ago. The 2006 White Paper on National Defense shows that China disarmed 20,000 soldiers, with a large proportion of them being entertainment soldiers. But such measures have not been mentioned again in successive white papers issued in 2008, 2010, and 2013. To some, the PLA's effort to downsize its entertainment units is so slow as to merit ridicule. As one weibo user warned: “China now declares to the world: China adheres to a policy of no first use of entertainment army troupes at any time or under any circumstances, and has made the unequivocal commitment that it unconditionally will not use, or threaten to use, entertainment army troupes against non-entertainment army troupe states or entertainment army troupes free zones.”

Image Sources: Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2014


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