Early GPCR, the rise of New Power and new ideology Part 5


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The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Begins,  Maoist China from 1958 to May 16, 1966

Read Part 1 here: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-1/

Part 2: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-2/

Part 3: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-3/

Part 4: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-4/

Part 5: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-5/

Part 6: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-6/

Part 7: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-7/

Part 8: http://llco.org/early-gpcr-the-rise-of-new-power-and-new-ideology-part-8/



Maoists Versus the Cultural Establishment, the Early Struggles

At the end of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s power had diminished. Mao’s star had waned while the star of President Liu Shaoqi had risen. After the Great Leap, Mao played little role in the Communist Party in 1960 and 1961. In this adjustment period, Liu Shaoqi and Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping continued to develop an alternative economic program to challenge the Maoist one. As the Maoists build up their base in the military under the leadership of Defense Minister Lin Biao, the revisionists within the Party and state bureaucracies sought to transform their economic readjustment into a comprehensive reform, which ultimately aimed at restoring capitalism. (1) The Party bureaucracy also launched an ideological and cultural offensive, encouraging public criticism of Maoist doctrines. A wave of criticism of the Maoist economic model, especially “The Three Red Banners” of the Great Leap, erupted. Economists and the cultural intelligentsia who criticized Maoist policies were now protected by elites associated with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Highly placed Party elites acted as patrons to anti-Maoist critics. Many of those Party elites themselves joined the anti-Maoist fray. Mayor of Beijing Peng Zhen, Director of the Party’s Propaganda Department Lu Dingyi, and Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department Zhou Yang played important roles in this effort. The vanguard of these critics was head of the Propaganda Department of the Beijing Urban Committee Deng Tuo, Vice-Mayor of Beijing Wu Han, who was also a historian and dramatist, and the head of the United Front Department and Beijing Urban Committee Liao Mosha. This group, especially Deng Tuo, published a satirical column in the Beijing Evening News and the Beijing fortnightly Frontline. These essays lampooned and sharply criticized Maoist radicalism. They were later compiled as “Notes from the Three-Family Village” and “Evening Talks at Yanshan.” A recurring theme is the ridicule of Maoist terminology, what Deng Tuo called “trumpet blowing.” Deng Tuo writes:

“A neighbor of mine has a child who in recent times, mostly in imitation of the great poets, composed a lit of empty talk. Recently he wrote ‘Ode on Wild Grass’ which is nothing but empty talk. His poem runs as follows:

Heaven is our Father,
Earth is our Mother,
Sun is our Wetnurse,
The East Wind is our benefactor,
The West Wind is our Enemy.
We are a tuft of grass,
Some like us,
Some hate us,
No matter — we don’t care,
We keep on growing.

What kind of poem is that? I would really worry about the future of the child if he composed nothing but things like that day after day.” (2) (3)

These critics were joined by Luo Gengmo and Sun Yefang, economists who claimed that the Maoist model was a step backward. Sun Yefang stated that “Politics in command” was “idealism and a disavowal or at least underestimat[ion] of economic laws.” The economists also criticized the People’s Communes,  Maoist “empty talk” and “hot air.” Sun Yefang’s Economic Research Institute advocated “opening free markets extensively.” He was quoted as saying, “Suppose there are speculative activities, what is the harm? At worst the speculators are allowed to make some money.” Years later, as the Cultural Revolution begins, in mid-1966, Sun Yefang will be accused of denying class struggle and of having accepted “the black wares of Khrushchev’s revisionism lock, stock and barrel.” (4) It was during this backlash against Maoist thought when Wu Han composed his infamous play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office, which was said to contain a criticism of Mao and  an allegorical defense of ex-Defense Minister Peng Dehuai. A few years later, debate over Wu Han’s play will mark the Maoist pushback that will become the official start of the Cultural Revolution. Also, in July of 1960, the leading philosophical historian Feng Youlan defended Confucius and his philosophies. At the time, Feng Youlan was criticized only by a few of his students, a year later, this debate and similar ones would spread into academia as the Maoists fought back. (5) Although the debates did not explode into mass campaigns, they foreshadow the Cultural Revolution. These and other debates were early skirmishes in a war that would explode into life-and-death struggles a few years later. Many of those who participated in these debates would be key figures in the struggles of the Cultural Revolution. On one side of the debate there was the Maoist concept of power struggle and class dictatorship. On the other side, stood revisionists, some advanced Chinese nationalism and the Confucian concept of social harmony, others liberalism. All revisionists advanced the idea of class compromise.

Confucianism and Liberalism in Culture and Philosophy

As a result of the Sino-Soviet split, an anti-Soviet feeling was pervasive amongst the Chinese elite. Chinese writers and policy makers sought ways to justify their ideas and policies that did not rely on the language of the Soviets. Some sought to fill the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet revisionists with their own conceptions. They sought to channel the pervasive anti-Sovietism into rehabilitation of traditionalism and nationalism, sometimes Confucianism, sometimes liberalism, while at the same time ultimately moving away from communism toward capitalism. Mao sought to combat this trend by renewing class struggle with his Tenth Plenum decree in September 24, 1962, which had stated:

“Now then, do classes exist in socialist countries? Does class struggle exist? We can now affirm that classes do exist in socialist countries and that class struggle undoubtedly exists. Lenin said: After the victory of the revolution, because of the existence of the bourgeoisie internationally, because of the existence of bourgeois remnants internally, because the petty bourgeoisie exists and continually generates a bourgeoisie, therefore the classes which have been overthrown within the country will continue to exist for a long time to come and may even attempt restoration.” (6)

By sponsoring academic debates on the merits of traditionalism, the revisionist establishment sought to undermine the implementation of Mao’s decree. The revisionists used scholarly debates about history as a way to attack Maoism. They pointed to Chinese nationalism and traditionalism as an alternative to Maoist radicalism. Defying Mao’s call for social revolution, they emphasized social unity. This effort to rehabilitate Confucianism sought to lay the groundwork to incorporate traditional Chinese conceptions of social unity into the Party ideology. Rehabilitating Confucius was an important step in jettisoning Mao’s concept of the primacy of class struggle. There had always been those in the Party who downplayed social revolution and emphasized social unity. By the early 1960s, with Mao weakened, those who emphasized social unity, at the top represented by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, gained the upper hand. A month after Mao’s call for more class struggle, Zhou Yang and the Historical Research Institute held a conference that became a platform for revisionist, traditionalist views. After the forum, the participants marked the occasion by going to Qufu, Confucius’ hometown, to visit the Confucian ancestral temple. (7)

Historian Liu Jie advanced the idea that China’s history could not be explained by the scientific categories of Marxism. He claimed class struggle did not govern Chinese historical development. Instead, he said that the Confucian concept of “jen,” humanism or love of mankind, allowed differing classes to live in peace in the feudal era and could do so in the present era too. In other words, class contradictions in China are not antagonistic as they are elsewhere. Class contradictions can and should be mediated by Confucian social unity. According to his view, classes did not oppose each other, but worked together for the greater good in the unique case of the Chinese nation. Some at the conference suggested that Marxism and Confucianism were similar or could be combined. There was an effort to conflate the two ideologies in order to make Confucianism acceptable. This was an effort to smuggle revisionism into Marxism. In his New History of Chinese Philosophy, earlier published in 1961, philosopher Feng Youlan stated that jen was a universal ethic for all times and all classes. Wu Han was one of the boldest and most outspoken advocate of traditionalism. Under the pen name “Wu Nanxing,” Wu Han published two articles in 1962: “On Morality” and “More On Morality.” The articles were on the inheritability of values and other topics. Wu Han advocated incorporating not only jen to the current politics, but other traditional values too. Wu Han advocated feudal notions of loyalty, filial, piety, honesty, diligence, and courage. In addition, he advocated certain values of bourgeois society, including democracy and the profit-motive. So that he would not be misunderstood, in another article, he underscored that obedience to authority should not be to a single leader, but to the Party as a whole. Thus he sought Confucian obedience to the top Party establishment, a kind of aristocracy dominated by revisionists. A Confucian cult of the Party aristocracy as a whole was advanced as a way to oppose the rival cult of Mao. (8) This was in direct opposition to the Maoist efforts to use the army to set up a pole of authority, in the form of the Mao cult, outside the normal Party establishment.

Connected to the Confucian debates were debates over historical figures from Chinese history. Many sought to refute the reviews of Wu Han, Liu Jie, Feng Youlan and their allies. Many who would become Maoist leaders during the Cultural Revolution took part in the Maoist counter-attack. Younger authors led by Guan Feng, Qi Benyu, Yao Wenyuan, Lin Youzhi, and Lin Jie criticized the revisionists. In August of 1963, for example, Qi Benyu published “Comment on Li Xiucheng’s Autobiography.” In this article, Qi Benyu argued against the grain that the last general of the Taiping rebellion against the Manchu Qing dynasty should not be viewed as a hero because he had surrendered. Qi Benyu used history as a way to discuss the present, a common Maoist tactic. Qi Benyu argued against any suspension of revolution. He argued against those who would capitulate as the last general of the Taipings had. Those who abandon class struggle should never be regarded as heroes. Later, this idea that class struggle, revolution, must be continuous would play a key role in the Cultural Revolution. Qi Benyu’s insistence on the importance of class struggle was directly opposed to the notions of traditional social unity being peddled  by the revisionists. In September, 1963, Zhou Yang organized a meeting at the Institute of Modern History. Prominent figures, including Wu Han, Deng Tao, Jian Bozan, and Hou Wailu criticized Qi Benyu’s view. Attacks and counter-attacks were made back and fourth. This was not just a conflict between the Party’s cultural establishment against younger upstart Maoists, the conference was an effort to ideologically undermine Mao’s policies, an effort  to undermine the intellectual justification for increased class struggle. It was an effort to undermine Maoist radicalism in general.

Similar debates raged in the field of aesthetics and philosophy. Zhou Gucheng, a professor at Fudan University in Shangahi, advanced theories of aesthetics and culture that de-emphasized the role of conflict, instead emphasized culture’s role as a space where different class interests merged and unified to form a “spirit of the age.” Yao Wenyuan sought to refute his position in “A Brief Discussion of the Problems of the Spirit of the Age” in 1963. Yao Wenyuan agreed that society was complex and ridden with contradictory class outlooks. However, he disagreed that there was a deeper unity that constituted a “spirit of the times.” Yao Wenyuan argued that antagonistic interests cannot form an integrated spirit. In the present epoch, Yao Wenyuan argued, it was the proletarian that represented the common spirit and hope for humanity, not a combination of the spirits of all classes. (9) Yang Xianzhen, a theorist trained in the Soviet Union, claimed that the dialectic was part of Chinese tradition. He pointed to traditional conceptions of yin and yang, which were opposites that formed a deeper unity. His implication was that social conflicts dissolve in the unity. In practice, this lent itself to compromise and class collaboration, which the Maoists found objectionable. (10) Yang Xianzhen had also been a critic of the Maoist policies during the collectivization drives in the 1950s and the Great Leap. He had emphasized the importance of economy and technology over ideology in his earlier work. Later, this kind of idea would be named the Theory of the Productive Forces. These theories — with their emphasis on technology and de-emphasis of class conflict and ideology, rejection of the special  role of the proletariat, and elevation of social unity and traditionalism — were part of the revisionist package. At the time, in academia and cultural circles, pre-Marxist Hegelianism was being combined with liberalism and traditional Chinese feudal ideas in order to lay a theoretic basis for counter-revolution. Instead of emphasizing social unity, the Maoists themselves raised the obscurantist slogan that “Everything tends to divide itself into two.” The implication was that antagonistic contradictions in society were irreconcilable. They could only be resolved through struggle, through revolution. (11) On September, 11 1964, still referring to the professor as “comrade,” Red Flag, the Party’s theory journal edited by Maoist Chen Boda, published a polemic against Yang Xianzhen stating that the debate was “a struggle between two world outlooks — the proletarian world outlook and the bourgeois world outlook.” The article criticize the concepts and the “distorted picture” of “comrades Yang Xianzhen, Ai Hengwu and Lin Jingshan.” The Maoists correctly saw the danger, but could not carry the struggle further at the time. (12)

Socialist Education, Arts and the Peasantry

In 1963 through 1964, as the Socialist Education Movement was peaking, using similar arguments as those used in the aftermath of the Great Leap, Zhou Liangxiao in People’s Daily downplayed the significance of the peasantry in the past and, by implication, present class struggle. He stated “it is wrong to regard peasant wars as giving rise to a new social system.” He went on to state that “in feudal times peasants did not oppose all forms of exploitation. The equality they desired was to throw off the landlords in order to make profit or to become small property owners.” (13) Zhou Liangxiao’s last point is one made by Mao himself. This kind of consideration is the whole reason for Mao’s theory of New Democracy. Even so, the reason that authors chose to raise this issue at this juncture was to criticize those Maoists who sought to mobilize the current peasantry, under Maoist leadership, for further socialist transformation. The limited peasant ambitions of the past were being used to criticize those who sought to make further social revolution in the present. Not only did these authors fail to recognize that the peasantry of the 1960s was not the peasantry of the past, but they also failed to understand the transformative power of communist ideology and leadership. State power also significantly changes the equation. The Maoists, by contrast, saw a vast “poor and blank” peasantry as a force that could be unleashed to push the revolution forward. To point to the conservative nature of past peasant movements was not only a criticism of those who sought another leftist advance, but also a criticism of past Maoist efforts during the Great Leap a few years before. By contrast, Maoists saw the masses as a source of strength. They emphasized the importance of mass line. “From the masses to the masses,” Mao famously stated. The flow of information goes both ways. Not only were the masses the engine of revolution, but could also be a source of leadership to the Party bureaucracy. This was a tacit challenge to the authority of the Party bureaucracy by the Maoists.

In December of 1963, Mao specifically referred to the arts. Mao stated that what was true in art applied to cultural generally. He pointed to class struggle as the key link in culture. Even before the rectification, the media reported:

“Those who contend that art and literature have nothing to do with politics are in reality allowing art and literature to serve the politics of the bourgeoisie.”


“Our works of art must be heart-stirring ideologically and of commanding artistry. What are needed are works of art and literature that are a great unity of ideas (content) and artistry (form), that is, a unity of healthy, revolutionary ideological content with the finest possible artistic form.” (14)

By the end of 1963, the attacks and counter-attacks were mostly over without much fallout. The debates remained in academic and literary circles. As the debates faded, Mao issued a stronger statement on June 27, 1964. A rectification was launched in response. However, those charged with implementing it were those opposed to Maoist policies, including President Liu Shaoqi, the Mayor of Beijing Peng Zhen and the Propaganda Department, the very revisionists who had been sponsoring the anti-Maoist writers and scholars. As a result, the campaign was dead in the water. It neither resulted in serious purges nor remolding campaigns. The rectification never translated into slogans or formulas that could be grasped by the masses. Instead, the issues seemed obtuse and scholarly. Little effort was made to popularize the debates. Personalized targets were mostly treated leniently, being referred to as “comrade” throughout. Zhou Yang was able to shelter his cultural apparatus and allies from most Maoist attacks. Zhou Yang was also able to shelter his spheres of influence from infiltration by Lin Biao’s military, which was the main voice of the Maoist line and had been developing parallel institutions of influence. The blunted nature of the offensive is reflected in the October, 1963 publishing of the first five volumes of a new history of ancient China under Wu Han’s direction. In 1964, Feng Youlan’s New History of Chinese Philosophy came out, a work which had been criticized by the Maoists. And Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai held receptions for the revisionist philosophers and historians, including Wu Han and Feng Youlan, in January, 1964. In the mild rectification that followed, Zhou Gucheng was given some attention, but was not a main target. Less important, Soviet-trained ideologues here hit as a diversion: Yang Xianzhen and Feng Ding. Mao once remarked that there was “one soldier” and “one civilian,” whose criticisms were in close harmony. The soldier in question was Peng Dehuai, who had already fallen during the Great Leap. The civilian was Yang Xianzhen, who headed the Central Party School. (15) Yang Xianzhen had circulated criticisms of Maoist efforts during the Great Leap at the same time as Peng Dehuai and the Soviet Union were launching their attacks. (16) He was a harsh critic of false reporting of bumper harvests during the Great Leap. “[W]e can do without sputniks like that,” Yang Xianzhen stated. (17) He also criticized Maoist experiments in youth liberation and the popularization of advanced culture:

“[T]hey organized a huge philosophy lecturers regiment of some ten thousand people. First I heard that the youngest philosophy lecturer was only six years old, and I thought to myself this child must be a real genius. Then I heard that there was even a five year-old lecturing in philosophy. They had things like philosophical clapper talk, philosophical rice sprout-songs, and philosophical crosstalk. They had a whole mess of weird things like that. Perhaps it is one step forward, one step back and that becomes the unity of opposites…” (18)

He criticized Maoist efforts to popularize the creation of art, to break down the traditional distinction between art and work:

“There were ‘geniuses’ everywhere. In one place they claimed everyone’s a poet… In Beijing, a worker caused an accident by walking away from his machine to write poetry, setting the factory on fire and causing damages worth 700,000 Yuan. That was really highly prized poetry… One soldier spent 48 hours writing poetry; when he had finished he was unable to get up, and had to be carried away on a stretcher.” (19)

Yang Xianzhen had longstanding connections to the Soviet Union, including heading up the China Department of the Soviet Union’s Foreign Language Press in the thirties. Both Peng Dehuai and Peng Zhen had connections to Yang Xianzhen, Peng Zhen even looked to him as an ideological authority. Yang Xianzhen  was a big critic of Maoist ideologue Chen Boda. Chen Boda criticized those who “stressed the past while slighting the present.” Yang Xianzhen was very critical of Chen Boda’s efforts to elevate Maoism. It was on Maoists like Chen Boda and Kang Sheng, not Mao himself, that Yang Xianzhen blamed for failures during the Great Leap. (20) Thus even a revisionist like Yang Xianzhen knew it was not wise to criticize Mao directly.

Feng Ding was another who was hit by the mild rectification. He was accused of advocating social darwinism in contrast to the Maoist and military promotion of Lei Feng, a humble soldier of poor origin. Shao Zhaunlin also was criticized for his underestimation of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, a position that ran counter to the Maoist efforts to turn the Socialist Education Movement into a revolutionary campaign in the countryside. At the same time, unlike previous rectifications, many of the critics, in this case Maoists, came under criticism also. As Qi Benyu was censured in 1963, Yao Wenyuan was censured in 1964 for his earlier comments on Zhou Gucheng’s work. In addition, some of the ideas of the anti-Maoists that were upheld in some of the criticisms themselves. All of this created a mixed, muddled message. In 1965, the rectification was over with one exception. Where Jiang Qing had personally intervened, in Beijing Film Studios, Peking Opera, and the Institute of Fine Arts, the rectification continued. Zhou Yang would call her continued rectification efforts dogmatic and exaggerated at the end of February, 1965. He would continue to obstruct her efforts to revolutionize film and opera. Mao was dissatisfied with the campaigns and rectification because they failed to achieve a victory for the Maoist line. They never turned into a wide-scale mass movement. They never developed into real power struggles. The rectification remained superficial. This is one reason Mao would go outside normal Party channels to launch his next offensive, the Cultural Revolution. Mao would turn to Lin Biao’s military, which had developed its own parallel structures, and to the masses themselves through the cult of personality.  (21)

Revolution in Opera, Cinema

The Chinese communist movement can trace its origins to the New Culture Movement and May Fourth Movement of the early part of the twentieth century. Mao described his own ideas during this time in an interview with Edgar Snow:

“At this time [1918-1919] my mind was a curious mixture of ideas of liberalism, democratic reformism and utopian socialism. I had somewhat vague passions about ‘nineteenth century democracy.’ Utopianism and old-fashion liberalism, and I was definitely anti-militarist and anti-imperialist.” (22)

This was a period when Chinese intellectuals began looking beyond Chinese traditions for the answers to social and economic problems. The May Fourth Movement was a nationwide protest in 1919 by intellectuals and students against the treatment of China by Western powers under the Versailles Treaty. The weak response of those representatives of Chinese tradition, including the Chinese state, to imperialism pushed more intellectuals to search for new answers to the ills facing China. This stimulated intellectual creativity. Many of these intellectuals looked beyond China. Many turned to Marxism. Mao and other communist leaders were marked by the struggles of this period. The rejection of traditionalism, the emphasis on culture, the iconoclastism of this period would come to shape the Maoist movement in the decades to come. The Maoist movement has its origins in the history of Chinese struggles, but also in the universal aspects of revolutionary science discovered by the Marxists and expanded by Maoists. (23)

Karl Marx’s view of our social world was that it was in constant change. All things are in motion; nothing is static. Echoing a long tradition going back at least to Heraclitus, there is no stepping outside the river of life and experience. Inequality and class society has divided our experience of the world. Work is separate from play is separate from art is separate from philosophy. By contrast, under Leading Light Communism, life becomes whole again. Because of the elimination of class, the empowering of the masses, work, play, art, and philosophy all merge as the masses all take part in the building of a new, egalitarian, Leading Light Communist world. Alienation no longer exists. The contradiction between mental and manual labor no longer exists. The distinction between work and artistic creation no longer exist as they do in the bourgeois epoch. All of humanity is empowered to create themselves and create the new, Leading Light Communist society. However, Leading Light Communism, the end of all oppression, is very far off. Before Leading Light Communism, there is a long journey of class struggle passing through capitalism and socialism. In class society, society should be seen a causal nexus divided into the base and the superstructure, between economics and culture. The base is the productive forces and relations of a society, technology and resources and how power is organized. The superstructure is all non-economic parts of our world: culture, the legal system, ideology, our conceptions and experiences of ourselves, etc. These two realms form a whole. Mao offered the platitude that art is the product of the relation of the human brain to a given society. (24) Culture, including art, is marked by its origin in a given time and place. All art,  even that which claims to be apolitical, is both marked by its historical and social origins. Lu Xun, the most famous of China’s progressive writers, said “All literature is propaganda.” (25) All art plays a role in class struggle. According to the Maoists, what Mao says of art is true of all forms of the superstructure, of culture generally. China, as one of the most ancient civilizations, has cultural traditions going back millennia. In the sea of culture and art, most was not geared to the masses. China’s culture and art were marked by its origins, by feudalism, capitalism, and imperialism. Mao sought to overcome this:

“Not only do we want to change a China that is politically oppressed and economically exploited into a China that is politically free and economically prosperous, we also want to change the sway of the old culture into an enlightened and progressive China under the sway of a new China. Our aim in the cultural sphere is to build a new Chinese national culture.” (26)

There had been an unprecedented flourishing of the arts since the People’s Republic was declared in 1949. By the 1960s, Beijing had more theatres than New York. In Shanghai alone there were seventy professional companies working in a dozen theatrical forms. (27) In 1964, Jiang Qing states that “according to a rough estimate, there are 3,000 theatrical companies in the country (not including amature troupes and unlicensed companies).” (28) From before, but especially since liberation, efforts to update and innovate culture gained momentum. After the founding of the People’s Republic, the modernization of art accelerated and intensified, more overtly political and contemporary themes were adopted in all art, but especially in Peking Opera.

Peking Opera, an introduction

One of the most famous and distinctly Chinese forms of culture can be found in the numerous works of classical Chinese theatre. At the center of modernizing efforts was this rich tradition:

“Opera had presented perhaps the biggest challenge to Chinese cultural modernizers throughout the twentieth century. The Communists after 1949 continued this work. A relatively young artistic form (having only several centuries of history) and one distinct from the high culture of scholar-officials, Chinese musical theatre was an actor-centered art. Its transmission of stories, music, and singing styles from the past was by old-style master-student training. All these features made opera seem the most resistant to modernizing of all forms in the Chinese cultural heritage. Waves of modernizers, from the reformists or iconoclastic intellectuals of the May Fourth era in the second through fourth decades of the twentieth century through the Communist revolutionaries with equally totalistic rejections of the past, all denounced ‘feudal’ thinking that opera purveyed.” (29)

Peking Opera would come to play a special role in the efforts to modernize and revolutionize culture. Though it is called “Peking Opera,” it is not confined to Beijing. It is performed all over China. It is the most popular and considered the finest form of the more than 250 variations of Chinese theater. Peking Opera, as the most popular and sophisticated of Chinese theater, became one of the main centers of the Maoist revolution in the art and culture. Of the art that would emerge from the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary Peking Operas are the most famous. They would come to symbolize the Cultural Revolution itself.

Peking Opera’s origin can be traced back centuries to older forms. Peking Opera was forged over centuries. The themes of classic operas and other works were feudal ones that did not relate to ordinary workers, peasants, and soldiers. Art forms matured in feudal times often reflected that reactionary society:

“Emperors, empresses, concubines, despots, court beauties, seducers, monsters, spirits, and imperial heroes people its stories; deceit, trickery, violence, exploitation, submission and servility mark its plots; questionable themes and superstition abound.” (30)

In addition, there were numerous works influenced by foreign high art, works influenced by the imperialism, capitalism, liberalism, and individualism of the West. Even into the 1960s, the state of the Chinese art world, including Peking Opera, often did not promote communist consciousness, according to the Maoists. Maoists did not see opera as it currently existed as playing a positive role in the class struggle. Instead, it often reproduced those values of the societies from which it originated. According to the Maoists, such art encouraged docility, servitude, and individualism. It tended to encourage either feudal, traditionalist authoritarianism or liberal, individualist capitalism.

In the period after the Great Leap, the power and influence of the Maoists was weakened. The revisionists were growing. Thus the revisionists sought to rehabilitate and promote the old art as part of their own cultural offensive. Mao had sounded the alarm on December 12,  1963:

“The social and economic base has changed, but the arts as part of the superstructure, which serve this base, still remain a serious problem.” (31)

The revolution in Peking Opera was initiated in the early 1960s, the period after the Great Leap, but prior to the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing’s charge to revolutionize Peking Opera was part of the Maoist response. In 1964, she stated:

“[T]here are well over 600 million workers, peasants and soldiers in our country, whereas there is only a handful of landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements, Rightists and bourgeois elements. Shall we serve this handful, or the 600 million? This question calls for consideration not only by Communists but also by all those literary and art workers who love their country. The grain we eat is grown by the peasants, the clothes we wear and houses we live in are all made by the workers, and the People’s Liberation Army stands guard at the fronts of national defence for us yet we do not portray them on the stage. May I ask which class stand you artists do take? And where is the artists’ ‘conscience’ you always talk about?” (32)

Behind all the artistic growth and innovation was a struggle between two lines in art. Looking back, one observer writes:

“Theatre (and cinema) from the time of Liberation up to the Cultural Revolution was mainly under the direction of those within the Communist Party who were ‘weeded out’ during 1966-70 as ‘revisionists.’ A great many people had been honestly mistaken or simply fooled or confused by such leadership, which preached one line (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) and practiced another (liberalistic, middle-class, revisionist). The Cultural Revolution sought to dig out the bourgeois elements and cement the cracks that had appeared during the building of Chinese socialism. A vast process of education and reeducation had no eliminated deeply ingrained feelings of self-promotion, monetary incentive, and a tendency even on the part of persons who truly believed in the new society to rebuild a class with privileges above and beyond the ordinary people, the proletariat… ‘Weeding out’ in most cases meant temporary retirement for criticism and reeducation. The Chairman himself said the majority of people were good.” (33)

Mao’s question, raised at the Yenan Forum in 1942, of “For Whom?” gained ever greater importance as Peking Opera was being revolutionized, as the Cultural Revolution approached. There were those, often young Maoist radicals, who pushed for revolution and modernization. They were met by those in the establishment and Party hierarchy who resisted with traditionalism and liberalism. Line struggles were becoming center stage. On the stages, reaction fought the Maoist line. In the specialist journals, two lines wrangled. Institutionally, the Maoist military battled with Party establishment. Jiang Qing’s 1964 convention and the revolution in Peking Opera were a sign of things to come. All of these struggles foreshadowed the Cultural Revolution.

Peking Opera as a Model for Society

The Maoists stated “cultural revolution both destroys and creates. The leaders must personally take charge and bring forth good models.” Just as the revolution in the military promoted model heroes and model companies, the revolution in Peking Opera focused on the creation of models. Praise was heaped on the best of the works that came out of the 1964 opera convention, in which Jiang Qing played a key role. These works that combined “revolutionary realism and romanticism” were held up as models to be emulated. (34) New methods, involving mass line, were endorsed. Jiang Qing purposed a collectivist method for producing art that blended art and life. She recommended applying a kind of mass line to the production of arts:

“When the play was written, many leading members of the Guangzhou military command took part in the discussions on it, and after it had been rehearsed, opinions were widely canvassed and revisions made. In this way, as a result of constantly asking for opinions and constantly making revisions they succeeded in turning out in a fairly short time a good topical play reflecting real life struggle… It will be difficult for some time yet to write plays specifically for Peking opera. Nevertheless, people have to be appointed right now to to the job. They must first be given some special training and then go out to attain experiences of life… In creative writing, new forces must be cultivated. Send them to work at the grassroots level and in three to five years they will blossom and bear fruit.” (35)

The revolution in Peking Opera was the most visible of all the transformations that occurred in the post-revolutionary Chinese art world. The revolution that occurred in Peking Opera affected other forms of art. The striking, exaggerated poses from Peking Opera were used in other forms of art. They were used on official art and on leaflets and posters made by students and workers during the Cultural Revolution in the coming years. These operas and similar models are some of the most memorable from the era. They were not only to be models for other artists to emulate, but also models to help people live good lives. The masses were suppose to live as the heroes the art portrayed, as they were to emulate the model soldier Lei Feng. Just as Lin Biao’s military was a kind of model for the whole of society, so too were the protagonists of opera and art. Art and life merged.

This process of merging art and life was aided by the adoption of realistic and historical subjects. It was also aided by the focus on the experience of the masses and the elevation of the masses as protagonists. For International Women’s Day in 1963,  the play, Women Fliers, was released based on the real-life story of China’s first woman pilot. One of the original pilots commented:

“It took us back a dozen years.. It was hard for young women like ourselves who came from different cities and villages just like those girls on stage — but we had pledged, like them, that ‘We will fly!’ and we did.” (36)

Art confirmed the Maoist slogan that “the masses are the real heroes.” Art was to relate to and elevate the masses. Foreshadowing Leading Light Communism, people were to work on themselves and their society as artistic creations. This was part of the creation of a whole new humanity. This ideal was expressed as “the combination revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.”(37) The art was not the simple realism of some strands of bourgeois tradition. It was not simple realism with proletarian subjects. The art did not simply mirror reality as some bourgeois traditions advocate. Paintings should not aspire to simply be photographs just as plays should not mimic life as seen by the ordinary, uninformed observer. Instead of mirroring reality as seen by the unpoliticized, the art sought to capture the truth of reality in motion, reality as struggle, as seen through the lenses of class struggle. In other words, revolutionary art sought to capture the world as it really is, as it exists before it is obscured by ignorance and false consciousness. Maoist art sought to provoke people to see the world as shaped by contending social forces, bursting at the seams. Mao states that “life as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.” (38) These models were morality tales, not unlike medieval allegories. The heroes were all good. The villains were all bad. The hero was center stage, with the light directly on him. The villain was off-center, shady. Thus the inner natures of the protagonist and antagonist becomes visible and obvious. This staging was part of bringing what was often obscured in everyday life to the surface. Thus, according to the Maoists, the operas, with their stark conflicts and characters, rendered the world more accurately than the obscured, everyday experience. One observer described a revolutionary Peking Opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy:

“As lights dimmed the curtains parted on a semi-ballet, semi-acrobatic, dance depicting a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) pursuit detachment forcing its way forward in a blizzard. The illuminated signs at the sides of the proscenium identified the scene:  ‘Winter, 1946, somewhere in Northeast China, a forest deep in a snow-covered mountain.’ Snow whirled, a huge crimson flag reeled in the music-howling gale; actor-dancers leaped and sprang through the storm; biting cold seemed to pour out across the footlights. I sat up straight at the breath-taking pace and energy.

Stage right, an orchestra of some twenty musicians, both men and women, using a combination of Chinese and Western instruments, remained scrim-screened but visible during the play, pinpointing a gesture, emphasizing a mood, underscoring a text — and in full accompaniment when arias or dances took over. (In old Peking opera the musicians — at that time, usually seven or eight players — used to sit on the stage in full view.) Unobtrusively the orchestra becomes part and parcel of the action. The conductor assumes particular importance as he punctuates striking moments with a sharp ‘tac’ produced by clapping together two pieces of wood, a time-beater called a pan.

The scenery was a blend of ‘revolutionary realistic-revolutionary romantic,’ the term Chinese use to describe the new style… Costumes today are realistic, though not to extremes — if a character is supposed to be poor and dirty, the idea is conveyed by neat patches and splashes; landlords are convincingly but not lavishly well-clothed. Gone is the sumptuousness of the past, when even beggars wore rags of silk and satin on stage. ‘Revolutionary romanticism’ modifies straight realism and is apparent in carefully controlled color and design; it is an idealized or symbolized heightening of reality.

Actors use an extraordinary amount of unrealistic make-up, particularly the young men, who point up revolutionary goodness and health by startling rosy faces and upswung black-painted brows. The Chinese, however, are accustomed to exaggeratedly painted stage faces and don’t seem the least surprised by pink-cheeked heroes or yellow-green villains. Make-up was an ancient and complicated art in classic Peking opera, by means of which characters could be immediately categorized as they stepped on stage. Color played an important role: red, for example, was traditional for honest. The more heroic the heroes looked the better; the worse the wicker, the better. So it has been for centuries.  Revolutionary Peking opera has considerably toned down what used to be a technique of enormous importance.

Similar emphasis — stressing good and bad — affects staging and lighting. Good people always take a prominent place on stage, singled out by light; villains and ne’er-do-wells — even when the scene is theirs, and even when occupying the stage alone — are kept off center and in dim light. This is skillfully done…”

She continues:

“Heroes in socialist China have little in common with capitalist-grown varieties. Model revolutionaries are people revered by the masses for having led — and often lost — lives dedicated to service beyond the call of socialist duty, and who are meant to be emulated in daily life. They are not apart from ordinary citizens. They may have flashed to recognition in one heroic, if prosaic, moment, perhaps dying in an attempt to save state property — as in the case of a young national hero whose young life was swept away in a raging flood as he endeavored to rescue some vitally important telephone poles. Communist youth are taught to go beyond — to be the first to do the dirtiest jobs, to brave the utmost danger, to volunteer ahead of others, to be living examples of courage, hard work and truth. Adoration of movie stars, prize fighters, pop signers, baseball players, cosmonauts, is inconceivable in today’s China. Heroism is hitched to political and ideological performance…” (39)

In 1964, Jiang Qing’s avant-garde drama troupe took Beijing’s traditional scene by storm with the Festival of the Peking Opera on contemporary themes. She was later credited with the conference, although at the time, she was not featured as prominently as others, including her opponents at the conference, in the media. This reflects the hold that her revisionist opponents had on the media. More than 50 discussions were held over a five week period of the convention. Various resolutions promoting innovation were passed. Versions of four of the five modern Peking Operas in the eight model performances of the Cultural Revolution were presented at the 1964 conference. Sparks Amid the Reeds became Shajiabang. Taking the Bandit’s Stronghold became Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The Red Lantern, The White Haired Girl, and Red Detachment of Women, the first full-length revolutionary ballet, made their debut. (40) One witness comments:

“Take the case of the Peking Opera. Thanks largely to the efforts of artists such as Yu Huiyong (who committed suicide after he was arrested by the post-Mao regime) the model Peking operas had some amazing achievements in those years. The artistic technique and skills in music, acting, and language developed at that time were the highest of their kind and have not been surpassed since. According to Zhang Guangtian, a playwright and director who has made a huge impact on the stage in recent years, model Peking Operas created during the Cultural Revolution were not only revolutionary in content but also in artistic form, a revolution equivalent to the Anhui Troupe’s performance in Beijing about two hundred years ago. Zhang argues that the characteristics of the performing art of Peking Opera, i.e., the formalism and style of simplification and concision, were raised to their highest level during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang further argues that by making use of Western wind and string instruments and by combining them with traditional Chinese musical instruments, and by wedding the art of Western ballet with that of the Peking Opera, the model Peking Operas not only developed a theoretical framework for managing change and continuity in the Chinese theater, but they also tried to counter the seemingly unstoppable tide of Western cultural imperialism.” (41)

Even as late as 1999, in the revisionist era, Chinese critics praised some of the modernizing work of the 1964 conference. They noted the watchability of many of the operas that were presented. Contemporary critics note their lively, innovative plots that reflected the richness of modern life. (42)  However, many Party elites at the time, especially those allied to Liu Shaoqi and Peng Zhen, disparaged the works. They actively worked to prevent the new works from catching on. For example, after The Lakeside Village had been shown in Beijing, Peng Zhen ordered the troupe dispersed in order to prevent it being performed elsewhere. (43)


In another move, in order to promote their line against the revisionists, the Maoists went straight to the masses. The Maoists used their sway at the grassroots level. Mobile cinema teams, like traveling opera troupes, would travel across the country to bring the message straight to the people. A report, published in the media in 1963, echoes Jiang Qing’s conclusions:

“Mobile cinema teams, usually of three members, are no less welcome in the villages than the theatrical troupes. In Xuchang Country, each team has two pushcarts and a bicycle — one man to every two wheels. They pull the carts with the movie projectors themselves, traveling in the daytime and giving shows at night. It is hard work. Teams serving the mountain areas have an even tougher job — they have to carry all their equipment up and down the steep mountain paths. But when a good film is shown and the peasants enjoy it, the members feel so well and rewarded that they forget all their weariness. This was told us by many teams… They especially like battle films with plenty of drama giving a clear idea of who is the enemy and who finally wins out. These include such films as Guerrillas on the Plains, A Red Detachment of Women, The Long March, and The Red Guards of Lake Honghu.” (44)

Later, one witness recalled:

“I witnessed an unprecedented surge of cultural and sports activities in my own home village, Gao Village. The rural villagers, for the first time, organized theater troupes and put on performances that incorporated the contents and structure of the eight model Peking Operas with local language and music. The villagers not only entertained themselves but also learned how to read and write by getting into the texts and plays. And they organized sports meets and held matches with other villages. All these activities gave the villagers an opportunity to meet, communicate, fall in love. These activities gave them a sense of discipline and organization and created a public sphere where meetings and communications went beyond the traditional household and village clans. This had never happened before and it has never happened since.” (45)

In the lead up to the Cultural Revolution, in 1964, a rectification campaign was launched in art and literature. Although the campaign nominally favored the Maoists, it mostly floundered. Even so, the Maoists were able to get some exposure. That year, as part of the campaign, several films came under criticism in the press: Jiangnan in the North, Early Spring in February, The Lin Family Shop, and Stage Sisters. They came under Maoist attack for their pluralism and liberalism. (46) Those who were charged with carrying out the rectification were the same Party officials who had opposed the Maoists. Even so, the Maoists continued to push forward in those areas they held more sway, especially in opera and film. They very much link themselves to Lin Biao’s efforts to transform the army as a model for society. (47) A few years later, at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Lin Biao would hold a forum on culture in the military in February 1966 in Shanghai, which he would specifically “entrust” to Jiang Qing. Lin Biao would also instruct his army “in culture, listen to comrade Jiang Qing.” As the Cultural Revolution approached, the lines were being drawn in all areas of society, including the art world.

Old, reactionary forms of culture were left behind as the revolution advanced. New, proletarian forms like Jiang Qing’s operas, filled some of that void. They would be center stage throughout the Cultural Revolution period. Two visions of the future were beginning to collide. On the one side, a radicalized vision of society was being promoted by the military through Lin Biao’s efforts and by Maoist critics, artists, and intellectuals, especially Jiang Qing’s efforts in opera and film. On the other side, was an effort to downplay power struggle, to overemphasize social unity, traditionalism, nationalism, the role of technology, and even the reintroduction of capitalism. This conflict, in various forms, had a long history in the Party, but it would explode in what came to be known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.


  1. Domes, Jurgan The Internal Politics of China 1949-1972  (Praeger Publishers, USA: 1973) p. 123
  2. ibid. pp. 124-125
  3. Byung-joon Ahn “Adjustments In The Great Leap Forward And Their Ideological Legacy, 1959-62”  in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) p. 249
  4. “Comment On Sun Yeh-Fang’s Reactionary Political Stand And Economic Program (Hung Ch’i [Red Flag], No. 10, 1966)”  in Chinese Politics edited by Myers, James T., Domes, Jurgen, and von Groeling, Erik (University of South Carolina Press, USA: 1986) pp. 69-81
  5. Domes, Jurgan The Internal Politics of China 1949-1972  (Praeger Publishers, USA: 1973) pp. 124-125
  6. Mao Zedong “Speech At The Tenth Plenum Of The Eight Central Committee” Selected Works of Mao Tes-Tung Vol 8. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-8/mswv8_63.htm
  7. “Round the Week” Beijing Review no. 50 (December 14, 1962) p. 4
  8. Goldman, Merle “The ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1962 -64” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) pp. 220-225
  9. ibid. pp. 230-232
  10. ibid. p. 241
  11. ibid. p. 233
  12. “New Polemic On The Philosophical Front… (by a Hongqi [Hung Ch’i] Correspondent) (Peking Review, No. 37, September 11, 1964)” in Chinese Politics edited by Myers, James T., Domes, Jurgen, and von Groeling, Erik (University of South Carolina Press, USA: 1986) pp. 106-112
  13. Goldman, Merle “The ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1962 -64” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) p. 239
  14. Chen Li “Revolutionary Art And Literature: Their Educative Role” Beijing Review no. 27 (July 5, 1963) pp. 23-25
  15. Schoenhals, Michael “Yang Xianzhen’s Critique of the Great Leap Forward” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 26, No. 3 (Cambridge University Pres: July, 1992) p. 591
  16. ibid. p. 592
  17. ibid. p. 602
  18. ibid. p. 602
  19. ibid. p. 602
  20. ibid. pp. 593-607
  21. Goldman, Merle “The ‘Cultural Revolution’ of 1962 -64” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) pp. 225-254
  22. Dirlik, Arik “The New Culture Movement Revisted: Anarchism and the Idea of Social Revolution in New Cultural Thinking” Modern China, Vol. 11, No. 3 (July, 1985) p. 253)
  23. Sullivan, Lawrence and Solomon, Richard H.  “The Formation of Chinese Communist Ideology In The May Fourth Era: A Content Analysis of Hsin ch’ing nien” in Ideology and Politics In Contemporary China edited by Johnson, Chalmers (University of Washington Press, USA: 1973) pp. 117-118
  24. Mao Zedong “Talks At The Yenan Forum on Literature and art,” Peking Review no. 22 (May 26, 1967)
  25. Karol, K.S. The Second Chinese Revolution (Hill and Wang, USA: 1974) p. 135
  26. Mao Zedong “On New Democracy” in Selected Works Of Mao Tse-Tung
  27. Snow, Lois Wheeler China On Stage  (Random House, New York, USA: 1972) p. 13
  28. Chiang Ching “On The Revolution Of Peking Opera” (Foreign Language Press, People’s Republic of China: 1968) p. 2
  29. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 11
  30. ???? FIND ????
  31. Mao Zedong “Comments on Comrade K’o Ching Shih’s Report” (December 12, 1963) http://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/classics/mao/sw9/mswv9_08.html
  32. Chiang Ching “On The Revolution Of Peking Opera” (Foreign Language Press, People’s Republic of China:1968) p. 2
  33. Snow, Lois Wheeler China On Stage  (Random House, New York, USA: 1972) p. 7
  34. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 24
  35. Chiang Ching “On The Revolution Of Peking Opera” (Foreign Language Press, People’s Republic of China: 1968) p. 4
  36. “Women Fliers” Beijing Review no. 11 (March 12, 1965) p. 27
  37. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 13
  38. Mao Tse-tung “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May, 1942) https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm
  39. Snow, Lois Wheeler China On Stage  (Random House, New York, USA: 1972) pp. 28-34
  40. ibid.
  41. Mobo Gao The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London, Pluto Press: 2008) p. 427
  42. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) pp. 16-18
  43. Robinson, Joan The Cultural Revolution In China (Penguin Books, Great Britain:1970) p.  49
  44. “Cultural Life In Rural Hunan” Beijing Review no. (April 16, 1963) p. 26
  45. Mobo Gao The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London, Pluto Press: 2008) pp. 427-428
  46. Clark, Paul The Chinese Cultural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, USA: 2008) p. 19
  47. Van Ginneken, Jaap The Rise And Fall Of Lin Piao (Avon Books, New York, New York, USA: 1977) p. 44