Revolutionary Literature in China: An Anthology

By John David Berninghausen; Ted Huters | Go to book overview
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Introduction to Ma Ke's "Man and Wife Learn to Read"

Man and Wife Learn to Read (Fu qi shizi), a yangge play written and composed by Ma Ke, was originally performed at the 1945 Spring Festival in Yan'an.1 I have chosen this particular yangge play first because it is a farce, and farce comes across well in translation, and secondly because it is an excellent example of light drama as written and performed by intellectual cadres in the heyday of the Yangge Movement. Unlike many plays that were written towards the end of the war, Man and Wife Learn to Read remained very close to North Shenxi folk yangge in form while introducing "new content" in interesting and ingenious ways.

What came to be called the Yangge Movement got under way in North China in areas under the control of the Party around 1943, and became the CCP's first systematic attempt to reform Chinese opera. Yangge, a kind of folk opera and dance which I shall discuss shortly, was made the nucleus of annual campaigns at the Spring Festival (the old New Year) to use dramatic genres current among the common people as a means of carrying the Party's message to the widest possible audience. Thus first of all the Yangge Movement was an attempt to cast Party propaganda in a form that the peasants knew, loved and understood. The fundamental difference between this and earlier attempts by the CCP to make use of "old genres" as media for propaganda and agitation (cf. the use of folksong and huagu xi during the Jiangxi Soviet) was that in Yan'an following the victory of Mao and his followers over Wang Ming and the Internationalists in May 1941,2 a systematic effort was made to involve writers and artists with cosmopolitan city backgrounds in the creation of a new "national opera" on the basis of indigenous dramatic forms.3 Yangge plays of the new type were to combine the form and style of folk opera with internationalist content, and were to be at once popular and serious.

But intellectual leadership was regarded only as the first stage: like other campaigns fostered by the CCP in the wake of Rectification, the Yangge Movement was also intended to be a mass movement, with yangge troupes in the villages participating in the reform of their own repertoire and the creation of new plays. The introduction of new content reflecting village life in the Resistance War was also regarded as the start of a dialectical process: the new yangge, on one hand, was to be used as a tool to raise levels of education and culture in the villages and, in conjunction with other campaigns, to stimulate production and urge the reform of the agrarian economy; at the same time, gradually improving conditions in the villages would lead to the transformation of yangge and other folk arts into higher and more modern forms.

One should perhaps note here that the use of popular and folk forms as vehicles of moral influence by the scholars and ruling classes has a very long history in China. It has been argued for instance that some of the odes in the Shijing were composed in the royal palace, in imitation of the popular style, and were sung afterwards in the villages of the various fiefs as a means of reforming morals.4 Similarly, the vernacular tales and shan-shu of more recent times were composed as a rule by low-ranking literati for the edification -- as well as the entertainment -- of the lower orders. Conversely, folk and popular forms have also been used as vehicles of social protest by the common people themselves, and a great deal of work has been done in recent years by Chinese scholars to document this tradition. Particularly relevent here is the connection between secret society activity and the popular stage. The Boxers, for instance, made extensive use of local opera and puppet shows to make propaganda among the peasant masses,5 and similar activities can probably be documented for almost any political mass movement in modern Chinese history. On a deeper level, traditions of Taoist mystical boxing that formed such a prominent part of much secret society activity and ideology were closely linked with the theatre.6

Yangge is a type of folk dance accompanied by short plays and was performed in celebration of the New York and Lantern Festivals. Until the reforms of the 1940s, at least, it


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