Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Zhao Jiping and the Sound of Resistance in Red Sorghum

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Zhao Jiping and the Sound of Resistance in Red Sorghum

Article excerpt

In the seven decades since the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has made effective use of military might and propaganda to defeat its rivals and maintain its grip on power. As in other communist states, the CPC has relied on culture and artists to serve political purposes. Even since the 1980s, when China began to open its economy to the outside world, periods of artistic freedom have been the exception. More than any Chinese leader in decades, the current president, Xi Jinping, has made it clear that he sees the role of the arts as serving political ends. Speaking to a gathering of artists in October 2014, Xi reminded his listeners that "cultural and artistic sectors in China must serve the people and socialism." Chinese artists, he asserted, should create works that "disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody Chinese traditional culture and reflect [the] Chinese people's aesthetic pursuit[s]." To the president the purpose of a work of art is clear, it should "present patriotism as the main theme and foster correct viewpoints of history, nationality and culture, as well as strengthen pride in being Chinese."1 President Xi made these comments with the intention of drawing comparisons to those expounded by Chairman Mao in the 1940s. Xi's comments were directed mostly towards the visual arts and intended as a rebuke of the hypermaterialism of contemporary China. They were also a reminder that since taking power in 1949, the CPC has maintained firm control over artistic expression in China.2

It was in the decade following Mao's death, in 1976, that China's Fifth Generation of filmmakers began to emerge. The 1980s was a time of market reforms and of China's opening up to the world culturally. Among the films of the 1980s, Red Sorghum was to achieve international acclaim.3 It signalled the arrival of Gong Li as China's leading actress, and the beginning of Zhang Yimou's career as China's preeminent director. Zhang was by this time already in his mid-thirties, his career having been postponed by the Cultural Revolution. The same was true of the composer of the film's music, Zhao Jiping, who had been able to complete his studies only after Mao's death. His career as a film composer had begun in 1984, when he wrote the music for the first film of director Chen Kaige, Yellow Earth.4 With the score for Red Sorghum, he would become widely known in China.

Red Sorghum was based on the first novel of Zhang and Zhao's contemporary, Mo Yan, a writer who would go on to win the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature. The events of his novel take place over a period of fifty-three years, between 1923 and 1976, but are set largely in the 1920s and 1930s, during the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. The central characters are the narrator's grand parents, who run a distillery in northeast China. As the dominant crop in this region and the main ingredient of the local wine, the sorghum itself establishes the setting. Much of the novel's action takes place within the fields of sorghum, including the central event of the novel, the battle at Black Water Bridge, in which the villagers staged a legendary assault on a Japanese convoy. Part of the novel's success lies in its author's willingness to discuss China's disjointed efforts to repel the Japanese, and in his choice of highly unusual protagonists. As literary critic Shelly W. Chan has noted, members of the CPC were the usual leaders in literary works published in China from 1949 to the 1980s. In Mo Yan's novel, it is an unruly group of peasants (murderers and bandits among them) who are the heroes.5 Kenny Kwok-kwan Ng has argued that this celebration of the anti-hero reflected the class struggles having taken place in the 1970s and after.6 In Red Sorghum, the crop's rich colour functions as a symbol for the blood that is shed in those fields but also for the vitality of the region's inhabitants. The crop's loss of colour by the 1970s thus serves as a metaphor for both the relative peace in that time and for societal decline under communist rule, where bureaucracy has replaced initiative. …

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