Revolutionary Literature in China: An Anthology

By John David Berninghausen; Ted Huters | Go to book overview

of other features of Man and Wife taken from the old North Shenxi yangge. The whole play derives a lot of its appeal in performance to rhythmical effects, and in my translation I have tried to retain as much of this "fresh and lively Chinese style and manner" as possible. This attention to rhythm is particularly evident in the prologue, which is cast in a traditional form of recital in verse called lianzi zui, or "patter-mouth." This form was current in the region around Zizhou and Wubao counties to the north of Yan'an, and it was meant to be performed at breakneck speed, as indicated by its alternative names jikouliu and jikouling, "torrent-mouth." There seems to have been a close connection between lianzi zui and yangge performances in these areas, so the use of lianzi zui in the prologue of this play may be seen as a reflection of traditional practice. Then there is the music. Ma Ke was a musicologist and composer at the Lu Xun Institute of Literature and Art, and during the early 1940s he was active in field surveys of local opera genres organized by the Chinese Folk Music Research Society.10 I presume that the three tunes used in Man and Wife were collected by Ma during these surveys. Two of the tunes, "Ornamented gangdiao" and "Playing on the Swing," are melodies taken from Meihu, a popular form of "little theatre" (xiaoxi) that was current in the south and west of Shanxi and most areas of North Shaanxi south of Suide and Mizhi. In these areas Meihu plays were often performed along with yangge at the New Year. Thus Ma Ke's use of Meihu tunes in this play also reflects traditional North Shaanxi practice. Ma Ke also composed the music for a five-act yangge play Zhou Zishan, published in 1944,11 and in the first half of 1944 collaborated with Zhang Lu and others on the score of Baimao nü.

We may conclude that Man and Wife Learn to Read is a fairly clear-cut example of the policy of "from the people, to the people" in the sphere of art and literature.

The play was written and composed as propaganda for the new mass education movement.12 The drive for mass literacy had been under way particularly since the Conference of Senior Cadres of early 1943. The production drive launched at that conference required that a "peasant household production plan" (nonghu jihua) be drawn up for each family, and this in turn necessitated a wider dissemination of literacy. After 1943 earlier attempts to introduce romanization were replaced by teaching, in part-time "winter schools," a basic vocabulary of Chinese characters that would be of immediate use both in production and for political education. At the same time the drive was not to interfere with the production movement itself. A typical solution was for the names of standard farm implements, for instance, to be carved on their handles so that characters could be studied while at work. An additional aspect of this campaign was the fiercely competitive spirit injected into it by the labor hero emulation campaigns. Objective standards were set for the achievement of tasks (of the number of characters to be learned, for example) and used as the basis for widespread contests and "declarations of war" between individuals or groups.

As a piece of propaganda the play combines agitation with education. One of the main aims of the play was obviously to drum up enthusiasm for the mass literacy campaign: this was done both by the vivacity of the performance and by a fairly straightforward appeal to peasant self-interest. In the prologue, for instance, the immediate advantages of literacy are pointed out by negative example in Liu Er's satirical self-criticism. Possible reasons for lack of enthusiasm among the masses for the literacy drive are also alluded to (chiefly lack of time and energy after a hard day's work), but only when the characters are speaking in their "negative" or backward roles, hence no solution is proposed. The comic dialogue that forms the bulk of the play is heavily and unashamedly didactic. This approach was designed to make maximum impact on an audience of peasants and townspeople, most of whom were illiterate. The audience is given explicit instructions in the play on how to go about learning to read and write Chinese characters, and comic reversal is used as a mnemonic device to facilitate the repetition of these basic practical instructions without altogether breaking the dramatic illusion. Setting new words to old songs is another way of making sure that the message reverberates long after the performance has ended.

The text of Man and Wife Learn to Read was originally published in Liberation Daily ( Jiefang ribao) on February 28, 1945. In September of the same year it was published as a separate booklet: this was a clear indication that the play met with the approval of the Party's literary authorities and that it was intended to distribute it more widely among yangge troupes in outlying districts. The present translation is based on the text in Zhang Geng, ed., Yangge ju xuanji(A Selection of Yangge Plays), Peking: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1958, pages 221-233.

My thanks are due to Dr. Charles Curwen of the Department of History at the School of Oriental and African Studies for help with the translation of some of the more difficult North Shaanxi expressions.

Zhou Er-fu, "Yangge ju fazhan de daolu" ( Yangge Drama's Path of Development), in Qunzhong zazhishe, ed., Yangge ju chuji ( A First Collection of Yangge Plays), Chungking: Xinhua ribao tushuke, 1945, p. 12.
See Tetsuya Kataoka, Resistance and Revolution in China ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 228.
Zhou Er-fu, pp. 7-8.
Marcel Granet, Fêtes et chansons anciennes de la Chine ( Paris: Editions Ernest Leroux, 1919), pp. 11-12.
See photographs in Beijing lishi bowuguan, ed., Zhongguo jindaishi cankao tupian ji, zhongji ( Pictorial Reference Materials for Chinese Modern History, Volume 2) ( Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 1958), p. 116.
Displays of military arts frequently accompanied the performance of yangge during the New Year in rural districts of North China, and many of the dance movements and variety acts in yangge are taken directly or indirectly from wushu.
Ai Qing, "Yangge ju de xingshi" ( "The Form of Yangge Drama"), in Ai Siqi et al., Yangge lunwen xuanji ( A Selection of Essays on Yangge), ( Dalian: Dalian Zhong-Su youhao xiehui, 1947), pp. 23-24.
Li Jing-han and Zhang Shi-wen, ed., Dingxian yangge xuan ( Shanghai: 1933).
Zhang Geng, Yangge yu xin geju ( Yangge and the New Opera), ( Dalian: Dalian dazhong shudian, 1949), pp. 6-7.
Published as Zhongguo minjian yinyue yanjiuhui, ed., Yangge quxuan ( A Selection of Yangge Songs), (Yan'an: Xinhua shudian, 1944), and (same ed.), Meihu daoqing quxuan ( A Selection of Meihu and Daoqing Tunes), (Yan'an: Xinhua shudian, 1945).
Ma Ke et al., Zhou Zishan, (Yan'an: Xinhua shudian, 1944).
On education in the Yan'an period in general see Peter J. Seybolt , "The Yenan Revolution in Mass Education," CQ 48 ( Oct-Dec 1971), 641-69.


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