by Anna Chen
In Madam Mao’s Golden Oldies, I revisit the Chinese Cultural Revolution model operas that I first heard as a child in the 1960s and ’70s and discover how they are, somewhat surprisingly, enjoying a new lease of life.
Growing up as a London-born red-nappy kid with Beatles and Bowie as my soundtrack, I was occasionally dragged by my parents to the Chinese legation in London’s Portland Place, which had lost its official embassy status due to the cold war ruckus, for screenings of the latest film spectacular to emerge from Chairman Mao’s wife, the arts commissar Jiang Qing.
These were the Yangbanxi – the eight model operas, films with titles such as The Red Detachment Of Women and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.
These state-sponsored works combined opera and ballet with simple plots about brave peasants uniting to defeat evil landlords, Japanese invaders and other enemies of the revolution.
Heroes looked like heroes with rouged faces, kohl-lined eyes and great hair while villains were easily identified by their sneaky demeanour and bad-porn moustaches.
My Hollywood sensibility found these crude melodramas puzzling and somewhat turgid.
But they weren’t made for relatively pampered East End kids like me but for the peasants and workers who had rarely if ever been represented in their own culture.
Within living memory, mass starvation, imperialist conquest and the horrors of the Japanese invasion had devastated the nation. Barely 20 years into its communist revolution, the population was struggling to get back on its feet.
Madam Mao not only banned the traditional Beijing opera and their stories about emperors and princesses but also cast out “decadent” Western music and films as being a corrupting influence on the masses.
Quelle surprise when it later transpired that the former actress was fond of indulging her tastes in the privacy of her own screening room.
But Jiang Qing was canny enough to harness the emotive power of these works with the help of the Chinese cultural intelligentsia who hadn’t fallen out of favour.
In the programme, a variety of people who were intimately involved in the model operas recount their experience.
Among them is Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea, who had been plucked from working in the fields because she was used to “carrying 300 pounds of manure.”
And Jingdong Cai is now a conductor with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra but learnt his trade in Madam Mao’s army of young musicians.
Madam Mao’s favourite films? The Sound of Music and Jane Eyre.
No, not the classic Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine version of the latter but the crappy George C Scott remake.
What does that tell you about arbiters of taste?
Madam Mao’s Golden Oldies will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Tuesday July 17, at 11.30am.
Anna Chen blogs at www.madammiaow.blogspot.com