China sets new tone for the arts with 3D film of Mao-era opera
Revival of The White-Haired Girl, which once bored Kissinger senseless, signals Xi Jinping’s vision for Chinese arts as fostering ‘correct views’
Critics hailed it as “an art classic in a new era”, while China’s official news agency, Xinhua, called it “a visual feast of blowing wind, snowy mountains, pitch-dark night and thunderous storms”.
This was not the Beijing debut of China’s latest pop sensation, but a 3D, big-screen version of a Mao-era revolutionary opera called The White-Haired Girl.
The film’s Boxing Day premiere at Beijing’s China Film Cinema marks the latest chapter in an attempt by the president, Xi Jinping, to stamp his mark on the Chinese arts.
“Contemporary arts must … take patriotism as a theme, leading the people to establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood and culture,” the general secretary of the Communist party told a forum in 2014, at which he set out his vision for Chinese painters, playwrights and novelists.
The White-Haired Girl, first performed in 1945 at the Communist party’s headquarters in Yanan, fits Xi’s bill perfectly.
The opera, said to be among Mao’s favourites, charts the trials and tribulations of a peasant girl called Xier whose father, an impoverished farmer, is forced to sell her to an unscrupulous landowner.
The enslaved heroine flees into the mountains, taking shelter in a cave where hardship turns her hair white. Eventually, Xier is rescued by gallant members of the Communist Party’s Eighth Route Army. Her hair then returns to its normal colour.
In one of many effusive, government-backed reviews of the remake, the critic Hu Yifeng heaped praise on “a timeless tale showcasing the national spirit”. “The White-Haired Girl has eternal value,” Hu wrote.
Alongside the 3D film, a stage revival of the opera is also under way, with about 30,000 people reportedly taking in performances in Guangzhou, Changsha, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing since November.
The Chinese media have not shied away from the political significance of the rebirth of revolutionary opera. A culture ministry official told state media that the phenomenon was directly linked to “the artistic development plan of the Party, the future of China’s art and who art should really serve”.
Xinhua said “the 3D opera embodies the spirit of remarks by Xi Jinping … on socialist literature and art, emphasising the people-oriented concept in the production of artistic works”.
Underscoring the president’s ties to the project, China’s first lady, soprano Peng Liyuan, “took time off her busy schedule to look over the play and provided valuable advice for its modification”, Xinhua added.
Xi’s blueprint for the arts has sent shivers down the spines of many artists and writers, who fear the determination to focus only on the positive and patriotic spells doom for their trade.
Chen Xiwo, an author whose books are banned in China, says: “Of course, the rulers want people to focus on the positive side, but if writers go along with this, they are not true writers.
“If writers from a certain country write nothing about the problems of their country then that country’s literary works will be of no value.”
Sheng Keyi, another celebrated novelist, says it is difficult to predict what impact Xi’s attempts to rein in the arts will have. “The Stalin era was very repressive and yet brilliant writers and pieces of writing emerged from that era,” she says. “There are two sides to every coin.”
Lei Jia, who plays Xier in the reborn opera, told the China Youth Daily newspaper its focus on ordinary lives would “touch people, no matter what generation they are from”.
Hou Keming, the film’s director, told the state broadcaster CCTV that his use of 3D technology had transformed revolutionary opera. “You feel like you are right in front of the actors and actresses,” he said. “You feel like you are on the stage.”
But Qiao Mu, a media studies professor from the Foreign Studies University in Beijing, says a film with such a “strong ideological hue” would almost certainly flop in 21st-century China.
“This opera is not about entertainment. Perhaps a few old people might go to remember their sufferings in the olden days,” he says.
Foreign audiences are also unlikely to find themselves captivated by the production, which features songs including Longing for the Rising Red Sun in the East and Dear Chairman Mao.
Henry Kissinger sat through a performance of The White-Haired Girl during a 1971 visit to China ahead of the historic rapprochement between Washington and Beijing in 1972. He later recalled having witnessed “an art form of truly stupefying boredom”.
Additional reporting by Christy Yao and Luna Lin