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Madame Mao's Hollywood Fantasies

During the chaos and oppression of China's Cultural Revolution, one curious new theatrical genre was born — and it was the child of the Communist Party. Jiang Qing (a.ka. Madame Mao), a former stage and screen actress and the notorious wife of Mao Zedong, led the creation of yang ban xi: "model works" that were meant, in words attributed to Chairman Mao, to "serve the interests of the workers, peasants, and soldiers and [conforming] to proletarian ideology."

Through these operas and ballets, Jiang Qing aimed to wean artists and audiences alike from what she and the Party saw as the bourgeois themes and trappings of older Chinese art and replace them with a handful of revolutionary narratives, often set on battlefields. But the savvy Jiang Qing realized that the dogma would go far further if it were married to visual dazzle and sonic overload.

Under Jiang Qing's direction, eight initial works were produced — six operas and two ballets that married elements of Busby Berkeley-era Hollywood fantasy, classical Peking opera, Western ballet and Wagner's idea of gesamtkunstwerk with arias like "We Will Wipe Out the Reactionaries" and dance scenes titled "Hatred Blazes When Enemies Meet." And her big idea provided the repertoire for three thousand performing troupes across the country, as well as inspiration for a surreal scene in the John Adams opera Nixon in China.

Some of the most amazing artifacts of the yang ban xi are both kitschy and totally arresting stills produced by photographer Zhang Yaxin. Born in 1933, Zhang shot for the Xinhua News Agency before he was handpicked for the all-important task of disseminating Party philosophy through images. For eight years, he was closely supervised by Jiang Qing in his task of photographing the Communist Party's forays into revolution-worthy art.

The Chinese authorities readily understood the power of Zhang's images on their own terms. He was allowed to use one of only three Hasselblad cameras available, and while most Xinhua photographers were rationed three rolls of color film per year, Zhang was allowed to use as much as he liked. In turn, his stills from these productions were turned into posters, stamps, postcard books and craft pieces for further dissemination. And earlier this spring, a selection of Zhang's work was on exhibition at Toronto's Stephen Bulger Gallery, an exhibition we learned of via the Slate blog Behold.

As amazing as these hypersaturated images are on their own terms, many Chinese audiences in the 1960s and '70s experienced them in the context of their original stage extravaganzas and, later, in filmed versions as well. After seeing Zhang's work on Slate, we thought it would be fun to pair Zhang's pictures back up with some of the operas and ballets they originally accompanied.

Surprisingly, these operas are not Technicolor (if now dusty) relics of a bygone era, swept aside in the new China. As the BBC noted last year, the Central Ballet of China and other troupes take these works on international tours to this day.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.