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The former half of the 20th century was an era of rapidly expanding socio-political ideologies in stark competition with one another in the wake of the consequences generated from the rapid globalization of bourgeois economies. Marxism was one of these competing ideologies to come to prominence during this period, developing from a fringe philosophy during the latter half of the 19th century into a formidable political option as fin de siècle society was violently torn asunder. Russia became a bastion for Marxist thought in the aftermath of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution, shifting the unwieldy weight of the agrarian empire into a meticulously organized communist machine.
China, plagued by civil war, was a prime target for Soviet efforts to attempt to convert factions within the turmoil in hopes of creating a powerful communist ally upon its eastern flanks. The Soviets assisted the development of the Communist Party of China in 1921, growing to develop a less than ideal relationship with Chinese communism as Mao Zedong grew in prominence as a political figure, taking the reigns of Chinese communism for his own.
Maoism, this Chinese-flavored Marxism, developed into a differentiated ideology, stressing the role of the peasantry as a driving force toward freedom from economic oppression. The philosophy behind Maoism spread swiftly among the Chinese people through various avenues of cultural expression. The theater was an ideal venue through which to communicate Maoist doctrine in a palatable, relatable manner to large audiences, bypassing the cold tedium of unadulterated Maoist literature. The Maoist opera The White-haired Girl, by Ho Ching-Chih, is perhaps the most prominent of these political stage works.
Ho dilutes the subject matter into a digestible format, far more comprehensible to its audience than Maoist doctrine in its most refined form. Mao’s essays within De Bary’s Mao’s Revolutionary Doctrine contain this pure, unadulterated philosophy, nearly irrelevant from the perspective of an audience without the intellectual foundation to extract the desired inspiration.
Drama provides a vehicle through which complex ideas could be communicated to vast audiences, allowing for the relatively swift spread of Maoism after the climax of the civil war between the Communist Party of China and the Kuomintang. The White-haired Girl channels the Maoist emphasis upon the peasantry’s significant role within a successful revolution, yet it ultimately removes direct agency from the impoverished peasants. Ho Ching-Chih poses the Eighth Route division of the Red Army as a messianic figure, bringing the peasantry to salvation from its oppressors through deus ex machina toward the conclusion of the opera. “You don’t realize, Hsi-ehr, how things have changed outside. Do you remember the Red Army Uncle Chao spoke about that year? Well, now the Red Army’s come – it’s called the Eighth Route Army now. They’ve come, and we poor folks have become masters! You must go out, we must take revenge!” The Eighth Route Army stands within the narrative as a figure into which the peasantry can wholeheartedly place its faith, which would ultimately return agency to the peasants as the workhorse of a proletariat revolution, should the class, in reality, decide to invest its faith into the Communist Party of China.
Only through investing their complete faith into the doctrine behind the Red Army could the peasants actualize themselves as their own masters. The fourth wall has the rhetorical power to emotionally seize control of its audience as the viewer imposes his or herself within the action on stage. The viewer becomes sympathetic with the characters and emotionally invested in the issues that plague the constructed reality within the libretto, thus making the theater a compelling venue through which to utilize propagandistic techniques. Mao Zedong recognized the untapped potential present within the peasantry while working with the people of his native province of Hunan early into the tenure of his activity with the Communist Party of China (1925). Mao comments, “The main force in the countryside that has always put up the bitterest fight is the poor peasants. Throughout both the period of underground organization and that of open organization, the poor peasants have fought militantly all along. They accept most willingly the leadership of the Communist Party.”
Although Mao did take notice of the latent potential and hardy spirit of the Chinese peasantry, the task remained to properly incite the necessary devotion to the party devotion necessary for peasants to willingly sacrifice their lives should the revolution so require. Mao solved this issue and seduced an ancient empire to relatively nascent communist ideology through the acquisition and redistribution of elements of endemic Chinese folk culture. The White-haired Girl was the result of such a redistribution of folk belief, allowing the Chinese masses the ability to identify further with the beliefs behind the Communist Party of China than they otherwise would have without such propagandistic mechanisms.
Mao argues, “The truth of Marxism must be integrated with the characteristics of the nation and given a definite national form before it can be useful.” This is the fundamental principle behind the Maoist redistribution of Chinese folk culture: the nation itself must embody the ideology before any successful action can occur. The people must fully identify with the philosophy before it can be of real purpose, pervading their lives almost ubiquitously as they gradually adopt the identities and mindsets permissive of a fully completed communist revolution. The fourth wall allows actors the ability to convey a message in an almost innocuous manner, removing a portion of the responsibility from themselves, therefore allowing their audience to greet their efforts with less skepticism. Ho Ching-Chih allegorically writes, “Uncle Chao was elected village head and Ta-So chairman of the Peasants’ Union… Folk are still so afraid of Landlord Huang and that ‘White-haired Goddess’ that nobody sticks his neck out.” He elegantly uses the narrative to criticize the roles of both the bourgeoisie and conservative tradition as the primary hindrances toward revolutionary progress, respectively, through the allegorical figures of Landlord Huang and Hsi-Ehr as the “White-haired Goddess.”
Mao similarly wr ites, “Imperialist culture and semi-feudal culture are affectionate brothers, who have formed a reactionary cultural alliance to oppose China’s new culture. This reactionary culture serves the imperialists and the feudal class and must be swept away.” He states this ideology far more directly than within Ho Ching-Chih’s opera, an ideology which on its own is valuable within certain intellectual communities, but this directness lacks the pathos that gives Maoist redistribution such compelling allure in comparison.
The theatrical stage allows the actors to pose a hypothetical scenario within which they can enact certain potential realities, while attributing such occurrences to innocuous figures exterior to themselves. Such Maoist redistribution of elements of folk culture, such as Ho Chin-Chih’s The White-haired Girl, proved an effective manner to propagate communist ideologies throughout the various strata of the Chinese populace. Although Mao’s personal essays pose extremely valuable positions within Sino-communist intellectualism, they ultimately lack the instrumental qualities extant within the often thinly veiled examples of cultural propaganda. Through successfully prolific propagandistic techniques did Mao Zedong and other leaders of the Communist Party of China manage to sway a nation stricken with both internal and external wars to favor communism as a solution to the issues left after the chaotic collapse of the dynastic system. The remnants of this era exist today within the contemporary Chinese cultural identity, echoing the vital role that Maoist cultural redistribution possessed in igniting a nation into the fiery Red passion of the mid 20th century.
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