Sinica backgrounder: Art amid the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution
During the 10 years of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, those who took up Mao Zedong’s 1966 call to purge the nation of capitalist and traditional influences brought about anywhere from 500,000 to 8 million deaths, destroyed historic sites, shut down schools, tortured intellectuals, persecuted teachers and, in at least one province, turned to the barbarity of cannibalism.
Amid this savage assault on the demonized “Four Olds” — ideas, customs, culture and habits of China’s past — human creativity continued. But it didn’t progress freely — the artists who avoided death or despair were tasked with turning their talents toward goals outlined by Mao as early as 1942. According to his directive, literature and art must serve the new master of the “revolutionary machine” by becoming “powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.”
Leading the charge against “old” conceptions of creativity was Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and a leading figure of the Gang of Four, the powerful faction within the Communist Party that oversaw the Revolution’s broader campaign. She dismantled and denounced traditional Beijing opera and replaced it with Yangbanxi — “revolutionary operas” that promoted communism. The best-known among them were called the “Eight Model Works.” One of those productions, “Red Detachment of Women,” was performed for former President Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit to China.
The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, and just two years later Deng Xiaoping commenced the reforms that would ultimately transform China into a global powerhouse. The year 1978 was significant for another reason: The Beijing Film Academy, shuttered during the tumultuous decade, reopened to new enrollees. In 1982, it graduated a class of 153 students, some of whom became known as the “fifth generation” of filmmakers. This group included Chen Kaige, the director of “Yellow Earth” (1984) and “Farewell My Concubine” (1993), and Zhang Yimou, the director of “Red Sorghum” (1987) and “To Live” (1994), whose most recent work is an upcoming blockbuster starring Matt Damon.
To explore and understand the lasting artistic legacy of the Cultural Revolution, Jeremy and Kaiser sat down with Professor Paul Clark, a scholar of Chinese film who has written a book on the period’s cultural history. Before you listen to their conversation, take a look at these materials to help you make the most of the episode:
- The causes, components, timeline and leaders of the Cultural Revolution / The New York Times, Guardian and AP
- Academics and writers recount their experiences during the Cultural Revolution / The New York Times
- The “fifth generation” of filmmakers / The Economist
- The 1975 Cultural Revolution film “Breaking With Old Ideas” / Watch it on YouTube or read a review of it from The New York Times
- The Cultural Revolution ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” / Watch it on YouTube or read a review of it from The New York Times
- Jiang Qing’s “revolutionary operas” and model works / Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs
- The Cultural Revolution’s assault on the “Four Olds,” centuries-old Chinese traditions / The Economist
- Photos of soldiers, performers and others during the Cultural Revolution / Everyday Life in Mao’s China
- The death of the last surviving member of the Gang of Four and background material on the group / Guardian
- China’s official silence around the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution / Guardian
- Other recent news related to the Cultural Revolution / SupChina