The lunar new year TV gala has been a staple of Chinese new year celebration for many Chinese households since it was first aired in 1983. As probably one of the most censored TV show, the 4-hour gala has become a major target of criticism for its lack of entertaining content and artistic taste in recent years. This year, however, Feng Xiaogang, popular Chinese movie director known for his comedies, took many by surprise by putting on a new year show in which a Cultural Revolution classic the Red Detachment of Women was recreated and two additional revolutionary songs were performed.
Seeing lined-up ballet dancers in Red Army uniforms performing one of the Eight Model Operas from the Cultural Revolution era at the new year show of 2014 is a bizarre thing to say the least. Given the fact that the Cultural Revolution is still pretty much a taboo topic in official rhetoric, that the Eight Model Operas are such signature brain-washing pieces of that crazy period in China’s history, and that the new year gala holds a very special place in the propaganda of the image of a prosperous and united China, very few would believe that the Red Detachment of Women was put on stage without a purpose.
The question that pops up in many heads is: Is it a political message sent by the government that signifies days to come or merely a touch of nostalgia by a director who has lived through that era to commemorate days that have passed? Many vocal liberals fear that it could be the former – China is going left. As popular political cartoonist 变态辣椒 put it: “The Communist Party is best at mixing politics with entertainment.”
The show inevitably reminds many of the country’s fallen political star Bo Xilai, who once put on a “Sing Red Songs” movement in the city of Chongqing. The fear of a revival of Mao ideology reached its peak when the so-called “Chongqing model” was making the rounds in China 2 years ago. Now that Bo Xilai is over. But is the fear?
One netizen 上海老顽童吴德余 thought it was a no: “One of the Eight Model Operas was put on stage again last night. It’s proof that the Culture Revolution wasn’t over in the year we thought it was ended, and hasn’t been over till this day.”
The Eight Model Operas, as the only entertainment that the Chinese people were allowed to enjoy back then, are the faces of “a culture dictatorship”, as one netizen 清华郭-于华 called it: “They are not art, but mud that pollutes all arts with savage and ignorance.” Netizen 醉高指示V asked bitterly: “While the Gang of Four were watching imported movies, they only allowed the people to watch the Eight Model Operas. How is it different from now when government officials are sending their kids aboard while building the Great Fire Wall at home?” Another netizen Daitmlk commented: “This is sign that another Cultural Revolution is coming.”
There are, however, other people who don’t think it’s a big deal. Hu Xijin, chief editor of the pro-government Chinese media Global Times, commented: “The Red Detachment of Women is one of our new China’s classics. Putting the show on the stage of the new year gala meets many people’s nostalgic needs. I oppose political interpretations of any kind.” And he is not alone.
“Watching the show doesn’t always have political implications. For many who were born in the 50s or 60s, the show marks their youth and early adult lives. The show is a remembrance of their younger days. Watching the show doesn’t mean they’d want to go back to that era.” One netizen 闲町信步 commented. Another netizen tonycalvin focused on the artistic value of the show: “None of the pop songs in today’s China is comparable to musical shows back then. They [the Eight Model Operas] are works of their age. To criticize their time is OK, but it’s also OK to acknowledge their artistic values.”
Feng Xiaogang may never tell the audience why he brought back performances of China’s unspeakable past. But the debate is worth keeping on, especially when those who’ve lived through the Cultural Revolution themselves are in leadership roles in all aspects of life in China right now. Their take of that period will define what China looks like in 10 years.