Monday, May 11, 2009

A Night At the Chinese Revolutionary Opera

Here's the opening of that 1964 musical classic, The East Is Red:

I have a Sino-American friend (more American than Sino) who loves this movie. After 45 years, most of official China would like to forget this thing, but it apparently has a new life in China among the young and hip as a camp classic.
My friend saw an all drag version of the opening fan dance in a gay bar in Chengdu about 5 years ago. Supposedly, it is very popular with young gay men in China.

As totalitarian spectacles go, this one is really well done. Even the camera work in this thing is marvelous. I must admit that I really enjoy the hybrid Chinese-Western music, especially in that scene with the mother and her daughter (apparently forced into prostitution). But then I would enjoy that sort of thing.

My, how things have changed! The same regime that produced this deeply nationalist anti-Western spectacle now owns trainloads of American Treasury Bonds. The regime now embraces ruthless capitalism with the same cruel enthusiasm that it once embraced ruthless communism. I think the regime's primary agenda is to stay in power by any means necessary, as so many aspiring Chinese liberals found out the hard way 20 years ago this year in Tien An Men Square (which appears briefly at the opening of this movie).

Supposedly Zhou Enlai commissioned this spectacle as part of the effort to blunt rising the anger with the regime in the years following the catastrophic failure of The Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine. As sycophantic toward The Great Helmsman as this movie is, it's hard to believe that The Cultural Revolution was still 2 years in the future. In 1966, Mao would brilliantly (and cynically) exploit the popular anger and disillusionment as a way to eliminate all his old comrades (and potential rivals) by unleashing a tidal wave of chaos.

If you want to sing along with the opening song, here are the words.


Leonard said...

Thank you...lovely

Counterlight said...

To me, this movie is so exotic. For my friend, it's home cooking.

Wilfried said...


The third verse is my personal favorite (it sounds better in Chinese). It makes me laugh almost as loud as the Cherry Tree Advent carol.

Hey, have you seen the whole thing? Two full hours of agitprop goodness. Not to mention all the buff, robust, acrobatic laborers, soldiers, etc. dancing to the glory of the Revolution. That clip cut off just before the visages of Marx and Lenin rises like the sun over that scene of miserable oppression, along with Mao's banner as China follows Russia's path with the founding of the Communist Party. The Internationale swells in the background, and then those oppressed masses break out into song and dance under the glow of the new sun. I can lend you the DVD if you want.

I'm not sure I'm the Sino-American you're referring to (and I'm not sure I've ever been called a Sino-American), or do you know another one with a fetish for totalitarian kitsch? I never saw the drag show in Sichuan (a friend did), but I must see it before I die. I still regret not buying the East is Red karaoke disk.

I'm sorry to say I haven't kept up with your blog. I should drop in more often. See what I almost missed?

Counterlight said...


Oh dear,
I apologize if I misrepresented you in my post. My memory is vivid, though not very accurate.

I've seen much of the movie, though not all of it. I'm dying of laughter just thinking of "The East Is Red" karaoke disk.

Wilfried said...

No worries, I was amused, not offended.