NYT on Revival of “The White-Haired Girl”: Chinese Version Deletes Madame Mao & Erstwhile Starring Role of Mrs. Xi Jinping

"The White-Haired Girl" is back: But can she compete with the likes of Taylor Swift?
“The White-Haired Girl” is back: But can she compete with the likes of Taylor Swift?

Back in October 2014 when Xi Jinping delivered his closed-door speech to a gathering of the nation’s artists and scribes in Beijing — essentially a souped-up, 21st-century rendition of Mao Zedong’s infamous pronouncements at the 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art — many wondered just what it signified. It took one year, but the speech was recently released to the public in full (see Xi Jinping’s ‘Little Red Book’ for Art Workers of the Nation).

To quote briefly from it:

“Our modern art and literature needs to take patriotism as its muse, guiding the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country and culture.”

I think you get the picture.

On November 10, Chris Buckley at the New York Times ran a piece on the revival of a Culture Revolutionary model opera, ‘White-Haired Girl,’ Opera Created Under Mao, Returns to Stage. Apparently it is time for an updated version of this Mao-era classic too, and you might be surprised to learn that Peng Liyuan (彭丽媛), who just happens to be Xi Jinping’s wife, is serving as its artistic director.

In fact, Madame Xi played the starring role on stage in the 1980s version. But readers of the Chinese won’t learn about that in the Cankao Xiaoxi translation of the NYT article that came out just two days later (新版《白毛女》), nor will they be reminded — though Buckley reminded us in English — of the key role that Jiang Qing played in overseeing ballet adaptations of certain operas. This paragraph, for instance, has been expunged from the Chinese version of Buckley’s article:

For some Chinese, the entanglement of a party leader and his spouse in determining artistic values through a “model opera” is likely to bring disquieting echoes of the past.

One other thing worthy of mention here is how several quote marks in the original have been deleted in Chinese. I’ve been reading Cankao Xiaoxi for several years, and I can’t recall when I last saw that sort of deletion; quoted comments are often deleted outright, but rendering direct speech indirectly — albeit commonplace in China’s media — is not generally done in this publication. So I can only assume that the content of this article is considered rather sensitive.

Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many newsstands across the mainland the 8- (weekends, holidays) or standard 16-page edition — black-and-white, almost no graphics, on cheap paper that smudges easily over breakfast — sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little content is added to the text proper. Packaging elements like headlines, sub-heads and captions, however, are totally refurbished, and references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version, I cross out the specific words that were deleted when the article was translated, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability’s sake) by putting it [in brackets]. This way one can see just how Cankao’s editors “re-package” foreign copy for domestic consumption.

 * * * * *

[New Version of “White-Haired Girl” Returns to China’s Stage]

Original headline:  ‘White-Haired Girl,’ Opera Created under Mao, Returns to Stage

 By Chris Buckley, [US-based New York Times report,] November 10, 2015

Mao Zedong was said to have been moved to tears when he watched an early performance of “The White-Haired Girl,” an opera created to meet his call for rousing revolutionary art. [Today it has returned to the stage.] And under President Xi Jinping, a revival is on the road, reinvented once more to appeal to a Communist Party leader’s stringently ideological tastes.

The [White-Haired Girl] opera was first performed in 1945 in Yan’an,  [.] the Communists’ revolutionary base in northwestern China, [It was] inspired by Mao’s [speech] precepts for at the Forum on Literature and Art revolutionary art and literature delivered at a landmark forum  [in Yan’an] in 1942.

The Ministry of Culture said it had revived the story in response to the new performance was in order to implement Mr. Xi’s [Xi Jinping’s] own landmark speech [at] last year[’s] on the role of the arts in China [Forum on Literature and Art], when he demanded politically wholesome art cleansed of decadence. [that artistic works be cleansed of their decadent and torpid style].

The revival had its premiere in Yan’an on Friday on the sixth of this month, and performances are [a road tour is] planned in [for] nine additional Chinese  cities, culminating [with the closing show] in Beijing in mid-December, the Ministry of Culture said in an emailed [written] statement.

The leadership undoubtedly sees it [the opera] as a classic [artistic work] of the Yan’an repertoire [period], to remind people of the glories of the Yan’an days [that time], said Paul Clark, a professor at the  University of Auckland in New Zealand [scholar] who has studied [of] Chinese film and culture from the Mao era.

The  story [opera] had “a [certain] symbolic value, [”] as representing a time [an era] when the Communist Party was pure,” Mr.  Clark said. But young audiences were unlikely to flock to it, he predicted. “It’s just an impossible task, given have the Internet and everything else  [and all sorts of entertainment], he said. “[For them, it] It comes across like someone standing [running into someone] in the street in a Yan’an-era uniform.”

Mr. Xi [Jinping] serves as Communist Party general secretary, as well as president, and in October 2014, he gave a lengthy speech to a gathering of writers and artists in Beijing, naming dozens of favorite authors [works] and describing [expressing] his own principles [and opinions regarding] literary creation.

[The revival of “The White-Haired Girl” opera] “This is taking concrete action to implement [the spirit of] General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech and ‘opinions’ on art and literature  [at the Forum on Literature and Art, and the “CPC Central Committee Opinion on the Prosperity of Socialist Literature and Art Development,”] the Ministry [of Culture’s written statement] said. “The revival of the opera ‘The White-Haired Girl’ under new conditions [in the new era], and its widespread dissemination, has major practical significance and far-reaching historical significance.”

[Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, played the lead role in “The White-Haired Girl” during the 80s [in the past century.]

If Mr. Xi needs more reason to favor the revival of the opera, there is also the fact that his wife, Peng Liyuan is an artistic director for the new production [of “The White-Haired Girl” opera], according to [information from] the Ministry of Culture.

Well before Mr. Xi came to power, Ms. Peng was more famous than he in China as a singer of stirring party and military ballads, and she played the lead role in “The White-Haired Girl” during the 1980s, when she was a performer in a People’s Liberation Army troupe. Ms. Peng is now president of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art.

During her busy schedule, Prof. Peng Liyuan on multiple occasions found time to appraise and guide revision of the performance,” the ministry[’s statement] said. “She also gave classes to the main actors, personally giving demonstrations during their rehearsals.

For some Chinese, the entanglement of a party leader and his spouse in determining artistic values through a “model opera” is likely to bring disquieting echoes of the past.

Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a trained actress, sang parts of the opera and, after she amassed power during the Cultural Revolution, oversaw a ballet adaptation as part of the repertoire of revolutionary “model” stage works. As a rising official, Mr. Xi was friendly with the writer Li Mantian, who wrote the story that was an inspiration for the opera.

“I’ve talked with several artists, and whenever I ask what the most pressing problem in literature and the arts is, they all say one word, ‘shallow,’ ” Mr. Xi said in his talk to artists and writers last year. “Some works mock the majestic, warp the classics, subvert history, uglify the masses and heroic figures. Some make no distinction between right and wrong, good and evil.”

Yet “The White-Haired Girl” is also a dramatic story that has endured the shifts in China’s political winds over the decades.  Each period since its first performance has brought adaptations, including a well-known film version in 1950 and the  later ballets [choreographed during the Cultural Revolution].

“The White-Haired Girl” opera adopts The swelling, lyrical music absorbs traditional [folk] songs and opera [melodies] of from northern China, and [absorbs] the music and [modes of expression of Chinese opera].

“The music [of “The White-Haired Girl”] is so [extremely] familiar to anyone over, say, 40 or 50,” Mr. Clark said. “The vividness of the imagery of her hair turning white and so on [other stage effects] is quite something [very striking] for Chinese, in particular, who are used to monochromatic hair.”

The story centers on Xi’er, a young peasant woman in a north Chinese village, whose family is persecuted by a brutal landlord who drags her away to serve as his slave and concubine. She eventually escapes to the hills, and for years, she finds shelter in a cave, where her hair turns white, giving rise to the local belief that she is a ghost. Her fiancé, Wang Dachun, who has joined the Communist forces, returns and decides to look for her. He finds her in her cave, and they rejoice in a future together under revolutionary liberation.

In the original version, the heroine becomes pregnant after being raped by the villainous landlord, said Brian James DeMare, an assistant professor of Chinese history at Tulane University and author of “Mao’s Cultural Army: Drama Troupes in China’s Rural Revolution.”  “After she realizes she is pregnant, she initially hopes to marry her attacker,” Mr. DeMare said, “but ultimately runs away when she realizes that she is to be sold off.”

Later versions[,] were bowdlerized [however,] to omit her [Xi’er’s] pregnancy.

“By the Cultural Revolution, when a ballet version of the show became a model work, the portrayal of the characters was totally revised,” Mr. DeMare said. “Now the landlord could barely menace the strong peasant characters, robbing the show of the original’s emotional charge.”

The Ministry of Culture said that the latest revival incorporated several new elements. The script was revised at least 10 times, it said — a reflection of the official attention given to the [latest] production. The new show features “3D” visual effects which officials [is] said would [to] add authenticity. It is unclear whether Mr. Xi will attend any of the performances.

Mao arrived late the first time he went to watch the opera, Mr. DeMare said.

“Mao was not personally involved in the creation of the show, but must have approved of the show,” he said. “Party leaders did send the creators a note asking for the landlord to be executed at the end.”

Vanessa Piao contributed research.

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