Madam Mao’s Golden Oldies: Anna Chen on the Chinese model operas, BBC R4

Anna Chen, BBC R4, Madam Mao, Jiang Qing, model operas
BBC Radio 4 11:30am, Tuesday 17th July 2012
Presented and co-written by Anna Chen
Produced by Mukti Jain Campion for Culture Wise


In Madam Mao’s Golden Oldies, I revisit the Chinese Cultural Revolution Model Operas that I first heard as a child in the 1960s and 70s and discover how they are, somewhat surprisingly, enjoying a new lease of life.

Growing up as a London-born red-nappy kid with Beatles and Bowie as my soundtrack, I was occasionally dragged by my parents to the Chinese legation in Portland Place (it had lost its official embassy status due to the cold war ruckus) for screenings of the latest movie spectacular to emerge from the arts commissar, Chariman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. These were the Yangbanxi, the Eight Model Operas; films with titles such as The Red Detachment of Women and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

These state-sponsored works combined opera and ballet with simple plots about brave peasants uniting to defeat evil landlords, Japanese invaders and other enemies of the revolution. Heroes looked like heroes with rouged faces, kohl-lined eyes and great hair, while villains were easily identified by their sneaky demeanor and bad porn moustaches.

My Hollywood sensibility found these crude melodramas puzzling and somewhat turgid but then they weren’t made for (relatively) pampered East End kids like me: they were made for the peasants and workers who had rarely if ever been represented in their own culture.

Within living memory, mass starvation, imperialist conquest and the horrors of the Japanese invasion had devastated the nation. Barely twenty years into its communist revolution, the population was struggling to get back onto its feet.

Madam Mao not only banned the traditional Beijing opera and their stories about emperors and princesses, but also cast out decadent western music and movies as being a corrupting influence on the masses. Quelle surprise when it later transpired that the former actress was fond of indulging her tastes in the privacy of her own screening room. But Jiang Qing was canny enough to harness the emotive power of these works with the help of the Chinese cultural intelligentsia who hadn’t fallen out of favour.

In the programme, a variety of people who were intimately involved in the model operas recount their experience. Among them, Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea, had been plucked from working in the fields because she was used to “carrying 300 pounds of manure”. Jingdong Cai is now conductor at Stanford but learnt his trade in Madam Mao’s army of young musicians

Madam Mao’s favourite films? The Sound of Music and Jane Eyre. No, not the classic Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine version, but the crappy George C Scott remake. Now, what does that tell you about arbiters of taste?

BBC Radio 4 11:30am, Tuesday 17th July 2012
Presented and co-written by Anna Chen
Produced by Mukti Jain Campion for Culture Wise
Available for seven days after broadcast on iPlayer

Before I say “enough of me”, if you are around, I’m giving a talk at the China In Britain event on Wednesday 18th July at Westminster Uni, Regent St, with poetry, music and everythang. 4.45pm. Free but you have to book.

And keep an eye open for my upcoming collection of poetry, REACHING FOR MY GNU, out as an ebook on Aaaargh! Press very soon.

About Anna

Writer, performer and broadcaster.
This entry was posted in China, Music, Politics, Radio. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Madam Mao’s Golden Oldies: Anna Chen on the Chinese model operas, BBC R4

  1. Robin Carey says:

    I enjoyed listening to your programme on BBC Radio4 today 17/7 at 11.30-12.00. Afterwards I searched online for dvds of the Chinese Cultural Revolution Model Operas to buy to watch & listen to but I could no locate. Can you help? It does not matter that I do not understand a word of chinese, it still reaches the heart, and there is the spectacle. Regards

  2. Anna says:

    Thank you, Robin. I’m afraid I can’t find them here, either. My lovely DVD box-set was brought back to me from Hong Kong where all this Cultural Revolution kitsch can still be found on sale. If you have friends visiting, ask them to do a trawl for you. Otherwise, there are clips on YouTube. Thanks for listening to the programme.

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