As part of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Mao Zedong’s China, only eight approved stage works (operas and ballets) were allowed. The number of these ‘model plays’ (bāgè yàngbǎnxì) did increase over time, but the original eight continued to dominate the few productions allowed. These revolutionary operas were there not to glorify the usual characters of Peking opera (the aristocracy and courtiers). Instead they concentrated on people and happenings from China’s recent revolutionary past. Of course, they also highlighted Mao Zedong’s thoughts. Not that surprising perhaps, given his wife, Jiang Qing was the power behind the new operas.

So why am I writing about this? Yes, it’s an interesting part of global cultural history, but it can’t have much to do with a music library in Birmingham? Well, in the early 1970s, in line with a number of other libraries in the UK, we obtained printed copies of the script for two of these operas, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and Shachiapang. We have little printed music from China in our collections at all, and most has come from donations like these two. They’re interesting in themselves, but they also represent a glimpse into a musical culture which is still pretty much unknown in the UK.

Most of us have heard of the impact ‘soft’ diplomacy can have. Cultural matters like music play a significant part in this. So, somewhere in the communist bureaucracy, it was presumably decided that sending these publications out was a good idea. Presented as far as possible in English, they give the text, selected songs, plenty of production photos, quotes from Mao Zedong, and some explanatory matter.


Scene 5 - Holding out
Scene 5 – Holding out

This work describes the victory of the New Fourth Army of the then Chinese Republic over a bunch of renegades with links to the Japanese army of occupation. It takes place in Shachiapang sometime during the ‘War of resistance against Japan’ as the text describes it, or the Second Sino-Japanese War , 1937-1945. You get an idea of the content from the titles of some of scenes: Denouncing the enemy; Collaboration; Breaking through … The final victory is never really been in doubt, though. The selected songs have similar inspiring titles: The day will come when Shachiapang is free; The Communist Party is like the bright sun!

The communist party is like a bright sun - opening
Opening section

I love the performance instruction on the second line: ‘Burning with hatred and pouring out all her grievances.’ In attempting to make the vocal music accessible to Westerners, the editors drew the line at fitting an English translation to the distinctively Chinese vocal line. The translation is given separately and isn’t meant to be sung. They may have decided that all the work of transferring the musical content to a Western stave was quite enough. I wonder how many people in the UK actually tried singing these songs after all the hard work by the Chinese?

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

Scene 5 Up the mountain
Scene five: Up the Mountain

This is by far the more famous of the two works. It has been made into two films (in 1970 and 2014). The modern re-make, The Taking of tiger mountain or Zhì qu weihu shan is an action movie directed by the Hong Kong director, Hark Tsui. Brian Eno, who found a set of postcards (perhaps showing production photos like the one above), named his second solo album after it.

Again, the story line concerns the People’s Liberation Army ridding the country of non-communist banditry. This time round, it’s set just after the end of WW 2. The scenes have similar rousing titles: Into the bandits’ lair; Arousing the masses. I find the production photo of Scene 5 fascinating.  The still comes from a film of the opera presumably. A photo wouldn’t really be possible. His coat sleeve has the distinct impression of a wing. The whole action gives a wonderful sense of movement and athleticism. For a live, stage production, the script gives the following instructions:

[Yang] performs a series of characteristic Peking opera dance movements depicting his journey on horseback: … taking a broad jump as a sign of leaping across a mountain stream … 

If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare, here’s a link to a filmed production. The quality doesn’t seem great, but it will give some idea of the piece.

At the back of the text, the publishers demonstrate their optimism that someone, somewhere, would produce the opera, or the songs from it, at least. They go into detail about the percussion instruments needed, and how to play them. As far as our copy goes, I’m pretty sure they’ve never been needed.

Chinese percussion instruments
Chinese percussion instruments