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12/15/2019_Today’s China is flooded with predominantly easy listening pop music, often of Cantonese, Japanese or Korean origin, and millions of Chinese are glued to their TVs to watch the Chinese version of “The Voice”. That makes it perhaps hard to imagine that well into the 1980’s a very heated debate raged in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) about whether or not Western and other pop music should be allowed into Chinese society. Under the almighty Xi Jinping, who has been appointed President for life in 2018, that discussion has flared up again …
One of the people who often gets named in the 1980’s debate on pop music is Wang Kun, a celebrated Chinese “opera singer” (born in 1925 in Hebei province), married to Zhou Weizhi (born in 1916 in Dongtai , Jiangsu), who a.o. served as Deputy Minister of Culture. Zhou plays a role in the arrival of the first Western pop-act to China: i.e. Wham, the English duo who visit the People’s Republic in 1985 for a legendary series of performances (see clips below) …
The early days of the CCP
Wang and Zhou can both boast of a long career in the CCP. In the 1920s, the young boy Zhou ends up in Shanghai with his father: his dad, a poor farmer, finds a job in a factory. China, politically divided and militarily weakened, gradually gets embroiled in a civil war. The communist party founded by a few intellectuals in Shanghai in 1921 is steadily gaining popularity. The Guomindang, the nationalist party led by Chiang Kai-shek, is trying to violently unite the country. The CCP resists, but the Japanese invasion of northern China is forcing nationalists and communists to form a front against the common enemy. The alliance is shaky: the political parties often prefer to fight each other instead of the foreign enemy.
After the Japanese bombings of Shanghai in 1932, the population in the city is radicalizing: cultural life is dominated by youthful, socially active, left-wing filmmakers and artists who become convinced communism could be the solution to all national problems. Zhou Weizhi develops into one of the singing revolutionaries of Shanghai. He immerses himself in music and dreams of creating a Chinese symphony orchestra someday. In 1937, he joins a military branch of the CCP, the “Western Front Regiment,” and travels to Yanan in Shaanxi. Yanan grows into the center of the communist revolution.
Wang & Zhou’s career in the CCP
Zhou manages to work his way up to the CCP’s drama and musical propaganda division. He is the driving force behind the first socialist opera in China (1945), “the white-haired girl ( 白毛女, Bai mao nü )”. The opera tells the story of a young farmer’s girl Xi’er who is made into a slave and concubine while China is sufferering from the Japanese occupation and the civil war. She escapes and hides for years in a cave where her hair turns white. She is finally found by her fiancé who has joined the communist army, which of course gloriously triumphs in the fight against the domestic and foreign enemies. Finally the reunited couple lives happily together in the communist paradise…
The leading role in the opera is played by Wang Kun, who has joined the same regiment as Zhou in the late 1930s. The couple gets married in 1943. Wang Kun has been singing since childhood, but it’s the communist movement that really inspires her. She devotes herself to the art of singing revolutionary songs. After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Mao Zedong, the couple is gripped even more by the revolutionary fever.
Zhou, meanwhile appointed as head of the arts department of the Ministry of Culture, oversees the creation of various collectives in performing arts which are touring the socialist brother countries in Eastern Europe. Wang Kun is given a chance to follow musical studies, first in Moscow, then at the central conservatory in Beijing. Wang sings in a North-Chinese folk tradition, but adds an opera-like vibrato and high-pitched timbre to her voice. She is the favorite artist of Zhou Enlai, the most important man after Mao in communist China. Thanks to him she is named artistic director of the “Oriental Song & Dance Ensemble” in 1962 to promote socialist folk and protest songs from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Authentic Chinese folk music without any political connotations quickly disappears in the People’s Republic. In 1956, Zhou Weizhi sees his dream materialized: the establishment of the Central Chinese Symphony Orchestra. Among Zhou’s most famous compositions are classics such as “Fix the Bayonets” and “The March of the People’s Liberation Army”.
In their privileged positions, Zhou and Wang survive the 1950s unscathed, while a large part of the population suffers from the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Mao Zedong’s megalomaniacal campaign to super-rapidly transform China’s shabby agricultural economy into a modern industrial society ends in a famine with millions of casualties in the late 1950s.
The Cultural Revolution
This tragedy does not slow down Mao. He wants China to also undergo a cultural revolution: there are still too many “bourgeois elements” in society, according to the paranoid and fickle tyrant. The communist revolution must be more revolutionary, i.e. Mao’s personality cult must be taken to higher grounds. Zhou Weizhi, Wang Kun and their patron Zhou Enlai are trying to simultaneously save their own skin and to placate Mao by releasing a large-scale dance and theater piece in 1964. The play is initially called “March forward under the banner of Mao Zedong’s Thoughts. ” Zhou En-lai is said to be the writer and producer of this blockbuster, with Zhou Weizhi as his most important advisor.
Central theme of the story: only Mao is capable of bringing China fame and glory. More than 2000 artists, among them Wang Kun, accompanied by a 1000-member orchestra including choir, perform the play in front of the Great Helmsman in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In 1965 the show is turned into a propaganda film entitled “the East is Red”, a much-sung hymn to Mao, which gets its final shape on the big screen.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQaK3tL6qIE for the die-hard fans of communist propaganda, the complete movie “The East Is Red”
The song “the East is Red” practically replaces the national anthem of China from ~1966 – 1970, it is played and performed over and over across the whole country, and can be heard in any remote corner of the People’s Republic.
Despite their efforts and revolutionary credentials Zhou Weizhi and Wang Kun and their two sons’ luck runs out. The two musicians fall out of favor with Mao as “counter revolutionaries”, their impressive battle and propaganda repertoire nothwithstanding. Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing aka Madame Mao, is emerging as the new cultural oracle: she is now calling the artistic shots. Jiang is responsible for the launch of the so-called model operas, including an adaptation of “the white-haired girl”, all of which simply glorify Mao. While she terrorizes the people with operas that make every dog howl, Jiang herself enjoys watching Greta Garbo movies in her spare time… Jiang, an actress during the revolutionary movement in Shanghai in the 1930s, considers Zhou Weizhi and his wife a serious threat to her own ambitions: she instigates Mao to have them sent to the countryside for political re-education …
Only after Deng Xiaoping comes to power in 1978 are Zhou Weizhi and Wang Kun rehabilitated. They quickly regain cultural functions within the CCP. China is gradually opening itself to foreign countries: radios, cassette recorders and TVs are entering Chinese society. The question arises among the communists which foreign influences should be allowed. According to some sources, the undaunted Wang Kun, who has picked up singing battle and folk songs again, is strongly in favor of allowing Cantonese and Taiwanese pop. I have not been able to verify whether the alleged positive influence of Wang Kun has been greatly exaggerated in the recent communist historiography. Fact is that from the outset the CCP is very concerned about the pernicious influence of pop and especially Western rock music on China’s youth. It is exemplified by the political campaigns in 1981, 1983, 1987 and 1989 to eliminate “foreign spiritual pollution”, during which pop music is a specific target. Cassettes with Western rock music can only be bought or traded illegally. And pop music remains banned from the music lessons or education at school.
According to the same sources Wang, re-appointed as artistic director of the “Oriental Song & Dance Group”, is also involved in the organization of the big talent contest in 1986 (“the 100 Singer Concert of the Year of International Peace”) at the Workers Stadium in Beijing, where the Chinese audience is introduced to Cui Jian, ‘the godfather of Chinese Rock & Roll’ for the first time.https://www.mijngroeve.nl/history/ii-june-4-1989_smasher-of-the-week-12_cui-jian_nothing-to-my-name/
According to these same accounts, Wang personally approves the participation and performance of Cui Jian. According to other sources, Cui’s participation owes more to Wu Hailing, music producer and journalist, one of the unsung heroes of China’s first rock wave, who gets Cui on the artist list. This televised talent show takes place shortly after Wham has toured China, an event in which Zhou Weizhi certainly does play a role …. for the footage of Wham’s China tour see the clips below. In Part I, minute 6, George Michael meets Deputy Minister of Culture Zhou Weizhi! In 1985-1986 there apparently is an impasse in the CCP’s factional divide on cultural policies, which most likely enables the Wham concert series … (part 3-6 have been removed from youtube… update 2023: part I has also been removed from youtube. Unfortunately there is no DVD of Wham’s China tour)
After the crushing of the student demonstrations in 1989, the discussion about the improper influence of pop and rock music resurfaces in the CCP. During my stay in the Chinese capital in 1990-1991, no cassettes with Western rock music can be found in the stores, as far as I can remember ..
Wang Kun and Zhou Weizhi do remain active in the cultural world of the CCP until old age. Wang reportedly gives singing lessons to Li Lingyu and Ai Jing, two singers who are part of the Oriental song and dance collective at the start of their career, but eventually settle for pop. Ai Jing’s first album is released in 1987 and includes the hit “Ah Shenyang, my birthplace”: Wang Kun must have nodded approvingly seeing and hearing this song. Ai Jing eventually moves to America in 1997, presumably to sing, write and create the things she really wants to make, even though she prefers to keep her new work a-political. The CCP diehards Zhou and Wang remain loyal to Communist China until the very end. They pass away shortly after each other in 2014, at the age of 98 and 89 respectively, leaving behind an arsenal of revolutionary songs including our smasher of the week, “Nanniwan” …..
Xi Jinping & Peng Liyuan, the new white-haired girl
Pop music is widespread in the China of 2019, the PRC even exports it. The globalization of pop music is a fact, although under Xi Jinping the CCP remains deeply concerned about “the spiritual pollution” that can result from Western rock music in particular. If pop music is heard in primary and secondary schools or on TV (think of The Voice), it only concerns songs that promote or express harmony, love and patriotism. Chinese censorship is still working at full speed … In a high-profile speech in 2014, Chairman Xi calls on Chinese artists to produce works of art that are not only artistically advanced but also “politically inspiring.” Xi likes to refer to the artistic heydays in Yanan, in the 40s under Mao. Chinese artists must support and promote abroad the greatness of Chinese culture and art, just like Hollywood, while closely adhering to the socialist core values in support of the agenda of the CCP, according to Xi …
The Chinese rock scene has morphed into a relatively harmless subculture among groups of young people, who may consciously or unconsciously like to present themselves as individualistic in a society where the emphasis is on collective obedience and docility. As long as that individualism does not degenerate into criticism of the CCP or undermine the communist authority, Xi Jinping doesn’t bother these rockers too much. They apparently don’t have a similar impact as Cui Jian in the ’80s …
Xi meanwhile likes to portray himself as a modernized version of Mao. He naturally is a big fan of Wang Kun: in 2015 he even has the opera “the white haired girl” re-launched. The assigned artistic director of the re-worked classic opera should come as no surprize: it’s Peng Liyuan, the (2nd) wive of Xi! Before she gets to know Xi, Peng is the perky singer of battle songs and military ballads at the military front. She also plays the leading role in a late ’80s version of this classic among Chinese operas. Peng Liyuan is, in other words, the ’80s equivalent to Wang Kun, the red girl with the white hair …. see also the article https://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/11/10/white-haired-girl-opera-created-under-mao-returns-to-stage/ showing the white haired Peng in full action!! In case you have not yet noticed, the artistic blood is always thicker than water in fervent Chinese communists…
Refer following links for a few pictures of the National Day parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China….and of the emerging unrest in Hong Kong…
for more Chinese propaganda posters, visit https://chineseposters.net/