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Peking Operas are Back

9:34 AM, Feb 25, 2008 • By JENNIFER CHOU
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Last week China's ministry of education announced a pilot program that makes Peking opera a component of the music curriculum for grades one through nine. Scheduled to begin in March this year and to last until July 2009, each of the three cities and seven provinces selected for the program will designate 20 local schools to participate.

The repertoire consists of arias from 15 plays, more than half of which are drawn from the so-called revolutionary model operas (geming yangban xi) that dominated the stage and airwaves during the Cultural Revolution.

Revolutionary model operas, or model operas, were the brainchild of Mao Zedong's late wife Jiang Qing, a one-time actress and infamous member of the disgraced "Gang of Four." The plays invariably feature proletarian characters fighting heroically against the evil-doers of an oppressive feudal society. They contain melodies with such inspirational titles as "I won't quit the battle until all the beasts are killed."

During his 1972 visit to China, Richard Nixon was treated to one of the best-known examples of the genre, The Red Detachment of Women. It is a ballet-opera that depicts uniformed women raising swords and rifles against a despotic landlord.

Since the announcement, a heated debate has erupted in Chinese cyberspace over whether Peking opera in general, and revolutionary model plays in particular, should become part of the standard curriculum.

Proponents of the program find the arrangement "highly appropriate." They note that the syntax of model operas is contemporary and therefore easy for students in the lower grades to learn. One supporter argued that as "la crème de la crème of Chinese culture" Peking opera should be celebrated:

The Chinese people should love our own art. Woe to our nation if our people wear Western clothes, sing Western songs, and reject our own culture.

Opponents of the program countered by asking whether by the same logic preschoolers should be required to study martial arts and the oracle bone script, the earliest form of Chinese writing.

Other opponents of the program find ironic the effort to highlight revolutionary model plays as part of the essence of Chinese culture, since the genre itself was created expressly to replace traditional Peking opera.

For those who lived through the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, the most troubling aspect of the pilot music program is the message of hate that model operas were designed to convey. They see in the genre's return "a hint of a bygone era" when "education was not education but a component of a particular ideology."

A university professor who was "suckled by the wolf of the Cultural Revolution" says he has had to fight a feeling of being "warped and twisted" his whole life. He quotes a line from The Legend of the Red Lantern, one of the revolutionary model operas he grew up watching, as saying "the fruit you harvest is determined by the sapling you plant; the flowers you grow are determined by the seeds you sow."