In the Cultural Revolution
Art Goes to the Villages
by Chou Kai
[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #5, Jan. 28, 1966, pp. 8-11.]
WHEN a music lover in Peking asked some time ago where his favourite singer was, he got the seemingly unlikely reply: “In the Langya Mountains.” Far from being disappointed, he commented: “That’s fine!” That comment reflects the general understanding and approval of Party and Government policy in the matter of art serving the people. It also reflects the public appreciation of the conduct of the professional artists who have answered the call to go out and serve the masses, particularly in the countryside.
The troupe that went to the Langya Mountain area of Yihsien County, Hopei Province, was the Central Nationalities Music Ensemble. This talented group of musicians and singers is one of China’s finest. It specializes in the music and songs of China’s many nationalities, and is well known and loved in the capital and many other big cities. It has enjoyed an equal success in the countryside. In four months around Langya it visited 16 production brigades of eight communes in six districts and, besides helping with the farm work, gave musical and operatic performances at 44 evening performances to audiences totalling over 210,000 people. Small groups of performers have also arranged 69 concerts in the fields and in the homes of peasants. Working, eating and living with the commune members gave them many opportunities to coach the amateur artists of the farms. They popularized a selection of twenty revolutionary songs, put on lantern slide shows, told revolutionary stories and gave lectures on Chairman Mao’s works. They held regular newspaper readings and led talks and discussions on current events and policies; they gave haircuts and helped repair farm tools for the peasants. They composed over a score of songs and ballads eulogizing the outstanding personalities of the area and learnt new songs from the peasants.
One of the first things that artists learn on such tours is how eager the peasants are for their art and how deep is their need for it.
On one occasion members of the troupe went to give a show in Chiyu village, deep in the mountains. It was a 20-kilometre hike through a steady drizzle over rough country and across rivers. They had planned to rest and put on their show the day after they arrived, but when they reached their destination they found that commune members from a distance of ten kilometres around had hurried over to Chiyu despite the rain and the slippery mountain paths to see them perform. It was impossible that they should make that journey for nothing. That same evening the troupe held a courtyard concert and the delighted applause of the commune members banished their fatigue.
Such experiences are common to all the troupes which are going out to serve the working people.
In a Fine Revolutionary Tradition
The present mass flow of artists to the villages follows the fine tradition created by the cultural troupes of the people’s army during the revolutionary civil wars and the war against the Japanese invaders. In the face of great hardships, the travelling propaganda troupes of those days made a big contribution to the struggle by spreading the revolutionary message and heartening the people’s fighters.
It was as early as in 1942 that Chairman Mao laid it down as a policy that revolutionary artists and writers should serve and integrate themselves with the workers, peasants and people’s fighters who form the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people. Therefore following this policy and tradition, from the very early days of liberation, the various art troupes of the urban areas made it a regular practice to take their performances out on tour to other cities, the smaller towns, factories, and army units. But the present movement in scale and content is a new development of that policy and tradition under new conditions. It is a manifestation of the deepening socialist revolution on the cultural front.
A troupe of the Central Opera and Dance Drama Theatre
The great historical advance of the Chinese socialist revolution has placed new demands on the arts and artists. In the factories, farms and army units, the masses are fighting in the front lines of the socialist revolution and construction. There they want and need a socialist culture that stimulates their enthusiasm in revolution and production, that is closely integrated with their life, their urgent problems and desires. They demand a socialist art placed wholly at the disposal of the working people. This means that if our artists are to meet these needs they must create art with a new contemporary socialist content and find new forms designed to make maximum use of our cultural forces.
To produce that art based on close knowledge of the life of the people in various spheres of activity, our artists must closely identify themselves with the people and remould their outlook and ideology in tune with the people. They have had considerable success in this. They are now staging plays and operas on modern revolutionary themes; they portray the new heroes of the working people in socialist revolution and construction; they combat the hostile influences of feudalism and capitalism in the ideological field. By routing out-of-date ideas and ways of doing things they help to clear the ground for the growth of new socialist thinking.
But that is still not enough. Their art must not only come from the heart of the life of the people; it must be brought to the doorsteps of the people where it can engender living force to propel society forward. Our artists are duty bound to answer these historic, revolutionary demands. Thus, under the impact of socialist construction and the socialist cultural revolution comes this mounting upsurge in the movement to bring socialist art to the factories, army units and villages, even the most remote.
Ulanmuchi — New Organizational Form
Such activities of our singers and dancers, musicians and actors and other stage artists take a variety of forms. All troupes maintained by the administrative regions or counties orientate their work mainly towards the countryside. Those maintained by the Central Government, provincial or municipal governments are in general required to devote at least three months every year to performances in rural areas, factories or army units. Members of troupes go out in groups in rotation and the trend today is to do things “the Ulanmuchi way.”
This is a term that much has been heard about in the last year or so. Meaning “red cultural team” in Mongolian, it is a form of team created by artists and writers of Inner Mongolia as part of their effort to put their arts at the service of the herdsmen. Such a team usually consists of a dozen performers each of whom is a specialist in one field—music or singing, acting or dancing—but all of whom are versatile all-rounders or at least with several strings to their bow. These teams travel the year round by horse or cart with light stage props to serve the herdsmen on the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia. They not only produce new works and give performances but coach local amateur cultural groups and join the people in their everyday work. They are thoroughly at home with the people at work or play.
Today this revolutionary Ulanmuchi spirit in serving the masses has become a model for all China’s art troupes. In the first half of 1965, six art troupes under the Ministry of Culture including orchestral, song and dance and opera troupes, organized six long-term and nearly a dozen short-term cultural work teams which toured the factories, mines and rural areas of Hopei Province. Kwangtung Province, among other areas, is organizing socialist “cultural caravans” of the compact, versatile, mobile Ulanmuchi type for work in the countryside of each county.
To Serve Means to Learn
In going out to the people with the sincere desire to serve them, artists soon find that the prerequisite is to learn from them. There can be no question of being able to reflect the people’s life and struggles, of inspiring them and enabling art to play its educational role unless the artist knows the people’s life, and knows it intimately.
The Langya Mountain area where the Central Nationalities Music Ensemble worked for four months last year is the site of the monument to the Five Heroes of Langya. Twenty-four years ago during the war against the Japanese invaders these five took the brunt of the attack of a Japanese force in order to give the local inhabitants a chance to escape. They fought to the last and when their ammunition gave out they leapt off a precipice rather than surrender to the enemy. There are few remaining vestiges of war here now. But there are many revolutionary veterans who told members of the work team moving stories of the battles of old. Old Mother Liu Yu-lou, for one, told them how she had suffered savage tortures when the enemy tried to get from her information about the wounded revolutionary fighters and the people’s grain she had hidden.
Stories like these made the young artists realize how hard won was the people’s power. They got a truer appreciation of the fine qualities of the workers and peasants who formed the main forces in the revolutionary wars. A marked change took place in their whole outlook on life.
No less compelling is the education that intelectuals and artists have got from the enthusiasm and spirit of self-reliance and enterprise of the masses in the socialist revolution and construction.
Working and living in the Nangunlunggou Production Brigade of the Zaibei Commune, in Pingshan County of Hopei Province, members of the Central Song and Dance Ensemble saw how the people there under the leadership of the Party fought against conditions of endemic floods and poor soil. That production brigade has a labour force equivalent to only 92 able-bodied members, yet through their own efforts they have built more than 550 check dams to block the sweep of water down their valleys, terraced field plots out of the rocky hillside and cut a 45-kilometre canal around the mountain to bring water to their arid areas.
Changing the Face of the Land
It was once said of this mountain district that “in a good year it yields barely enough grain for half a year’s food.” But its farmers’ efforts have brought about a radical change. Brigade members now live in brand new houses overlooking picturesque terraced fields and orchards. They have a marketable surplus of 30,000 to 40,000 jin of food which they sell to the state.
Working alongside the peasants of Nangunlunggou, the comrades of the Central Song and Dance Ensemble realized, in a way that no amount of reading could teach them, how hard is the struggle to change the face of the land. As one of them wrote: “Without the resolute support of the millions upon millions of poor and lower-middle peasants, the victory of the Chinese revolution would have been impossible. I realize better now what immense sacrifices they made for the revolution; and how hard and selflessly they work for socialist construction.” Willy-nilly they compared their outlook with that of the peasant labour heroes and saw how tawdry, how completely incompatible with the spirit of socialism were individualistic sentiments bound up with the idea of seeking individual fame and fortune. Discussing these questions, they agreed that serving the workers, peasants and soldiers wholeheartedly called for a radical change of outlook and also closer links with the masses in life and work, thought and sentiment.
It is such lessons learnt from the peasants that imbue our artists with a new concept of their social function, a new moral imperative. On one occasion the members of the ensemble learnt that an old man living up in the mountains could not get down to see their show because of his crippled leg. Ten of them promptly took their instruments and went up the mountain to give him a performance in his own courtyard. He was moved to tears by this thoughtful act. Such incidents are now by no means isolated.
On the Themes of the People
The cultural work teams have learnt that the peasants take a specially keen interest in performances if their themes concern local events or personalities. A political point becomes ten times more convincing if linked with the personal experience of an audience. And thanks to their experience in working in the villages they are well able now to “localize” their compositions. While the Central Song and Dance Ensemble was working in Pingshan County, they staged The Tomb of the Wild Dog, a song and dance opera which they composed about a poor peasant who was forced by a landlord to arrange a ruinously elaborate funeral for a dead dog. They based this on an actual local incident. Afterwards Mother Chao Hsiu-ching, chairman of the local women’s organization, told the comrades of the ensemble: “When you were performing that play up on the stage, I was weeping down in the audience. In the old society, we poor peasants were treated worse than the landlord’s dogs. I turned the flour mill for the landlord. Driven by hunger, I stole chaff to eat while the landlord’s dog ate rice and meat!”
Tung Hsiung, an old peasant and veteran guerrilla fighter of the anti-Japanese war, heartily approved of the items put on by the troupe reflecting the past. He said: “The young people of today have no experience of our hardships in the old society. You should put on more performances like this so as to give them a good education on the meaning of the class struggle.”
When the people started a campaign to collect more manure in the area where the cultural team of the Central Opera and Dance-Drama Theatre was working, they immediately composed and performed a set of ballads, skits and operettas on this theme. These had an effect that could be measured concretely in weight! People took heart from the plays. They saw the significance of the drive more fully and saw better their own role in it. The leading cadres were enthusiastic. “These performances are a mobilizing force. They have made everyone keener!” they said.
Such results from their performances on a wide range of modern themes are a further education for our artists. They enable them to see more clearly the role which art and literature performs and how important it is to carry their socialist message out among the masses. They understand better the relation between politics and the arts and between popularization of the arts and elevation of their artistic level.
It is in such ways that the activities of our art troupes are spreading and developing in the countryside throughout the country. These activities are becoming an increasingly important part of the surging socialist cultural revolution.