The Hainan helliots in Red Leotards: Women Soldiers Master Russian ballet (1964-1970)


Late in 1963 the Beijing Propagandariat went out on a limb and decided to reset the 1960 filmstory “Red Detachment of Women” (see previous post) as a Russian-style romantic ballet. The production was probably the most elaborate and expensive such transform (compared to 白毛女, 沂蒙颂, and (later) 草原儿女 – the only other such actualization up to and early into the Cultural Revolution. Also a high-risk venture, since it borrowed so heavily from Soviet dance and staging traditions – not a very safe proposition on the eve of Jiang Qing’s furious attacks on “capitalist-road” art (including Soviet contributions). Yet it went on to become THE most feted and durable of the “8 yangbanxi” dance dramas, and is still a must-include when the National Ballet Company goes on world tour, or performs for high-tone foreign afficionados, puzzling as its choreography and mis-en-scenes were and still remain – as the prima donna of the Cuban National Ballet, Alicia Alonzo, quipped, “one scarcely expects to see ballerinas en pointe or leaping while holding high modern rifles”….

There were (at least in 1963-4) good reasons for the project: (1) the original (film) version of the narrative proved largely regional in appeal (Malaysia, Hong Kong), sponsored largely by overseas Chinese enthusiasm or nostalgia for Hainan (a Chinese titled version was never released); and (2) at the time, the Beijing kulturmeisters (esp. Zhou Enlai) were confronting the arrival (Oct 1, 1964) of the New Republic’s 15th Anniversary, the first great such national celebration meant to draw a world wide or at least Red Bloc audience. A non-language-confined grand narrative of/from the Revolution was thus in order, which meant that the mime and tumbling of (adapted) ballet were the optimal media.

Metamorpho-poetic Legending in 1950s Film: (1) Ashima


This gallery contains 15 photos.

Note to my small handful of readers as of Aug. 10, 2012: please accept my apologies for the non-linearity of this essay-in-progress and of course for the ridiculous number of typos. A lot of this narrative instability is caused by … Continue reading

Is China Really Going Green for Keeps? Some Questions about Matthews and Hao Tan’s Analysis….

Headline Graphic: The Three Gorges Dam Spillway at Yichang, Hubei, now operating at full capacity (100 Gigawatts)

In a pair of attention-grabbing recent journal articles, two Australia-based China energy experts have proposed a pair of controversial arguments about the trend in China’s energy supply sources, one covering the immediate future, the other a longer trajectory. Both go against accepted scenarios. In the more recent of the two, it is argued that the unprecedented absolute decline in thermo-electric power (coal, oil and Natural gas) as electrical energy providers in 2014 signals the onset of a continuing unleashing from “black” (coal) energy in favor of “green” (non-fossil-fuel, renewable) sources of power for the nation’s electric energy needs, which are grouped under the heading of “Wind Water and Solar” (WWS). The other piece is still more idiosyncratic: it foresees wind power as the leading edge of this revolution and discounts nuclear energy as a much slower growing component of China’s energy future.

The first-ever absolute decline in “black” – e.g.fossil fuel – energy is not much more than 1% for/in 2014. Taken in and on its own it hardly foretokens a peeling back of China’s coal dependency – indeed it almost happened already in 2012 – as the attached Chart (below) shows.
Therm vs renewables to 2014 w labels

The “Black” View Gathers “Green” enemies and the Heightens/Accelerates the Priority of reducing the share of coal derivatives.
Since late 2012 China’s coal-intensive thermal energy [fossil fuel] resource(s) – (pulverized bituminous and lignite coal with a small addition of suboceanic oilfield natural gases, large injections of pipeline-imported or ocean-carried liquified methane-cognate gases and even some coal-derived “para-methane” (mei zhi qi) — have been pushed into smaller percentage pockets of the national electricity supply.

China in the 21st Century: Stuck with Coal…. Means Facing the (Postponed) Cost of Plant Upgrade

As the crisis over air quality exploded into the public eye during 2012-13, it seemed that caps and quota cuts on coal usage were the answer. State (NDRC) planners huddled and in several tranches mandated seemingly astounding levels of reduction in the use of coal overall and (thus) also in power generation. The cynosure of the campaign was the announcement by Beijing municipality earlier this year of an immediate shutdown of one of the city’s 5(?) coal-fired power generation stations. The gap was to be filled with “by wire” supply, presumably from non-coal sources feeding the N. China grid.

It was and perhaps still is an engaging fantasy: not only would “brown coal” start a much overdue net expulsion from the country’s fleet of 1,500-odd smoke-belching generator stations, and thereby lower the rate of pollutants injected into the overhead sky, but even invisible carbon emissions (more a global than a parochial concern) would begin to trek downward on a per unit power generated basis, then on an absolute year against year basis. Even Greenpeace proved unable to resist the euphoria, and issued a special on the “End of China’s Coal Boom”. (cite).

But – read the fine print! – no one was predicting a dent-making reduction in the country’s reliance on coal for electricity. …. all reports end with a “but coal consumption is [still] predicted to increase by [fill in your own multiplier] …. over the next howsomever years”.

Truth is: there is no realistic possibility of any significant decline in China’s world-first level of dependence on coal for the production of electric power. Given the industry-intensive demand structure of power consumption, the longstanding (largely Soviet-inspired) concern to achieve/maintain “upstream” industry’s lead position and global independence, and the galloping pace of urbanization, electricity demand in and of itself has and will continue to match or often even outpace baseline economic growth. (See next page). And with the exception of the Three Gorges Dam project, which added around 18% to total power capacity over the last several years, no significant renewable alternative or even “clean” fossil fuels (gas, natural or otherwise) is waiting to be tapped. That means that there is now way that China’s economic growth can be decoupled from a more or less 100% matching coal consumption growth. (The matter of imported natgas and SNG has been dealt with above, but we shall return to it again below).

That coal as a physical (and thus also emissions) burden has become so-to-speak “fixed” into the Chinese economy is more than evident even from 21st century figures, as per below.

Only the US (as of data years 2011 and 2012) digs, hauls, trundles, and fires more pounds of the black stuff on a per capita (end-consumer) base than the People’s Republic – about twice as much at present (3 as against 1.5 Metric Tons). But that charge is against an economy 5 times larger (on a per capita basis)(??); and at any rate it is clearly trending DOWN in the aftermath of the natural gas boom that started (here) in the 90s, but has yet to start in China (and won’t).

Coals physical tax

Was the 8th Route Army Underfed: the Base Area Peasantry Overtaxed? Some Numbers…

For the duration of the Sino-Japanese War, as we have seen, the Chongqing MAC (Military Affairs Commission) failed terribly in trying to meet even minimum dietary needs of its +/- 5 million men under arms. And of course that took its toll in terms of fighting efficiency. No matter how hard it tried to underplay the import of this problem – “diet-fatigue” – and no matter how many times it was addressed (mainly at the provincial level: Hunan and Anhui are well documented) it cut badly into morale, training (where it existed), and chances of survival in battle.

This impairment – undernourishment – must surely have had awful consequences, though the MAC staffers rarely addressed them in a systematic way (there was no point, since little could be done). Contagious diseases were endemic in the sub-Yangtze and flood-prone, over-irrigated S. Sichuan basin through which the Yangtze flowed: malaria, cholera, and typhus the most common, but malaria the most deadly. Poor diet meant that this for-life condition had onset rates well above 20%, or even higher. Which could only have further prolonged or rendered more frequent spells of weakness, dizziness, etc.

Loss of balance and shortness of breath would have been catastrophic: by contrast, units which were better fed would have been relatively free of such symptoms, especially in the harshly dry, unirrigated, non-paddy terrain of the “Northwest”, above the Dabie divide and (ecologically) linked to the Gobi desert, where malaria and cholera mosquitoes could not breed.

This doesn’t mean that the 8RA soldiers killed more enemy; quite the contrary, they were more often than not held in reserve, and retreated westward when the Japanese or even the KMT advanced from Shanxi. But it does suggest why they were better TRAINED for combat and maneuver. The single most important physical demand on the infantry recruit was the ability to move, keep moving, move fast, move at full tilt as progress went from overland march (2-3 mph) to bayonet charge (7-9 mph). Without armor or adequate artillery, that was the soldier’s best defense – and therefore key to whatever offensive clout could be mobilized. Sitting behind sandbags and waiting to be bombed or shelled was no more a true tactical option than it was on the Western Front: if and when it happened (which was often, perhaps most of the time) it was morally exhausting, infuriating for command officers, and elicitive of mockery from the ever-moving (even bicycle-mounted!) Japanese light infantry, for whom Banzai! meant, in effect, RUN, RUN, RUN. and shout. The simplest solution of course was to drastically cut down, not the number of formations, but the number of soldiers grouped into them. (Stephen Mackinnon p 185 (under)estimatates total regulars, including Communist and Manchurians, at 1.7-2.2 million(185), but that was the “kickoff” number, and perhaps the viable number: as the war grew it increased 2 to 3 times).

Cross-ethnic Cabaret embraces Tibet: Ballet-Drama “Red River” (2004)

More than any other ethnic consanguinuity within the PRC, the Tibetan “race” (minzu) has remained the People’s Republic’s most significant “other” since that erstwhile kingdom was first invaded by the PLA in 1950.

As with all such relationships, the “otherness” is bivalent. For Han Chinese soldiers and party politicians, the lamaist herds peoples and their Gelugpa religion have since 1950 been seen as a backward (“feudal”) concatenation. needing Han Chinese instruction from the most primary levels on up: schooling, hygiene, and medical (including vetenary) modernization and animal husbandry have been subjected to drastic interventions, conducted always by non-Tibetans. Claims are made that the population’s supposed increase to 5.4 million within the TAR (from 2.7 million in 1950) reflect these basic improvements gifted to the population under Chinese rule. Of course, from the Tibetan point of view this is “othering” is a negative and racist key.

What has gone less noticed is the vaguely articulated but clearly increasing respect, even awe, that has come to pervade the Chinese cultural world, keyed to the search for the un-adulterated (yuanshi) as an antidote to the global homogenization that has come near to removing the “Chineseness” from China. The chief medium in which this has come to be communicated is still a public, government controlled one: that of the “cultural travel” serial, linked of course to tourist promotion. And, with (travel-adventure) as the subject, the reassessive eye focuses on Tibet’s periphery where overland travel amidst Himalayan scenery supplies the sense of adventure and risk, and not on the great monastic centers or their archaic or esoteric rites, which in any case are visible only through adulterated reperformance. But there IS one subject now very much in the camera’s eye that combines the grandeur of highland travel or journey with religious devotion: the religious pilgrimage or 朝圣, mainly to Lhasa from very far off parts of the plateau.

Shaoxing Opera in the ’50s: From a Drama of Instruction to the Pastel Idylls of Cinema

Prolonged scandal and violent clashes of personality are perhaps more than the norm for or within theatrical productions of any sort; if so, the fate of Shaoxing Opera in its various Shanghai does not disappoint. The eddies of scandal swirling about the suicide (?) deaths of Ma Zhanghua and Xiao Dangui were grisly, but they were soon forgotten. Not so the 30 odd years’ of battling over playscript text and editorial authority that divided Yuan Xuefen’e Xuesheng (Yueju) Company from the rival 东山越艺社 (Dongshan Shaoxing Opera society) led or dominated by Liu Nanwei (1922-1989), the original script editor and link-personal to the “progressive” (read fellow-traveller) intellectuals associated organizationally with Tian Han, Xia Yan, Hong Chen and Ren Guang and with the League of Leftwing (huaju) playwrights (中国左翼戏剧家联盟)from as early as the late 1930s and well on into the first decade of PRC rule.

Not unlike so many other prolonged antipathies birthed during the early days of the People’s Republic, there were undoubtedly one or several strands of personality dis-synch dividing the parties: in this case so powerful that it became a hereditary friction coming to climax in 2011 only after Nanwei’s two children were forced to drop a copyright infringement suit they had launched against the Shanghai Yueju Arts “Academy” (qua Yuan Xuefen) in 2008 (not even the termination of the suit has stopped blogchatter of a still vitriolic nature..).

If we can back away from the daily grit and try to place the struggle in genre-evolution context, however, another view becomes persuasive: i.e., that the anti-Yuan resentment of Liu Nanwei and freres had much to do with the impact of the Silver Screen, which had had little to do with “minor” regional opera until around 1947, when the (peripheral) Qiming (1948) and 文华影片公司 (1949) studios saw the potential and jumped into the business of xiqupian (filmed opera) for purely commercial reasons. Even the chaos the 1949 regime change did not stop the building craze for (now) color-filmed opera segments, which, only two years after Liberation, coalesced (1953) into a two-hour 12-act monument of Shaoxing opera-in-film, “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai” (I have uploaded the full film with English subtitles for those interested – I suggest having a look before moving on because a lot of what I pose or suggest for analytic consideration derives from a close viewing of that monster production, also China’s first feature-length, multi-Act 35 mm color film, period – though a short color film of Mei Lanfang in 生死恨 was produced in 1947 by Fei Mu’s 上海實驗電影工廠, a year earlier ). When Yuan’s Xuesheng Company was granted audience at the Huairentang “little” palace in autumn, 1949, they did not just perform: they brought with them a copy of a 1948 film based on Lu Xun’s Zhufu, as well as a 1949 film anthology of 4 Yueju operettas. Since that turning point, mainland audiences’ familiarity with Shaoxing opera has, at the margin, come from film, not live performance.

Modernizing Shaoxing Opera into Film: Liang-Zhu (1953) and Hongloumeng (1962)

Ironically or not, ultimately “new-script” Shaoxing opera – the production and performance of which Xiao Dangui gave her life for – was finally accomplished though an alien medium (color film), whose success marked the first stages of decline in the live audiencing of “Yue Opera”. Another step in the march of repromedia relentlessly opening one door only to close another. (Radio broadcast entered the audiencing from after the War, and helped working women get through the day, and added humming tunes to the “housewife” repertoire, but acting is more than vocalizing, and the radio-play bumps up against that limit).

Prompting the Stage Sisters retrospect (1964) were two big screen color adaptations: LiangZhu (Butterfly Lovers) in 1953, and Dream of the Red Chamber (1962), both by Shanghai (where else?) State owned studios (SFS and Haiyan).

These were in a sense the last gasp of “live” SXO, since the leads (Yuan Xuefen and Xu Yulan) were already by 1953 too old for the strains of night-after-night stage show (31 and 41), and their successors lacked the feeling for the original “minor opera” scripts (and audiences) that had birthed these two superstars. (To which it needs to be added that film-embedded Huangmei xi, ironically a stepson of the Ningpo birthed Shaw Bros., was always a step ahead in delivering new silver screen technicolor versions of old favorites…while recruiting cast and even stars from across the minor opera map..)

But their caught-just-in-time recording allows us to look beyond the normative summaries and pledges that clutter the reviews (left and right) to see first hand something of what made SXO so exuberant a form.


“City Scenes” and Musical Comedy in ’30s Shanghai: Thin slate

It is perhaps not surprising that the film musical (“musical comedy”) is an orphaned genre in China’s pre-Revolutionary cinematic output. Mainland film historians even in these post-ideological times, when re-delving for “firsts” of any stripe is in vogue, seem to agree on but one example of a film conceived and through-executed with this Hollywood template in mind, which is the hard-to-decipher City Scenes (dushi fengguang), a (maverick) Diantong Studios production first shown on Oct. 8, 1935, at the 金城大戏院.

Yet, given the centrality of “Shanghai Chinese” mores as a subject for film-making in general, and the narcissistic curiosity of first-run cinema-goers to see how others saw them, the avoidance of light-hearted romantic comedy as a PR topos is a bit surprising. Socio-economic hypertropy and the (never resolved) disjunction between (white) foreign vs Chinese nouveaux riches in matters social and cultural offered an obvious subject for literary spoofing, as was eventually to manifest in Fortress Besieged (Weicheng, 1947). Then too the slapstick stock-comic pair or menage demonstrated popularity even before sound made their repartee “audible”, and by 1937 the Wang Laowu series starring 王次龙(1907—1941)provided proof that the serio-comic “routine” had a profitable place in Chinese “talkies” too. Even the animated cartoon had established itself as a money-making sideshow in the hands of the Wan brothers, whose work is actually displayed as an internal (pre) commentary on the film’s plot.

Director Yuan Muzhi himself needs scrutiny on this matter, since City Scenes was his conception. There is much to suggest that he was of two minds about the venture into farce, even as the script was being written, then rewritten.
For one thing, the chaotic narrative of Shanghai nightlife advertisements that kicks off the “dark” Malu tianshi is already visible in the opening minutes of City Scenes. Given that Malu Tianshi was conceived as an urban noir drama with a dark ending, the reusability of the opening sequence from the supposedly comic “City Scenes” suggests that both films have a common pursuit: the use of slapstick silliness or ridicule to deepen a tale of moral decay and despair. The fascination with an advertisement driven urban consumer economy and with the gap between trademark logo on the one hand and experienced commodity reality on the other indeed haunts both films, and sets up an appearance/reality dialogue that remains as it were onstage throughout both movies.

Moreover, the influence of Hollywood comedy, while certainly noticeable, has little or nothing to do with the American “musical comedy” of the mid-thirties, which was still dominated by the dance-show/fashion show “spectacular” pioneered offscreen by Siegfeld and then re-created onscreen by Warner Brothers in its 42nd Street “series” (Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 and “Fashions of 1934”) and MGM in its rival Broadway Melody series. In which “comedy” figured as a backstage courtship narrative filled with misunderstandings and mesalliances nevertheless somehow resolved into a “happy ending” as the show finally gets produced. (The formula which in turn was ridiculed in Singing in the Rain).

Rather, it is slapstick goofery that provides the comic edge.

Onto which is grafted a layer of social satire much more cutting and ominous than anything to be found in pre-WWII Hollywood. About the only place in the film where social satire is in fact cleverly amusing is in short Mickey-Mouse derivative cartoon (19:10-20:30) which presents the storyline’s improbably (un) matches lovers to themselves as they sit awaiting an unnamed by surely foreign feature film.

Unmasking Childsong’s Dark Side in Shanghai Noir

The darkness of Shanghai Urban Neo-Realism is in very large part articulated by its inverting or sabotaging the cliches of utopian modernism in its depiction of non-elite life.

This has already been called attention to in the portrait of Xiaohong, the “innocent” (tianzhen) younger sister of a long lost prostitute whose off-and-on relationship with the happy-go-lucky bugler-cum-erhu playing headboy of the Goodfellows quintet (Chen Shaoping, Little Chen) in Malu Tianshi creates one of the two story lines (the other being the troubled relationship between Newsvendor Wang and elder sister Xiaoyun). As a still largely childlike recent (thus little corrupted) immigrant from the open spaces of the Northeast, Xiaohong’s rescue from the Bluebeard Gu Chenglong and the enslaver “Fiddle Master” is clearly a surface story of innocence preserved, which is why the film’s de factor themesong is the Huangmei Operetta’s “Songstress of the Ends of the Earth”, which promises the redemption, through unsullied cross-gender affection, of her purity in a Happy Ending (“marriage” to Chen).

As a second reading of that film’s storying of/about the Zhou Xuan enacted Xiaohong (something like “Little Rosebud”) shows, innocence, sexual and otherwise, or (better) childlike absence of cynicism, is no secure or unqualified virtue, but rather a kind of blinder that makes her susceptible to Material Blandishment, allegorized in her (almost) ruinous infatuation with a piece of cotton print fabric. (In fact the problem of the ingenue’s dangerous proneness to Big City material luxury is not credibly resolved, with the problematic gift somehow losing its tarnish when magically relayed via boyfriend Chen and Big Sister to become in effect her marriage costume – the unpersuasiveness of which is highlighted by its association with trompe l’oeil magic-show).