Local Heroes or Aboriginal Predators?: 土匪 or “Embedded Banditti” in PRC Lore

Marxism and Mao never DID get on well together. But this is no news.

What needs more attention is not who his first-phase constituents WERE NOT (urban workers/proletariat), but who they WERE. There is already a degree of evasion in the early-on use of the facile “Peasant Rebellion” (nongmin qiyi) designation. Starting with the chapter-opening “Autumn Harvest Uprising” 秋收起义 of Sept. 1927, a widely fragmented series of confiscatory and or revanchist acts of violence spread across seven pockets dispersed across three (?) different provinces – Hunan, Jiangxi and Hubei, there was a good deal of unorganized, truly spontaneous backcountry violence too widely discontiguous to be explained by any single command or plan.

The key tag in all of the narratives is the almost ubiquitous binome 土匪, lit. “territorially [embedded] banditti”, the more revealing word being “tu”. Like many but not all political descriptives used to identify a tension, it can be read, as it were, from top down (elite view) to bottom up (indigene view). From the elite or government point of view, it meant territorially confined and attached, always to small stretches of out-of-the-way, hard to reconnoiter terrain. The perimeter might or might not include settled villages, though it was only when such settlements were within the “territory” (tu) that the potential for insubordination became serious. There were also, however, standalone “embedded bandits” in the flatcountry of North China who took advantage of tall-stalk crops’ natural cover to plant themselves near lesser roadways or trails and waylay isolated travellers (merchants). In essence toll-collectors. These were (literally) The “heroes” of the brush/bushes (caomang), much storied in vernacular literature because, like the gunmen of the Ol’ West, they were true survivors.

Anti-Colonial “Marching” in the Bushes: Song of the Guerrillas (1939)

The Oratorio-Cantata-Masque “East is Red”, first staged in 1964 to mark the 15th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, inaugurates or perhaps caps the early PRC attraction to the “album” framework for the celebration of major historical events… Or perhaps grab bag is more suiting. Mainly reflecting a desire to sound and look cosmopolitan, songs and dances were gathered up and recorded on short order with little concern for their history or national/ethnic origins.

The 1939 Song of the Guerrillas is however a con-fusion with a deeper meaning. It ostensibly portrays in song and ballet dance the Eighth Route Army’s mastery of guerrilla warfare as a resistance weapon – a claim true enough in the coastal hills and valleys of the Qinling chain spanning S. Shanxi, Henan, and inland parts of Shandong.

But the music itself is not reflective of guerrilla style; historically it is quite COLONIAL (suppressive) in origin. It is, first of all, a rather gallant march in 2/4 time. But of course military march-stepping is the dance of show, display, regimental pride, a mimesis of inflexible obedience to implied command. Spit and polish, elaborate “parade” costume, and perfectly coordinated left-right derivative or reinforcive of the tight-order drill-with-muskets that was the essence of European footsoldiering from the late 17th century. And, of course, in the colonies it was an instrument of psycho-coercion, reminding subject persons of the power of imperial discipline, the product and pride of an imperial order not to be challenged and certainly not replicable. In (colonial) China this would have been the music to which British (or more often subaltern) soldiers and police stepped out on holidays (something lampooned in the opening sequence of Malu Tianshi.

The “Song of the Guerrillas” was written by a Franco-Russian trained conservatory composer, He Lüting 贺绿汀 (I903-1999) no doubt for self-inspiring choral singing in army camps, but seems never to have “performed” as a march – for guerrilla war relied in a sense on anarchy and discoordination – and the last thing Zhu De and com. would have wished to inspire in those times would have been an enthusiasm for stand-and-fire combat.

So why was the march/song written, most strangely of all to grenadier-guard goosestep/parade music?

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.

Shaoxing Opera Goes to the Movies, 1948

Header Collage: (clockwise from upper left)

1. 1948 script book for “Sister Xianglin” film (Qimeng Studio), starring Yuan Xuefen
2. Illustration (frame take) from above movie
3. Film: Look at the Weather When the Rooster Crows (1948), starring Yuan Xuefen
4. Film “The Tragedy of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai” 1953, co-starring Yuan Xuefen

Going to tne movies ocrt 7 013

Below: Promotional Poster for “Look at the Weather…”, Qiming Studios 1948, starring Yuan Xuefen, 黄宗英 / 高博 / 罗兰 / 张伐

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Enter the Bandits of the Hills: Mao in Jiangxi, 1927-34

One of the several border zones between “fact” and “memory” in Mo Yan is one that preoccupies orthodox (Maoist and after) historians to this day, and always has. What is the social “filling” from which the “bandit” is fashioned? Is there an intrinsic “class content” or empathy that guides his (and her’s) choice to join with or fight against the (orthodox meaning Part-organized) Partisans spun off from the 8th Route Army? Meaning: is there a staying power that can survive victory and keep the well-choosing “bandit” on the side of the Revolution? Or is it (his “innards”) mainly or only a matter of turf and honor, that quintessential feature of hill-mafia chiefs’ concerns?

In Mo Yan’s E. Shandong and perhaps more widely in the Henan-Hebei-Shandong conflict zone that was home to the Boxers then Red Spears, the local lore at least favors a portrait of the bandit as heroic and turf-protective individual (or heroically traitorous..). To somewhat oversimplify, the “greenwoods” chief (best personified in Mo Yan’s Yu Zhan’ao and Sima Ku) acts as an extension of privileged village society (the lineage and charitable estate such as the Sima clan and Felicity Manor in BBWH; or the 18-li Distillery and its Shan lineage-recruited worforce in RSF) in that he shares the village properties class’s view that protection and security and the priorities. For which of course martial arts prowess and a violent temper (charismatic overawing) are the most obvious assets. Typically, qua bandit, this kind of “hero” has a history of violent crime that has taken him away on and off away from “home” (where his kin reside). He is a kind of Houdini, knowing how to “hang out” and make jianghu (casual, drifter-world) connections well away from his birthplace village, then suddenly reappear on the news of crisis. In the latter scenario, he is logically the one to “train” the raw “yeoman” in the art of low-tech self-defense – a stunning portrayal of which is provided of course in Kurosawa’s 7 Samurai. Here he exoterric tie-ups help; often surfacing in the armature of banghui or “secret brotherhood”. But – and this is crucial – he neither can nor wants to enter a broader and impersonal organization. Which of course predicts an unhappy end: as we hear… “Heroes do not die in their beds”…

(for more on this see Re-enacting Revolution in Hakka-land (Jinggangshan, June 1 2013))

Mo Yan’s “Graffiti Realism” and Metamorphobic Fantasy

It has been pointed out that reductive caricature – the naming of characters by out-of-the-ordinary (usually undignified) physical attributes or the attrbutes’ metamorphoses into free-floating body parts – regularly swallows up the human actors in Mo Yan’s fiction. A tag of eccentricity (what unusual attributes of clothing, complexion, height, etc. associate with a character’s initial appearance?) comes to stand in for the persona, as it were, “behind” them.

This can at first pass be seen as no more harmful than a means of establishing a character’s identity within a blurred and alien and pressingly overpopulated village/commune world (or one so perceived by the writer); as such it seems cousin to the more-or-less harmless teasing of the nickname, the monicker that a not terribly self-conscious interloper might accept and even re-broadcast. (The “Unicorn” in BBWH for example).

Thus in Frogs, Dec. 2009 (commentary by Yinde Zhang):

“The given names of the characters, …nearly always refer to a part of their body, Chen the Nose (Chen Bi 陳鼻), Wang the Liver (Wang Gan 王肝), Xiao (father 肖上唇) = Xiao Upper Lip, Xiao son =
Xiao Lower Lip (Xiao Xiachun 肖下唇)….”

(Yinde Zhang, China Perspectives, 2011/4, p. 60 The Biopolitical Novel: Some Reflections on Mo Yan Frogs

But this is no recent digression: it turns up in one of his first works (1981, much earlier) Minjian yinyue where we encounter
Lame Fang 6, “Pocky” (pockmarked) Du Shuang, and “Yellow Eyes” Huang Yan (fn) https://asianimperialisms.com/2013/03/22/aboriginality-as-icon-of-a-crisis-in-lineage-pedigree-and-male-potency/10/

This stretching – and diminishing – of identifying perception by the superimposition of an isolated and normally non- referenced body part attachment (moustache, nose) or deformity (acne, smallpox scars etc) is of course a universal attribute of the very long-lineaged genre of satire, in which regard it is (at least) cruel but still not meant to terrify: in “inclusive” satire it somehow transforms into engaging playfulness. (Children of course play/play at this double-faced badinage all the time).

Affirmative Action for (male) “Heroes” on the Stage

65703553 音乐舞剧木兰-4

Happy coincidence. Just as I was (yesterday, Jan 5) reviewing the obviously awkward male combat moves from the Feb. 2010 CCTV New Year’s Gala, billed as a face-off with “dancers” (meaning of course women gyrating their long sleeves) who of course fared much better, I stumbled upon an unattributed newspaper op-ed piece rueing the failure of “classical” dance to give play to the “knight-errant” (xiayi, solo- heroic) spirit once upon a time at the core of that art form. (Though when historically this was the case, and in what great works this might have been so, is not specified). (http://www.880du.com/index.php?m=content&c=index&a=show&catid=26&id=2112).

Male Dancers Facing Neutering…
Had the Chinese film-going (or TV watching) public not been taken in by the prevailing notion that such dance must favor skills of pliability, of stretching (contortion in my language —-) – as the anonymous writer calls it: 古典舞的肢体柔韧度 软开度 – a feature of feminine dance? When more regard should be given to the spirit of wuxia (lone-hero fighter) which alone provides a counter to “pliability” = dance? 侠义精神的古典舞作品阴柔之舞形成了强烈的对比. Without rebalancing, seeding more of the spirit of the lone-swordsman hero in these productions, men dancers will be (already are?) neutered, become desexed, adrogynous (中性). Unable therefore to take on lead roles, condemned to be followers (my interpretation)

No, I’m not inventing these phrases, or diminishing the seriousness of the threat felt by the editorialist, who obviously is writing from a Party (official culture) point of view sensed as unpopular, but needing to be stated (anonymous contributors very often mask themselves – testing the waters.

With the ultimate target surely the Beijing Dance Academy, whose female grads seem always to walk away with the top prizes. (It is their star danceuse, Wang Yabin (see …), who we see dancing an unenthusiastic pas de deux in our frontispiece). While none of its male soloists have gotten beyond Class 2 awards.

“Red Sister’s Brigade” Film (1960): Ideology Trumps Psychology


This gallery contains 3 photos.

Wu Jinghua- From Indigene Slave to Jungle Warrior- An “Act” of Change, not a “Study” of Change As with most novelties of or in stagecraft (including its documenting in film), new things seem to arrive in competitive pairs. The success … Continue reading