Classroom performance of The White-Haired Girl at Beijing’s Middle School 26. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A style of folk song and dance from northern China, yangge developed into theater (yangge xi) and was adapted by artists of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to create a new and revolutionary form of art.

The term yangge literally means “rice-seedlings song,” suggesting its derivation from peasants’ harvest labor. As early as the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, monks or rural laborers of various kinds put on small-scale musical performances for the amusement of villagers. Over the course of time, these developed into communal song-and-dance shows and, by the eighteenth century, into small-scale folk dramas (yangge xi) with two or three performers, usually a female character (dan) and clown (chou), and sometimes a male character (sheng) also.

Performed from the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year, the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar) until the Lantern Festival (the fifteenth day of the first month), the plays were always associated with religious rituals, which is typical of rural regional theater. The structure consisted of three parts, with song-and-dance performances surrounding a light, comic play. The content reflected rural life, and a favorite theme was courtship among young people. These were sometimes offensive to authorities bent on preserving conservative social norms: Yangge usually showed young people themselves, not their parents, choosing their spouses, and the plays were often quite bawdy and sometimes pornographic.

Yangge and the CCP

From the end of 1942 until 1946 (and beyond), the CCP, then headquartered in Yan’an in northern Shaanxi Province, sponsored its New Yangge Movement, which was a mass effort based on the local indigenous art form. Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” of May 1942 were a major spark for using this folk art as propaganda for the revolutionary and anti-Japanese cause.

The CCP censored and politicized the yangge performances. They secularized the social context, sponsoring their own troupes and performance sites, though they did not prevent folk troupes from visiting temples. They forbade the more explicit sexual material and created their own plays to reflect the CCP’s ideology. The most famous example, Brother and Sister Clear Wasteland (Xiongmei kaihuang), premiered in the spring of 1943 north of Yan’an; it boasted of the advantages of CCP government in a skit about peasant labor. There were two characters only, one male and one female, but the traditional sexual themes were replaced with those relevant to labor. The musical accompaniment included both traditional Chinese and Western instruments.

The increasing complexity and revolutionary nature of these CCP-inspired yangge plays climaxed in the large-scale opera The White-Haired Girl (Baimao nü). The opera’s story—about a girl who escapes her landlord’s oppression and undergoes privations serious enough to make her hair turn white but is then saved by the CCP’s soldiers—is focused very explicitly on class struggle and functions as CCP propaganda. Its music combined traditional folk songs and Western-style music, with Western instruments in the orchestra. Representing an original genre, this “new opera” (xin geju) premiered during the CCP’s Seventh Party Congress in 1945. It has retained some popularity since then and, in ballet form, became one of the “model dramas” (yangban xi) during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). While yangge was not generally performed outside of northern China, baimao nu became popular nationwide eventually. Baimao nü is still occasionally performed, but it is uncertain if yangge performances still occur. It is possible that they take place currently as folk performances in northern China.

Further Reading

Chen, Jack. (1949). The Chinese theatre. London: Dennis Dobson.

Ho Ching-chih & Ting Yi. (1954). The white-haired girl: An opera in five acts (Yang Hsien-Yi & G. Yang, Trans.). Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

Holm, D. (1991). Art and ideology in revolutionary China. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

Source: Mackerras, Colin. (2009). Yangge. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2550–2551. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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