Part I: Ears—Sounds

We organized these underground concerts and listened to a lot of records: Beethoven [1770–1824], Bizet [1838–75], Carmen, Schubert [1797–1828]! Really, we were so fed up with the revolutionary songs, so listening to this was simply great! Also Turandot, Aida.… Our parents did not know anything about this, because we would have our “concerts” in the homes of those children whose parents had “disappeared.…” In the 1980s when I heard Beethoven again, I was so surprised; I just could not quite remember why I knew this music so well. (Writer, 1958–)

At first, it appears that these years were a kind of blank [空白时期], but if we look back, there was something quite valuable in them, too.… I learned a lot about folk songs, for example. Really, through the Cultural Revolution, the musical world of each one of us has broadened, it was opened up: China is so big, and there are so many differences in musical style. Folk music [民间音乐] has only been understood since then. (Ethnomusicologist, 1940–)

In the countryside, we made our own music. I learned to play the accordion, and there was a guitarist—he played totally Western music, classical guitar music, wonderful music. In 1968 we bought our first tape recorder from a Brazilian leaving China. Then we made all these recordings: I have a tape with us singing these Russian songs—very blue, beautiful, sad music. (University Professor, mid-1950s–)

If one assumes—and this is accepted manner of speech (提法 tifa) in both official and unofficial writings about China—that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was launched by Mao in 1966, carried out by the “Gang of Four” and, according to the now official version of history manifested in the Party Resolution of 1981, ended with his death in 1976, was nothing but a “period of chaos and destruction,” (Resolution 1981, 21; Schönhals 1999) one may also agree with the common view that in the field of culture, the Cultural Revolution was indeed an “exceptional period of stagnation” (Fokkema 1991, 594), a “cultural desert.” Therefore, it should not surprise us that veteran composer Du Mingxin 杜鸣心 (1928–) says in Broken Silence, a Dutch documentary dealing with contemporary Chinese music, that the Cultural Revolution was a period with “no music.” However, in the very same cut, one can see him, with a happy smile, conducting to the music of the Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军 Hongse niangzi jun), a ballet that attained the status of a model and was played incessantly during the Cultural Revolution and that Du Mingxin is proud to have helped compose (Broken Silence 1995 & interview with Du Mingxin, Beijing 5 October 1992).

What does all this mean? Of course, the Cultural Revolution was accompanied by music, of course there were “sounds amidst the fury,” but Du Mingxin’s point, in accordance with officially prescribed amnesia about all cultural production during the Cultural Revolution, is in fact that music, just like all other artistic production, was subject to extreme political reglementation during this period; that only certain correct colors, forms, and sounds were officially acceptable. In terms of the musical repertoire during the Cultural Revolution, its basic staple were revolutionary songs and the so-called model works, (样板戏 yangbanxi), eight in number at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, eighteen by the time it is said to have officially ended. These model works, the great (and exclusive) models for all musical production, including ten operas, four ballets, two symphonies, and two piano pieces, tell stories from China’s recent past. They depict the Chinese people’s “determined struggle” against outer and inner enemies, they glorify the close cooperation between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the common people, and they emphasize the decisive role of Mao Zedong and his thought for the final victory of socialism in China. This is the stuff that many a revolutionary song is made of as well.

For many Chinese (especially intellectuals), revolutionary songs and the model works epitomize the tragic and chaotic years that the Cultural Revolution brought them and their families. Post-Cultural Revolution politics wanted these works forgotten. Condemnation of the model works reigned since the late 1970s, but in China today both the model works and revolutionary songs, the very stuff that the Cultural Revolution was made of, musically speaking, are far from forgotten. The mid-1980s marked the beginning of a veritable revival to which the government has not only turned a blind eye (Barmé 1999, 14), but, more recently, in an effort to bring opera back into the schools, it has even played a supportive role by choosing quite a few of the model works for the official curriculum (DACHS 2008 Zhang Yihe). Equally prominently, Red Sun Music—retakes of the revolutionary songs in rock, pop and jazz rhythm—have been skyrocketing sales since the 1990s.

In discussing model works and revolutionary songs in the first two chapters of the book to which this database is the accompaniment, I address some of the more obstinate myths about musical production and musical life during the Cultural Revolution by tracing the history of some of the “sounds amid the fury” to the continuous musical revolutions that occurred throughout China’s twentieth century. The first such myth is the assumption that the Cultural Revolution was xenophobic and that, accordingly, during the Cultural Revolution, no foreign music could be heard and played. A second myth I revisit is the belief that the Cultural Revolution was iconoclastic and destroyed Chinese traditional music. The third myth I address is the idea that music from the Cultural Revolution forms a special and despicable category of propaganda music unlike all other music created before or after.

By drawing, in the first two chapters of my study, a “wide-angle” longue durée picture of musical production, considering Cultural Revolution Music within the context of the production of a foreign-style New Chinese Music 新音乐 in the twentieth century generally, and not just in the PRC but also in Hong Kong and Taiwan (Liu 1998; Mittler 1997), and by looking back at Chinese musical practice in history, I will illustrate that Cultural Revolution music cannot be considered the perversion of the Maoist experiment of reinventing a new Chinese revolutionary culture. Cultural Revolution music is one manifestation of the attempt to create a distinct New Music for China with its own national style. Time and again, New Chinese Music—to be found in Taiwan, the PRC, and Chinese communities abroad—has applied methods and ideas rather similar to those used in the model works of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, combining what is best from China with what is best from “the West” in musical terms (Yung 1984).

In tracing the many predecessors and repercussions of the sounds from the Cultural Revolution, I argue that the cultural revolution in music, which essentially answers the question of how to combine foreign and Chinese musical styles into one modern Chinese style, began in the late nineteenth century and continues to the present day.