The 1st of July 2023 marks 102 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. It is also fifty years since I saw On the Docks 海港, one of the Modern Revolutionary Works that formed the core of Maoist culture, at The Australian National University in the southern winter of 1973. Our class of Chinese-language students was also aware that a performance of the ballet Red Detachment of Women 紅色娘子軍 — another one of the eight sanctioned model works — had been part of US President Richard Nixon’s itinerary during his trip to Beijing the previous year (see Jianying Zha, Welcome to China, Mr President!).
On 2 July, Rong Jian 榮劍, a cultural critic applauded by the rump of China’s liberal intelligentsia for composing (long-winded) essays in which he delights in excoriating state-sanctioned Leftists like Wang Hui 汪暉 (see What Does Wang Hui Mean?), noted that the National Peking Opera Theatre was re-staging six iconic Revolutionary Modern Operas to celebrate the Party’s birthday on 1 July 2023. He observed sardonically that:
‘Model Theatre has returned at full throttle. It turns out that Comrade Jiang Qing’s painstaking efforts were not in vain.’
— 荣剑 (@rongjian1957) July 2, 2023
The National Peking Opera Theatre’s advertised ‘a season of red-themed works’. Although ‘red culture’ continues to flourish in the Xi Jinping era, its contemporary origins date back to the patriotic and red education movement launched under Jiang Zemin in the early 1990s. Those initiatives built in turn on policies initiated by Deng Xiaoping and Ye Jianying in the late 1970s (see Red Allure & The Crimson Blindfold, China Heritage, 13 July 2021).
Even during the de-Maoification years of 1977-1983, the Communist Party was in ways both overt and subtle reclaiming the red traditions of Yan’an as well as crucial aspects of the political and cultural radicalism of the 1950s. In the process of ‘righting the wrongs’ of the past, Deng, along with some of his fellow leaders and Party thinkers reaffirmed the attacks on films, books and ideas that had been launched under the aegis of Mao from 1949 to 1957. In 1979, 1981 and 1983, Deng also issued major statements on the need for cultural conservatism. Xi Jinping’s anti-Western rhetoric expanded on the hardline ideological stance taken by Vice-premier Wu Banguo in March 2011, he was merely cribbing material from ‘Certain Questions Germaine to the Ideological Battle Front 當前思想戰線的若干問題, Party ideologue Hu Qiaomu’s lengthy disquisition on ‘bourgeois liberalization’ that had been released with considerable fanfare thirty years earlier. This is not ‘Cultural Revolution 2.0’, it is the dark side of Deng Xiaoping’s policies of Reform and Opening Up, one that has co-existed, often in uneasy tension, with its diapositive coeval from 1978 (see The View from Maple Bridge, Part I).
Although On the Docks was not on the July program of the National Peking Opera Theatre , Azalea Mountain 杜鵑山, a personal favourite, was. The action of the opera takes place in the wake of the Autumn Harvest Uprising 秋收起義 in 1927 and focuses on the early stage of Mao Zedong’s peasant-based strategy of ‘using the countryside to surround the cities’.
Below, we introduce Azalea Mountain, the 1986 controversy around the revival of Mao-era revolutionary operas, ‘My Home was in Anyuan’, one of the most striking arias from Azalea Mountain sung by the proletarian hero Ke Xiang, and two accounts of the opera itself.
In an age of Garlic Chives, Huminerals and the modern-day Kong Yiji, this aria ‘hits differently’, as the colloquial expression goes. Anyone oppressed by China’s party-state, business bosses or global capital may well be able to relate to Ke Xiang’s determination:
We must wipe out these wolves and jackals,
Fight on until the enemy is destroyed!
[Note: See Xi Jinping’s Harvest — from reaping Garlic Chives to exploiting Huminerals, 6 January 2023; and, Xi Jinping’s Harvest — an anthem for China’s disaffected Huminerals, 7 January 2023.]
Azalea Mountain is part of what we have frequently referred to as the mytho-poetic regime of hyperbole and ‘imagineering’ that dates back to Mao Zedong’s earliest poetic compositions. Over a century in which revolutionary romanticism has been melded with realism, China’s imaginary has been shaped and transformed by politics. Although the Revolutionary Modern Operas of the Cultural Revolution exist today in a protected cultural niche, their ambience continues to suffuse the heart-mind of China itself.
The following is published to coincide with the 1st of July, the Chinese Communist Party’s annual bout of self-congratulation. It also marks four decades since I acted as a tour guide for a group of New Zealand and American horticultural tourists organised by friends in Hong Kong to visit rural spots in Sichuan, Yunnan and the foothills of Tibet where rhododendrons, also 杜鵑 dùjuān in Chinese, flourish. From 1949 until 1983, those sites had been inaccessible to international visitors.
In the conclusion to her keynote address calling for the radical transformation of Chinese theatre presented at the July 1964 Festival of Modern Peking Opera, Jiang Qing observed that:
‘History always goes forward on a zigzag course but its wheels can never be turned backwards.’
Grrrl, you’re so not wrong! There’s no doubt that in Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium China is certainly experiencing one almighty zig. Since Jiang Qing’s œuvre is enjoying a new lease on life, how long I wonder before the Chinese queen of revolutionary kitsch herself makes a comeback as a gay/ trans/ runway icon?
‘The Muzak of the Chinese Holocaust’ is also included in Lessons in New Sinology.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 July 2023
Official Founding of the CCP, 1 July 1921
Occupation of Hong Kong, 1 July 1997
Hong Kong National Security Law, 1 July 2021
Fourth of July, Independence Day (USA)
- Jiang Qing, On the Revolution of Peking Opera, July 1966
- 革命現代京劇 杜鵑山 Principal Arias From The Modern Revolutionary Peking Opera Azalea Mountain
- 杜鵑山全劇, YouTube
- Wang Shu-yuan, et al, Azalea Mountain: A Modern Revolutionary Peking Opera, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976
- 白杰明 (G. Barmé)，樣板戲的再崛起，《九十年代月刊》，1986年9月：144-145
- Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, Why This Nostalgia For Fruits of Chaos?, The New York Times, 29 October 2000
- Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History, Cambridge University Press, 2008
- Nicole Huang, Azalea Mountain and Late Mao Culture, China Quarterly, vol.26, 2010, 2-3: 402-425
- Barbara Mittler, “Eight Stage Works for 800 Million People”: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Music—A View from Revolutionary Opera, The Opera Quarterly, vol.26, no. 2-3 (Spring-Summer 2010): 377-401
- Elizabeth Perry, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition, University of California Press, 2012
- Red Allure & The Crimson Blindfold (2010), China Heritage, 13 July 2021
The Appeal of Azalea Mountain
The opera singer Yang Chunxia as Ke Xiang, the hero of Azalea Mountain.
‘Her signature haircut aside, the audience was also enchanted by her finely tailored pastel-hued blouses, accessorized by a leather belt accentuating a thin and soft waistline. One contemporary commentator noted her pale, slim wrists and slender, willowy figure, calling her a “boney beauty” (gugan meiren) [骨感美人], in line with the sexy pop icons of today’s world, and thereby setting her apart from her “sturdier” counterparts of the Mao era.’
— Nicole Huang
During a semester devoted to the study of the themes, ideological import and librettos of Revolutionary Opera in 1975, our class of foreign students in the Chinese Department at Fudan University was introduced to Azalea Mountain. Like the ‘Eight Model Theatrical Works’ 八個樣板戲 in the cultural canon, Azalea Mountain had been developed from the early 1960s when Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and a rising cultural authority, took oversight of the radical reform of the Chinese stage. A film version directed by Xie Tieli 謝鐵驪, a famous old-school Shanghai film-maker who was adroit enough to enjoy a revived career under Jiang Qing, had just been released to boisterous official acclaim and, as part of our course at Fudan, we were taken to a live performance of the opera at the newly constructed Shanghai Stadium, a building that was similarly being hailed as a major achievement of Mao Zedong Thought. (Years later I would learn that the finely wrought libretto of the opera, like that of Shajiabang 沙家浜, was the work of a group of talented writers, one of whose number being Wang Zengqi — 汪曾祺, 1920-1997, a novelist who enjoyed renewed fame in the 1980s, although he was forever tainted by his association with Jiang Qing.)
Azalea Mountain starred Yang Chunxia (楊春霞, 1943-) in the role of Ke Xiang 柯湘. A militant heroine who, among other things, inspired the ‘Ke Xiang hairdo’ 柯湘頭, a haircut emulated by women young and old throughout the country from 1974 to 1976. One scholar describes the appeal in the following way:
“Ke Xiang,” who came to be a buzzword in mid-1970s China, was none other than the heroic Party representative in one of the last model works (yangbanxi) produced in the Mao era, Azalea Mountain (Dujuan shan). The fact that this fictional Party representative also assumed the role of a fashion icon who inspired a nationwide “hair revolution” epitomizes the peculiar cultural dynamics in late Mao China. …
Beaming with a revolutionary resolution typical of the central characters of all model works, and injected with a hint of softer “feminine charm” that was considered refreshing for her time, Ke Xiang, portrayed by the young artist Yang Chunxia, leapt onto the scene of late Mao popular culture with a great deal of visual appeal and auditory persuasion. Her signature haircut aside, the audience was also enchanted by her finely tailored pastel-hued blouses, accessorized by a leather belt accentuating a thin and soft waistline. One contemporary commentator noted her pale, slim wrists and slender, willowy figure, calling her a “boney beauty” (gugan meiren), in line with the sexy pop icons of today’s world, and thereby setting her apart from her “sturdier” counterparts of the Mao era. Ke Xiang’s makeup onstage highlighted a pair of brilliantly piercing eyes, made more prominent in the close-up shots of the subsequent cinematic version of Azalea Mountain. Perhaps most compelling of all was Yang Chunxia’s versatile vocal representation, heard through the radio waves that infiltrated all corners of everyday Chinese life in the early and mid-1970s. A generation of young vocal artists was said to have grown up aspiring to emulate her vocal range and versatile performance style. Ke Xiang/Yang Chunxia’s followers were further enthralled by a refined stagecraft that combined dance movements with rigorous acrobatic skills. Yang Chunxia’s portrayal of the revolutionary heroine acquired an iconic status at the time, and its popularity would come to signify both the height of a revolutionary mass culture and the demise of an overtly politicized era.
— from Nicole Huang, Azalea Mountain and Late Mao Culture, China Quarterly, vol.26, 2010, 2-3: 402-403. For more on Ke Xiang’s hair, see Huang, pp.417-419, and n.33 on p.422
‘It takes ten years to hone one opera’ — Jiang Qing
Azalea Mountain took even longer to create, despite its less politically delicate setting in the relatively distant past. In the autumn of 1927, the Iron Blood regiment of the newly established Red Army at its base on Azalea Mountain welcomes Ke Xiang from the Communist Soviet base headquarters in Jinggangshan. In presenting the Red Army’s battles with local landlords’ forces, Azalea Mountain was an obvious opportunity for military acrobatics, a popular feature of old-style Peking opera.
Azalea Mountain started out in Shanghai in 1963 as a spoken play. Qiu Shengrong, an established ‘painted face’ actor in the Peking Opera Company, liked the legendary aspects of the story, a quality it shared with Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Qiu thought the play had potential for the Beijing convention of modern-subject operas planned for mid-1964.21 A script was written and preparations began. The actress Zhao Yanxia helped create the part of Ke Xiang, the political commissar, just as she was also working on Sister Aqing’s role for the future Shajiabang. Intelligent and creative opera actors able to work on these modern-subject plays were obviously not numerous. Qiu Shengrong took the lead, finding it hard to strike the right balance between his familiar ‘painted face’ movements and the relative naturalism of spoken-drama acting. But the songs and acrobatics the company developed met the support of Beijing mayor Peng Zhen, who had been no big fan of modern-subject opera. They also proved exceptionally popular with audiences in the city, both at and after the summer modern-subject Peking opera convention in 1964. The opera played more than 200 times to full houses.
But Azalea Mountain’s supporters in 1964 and after proved a problem once the Cultural Revolution started. Its links with disgraced mayor Peng Zhen, and with the writer Deng Tuo and others attacked on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, meant the opera was removed from the repertoire as a precautionary measure, despite its proven popularity. The senior actor Qiu Shengrong had also been criticized as a ‘reactionary artistic authority’ and held under house arrest. But reportedly Jiang Qing’s enthusiasm for this opera had never waned. In late 1968 she ordered the Beijing Peking Opera Company to revise the opera but to change its name to Du Spring Mountain (Duquan shan) to make the point that the opera had been changed.
The Beijing company’s creative team of more than thirty persons was given a lot of time and resources to complete the revisions. Part of the effort involved ‘experiencing life’ in the Jinggangshan base area in southern Jiangxi province. Actor Qiu Shengrong was even released from his ‘cow shed’ and joined the company going south. More than a year and a half later, Jiang Qing handed responsibility for the completion of Du Spring Mountain over to the ever-helpful Yu Huiyong, now deputy head of the State Council Culture Group, the new replacement of the old Ministry of Culture. Yu Huiyong felt empowered to negate much of the previous work on the opera, including the writing, directing, and acting. Qiu Shengrong was dropped from the team. The new writers included Wang Zengqi, who had first worked on the opera script in 1963 and again in 1968. Yu Huiyong, in his overseer capacity, asked that all the lines of dialogue be delivered with a distinctly poetic rhythm. He even supervised the plans for the stage design and acrobatic dance movements, in addition to composing the music for the whole piece.
A 1973 report on the dance and martial acrobatics in Azalea Mountain emphasized the innovations made by the opera creators on the basis of traditional stage movement. Some of these new features were designed to give prominence to the central hero, Ke Xiang. Her first entrance, for example, was made particularly striking, with the actress in white clothing for dazzling effect. A major innovation was having Ke, despite her gender, using forms of stage movement usually associated with male roles in traditional opera, such as exaggerated steps and turning of the body to show a man’s determination and strength. The martial acrobatics were given a sense of the real, using folk-style weapons, for example. The result, the designers hoped, was the presentation of certain patterns and forms but without being formulaic.
Clearly the stakes had been raised by the full-scale promulgation of the original eight ‘model performances’ in 1967. Given the importance and expectations placed on the model works during the Cultural Revolution, a major new opera from the hands of creators of the earlier works needed to be really impressive. On International Labor Day 1973, test performances of the revised Du Spring Mountain started in the Beijing’s Workers’ Club theatre. Impressed by the performance, Jiang Qing relented and the title Azalea Mountain returned to the marquee. After some further small adjustments, the September 1973 performance script of the opera was published in the October issue of Red Flag and in the 10 October editions of People’s Daily, Liberation Daily, and other newspapers around the country. The writing credit on the published script was to ‘Wang Shuyuan and others’. Wang had written the spoken play a full ten years earlier. This gave rise to mocking comments after 1976 about ‘ten years grinding out one opera’ (shinian mo yi ge xi) [十年磨一個戲]. Amid the mockery, there must have been some envy at the time lavished on getting these productions to such levels of required perfection.
— from Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp.66-68
Peking opera reform began during the Chinese Republic, and it was undertaken in earnest in the prelude to the Cultural Revolution during the early 1960s. By 1964, the theory and practice of radical cultural change was articulated by Party leaders and Jiang Qing in particular. Jiang, who had been involved with the denunciation of the film The Life of Wu Xun in 1951, started working in earnest on opera reform in 1963 and was involved with theatre specialists to produce a series of operas with modern themes. At the Forum of Theatrical Workers Participating in the Festival of Peking Opera on Contemporary Themes in mid 1964 she spoke on the topic of the revolution of Peking opera. Her speech accorded with the thinking behind Mao’s recently launched Socialist Education Campaign, which later metastasised into the Cultural Revolution.
From its inception, the theatre reforms were, to use language familiar to contemporary readers, about cancelling unacceptable culture, people and ideas while giving prominence to people, classes and concepts that were previously ignored. ‘Theatres’, Jiang Qing declared, ‘are places in which to educate the people, but at present the stage is dominated by emperors, princes, generals, ministers, scholars, and beauties by feudal and bourgeois stuff. This state of affairs cannot serve to protect but will undermine our economic base.’ Along with Mao and Zhang Chunqiao, his leading radical theoretician, Jiang Qing was saying in effect that if what people saw, heard and were taught was not revolutionised in a socialist fashion that accorded with the economic underpinnings of the society, then sooner or later the class ideas, habits and practices of the past would prevail over the revolution.
Ten years later, by the time we were studying Model Revolutionary Operas in Shanghai in the mid 1970s, the past had effectively been cancelled; what had replaced it was generally gaudy, vapid and more often than not risible.
‘I’d rather listen to a funeral dirge’
After Mao’s death in September 1976 and the arrest the following month of the ‘Shanghai Clique’ (officially dubbed ‘The Gang of Four’, although dozens of party-state leaders were detained, jailed and interrogated), the actual culture of the Cultural Revolution was itself ridiculed and purged. For students of Chinese culture, it seemed even then to be a folly to find any value in the model operas that had evolved from a process of theatrical reform and experimentation dating back to the early twentieth century. Azalea Mountain, which combined more elements of Western music than its fellows, also fell victim to the purge, as did Yu Huiyong (于會泳, 1925-1977), the driving force behind the final version of the opera who had risen to become Mao’s Minister of Culture. (After months of intense interrogation, Yu quit China’s political theatre by drinking Lysol.) The opera’s star, Yang Chunxia, would remain under a cloud until she appeared in the role of the White Boned Demon 白骨精 in a television adaptation of Journey to the West in 1986. For this writer, this lapse in taste was more egregious than her political disgrace. At least Ke Xiang was (and to my mind remains) an iconic role.
Model operas first made a prominent reappearance during the Spring Festival Extravaganza of 1986 and a debate about their place in society unfolded during the year (for details, see 白杰明 (G. Barmé)，樣板戲的再崛起，《九十年代月刊》，1986年9月：144-145).
Friends my age and younger mocked my interest in the operas, while all of my older acquaintances, many of whom had been jailed, exiled or persecuted in situ during the Cultural Revolution were repulsed by a nostalgia for my student days in Shanghai. For them the operas were, as one put it, ‘the muzak of the Chinese holocaust’. Or as Wang Ruowang 王若望 wrote at the time:
It evokes all of the blood-spattered terror, destructiveness, villainy and infamous regression of a period that is still only a decade in the past. … I’d rather listen to a funeral dirge rather than this stuff. At least a funeral march is about one person [the diseased]; when I hear a Model Opera we are reminded of masses of the dead the number of which far exceeds the victims of the Tangshan Earthquake [of July 1976 that killed a quarter of a million people].
… 勾引起已過去了十個年頭的那些恐怖、血腥、大破壞、大陰謀、大倒退的歲月… 我寧願聽哀樂，哀樂引起的條件反射只是悼念一個人而已，而一聽樣板戲立刻響起大大超過唐山大地震的非正常死亡的人群來。
— quoted in 白杰明，樣板戲的再崛起，《九十年代月刊》，1986年9月：144
A 1981 Party ruling formalised a view that the ‘ten-year’ Cultural Revolution — a political upheaval defined as having started on 16 May 1966 and ended with the detention of the ‘Gang of Four’ in early October 1976 (it really began in 1962 with Mao’s warning ‘never to forget class struggle’ and continued in a patch-work fashion until late 1978) — was a ‘blank era’ of no positive significance. The reform of Peking Opera was sidelined, as were the ‘model ballet’ Red Detachment of Women and the Yellow River Concerto whose production had been overseen by the now disgraced Jiang Qing. The peasant paintings of Huxian County, once extolled by the Maoists, a slew of sculptures and other artistic works were overshadowed both by officially funded culture, which included the revival of an artistic world excoriated and banned from the early 1960s, and the efflorescent of unofficial culture created by younger artists and writers who had come of age during Mao’s last decade.
The 1980s was, after the 1930s, the most exciting decade for creativity in modern Chinese history. Shuttling between Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai for much of the decade, and tracking the boisterous cultural world in the regular column I wrote for The Nineties Monthly, I also digested the stirrings of Maoist revivalism. In the summer of 1986, just as Wang Ruowang was complaining about the threnody of Jiang Qing’s operas, the veteran writer Ba Jin 巴金 declared that China would never return to that dark past and that it was time to build a ‘Cultural Revolution Museum’. I translated his suggestion for the second edition of Seeds of Fire, a volume that introduced English-language readers to China’s unofficial cultural world and voices of protest that warned that the past was far from being a foreign country (see Seeds, pp.381-384). As we were acquainted, I also wrote Ba Jin a letter when Wang Ruowang was purged as part of Deng Xiaoping’s Anti-Bourgeois Liberalisation Campaign in early 1987. Perhaps, I suggested, it was premature to consign the Cultural Revolution to a museum (see Dissenting from Ba Jin).
Following the repression of the Protest Movement in 1989, waves of nostalgia for the past led to a new Mao cult, the sudden appearance and popular success of Cultural Revolution-themed restaurants, in particular among the rapidly aging former ‘Countryside Youth’ 知青 zhīqīng, numerous publishing projects and the flourishing of what would come to be known as ‘red culture’ (see Shades of Mao and Red Legacies). Over time, a number of Model Operas would be staged at major venues and Red Detachment of Women even joined the repertoire of Beijing’s international cultural exchange programs. The mytho-poetic world of revolutionary romanticism that reached its apogee under Jiang Qing continued to inspire lavishly funded song-and-dance extravaganzas, revolutionary themed films, plays and TV series. Bankrolled by wealth generated by the Reforms made possible by negating Maoist economics and the Cultural Revolution the endless rounds of cultural self-congratulation demonstrated the Party’s dialectical flexibility. Following his expulsion from the Party in 1987, Wang Ruowang was jailed after June Fourth 1989. Following his release he was allowed to take up a visiting fellowship at Columbia University. A life-long smoker, Wang died from lung cancer in New York in December 2001.
[Note: See Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, Why This Nostalgia For Fruits of Chaos?, The New York Times, 29 October 2000.]
Anyuan in Jiangxi province features prominently in both the history and the mythology of the Chinese revolution. That history was sharply contested in the 1960s and, for a time, Anyuan was the focal point for the Maoist rewriting of the history of the 1920s and the role played in it by both Mao Zedong and state president Liu Shaoqi (for details, see Elizabeth Perry, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition, University of California Press, 2012, pp.219-259).
The Modern Peking Opera Azalea Mountain, the heroic Party leader Ke Xiang and the arias she sung were, quite literally, the last word the Maoists had during that particular battle over myth, memory and history.
My Home was in Anyuan
an aria sung by Ke Xiang, played by Yang Chunxia, in Azalea Mountain
My home was in Anyuan close to the River Ping,
Three generations of miners,
like beasts of burden,
My folk sweated out
their guts but still went hungry
In that hell on earth where all seasons are the same.
Came a strike: (stands up) my dad and big brother fought the bosses,
Failed, were shot down, stained the wasteland with their blood.
Then the black-hearted mine-owners
Fired our hut and burned alive
My mother, younger brother and little sister.
My whole family wiped out, a heap of bones.
Like a sudden storm the Autumn Harvest Uprising,
A bright lamp to show the way, lit up my heart.
I saw we must take up arms to win liberation;
I joined the army, the Party, to fight for the poor.
Workers and peasants are brothers
Taking the same revolutionary road;
We must wipe out these wolves and jackals,
Fight on until the enemy is destroyed!
Until the enemy is destroyed.
— translation from Azalea Mountain: A Modern Revolutionary Peking Opera,
Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976, pp.15-16
[Note: In Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition (2012), Harvard academic Elizabeth Perry offers a study of Anyuan as both history and political artifact. Unfortunately, in what is an important and insightful work there is no reference to Ke Xiang, the late-Cultural Revolution female icon, the ‘Ke Xiang hairstyle’, the aria ‘My Home Was in Anyuan’ or, for that matter, the opera Azalea Mountain. To avoid such baffling blindspots, we have long advocated New Sinology 後漢學 — a holistic approach to Chinese politics, society and culture that embraces the refined as well as the quotidian, the readily accessible as well as the arcane, history as well as memory, fact as well as flights of fancy. — Ed.]
Dig Deeper — Mining Today
Reuters, 24 February 2023
A deadly coal mining collapse in China this week is one of a growing number of industry accidents over the last year, government statistics show, coinciding with Beijing’s recent push for higher production to improve energy security.
At least six people were killed and 47 others are still missing two days after the dramatic collapse of an open pit coal mine in China’s northern region of Inner Mongolia, its No. 2 coal-producing province.
The reasons for the collapse are still not known, and the mine owner could not be reached by Reuters.
The National Mine Safety Administration (NMSA) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accident.
But it comes after NMSA statistics released this month showed the number of accidents at coal mines almost doubled in 2022 compared to 2021, and the death toll reached a six-year high of 245, just after China called for higher coal output.
Already the world’s biggest coal producer and consumer, China increased its coal output last year by 9% to a record 4.5 billion tons, with the country urging miners to ramp up production after a nationwide power shortage in late 2021 led to a quadrupling of domestic prices.
Soaring global coal prices and energy supply disruption in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also prompted Beijing to improve its energy security.
Though its mines are known to be among the deadliest in the world, accidents and deaths had been falling steadily in the decade to 2021 after China shut down excess mining capacity, reduced coal burning and strengthened safety checks.
In 2022, however, there were 168 accidents of varying degrees of severity, data from the NMSA shows, surging from 91 the year before.
In a review of the 2021 accidents, the NMSA said some coal mines were putting more emphasis on profits than safety. “They ignored safety requirements and rushed to meet the production targets… and even violated operations regulations to run over their designed capacity,” the regulator added.
The open-pit mine that collapsed this week had been closed for three years until April 2021, state media reported. It reopened just as coal prices soared, reaching record levels later that year. …
China amended its criminal law in 2021 to include punishments of managers at mines involved in accidents due to over-production.
But the NMSA also said in late 2021 that it would not engage in blind punitive production suspensions at coal mines and would instead send inspectors to help rectify problems and resume output.
With the depletion of shallow coal resources in China, coal miners are also being forced to dig deeper, posing bigger safety risks, according to experts.
“China is mining at a rate of 10 to 25 meters deeper each year, leaving miners facing more complicated scientific and technical problems,” Yuan Liang, a coal mining professor at Anhui University of Science and Technology, said in a research paper published in January.
China last year approved some 260 million tons of new mining capacity and reopened scores of mothballed mines.
Coal production is expected to further increase this year as more newly approved mines begin operations. Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, China’s top two mining hubs by production, have vowed to lift output up by at least 5% and 2% this year, respectively.
“Improving mining safety is like pushing a boulder up a hill and involves many hurdles,” the NMSA said in a statement last month. “We will have to ensure both supply and safety.”
— China’s Coal Mine Accidents Rise Amid Push For Higher Production, Reuters, 24 February 2023
[Note: For a list of coal mining accidents and deaths in China, see here.]
Below, we offer two contrasting précis of Azalea Mountain: the first is a contemporaneous ‘politically correct’ account of the work published in the official media; the second is an academic analysis published internationally over three decades later. — Ed.
In Praise of the Proletarian Line in Army Building
— About the modern revolutionary Peking opera Azalea Mountain
Peking Review, 25 January 1974
The following offers a synopsis of Azalea Mountain and a Maoist interpretation of the opera’s ideological underpinnings. Readers who can get past the stilted prose will appreciate a line of reasoning about the Communist Party, its leader and the army that continues to suffuse Chinese thinking under Xi Jinping.
Quotations from Mao are indicated by the use of bold font. In keeping with Cultural Revolution practice (and taboos), Mao is referred to as ‘Chairman Mao’ throughout, although he did not become Party Chairman until the mid 1930s, nearly a decade after the events depicted here.
Wade-Giles romanisation has been converted to Hanyu Pinyin. — Ed.
The Peking opera Azalea Mountain is a powerful work of art. It proclaims this truth: Only under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and advancing along Chairman Mao’s proletarian line in army building can the spontaneous armed struggle of the Chinese peasants win final victory.
Azalea Mountain is the story of the growth of a south China peasant self-defence force in the spring of 1928.
This was a turning-point in the history of the Chinese revolution. Kuomintang-Communist co-operation in 1924 led to the great anti-imperialist, anti-feudal revolution. Then in 1927, when the revolution was victoriously developing, Chiang Kai-shek betrayed it and Chen Duxiu in the Communist Party carried out a capitulationist line. The great revolution was thus defeated.
Under reactionary Kuomintang rule, large numbers of Communist Party members and other revolutionaries were massacred and the revolution was at a low ebb.
It was at this critical point that Chairman Mao launched the famous Autumn Harvest Uprising, formed China’s first Workers’ and Peasants’ Revolutionary Army and led it to the Jinggang Mountains to set up a tiny area under Red political power—China’s first rural revolutionary base—encircled by a White regime.
This armed independent regime of workers and peasants was the spark that set the prairie on fire. It blazed the path for the Chinese democratic revolution, with the countryside surrounding and finally capturing the cities. This was the road the Chinese revolution took, and after more than 20 years of arduous struggle it won nationwide victory.
Peasants Rise in Rebellion
In nine scenes, the opera begins with Lei Gang, the leader of a peasant self-defence force on Azalea Mountain, rejoining his brothers after escaping from an enemy prison. The self-defence force had risen up gun in hand under the impact of the Autumn Harvest Uprising. The three operations it had launched, however, ended in defeat with the loss of many fighters. Defeat taught them that “for the wild geese to fly far, they must have a leader.” They had long wanted the leadership of the Communist Party. Then the news reached them that the enemy was going to execute a Communist the following morning. They decided to go into action and “carry off a Communist to lead our way.”
The woman Communist whom Lei Gang and his peasant partisans rescued had proclaimed on the execution ground: “Only Marxism-Leninism can save China; the working people’s saving star is the Chinese Communist Party!” She was Ke Xiang whom the Party had sent from the Jinggang Mountains to locate and establish contact with the armed Peasants under Lei Gang. After being rescued, she was installed as the Party representative to the self-defence force.
The opera dwells briefly on the Party seeking Lei Gang and Lei Gang seeking the Party, but it accurately outlines the revolutionary situation at the time. It shows that after the defeat of the 1927 revolution in China, the Communists came to understand that “without armed struggle neither the proletariat, nor the people, nor the Communist Party would have any standing at all in China and it would be impossible for the revolution to triumph.” If the Party was to lead the Chinese revolution to win victory, it must lead the peasants to take up armed revolutionary struggle. Ke Xiang being sent by the Party to find Lei Gang was in accord with Chairman Mao’s teaching. And Lei Gang’s quest for Party guidance epitomized the earnest striving of the several hundred million peasants of China to shake off their yoke and win liberation under the leadership of the Communist Party.
Ke Xiang reached Azalea Mountain. How was the Party to lead this body of armed peasants? Why must the armed peasants accept Party leadership? Ke Xiang and Lei Gang had their own interpretation. The former was well aware that the Party had sent her to transform this armed body of peasants in the image of the proletariat and lead it forward along Chairman Mao’s line in army building. But Lei Gang thought that making revolution was simply “an eye for an eye” and Party leadership was meant merely to lead them to “redress wrongs and kill the enemy.” Although he had inveterate hatred for the local tyrants and had in him all the fine qualities characteristic of the oppressed over the centuries—daring, a rebellious spirit and total dedication to the revolution—he was politically blinded by his narrow concept of revenge. He wanted revolution but did not really know the significance of revolution; he earnestly wanted the leadership of the Party but did not understand the Party’s programme and line. Lei Gang’s ignorance of the line did not mean there was no line in his actions. Without consciously following a correct line, he inevitably followed one or the other erroneous line. The deputy leader of the self-defence force had been a reactionary officer born of a rich family. He joined the armed peasants fighting landlords and local tyrants only after he had been bled white in a feud with a big landlord. He made use of Lei Gang’s thirst for personal revenge to spread warlordism in the ranks of the self-defence force and to resist the leadership of the Party. He later became an enemy agent within the self-defence force.
Distinguish Friend From Foe
The “Shoulder-Pole Incident” shows the first clash over the question of line between Lei Gang and Ke Xiang.
After its successful rescue operation the self-defence force was about to distribute captured property, kill the prisoners and confiscate the merchants’ goods as it had always done. But the Party representative, on the first day of taking up her post, announced that according to Party policy: “All silver dollars go to the organization; part of the grain is reserved for army use; the rest of the grain, goods and clothing all goes to the local people.” She pointed out: “We should educate prisoners and let them go. We must pay a fair price to the merchants.” When the partisans were about to beat up a hired hand who had been forced to push a wheel-barrow of rice for a local tyrant, Ke Xiang was firmly against it. She seized the uplifted shoulder-pole. This action was maliciously distorted by the deputy leader to incite Lei Gang against Ke Xiang. Puzzled and angry, Lei Gang, with eyes blazing and sword in hand, demanded of Ke Xiang: “Are you a true Communist, or an imposter?”
Whom should the shoulder-pole be used against? This major question of right and wrong was what Ke Xiang, the Party representative, must first of all help Lei Gang understand. Beating a peasant with the pole would inevitably lose the support of the masses for the peasants’ self-defence force and in the end lead to its defeat. Ke Xiang saw that in the issue of the shoulder-pole was the important question of the orientation of the peasants’ armed force. She used this incident to carry out education on class and line among the members of the self-defence force. They recalled that, before taking up arms in rebellion, they had all been forced, like the hired hand, to work for local tyrants and undergo untold misery. Lei Gang himself had carried a local tyrant’s sedan-chair for over a decade. Ke Xiang made Lei Gang and the others understand this important question: “Who are our enemies? Who are are our friends? This is a question of the first importance for the revolution.” Imperialism, the Kuomintang reactionaries and the reactionary landlords and local tyrants were the implacable enemies of the revolution, whereas the masses of the working people, oppressed and exploited in different ways, ”all hate the same enemy and all find life hard and rough going.” They constituted the main forces of the revolution and should unite to smash the chains of the old world.
Marxist class analysis inexorably persuaded Lei Gang to see the truth. “All the poor are ground down by landlords, who ride roughshod over the poor,” he exclaimed. Torn between hatred and remorse, he picked up the shoulder-pole and flung it aside, This was followed by a moving scene. The hired hand who had just escaped a beating received, with tears in his eyes, a bundle of clothing and some silver that Ke Xiang gave him on behalf of the peasant armed force. “Brothers! Give me a gun, let me join your force and fight,” he cried out. The will to make revolution latent in the heart of this slave who had suffered from hunger and cold for years now burst forth—the result of Ke Xiang’s propagandizing and implementing the revolutionary line. Instead of calling the armed peasants warlords as he had done before, the hired hand came to an awakening and volunteered to join them. This was because of the fundamental change in the attitude of the peasants towards their working-class brothers.
How to Fight
Carrying out the correct line always involves repeated struggles between proletarian ideology and non-proletarian ideology. As a Communist sowing the seeds of revolution, Ke Xiang’s task was to guide the armed peasants to do things according to the line and policies of the Party at all times and gradually put this armed force on the correct Marxist-Leninist path politically, militarily, organizationally and ideologically.
The second half of the opera highlights the ideological clashes during military operations.
The armed “civil guards” of the reactionary landlords mounted an “encirclement and annihilation” operation against the armed revolutionary peasants.
Two opposing views on how to fight the enemy prevailed in the peasant self-defence force at the time when the enemy was big and strong while the peasants’ force was small and weak. Ke Xiang stood firmly for carrying out the Party’s directive to move the armed peasant force from the mountain to wage guerrilla warfare, while Lei Gang wanted to charge forth and “die fighting, giving the enemy hell.” The struggle between these two divergent views builds up to the climax of the opera.
The enemy captured Grandmother Du, an old poor peasant of Azalea Mountain. Her son had taken up arms and rebelled together with Lei Gang; after he was killed, Lei Gang called her his mother. The enemy had her tied to a tree and faggots piled about her feet. They made it known to everyone that they would burn her alive, hoping by this to lure and trap Lei Gang and his force.
The situation on Azalea Mountain was tense and serious, but through it all Ke Xiang the Party representative kept her head. She analysed the situation, tried hard to dissuade the impetuous Lei Gang, calmed the confused rank-and-file and at the same time comforted the old woman’s grandson who was also a member of the peasant self-defence force. Ke Xiang severely reprimanded the renegade deputy leader for his repeated provocations and cautioned her comrade-in-arms: “In a crisis we must not be muddy-headed. We must distinguish between right and wrong.”
But Lei Gang, urged on by his love for the old peasant woman and egged on by the renegade deputy leader, brushed aside the protests of Ke Xiang and charged out of the mountain. He fell into the hands of the waiting enemy.
Victory of the Correct Line
Ke Xiang’s rock-firm stance in the torrent of conflict stemmed from her deep-rooted proletarian class feelings and her broad vision as a Communist. Daughter of a mine worker, she was full of class hatred bred of long suffering. Her parents, two brothers and a younger sister had died at the hands of the mine owner. Her husband had been killed by soldiers of the local tyrant on his way with her to make contact with the armed peasants on Azalea Mountain. Her hatred for the enemy and her love for her class brothers were strong and full, and anger filled her heart on hearing of the capture of Grandmother Du. But she refuses to let the self-defence force sweep down the mountain to fight it out with the enemy. As the old woman described her: “She takes the Party’s instructions to heart, swallows her own grief and keeps the whole world in view.” Ke Xiang understood that the task of the people’s army was not to fight for the sake of fighting or to seek personal revenge. Its task was to implement the Party’s programme and line—eliminate exploitation and realize communism. The army must resolutely carry out the Party’s directive. As the attacking enemy was superior in force, the armed peasants must bide their time before going over to the offensive to wipe out the enemy. The order was to carry out a planned strategic retreat so as to preserve their strength. To realize this the armed peasants must be made to see the overall situation and comply. They must not let concern for their own homes and relatives obstruct them.
Party representative Ke Xiang’s correct decision was based on this understanding and on her confidence in the Party’s strength and the wisdom of the masses. The peasant partisans feinted a withdrawal from the mountain and succeeded in luring the main body of the enemy away to enable them to make a surprise attack on the lightly defended enemy position, rescue Grandmother Du and Lei Gang and move safely to another location.
The victories won by following the Party’s line helped Lei Gang mature. Leader of the peasants’ armed force, he had once cried out in the stress and turmoil on Azalea Mountain: “Oh, why is it so hard to make revolution?” Lei Gang did not know at the time that if non-proletarian ideas in his head were not overcome and that if he did not shift his stand rooted on hearth and home over to the stand of liberating the whole of mankind, for all his determination to make revolution he would always find it hard to work for the realization of the Party’s programme and line. Motivated by his narrow concept of personal revenge, Lei Gang had been thrown into confusion when the directive from the higher Party leadership arrived for the armed peasants to move out of the mountain. When the enemy dangled a baited hook before him, he had recklessly charged down the mountain and invited loss to the revolution.
These lessons learnt at the cost of blood and the education given him by the Party representative helped Lei Gang acquire a higher political consciousness and turned him into a proletarian military commander who pledged: “I shall follow the Party, striving to be a Communist with broad vision, battling on to the end of my days.” And he pledged to always follow the Communist Party and always follow Chairman Mao.
Revolutionary Seeds Strike Roots
One important factor in Ke Xiang’s success in carrying out the correct line was her ability to unite and educate the cadres and fighters and lead them to take the revolutionary path together. Through her, advanced proletarian fighters emerged in the peasant self-defence force and a Party organization was set up. The seeds of revolution she had brought with her from the Jinggang Mountains to Azalea Mountain took root and grew. At critical moments these Communists played their role as a fighting bastion. It was they who discovered and countered the roving rebel band ideology, such as “go from place to place and live off the fat of the land,” spread among the members of the self-defence force by the renegade deputy leader. When the traitor plotted to lead the self-defence force into the hands of the bandits, these Communists stoutly resisted. They demanded: “The army is commanded by the Party; what right have you to order a withdrawal?” When the renegade ordered the fighters to strip off their arm-bands and pull down the red flag, these Communists stepped forward to defend it. This scene forcefully demonstrates that all the plots of conspirators and careerists to destroy the people’s army will fail when there is the resolute leadership of the Party and there are fighters loyal to the Party and the people.
Guided by the correct line for army building, the peasant self-defence force smashed the enemy’s schemes, executed the renegade and wiped out the armed forces of the local tyrants. The armed peasants of Azalea Mountain were later incorporated into the Workers’ and Peasants’ Revolutionary Army and they marched triumphantly to the Jinggang Mountains.
A Mirror of History
Azalea Mountain, the story of the maturing of Lei Gang and the development of his peasant self-defence force, is a vivid illustration of the way the Chinese Communist Party led the peasants’ armed revolutionary force to victory. There is also this profound significance as sung by Ke Xiang in Scene VIII:
Year after year their battle-drums have sounded,
But lacking a clear aim these rebels lost their bearings;
Countless heroes died in vain, cursing high heaven.
This opera is a mirror of history. It is a microcosm of the hundreds of peasant uprisings and peasant wars, great and small, that erupted throughout 2,000-years of Chinese history. Although these peasant uprisings and peasant wars dealt a blow to the feudal regime of the time, and hence more or less furthered the growth of the social productive forces, they were invariably used by the landlords and the nobility as a lever for bringing about dynastic change and, therefore, ended in defeat. The basic reason for their failure was that in those days there were no new productive forces or new relations of production, and no proletariat arose, so, there was neither correct leadership from a proletarian political party nor a correct line. And the fundamental reason why the armed peasants led by Lei Gang on Azalea Mountain did not repeat history’s tragedies was that it had Party leadership in the person of Ke Xiang and her firm implementation of Chairman Mao’s line in army building.
“The correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line decides everything.” The history of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army proves this truth. The fighting history of the peasant self-defence force of Azalea Mountain also bears out this truth. Herein lies the significance of the theme in the Peking opera Azalea Mountain.
- In Praise of the Proletarian Line in Army Building — About the modern revolutionary Peking opera Azalea Mountain, Peking Review, 25 January 1974, (1974, no.4): 8-12.
The Group Stage Sculpture
In the final film version [of Azalea Mountain], the narrative works in the service of a central military strategy devised by Mao after the “white terror” of 1927, in which the Communist Party suffered a huge setback and was at the brink of extinction. The gist of Mao’s strategy was to shift the Revolution away from urban centers, to infiltrate the vast rural areas of China, to mobilize the impoverished villagers, to generate organized troops from rural uprisings, and to eventually surround the urban areas with the goal of reclaiming them. A peasant uprising led by a proletarian leader was, then, crucial to the success of the Revolution. The background of the film narrative is the Party’s effort to reach out to the remote regions of rural China. Ke Xiang and her husband are sent by the Party to a mountainous region to locate a peasants’ self-defense unit led by the martial hero Lei Gang.
Ke’s husband is killed en route, and she is arrested before contact is made.
Meanwhile, the self-defense unit suffers several setbacks, and at the brink of extinction it eagerly searches for Party guidance to help them regroup. The remaining members of the unit, led by Lei Gang, rescue Ke Xiang on the execution ground, in a sequence that recalls a recurrent scenario in martial arts cinema. She then assumes the role of the unit’s Party representative. The rest of the narrative focuses on how the peasants gradually come to their revolutionary consciousness, acquire the ability to distinguish friend from foe, learn the basics of guerrilla warfare, and work on self-sufficiency and mass mobilization. Their growth is guided diligently by the heroic Ke Xiang, who meets every challenge with dignity, wisdom, and correct guidance from Mao and his theories. Flowers on Azalea Mountain bloom fiercely throughout the narrative, a symbol of heroic spirit and sacrifice. In the end, as in all other model opera narratives, enemies both outside and within the ranks are exposed and wiped out, and the people of Azalea Mountain triumphantly pose for a mass sculpture onstage (liangxiang or zaoxing) [亮相/ 造型].
— Nicole Huang, Azalea Mountain and Late Mao Culture, p.404