Peng Zhen

Talk at the Festival of Peking Opera on Contemporary Themes

Written: July 1, 1964
Source: A Great Revolution on the Cultural Front (pamphlet), Foreign Languages Press, 1965
Online Version: Peng Zhen Internet Archive, February 2004
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Kenneth Higham and Roland Ferguson

Comrades and Friends:

First of all let me congratulate you on the successes achieved in the reform of Peking Opera and on the successful staging of Peking operas on contemporary revolutionary themes.

There are many types of plays on contemporary themes. Hollywood is also producing “ plays on cotemporary themes”; the rubbish the modern revisionists are staging also goes under the name of “plays with contemporary themes”. But what we are staging are plays on contemporary revolutionary themes serving the workers, peasants and soldiers and the socialist revolution and socialist construction.

Many Peking operas of the past portrayed emperors and kings, generals, ministers, scholars, beauties, lords and dowagers, young gentlemen and ladies; they prettified the exploited classes and denigrated the working people. Very few plays were staged on contemporary revolutionary themes. Over a long period in the past Peking opera in the main served feudalism and capitalism. Many attempts were made to reform Peking opera, and a number of plays were successfully revised, but at the current Festival of Peking Opera on Contemporary Themes we are witnessing for the first time reforms that are so comprehensive and systematic, so rich in content and well received by the broad masses of the people. This is indeed a revolution in Peking opera.

Today, we should study Peking opera from two aspects. So far as their contents are concerned, many plays in the past served feudalism or capitalism. These plays dominated the stage and they must be reformed. There are also a small number of historical plays and plays on contemporary themes whose content is fairly good; these should be further improved. So far as artistic form is concerned, Peking opera has a relatively long history and has attained a relatively high artistic level; it is a type of opera with relatively strict conventions. For these reasons it is rather difficult to reform. But once successfully reformed, it will have a bright future. Now that so many comrades and friends are determined to reform it, to revolutionize it, and great successes have been achieved in this revolution, we can say that this revolution has been successful. The reform of Peking opera — its transformation from an art that in the main served feudalism and capitalism into one serving the workers, peasants, soldiers and socialism — is a great event in literary and artistic circles; it is a great revolution. Initial successes have been gained in this revolution. We congratulate you on the successes of this reform; and extend our deepest thanks.

The question now is: How to carry the revolution in Peking opera through to the end; and how to reform Peking opera successfully.

There are still quite a number of differing opinions on whether Peking opera should be reformed at all and how to reform it systematically and comprehensively. The vast majority of these opinions are well-intentioned and constructive. There are also a small number or persons who are fundamentally opposed to reform. Their cry is: “What sort of Peking opera is this without long sleeves or long beards? This is sheer nonsense!” So there are still a lot of problems to solve. Comrades should not imagine that this festival has solved everything and that the revolution has been accomplished. That is not so. Certain questions, therefore, still have to be dealt with, and they must be brought up for discussion.


The first question: Is it necessary to reform Peking opera? How should we reform it?

It must be reformed and reformed successfully. I shall deal with five aspects of this question.

1. Should Peking opera serve socialism or should it serve feudalism or capitalism? Literature and art should serve politics and the development of the productive forces. Now that we are living in a socialist society, whom should our Peking opera serve? What kind of plays should we stage? Should we serve socialism by staging plays that advance the socialist revolution and socialist construction or should we stage plays that benefit feudalism or capitalism? This is a fundamental question. It is quite clear that if one does not want to see feudalism or capitalism restored, if it does not hanker after these systems, then in a socialist society one cannot be always staging plays about such representatives of the exploiting classes as emperors, kings, generals, ministers, scholars and beauties. What is an emperor? He is a representative of the landlord class, the chieftain of the landlords. What is an empress? She is the chief of the landlords’ wives. To be sure, some working people were portrayed in Peking operas in the past, but most of them were shown in a distorted and unfavourable light. How can we in our socialist society tolerate such a state of affairs with Peking opera — so important a stage art, a stage art with a relatively high artistic level and an important artistic heritage — continuing to portray emperors, kings, generals and ministers, and continuing to stage operas which are detrimental to the socialist revolution and socialist construction? That can’t be! That would mean in actual fact helping the attempts of the feudal forces to restore feudalism or of the capitalist forces to restore capitalism. Therefore, Peking opera must be reformed. Either Peking opera will die out or it must mainly portray workers, peasants and soldiers and serve them and socialism; either in one way or the other. There is no third way.

2. Should Peking opera serve the majority or the minority? Should it serve the workers, peasants and soldiers (including the revolutionary intellectuals), or should it serve those old and young "remnants" of the old society and the landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, undesirable elements and bourgeois Rightists? Should it serve more than 90 per cent of the population or should it serve only a few per cent of the population? Should it serve six hundred and many tens of millions or should it serve a few millions or a few tens of millions who make up only a few per cent of the population? In the past, it was always those few per cent of the population who dominated the stage. Our country today is the People’s Republic of China led by the proletariat and based on the worker-peasant alliance. In such a country, a socialist country, where do our workers in literature and art, our fighters on the front or the art of Peking opera, stand? Should they stand with more than 90 per cent of the population, with the workers, peasants and soldiers, that is, on the side of socialism, or on the side of our enemies, the landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, undesirable elements and bourgeois Rightists? I can’t say that absolutely none of you would wish to stand with the landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, undesirable elements and bourgeois Rightists, but I am confident that the overwhelming majority of you are not willing to stand on their side.

The masses of workers, peasants and soldiers, and especially the young people are dissatisfied with Peking opera always staging plays about emperors, kings, generals and ministers and not staging plays on contemporary themes. They expressed their attitude long ago. They did this very simply — by refusing to buy tickets. Old Peking operas have been less heavily booked up than several kinds of local opera precisely because these latter staged plays on contemporary revolutionary themes. Theatres in which old Peking operas about emperors, kings, generals, ministers, scholars and beauties are staged are always poorly attended. Is it not true that the artistic level of Peking opera is rather high? Is it not true that there are some nationally famous actors with very high artistic attainments? But their box-office draws less people compared with some of the local operas. What does this mean? It means that the masses are telling us by their acts: “Peking opera must be reformed. If there is no reform we’ll stay away!” If things go on like this, with so many of the masses, so many of the young people, not attending, and with audiences of just a few in their fifties and sixties and a handful of ardent Peking opera fans then Peking opera will have faded away in 20or 40 years, and if it hasn’t pretty well died out in 40 years then it will certainly have in 60. The mass of workers and peasants and young people have shown where they stand. If you still do not reform, but go on putting on operas about emperors, kings, generals, ministers scholars and beauties, doesn’t it mean that you will be letting Peking opera sit passively waiting for its end? Then again: our theatre is there to serve the masses of the people, but when the masses do not attend the theatre, and you do not reform it, what else then are you waiting for? As I see it, there must be reforms, inevitably, otherwise there is no future for Peking opera.

3. To present the dead of the living? There are few characters on the Peking opera stage who are living people. Besides there is a theory that “characters of living peoples on the Peking opera stage cannot be lifelike, or that it is very difficult to make them resemble living people, whereas in regard to the dead, the further they are from us in time the more likable they appear.” Strange indeed! There is the opera, King Pa Bids Farewell to Lady Lu, but have you ever seen King Pa or his Lady Lu? How do you know they resemble the stage types? How can you say such characters are like the people of old, when neither you nor I have ever seen the originals to know? Well, that’s what you say and who’s to contradict you? And why insist that workers, peasant and soldiers in Peking opera can’t be lifelike? At least there are models to follow when portraying contemporary people; our workers, peasants and soldiers are all models and where the stage characters are not lifelike, then go and see and study for yourself and you will find that you will be able to create lifelike characters. To argue as a reason for opposing the reform of the Peking opera that the characters of living people on the Peking opera stage are not lifelike and only people of the past are, just won’t stand scrutiny.

Something like six hundred million and more workers and peasants (including revolutionary soldiers, i.e., workers and peasants in arms) are engaged in a great revolutionary struggle; they are engaged in a revolutionary movement of unprecedented greatness and construction of historic proportions; isn’t it well worth putting all this on the stage? Is it really only those few ancients who are worthy of being portrayed on the stage? The are so many inspiring heroic deeds; there are so many heroes, yet you do not portray them on the stage;; you keep on staging feudal characters long since dead. Aren’t our revolutionary heroes and heroic revolutionary masses worth depicting? Isn’t it worth describing them — putting it down on paper, on the stage, into music or on canvas? Our great socialist revolution and socialist construction arouse no interest, but those few whom no one has ever set eyes on and who are long since dead — landlord chieftains and chiefs of landlords’ wives, or feudal of bourgeois “scholars and beauties” — arouse great interest. Isn’t this strange? But it is not so strange really. This concerns the question of serving the more than 90 per cent of the people, or serving that few remaining percentage. that is, it is a question of serving socialism or serving capitalism or feudalism. At the moment there are still people who do actually want to restore capitalism or feudalism but these are after all a small minority. To advocate serving feudalism or capitalism openly in the People’s Republic of China is very difficult because they would immediately be given a telling rebuff by the masses of the people, and few dare court that. So those with ulterior motives take another line: they fill the stage exclusively with ancients. A few working in modern drama say, “Though what I put on is bourgeois, it is of the dead bourgeoisie of the 18th and 19th centuries; and I do indeed portray feudal people but they are people who have long since passed away.” A handful of persons would like to use this sort of feudalism and capitalism to corrode and poison the minds of our people and our youth. Objectively, that is what they do. Of course the great majority of those who stage such plays do so unconscientiously, because when they were in old-style opera classes, or when they apprenticed to their masters, these were the plays they were taught, and though in their hearts they do not wish to put them on, there is nothing else they can put on. As for a handful of people, I doubt very much whether they do so completely unconsciously. If they are doing so unconsciously, they why do they hate the reform of Peking opera so much? We have a song that says: “Socialism is good.” But they say: it isn’t. They say “feudalism is good”, or “capitalism is good” and they say this through the forms of art. “See how good feudalism or capitalism is on the stage!” This is the song they want to sing. You see, presenting people of the past and people of the present on the stage is not simply a question of the dead and the living. This is a question of a political nature, a question reflecting class character, political orientation, the path to take. Isn’t it so? Some people prefer to stage foreign people and people of past times. Well Lenin is a foreigner, and a man of times past, but how comes it then that so few plays are staged about Lenin leading the October Revolution; why are there so few good foreign dramas about the proletarian revolution on our stage?

We are historical materialists. We are not indiscriminatingly opposed to staging historical plays. When we oppose putting on plays about people of the past, we are opposing those plays about people of the past which laud feudalism or capitalism, which prettify the exploiting classes. As for those historical plays which fortify the will of the people and destroy the arrogance of the exploiting classes, and which benefit the cause of the people, help social development and the revolution, and further socialism — historical plays which tell of the fine traditions of the Chinese people — of course these can be staged. But the emphasis must be on staging contemporary revolutionary plays about the living masses of the people fighting their struggles, about the living proletariat in the midst of its struggles. A couple of years ago I took this matter up with comrades of the Peking People’s Art Theatre: How about devoting just a few per cent of your time to staging plays about people of the past and about foreigners, and more than 90 per cent of your time to staging contemporary revolutionary Chinese plays? I said, and I proposed that they think it over. I am not saying that no historical plays should be staged, but I am saying that the emphasis should be on staging plays about the living, about our workers, peasants, and soldiers, contemporary plays which further socialism and help the struggle against the enemy.

Some people in Peking opera circles said that the staging of contemporary revolutionary plays is just a gust of wind. We must tell them that this wind is mighty strong and it won’t stop blowing. This wind would stop blowing only if capitalism were restored and modern revisionists got into power in China. Comrades and friends in the Peking opera circles, I think that for the time being it is better for you to put aside those plays about the ancients while concentrating your energies on making a break-through in contemporary drama. You have been performing the old plays for so long and have become so accustomed to them that you feel quite at home in them, while you feel awkward and up against many difficulties when you take up contemporary plays. The question is that you haven’t got enough experience, and that you haven’t got the hang of things yet; when you do, everything will be all right. Put every thing else aside and give it a trial for a time; get the hang of staging contemporary revolutionary plays and then put on some plays about people of the olden days at the same time. I think that unless this is done for a period of time, contemporary revolutionary drama cannot be consolidated.

4. The question of content and form. As I’ve just said, the ideological content of Peking opera should be revolutionary. But this revolutionary ideological content must be integrated with the special artistic characteristics of Peking opera. It is here that the difficulty of reform lies. Set forms already exist in the special characteristic features of the art of performing Peking operas on ancient themes but there are no set forms as yet for portraying workers, peasants and soldiers in operas on contemporary themes. Some new forms were created in the course of this festival, but the experience gained is of an initial nature so it is necessary to continue to create, to sum up our experience and improve on it.

Two questions arise in integrating a revolutionary content with special characteristics of Peking opera art. The first is: Must Peking opera conventions change? The conventions of Peking opera were originally developed to portray the ancients. Today the task is mainly to portray people of the present day — workers, peasants and soldiers — therefore, certain changes are imperative. Changes will have to be made in the music, singing, recitative, acting and acrobatic routines. Refusal to make changes will mean that the portrayal of workers, peasants and soldiers will not be convincing.

The other question is: Should the good features of other art forms be adapted to the uses of Peking opera? Peking opera was originally created and developed by assimilating the good features of other operatic forms. As it originated that way, why then should it not today learn and adapt to itself good features from other art forms? It should make such adaptations. Of course, the result after adaptation must be still wholly in the character of Peking opera. It should not be turned into a hodge-podge of something that resembles nothing. It is like eating, for example. Whatever a man eats — so long as it is nutritious — will become his own blood, flesh, bones and so on, after he has digested it. If the result of Peking opera even makes those people who love it dislike it, then it cannot possibly be said that our reforms have been successful.

5. The question of strategically despising and tactically taking into full account. By strategically despising, we mean we are confident that Peking opera can be successfully reformed, and we will despise those people who oppose the reform of Peking opera. There are some people who oppose the reform of Peking opera, aren’t there? Yes, but these sort of people who turn their backs on socialism and turn towards capitalism or feudalism are bound to come to grief. It is absolutely right that the masses look down upon them. While we are working for socialism, they are working for feudalism or capitalism. Today the more than 600 million theatre-goers want to see plays of living people but they only like to perform plays about the dead. They have cut themselves off from 95 per cent of the people. What is so grand about that?

Tactically, however, comrades we must not treat this problem off-handedly but must take full account of it. Full account must be taken of the script, directing, acting and singing; every act, every scene, every character, in fact, every sentence sung or spoken and every movement must be carefully considered. Workers must be like workers, peasants must be like peasants, soldiers must be like soldiers, whomever is being portrayed must be like the “real thing”. To be in the style of Peking opera and at the same time to be like to be like what is being portrayed is difficult and if full account is not taken of everything, things won’t come out right. In this great cultural revolutionary struggle to reform Peking opera, care must be taken to maintain a high quality and not to turn out rough and slipshod work. Reforming Peking opera is not like roasting chestnuts — tipping them into the pan to roast and then selling them while you are still roasting them. Nor is it like eating tripe when you can toss some sheep’s stomach into boiling water and take it out in an instant ready for eating. This matter is not as simple as all that. It cannot be done at one stroke, nor can it be perfected in an instant. Take some of the surviving traditional operas, for example. Do you realize how many hands they have passed through; how much they were reformed; how much polishing they went through? What we are doing today is something completely new. It is to portray our workers, peasants and soldiers on the stage. Previously the Peking opera stage did not portray those people but today we are going to do it and do it well. But it isn’t going to be all that easy, is it? Therefore, it is necessary to take full account of this task. Do not think that in one attempt all will be changed satisfactorily. That is impossible. If it is reformed basically well, then that will be very good. So long as it is revolutionary it will be good. There may be some defects in the content and artistic technique, but that will be corrected with more and constant polishing.

In the course of reform, it is impossible not to have various opinions and disputes. Before, all we had was portrayals of ancients — emperors, kings, generals, ministers, scholars and beauties, with the reform people are suddenly performing operas on contemporary revolutionary themes. If there were no differences of opinions about all this, that indeed would be surprising.

What is to be done when there are different opinions and disputes? We should discuss and look into things in a comradely way so as to help each other and put things right. Because some operas on a contemporary revolutionary theme has some slight defects, we should not trample it to death or kill it in one blow. Every one of us should cherish this fresh, newly blossoming flower of Peking opera on contemporary themes. Don’t worry if there is a dispute, so long as it is really for reform. Every one should listen to all kinds of constructive criticisms and discuss them together. If there are criticisms they should be made face to face and not behind someone’s back. This should become a habit. In the past among Peking opera circles it was a matter of “you form your group, I form mine”; bickering between this and that company, and between this and that guild was quite serious. This bad habit was a left-over from the old society. Has it all been swept away at one stroke? It is not likely. “You put on an opera and I pull away a prop from behind. I put on an opera and you pull away one of my props from behind.” That was how things were. Each held together his own group but they did not want to form the big group of the People’s Republic of China, not to speak of the big group of proletarian internationalism. The People’s Republic of China will soon number 700 million, and under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and Comrade Mao Tse-tung we will all work for a great unity, isn’t that better? Some people are not content with such a great unity but want to set up their own little unity before they are content. I urge these comrades and friends to enlarge their circle of unity.

This is a question of whether or not to reform Peking opera and how to reform it. I ask every one to consider the few ideas I have put forward. That is the first question.


The second question: What must be done to ensure the successful reform of Peking opera; what are the prerequisites?

There are two prerequisites.

1. Script writers, directors and actors of Peking opera must go deep among the workers, peasants and soldiers, become one of them and establish ties of flesh-and-blood with them. That is to say, in reforming Peking opera, the line “from the masses, to the masses” put forward by Comrade Mao Tse-tung must also be followed. Only in this way can good plays be written and Peking operas on contemporary revolutionary themes can be successfully performed. How can you recreate the heroic image of workers, peasants and soldiers on the stage if you never lived among them and are not acquainted with them? Living together with the workers, peasants and soldiers alone will not suffice, you must also distil the essential merits of the heroes among them and create typical images of them on the stage. Therefore, workers in the Peking opera must go deep among the workers, peasants and soldiers, go to their factories, production teams and companies and become one with them. Some comrades and friends have found the have gained much after spending even only a short time in the factories, production teams or army companies. Wouldn’t you gain even more if you stayed there for a year or two, or several years? There are many writers and playwrights in the capital but they have produced few plays. Why? Mainly because they are divorced form the masses and from reality. They stay in their offices and do not go out to the factories, production teams or army companies. Under such conditions how can they produce good works? Of course it is impossible. Some plays have been acted rather unconvincingly and they have been rather unconvincingly directed. This is chiefly due to the fact that their directors and actors have not yet lived with the workers, peasants and soldiers or they have only lived with them for a very short time

The fact is that to go deep among the workers, peasants and soldiers is not so simple. It is comparatively easy to go for a few days, like a guest, but it is not so easy to be at one with the workers, peasants and soldiers, to establish flesh-and-blood relations with them. To attain this, one must first of all, have the standpoint of the proletariat; be of one mind with the workers, peasants and soldiers, with the proletariat with the poor and lower-middle peasants, and serve them whole-heartedly. We should all of us makes ourselves willing pupils of the masses. This refers not only to you but to us Party workers, Members of the Party’s Central Committee. If we go out just to criticize and point things out right away instead of first learning from the masses like pupils, then the peasants and workers won’t open their hearts to us. Although many Party workers have established regular contacts with the mass of workers and peasants, they still need to choose some place for gaining experience at the grass-roots, where they eat, live and work together with the masses, as the willing pupils of the masses. So is it possible for Peking opera workers not to be willing pupils of the masses when they go to the countryside, the factories or the army companies? Of course they should. Naturally, we should not insist that those that are aged and physically weak, eat, live and work with the masses, but it is good to give them a chance to visit. Those artists and writers who are young and in the prime of life should, like our Party workers and the workers in other fields, live among the workers, peasants and soldiers.

This is a prerequisite for the success of the reform of Peking opera.

2. Peking opera workers must revolutionize their ideology, that is to say, they must become revolutionized and proletarianized. “Ize” means through change, from top to bottom and inside out. One must be revolutionized within, revolutionized not in part, But from head to foot. This is not so easy! You work on plays on contemporary revolutionary themes, but if your ideology is not revolutionized you cannot be at one with the workers, peasants and soldiers, you cannot establish flesh-and -blood relations with them. If your head is full of the ideology of the feudal landlord class or bourgeoisie, how can you identify yourselves with the proletariat and the working masses? Under such circumstances how can you establish flesh-and-blood ties with them? So, if you want to perform a play on a contemporary revolutionary theme you need, in the first place, to have a revolutionized ideology. You should be determined to remould yourself and raise your political level. Once you are determined to be revolutionary, things will go well. Change a little bit today and a little bit tomorrow, and you’ll build up a revolutionary ideology bit by bit. In time you’ll achieve a fundamental change. In his Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art Comrade Mao Tse-tung very clearly dealt with the fundamental questions involved here. I suggest you comrades read over those talks carefully once again.

To speak frankly, there are some people who are in an acute contradiction. Physically speaking they have already entered socialist society, yet their heads are still in feudalist or capitalist society. Surly it’s not very comfortable to have one’s body at one place and one’s neck stretched out to one’s head or somewhere else? Such a person eats socialist rice and wears socialist clothes. All his amenities in life are provided by socialism, by the workers, peasants and soldiers. yet he does not act plays to serve them, to serve socialism. His ideology is still feudalistic or capitalistic. This is an acute contradiction. If a person is like this, that’s his business. But, if in accordance with his own outlook, he attempts to use Peking opera to transform the world, to oppose our staging plays on contemporary revolutionary themes, that’s very bad. Then, what is to be done? I suggest that these people had better make a big effort to remould their ideology so that they can bring their heads into socialist society too.

During the current movement for socialist education in the rural areas, Comrade Mao Tse-tung has called on us to “re-educate people, reorganize the ranks of revolution.” Why re-educate people? It is for the cause of socialist revolution and socialist construction. What kind of revolutionary ranks are to be reorganized? — The revolutionary ranks of socialism. In the past many people were mentally prepared for the democratic revolution, but not very well prepared for the socialist revolution, and some were not in the least prepared for it. In the past, we did not undertake any systematic, all-round socialist education in every way throughout the country. Now a movement for socialist education is going ahead in the urban as well as rural areas. So long as we go on taking care of things like this, not only will we be able to carry out our socialist revolution successfully and day by day improve our socialist construction, but we will also be able to dig out thoroughly the root cause of revisionism.

Comrades! Please don’t think that there can be no revisionism in China. If we don’t grasp the tasks of class struggle well and of socialist education too, then, it is also possible for revisionism to appear. Speaking frankly, there are quite a few problems in literary and artistic circles, surely no less than in other fields of work. Therefore, it is necessary to launch a rectification campaign and a movement for socialist education and wage the struggle between the two roads of socialism and capitalism on the front of literature and art. We must study Comrade Mao Tse-tung’s works carefully, learn Marxism-Leninism, and maintain a firm proletarian stand. I suggest that all of you examine and sift through the works you have written, the plays you have performed, the films you have acted in, the songs you have sung, the music you have performed and the pictures you have drawn in the past few years. See what is bourgeois in them or what has been influenced by the remnants of bourgeois ideas, or what is feudalistic. If you find mistakes or shortcomings, correct them and things will go well! This must be done in all spheres of literature and art, and Peking opera circles are no exception. Let everyone work for socialism and communism and thoroughly wipe out the influence of feudal and bourgeois ideology! If we act in this way, I am positive that the reform of Peking opera can certainly be done successfully, and that Peking opera certainly has a bright and great future.

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