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In Praise of the Proletarian Line in Army Building

— About the modern revolutionary Peking opera Azalea Mountain

[This unsigned article is reprinted from Peking Review, #4, Jan. 25, 1974, pp. 8-12.]

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 Tu-hsiu 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 Chingkang 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 Kang, 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 Kang and his peasant partisans rescued had proclaimed on the execution ground: ”Only Markism-Leninism can save China; the working people’s saving star is the Chinese Communist Party!” She was Ko Hsiang whom the Party had sent from the Chingkang Mountains to locate and establish contact with the armed Peasants under Lei Kang. After being rescued, she was installed as the Party representative to the self-defence force.

The opera dwells briefly on the Party seeking Lei Kang and Lei Kang 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. Ko Hsiang being sent by the Party to find Lei Kang was in accord with Chairman Mao’s teaching. And Lei Kang’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.

Party Leadership

Ko Hsiang reached Azalea Mountain. How was the Party to lead this body of armed peasants? Why must the armed peasants accept Party leadership? Ko Hsiang and Lei Kang 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 Kang 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 Kang’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 Kang’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 Kang and Ko Hsiang.

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, Ko Hsiang was firmly against it. She seized the uplifted shoulder-pole. This action was maliciously distorted by the deputy leader to incite Lei Kang against Ko Hsiang. Puzzled and angry, Lei Kang, with eyes blazing and sword in hand, demanded of Ko Hsiang: ”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 Ko Hsiang, the Party representative, must first of all help Lei Kang 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. Ko Hsiang 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 Kang himself had carried a local tyrant’s sedan-chair for over a decade. Ko Hsiang made Lei Kang 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 Kang 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 showder-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 Ko Hsiang 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 Ko Hsiang’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, Ko Hsiang’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. Ko Hsiang stood firmly for carrying out the Party’s directive to move the armed peasant force from the mountain to wage guerrilla warfare, while Lei Kang 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 Tu, an old poor peasant of Azalea Mountain. Her son had taken up arms and rebelled together with Lei Kang; after he was killed, Lei Kang 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 Kang and his force.

The situation on Azalea Mountain was tense and serious, but through it all Ko Hsiang the Party representative kept her head. She analysed the situation, tried hard to dissuade the impetuous Lei Kang, 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. Ko Hsiang 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 Kang, urged on by his love for the old peasant woman and egged on by the renegade deputy leader, brushed aside the protests of Ko Hsiang and charged out of the mountain. He fell into the hands, of the waiting, enemy.

Victory of the Correct Line

Ko Hsiang’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 Tu. 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.” Ko Hsiang 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 Ko Hsiang’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 Tu and Lei Kang and move safely to another location.

The victories won by following the Party’s line helped Lei Kang 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 Kang 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 Kang 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 Kang 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 Ko Hsiang’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 Chingkang 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 Chingkang Mountains.

A Mirror of History

Azalea Mountain, the story of the maturing of Lei Kang 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 Ko Hsiang in Scene VIII:

For generations slaves have fought for freedom, 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 Kang on Azalea Mountain did not repeat history’s tragedies was that it had Party leadership in the person of Ko Hsiang 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.

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