Chinese dance to a tune from Madame Mao

Cultural Revolution classic is back on stage, writes Teresa Poole in Peking
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The Independent Online
From the organisers' point of view, the timing of the applause was a potential political minefield. But as Peking this week hosted its first performance for two decades of the Cultural Revolution classic Chinese ballet, the White-Haired Girl, the authorities need not have been so uptight. The audience, nowadays keen followers of paramount statesman Deng Xiao- ping's edict that "To get rich is glorious", dutifully clapped at all the right places: when the evil landlord and his sidekick were beaten by vengeful peasants, when the heroine was reunited with her Eighth Route Army soldier, and as the symbolic red sun rose above the horizon.

The return of the White-Haired Girl has proved an interesting barometer of con- temporary political correctness in Peking. As one of only eight "model" shows permitted by Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution, it will have been seen by anyone over the age of 25 - and anyone over the age of 40 will have seen it many times. As well as the ballet, there was the original opera, the film, and the folk dance interpretation. Yet on Tuesday, the first night of this Peking ballet revival, the house was packed, and only the ticket touts outside would have scandalised Madame Mao.

The plot is straightforward. Xi'er, a peasant girl, sees her father beaten to death by the landlord because he cannot pay his debts. She is forced to work in the cruel landlord's home, runs away to the forest, and is rescued three years later when her village is liberated by Communist troops; the landlord and his henchman are subsequently executed. By then, such have been Xi'er's sufferings that her long black hair has turned completely white.

The difficulties of theatre revivals are well known. But this one poses extra challenges. A debate on the morality of Chinese youth was sparked last year when an opera version of the White-Haired Girl was performed in Peking, and some young Chinese were quoted in the media as saying it was proper for the landlord to demand repayment of the debt. "Thanks to the introduction of a market economy, young Chinese are becoming business- oriented, and their comment reflects the philosophy of business," the official China Daily noted dis- approvingly. As a result, in the run-up to the first night, the organisers have been so on edge that anyone might have thought that the ballet company was about to perform one of China's most daring pieces of political theatre. The officials cancelled interviews with foreign journalists, refused to discuss changes to the ballet, and admitted that it was all too "sensitive" because of the show's links with the Cultural Revolution. "There are changes, but all have been for artistic requirements," was all one official would admit.

In a country where all mention in the media of this year's 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution has been banned, it was left to the audience to show that some Chinese can adopt a more mature approach to recent history.

Waiting for the theatre doors to open, Wang Lizhu, 41, said he had seen the White-Haired Girl at least three times during the Cultural Revolution. "At that time, there were not many artistic activities, and I and my friends thought the quality of the model works was quite high," he said. Would it be good for the moral education of his 12-year-old daughter, whom he had brought to the theatre? "Useless," Mr Wang laughed. "Children do not know anything about the exploitation of the old landlords or the oppression before Liberation. As for students who are older, at high school and university, some thought that because Xi'er's father owed money to the landlord, he must pay. From those opinions, you can see that this play cannot now have any political function. It is rather out of date."

Jiang Yuejiao, a 20-year-old student from Sichuan province, said her school textbook had included an extract from the story. "I do not sympathise with the landlord, although my grandfather was also a landlord. It was the feudal society that made Xi'er's father owe so much money. In the correct society, he would never owe such a large amount."

From another generation, one serious-faced 40-year-old man said he had seen the White-Haired Girl at least 10 times, on "organised" trips. And why had he come back for more? "I am not sure," he said.

By the end of the performance, the audience was pleased with the dancing but many described the story as "irrelevant" or "old-fashioned". Ou Jianping, a ballet critic, said it was China's best choreography. "It is a focal point of Chinese ballet, whether it is the Cultural Revolution or today." As for those controversial changes which the organisers had refused to talk about, they seemed to amount to making the beginning more concise and adding more pas de deux between the two lovers.

So was it still a political event? Wang Guoli, a 40-year-old accountant, said: "In my mind there is no political meaning now. "

Her verdict on the performance? "Quite exciting ... Swan Lake is not as exciting."