Every year in China the communist regime stages a long variety show on the only national broadcaster, China Central Television, ringing in the Chinese New Year with a good helping of pro-regime propaganda.
Joining the gaudy hosts and crooning singers in their annual ritual, the Spring Festival Gala, this past Saturday was a Canadian opera virtuoso, Thomas Glenn. He co-sung part of an old communist “red opera” that was freighted with more meaning than he realized, or was told by his Chinese handlers.
The performance Glenn participated in, along with Yu Kuizhi, a well-known Beijing opera singer, was a section from “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy,” one of the Eight Model Operas.
During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s Jiang Qing, also known as Madame Mao, decided that these eight performances were the only permitted forms of art in China, and they are heavily associated with that violent and ideologically-charged period in Chinese history.
“Red songs” had in fact fallen much out of favor in Chinese popular culture over the last few decades—though the now-felled Chinese politician Bo Xilai had attempted a revival of Maoist singing in Chongqing.
As is typical in these performances, the first part of the song consists of reflections on nature: Glenn sings a few lines about snow, mountains, forests, and courage.
At about three minutes into the song the joint aria begins, with Glenn and Yu singing the title, “Welcome spring, bringing change to the world.”
And then it gets down to business. Yu Kuizhi sings: “The Party gives me wisdom, gives me courage.”
He goes on: “To defeat the bandits, I first dress as one.” This tracks the storyline of Tiger Mountain, where the revolutionary Yang Zirong infiltrates an encampment of Nationalist soldiers (inevitably labeled “bandits”) and then springs a bloody ambush. Set in 1946, the communist insurgency was three years away from overthrowing the Nationalist government and seizing power.
Glenn then rejoins for the second half of the duet: “Raid the bandits’ lair, absolutely turn it upside down!”
A bright red decorative cloth is projected onto the back wall and columns as the camera pans out.
Later in the story the communist heroes “destroy the bandits and capture the bandit chieftain Vulture,” according to a synopsis of the original libretto, which was “carefully revised, perfected and polished to the last detail with our great leader Chairman Mao’s loving care.”
Incitement to Hatred
One of the main features of Chinese communist red operas is the incitement to hatred, according to Xing Lu, a scholar of communications at DePaul University who has written a book about rhetoric in the Cultural Revolution.
“Hatred permeates every model opera,” she writes. According to her book, the basic message behind these pieces is that those designated as “class enemies,” or “villains,” must be eliminated through violent struggle, so a new society can be established. The plays were meant to foster a “deep hatred for all class enemies and love for the Communist Party,” Lu writes.
Speaking on the telephone from his hotel room early on Monday morning in Beijing, Glenn was surprised at the associations of the song, and said that he was not aware of political or propaganda elements.
“I don’t feel like this piece was chosen to ignite any sort of controversy,” he said. “I think the piece was meant to show an intercontinental friendship… certainly I’m ignorant of any propagandistic aspect.”
He said that his main source of information about the performance was from his Chinese colleagues, and that he did not independently research the background of the song.
Organizations associated with the Chinese regime guided Glenn into the performance.
He first learnt to sing that opera in 2011, as part of a Chinese regime-sponsored program called I Sing Beijing, which inducted 20 Western singers and had them perform Chinese opera. National Public Radio included Glenn in a profile of I Sing Beijing.
One of the songs selected by the Chinese handlers was “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.” A video of Glenn practicing it is available on YouTube.
I Sing Beijing was founded by Hanban, an organization headed by the Chinese regime which also runs the Party’s global network of Confucius Institutes. (The latter attracted controversy recently in Canada after a university closed its Institute down due to its discriminatory hiring practices.)
“I gather CCTV got ahold of my performance through I Sing Beijing, and the Confucius Institute asked me to do the performance for the Gala; it was the Confucius Institute that was the liaison,” Glenn said.
Chinese netizens reacted angrily to the link. “These model operas were Jiang Qing’s primary tool for attacking Confucius, and now the Confucius Institute is having them performed,” one wrote. Another called it “raping Confucian thought.”
The Confucius Institute connection seemed significant to Li Ding, a senior researcher at Chinascope, a Washington-based organization that specializes in translation and analysis of Communist Party documents.
He noted that there has been criticism in recent years about the global expansion of Confucius Institutes, which is usually met with the response that they are non-political, mere language centers. “But making an arrangement for a Confucius Institute to organize this revolutionary piece is a high-profile statement,” he said. “It’s as though they’re saying ‘Yes, we use Confucius Institutes to promote ideology—so what?’”
He said this action seems to coincide with Xi Jinping’s recently announced “three self-confidences,” to wit: “Be confident in the path, be confident in the theory, be confident in the system.”
Cheng Xiaonong, a U.S.-based scholar of the Communist Party, said that the performance seems in part to show that Xi Jinping does not seek to deny the Mao era—a matter that he stated plainly in a recent speech to new members of the Central Committee, according to Cheng.
“If so, he’s more conservative than Deng Xiaoping, and it’s understandable why the red song is there. It helps the regime establish some legitimacy, affirming the achievements of Mao in the Cultural Revolution.” Cheng said that a red opera has not been on the Spring Festival Gala for the last three decades.
Using a foreign face for the purpose adds to the propaganda value, Cheng said. “Every year they try to find some foreigners, pay them, and ask them to sing some songs that praise the Communist Party. That’s something that the Soviet Communist Party never did. They had some dignity about their communist rule.” Glenn declined to say whether he was paid for the performance.
The phenomenon of using foreigners to effect domestic propaganda was documented at length by Anne-Marie Brady in her 2003 book “Making the Foreign Serve China.”
When some of the political analysis by Chinese scholars was conveyed to Glenn, he considered for a moment, then said: “That’s very interesting. It puts me in an awkward position, at least with Chinese intellectuals. On the other hand, to a foreigner like me it is just a song.” He said he had fun.
Glenn continued: “To be perfectly honest, I’m largely ignorant of the social context in which this comes into play. Know that I have a very deep fondness for the Chinese people. From my experience they love this song, and they love me singing it, and we had just a wonderful, wonderful time together.”
Li Ding, who analyzes Chinese communist propaganda techniques and work reports, felt that he understood Glenn’s position.
“I actually feel a strong sympathy for him. It’s a typical confusion between China and the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “Many innocent Westerners have thus been used to do propaganda for the Party, with their good feelings for the Chinese people and Chinese culture taken advantage of.”
Celine Dion, another Canadian singer, also performed at the Spring Festival. She sang “Jasmine Flowers,” a song praising their beauty, with pop singer Song Zuying, widely thought to be the mistress of former regime leader Jiang Zemin.