China’s Communist Party Turns 100. Cue the (State-Approved) Music.
Yan Shengmin, a Chinese tenor, is known for bouncy renditions of Broadway tunes and soulful performances in operas like “Carmen.”
But lately, Mr. Yan has been focusing on a different genre. He is a star of “Red Boat,” a patriotic opera written to celebrate the 100th anniversary this week of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Yan has embraced the role, immersing himself in party history and binge-watching television shows about revolutionary heroes to prepare.
“I feel a lot of pressure,” Mr. Yan said in an interview between rehearsals. “The 100th anniversary is a big occasion.”
A wave of nationalistic music, theater and dance is sweeping China as the Communist Party works to ensure its centennial is met with pomp and fanfare.
Prominent choreographers are staging ballets about revolutionary martyrs. Theaters are reviving nationalistic plays about class struggle. Hip-hop artists are writing songs about the party’s achievements. Orchestras are performing works honoring communist milestones like the Long March, with chorus members dressed in light-blue military uniforms.
The celebrations are part of efforts by Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader, to make the party omnipresent in people’s lives and to strengthen political loyalty among artists.
Mr. Xi, who has presided over a broad crackdown on free expression in China since rising to power nearly a decade ago, has said artists should serve the cause of socialism rather than become “slaves” of the market.
In honor of the party’s centennial, Mr. Xi’s government has announced plans for performances of 300 operas, ballets, plays, musical compositions and other works. The list includes classics like “The White-Haired Girl,” a Mao-era opera about a young peasant woman whose family is persecuted by a cruel landlord. There are also new productions like “Red Boat,” which chronicles the party’s first congress in 1921 on a boat outside Shanghai.
The outpouring of artistic expression comes amid rising nationalism in China. Many artists have little choice but to comply with the government’s demands for more patriotic art, with officials in China’s top-down system wielding considerable influence over decisions about financing and programming.
“It has become very important for artists to follow the political line,” said Jindong Cai, director of the U.S.-China Music Institute at Bard College. “The government wants artists to focus on Chinese works that relate to people’s lives and positively reflect China’s image.”
Critics have denounced the so-called “red” works as propaganda. But Chinese artists say that is partly the point.
“China is very strong now and people should respect that,” said Warren Mok, a Chinese tenor who is embarking on a national tour to celebrate the centennial.
Mr. Mok said he hoped to use music to remind people about the party’s success in improving living standards in China. Still, he said it was important that patriotic works are balanced with Western music and other art forms.
“Anything you do should not be too extreme,” he said. “If you’re so insecure about your own culture, your own nationalism, you close your door. Isolation is not good for any country.”
Hundreds of performances related to the party’s centennial have already taken place, and scores more are expected by year’s end.
In Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai, the choreographer Wang Yabin recently staged “My Name is Ding Xiang,” a new ballet about a 22-year-old martyr who died during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In Nanjing, an eastern city, an orchestra recently performed “Liberation: 1949,” a symphony about the Communist revolution by the composer Zhao Jiping.
Some works deal with contemporary themes, including the party’s efforts to eliminate extreme poverty and its success in fighting the coronavirus, which Mr. Xi has held up as evidence of the superiority of China’s authoritarian model. A play called “People First” depicts the heroism of medical workers in Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged in late 2019.
Propaganda art has a long history in China, and some of the country’s most celebrated works emerged during periods of intense political control, including the decade of bloody upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s known as the Cultural Revolution. During that time, classical music was attacked as decadent and bourgeois, and many Western composers and instruments were banned.
In modern China, music and dance from the Cultural Revolution still resonates with the public, including works such as the “Yellow River Piano Concerto” and “The Red Detachment of Women,” a revolutionary ballet.
“These cultural products have their own artistic value,” said Denise Ho, assistant professor of history at Yale University who studies 20th century history in China. “For many Chinese, there is a nostalgia for certain aspects of the Mao era.”
By reviving older works, Mr. Xi appears eager to remind the public of the party’s glory days. His government has redoubled efforts to fortify ideological loyalty among artists. This year, a government-backed industry association released a moral code for performing artists — dancers, musicians and acrobats included — calling on them to be faithful to the party and help advance the socialist cause.
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Mr. Xi, in a ceremony this week at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, handed out centennial medals to 29 party cadres, including Lan Tianye, an actor often described as a “red artist,” and Lu Qiming, a patriotic composer known for the piece “Ode to the Red Flag.”
“For Xi, as for Mao, art is first and foremost a political instrument,” Professor Ho said.
The Chinese government has tried to use music, dance, television and movies in recent years to improve its image, especially among young people, many of whom have no direct connection to the Communist revolution of 1949.
A rap song celebrating the centennial, titled “100 Percent,” has been widely shared on the Chinese internet in recent days. But the 15-minute track, featuring 100 artists, has been mocked for its wooden propaganda slogans.
“Our spaceships are flying in the sky,” says one lyric. “The new China must get lit.”
Performers say they hope the high caliber of the centennial productions, including elaborate costumes, sets and visual effects, will appeal to younger audiences.
Wang Jiajun, 36, a principal dancer at Shanghai Dance Theater who plays a martyr in a revival of the dance production “The Eternal Wave,” said young people could identify with the work.
“These heroes were only in their teens, 20s or 30s when they lost their lives,” Mr. Wang said. “The stories of young people will attract young people.”
For artists taking part in the centenary, the effort has at times been laborious.
Xie Menghao, a Chinese-born graduate student in music composition in Germany, spent six months repurposing a suite of Red Army songs into a piano concerto about the Long March, a 6,000-mile retreat of Communist forces that began in 1934 and established Mao’s pre-eminence. He said he was proud of the piece, which the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra premiered last month, but added that the experience was “more like a job.”
“I just did what they said,” he said in an interview. “Every composer just thinks about the music.”
Mr. Yan the tenor starring in “Red Boat,” said he has found it easy to connect with his character, Chen Duxiu, a founder of the party. But he said rehearsals have not always been easy. Younger performers, for instance, have needed help better understanding the emotional experience of being part of the early communist struggle, he said.
“They don’t have the ideas to fight or sacrifice for the nation’s destiny,” Mr. Yan, 56, said. “I can do it in one take.”
Mr. Yan said he was confident that the show would have success in China and perhaps beyond.
“We’re depicting history, not just lecturing how great the Communist Party is,” he said. “This isn’t a communist slogan-type performance. It’s plain storytelling.”
Javier C. Hernández reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Joy Dong from Hong Kong.