Ghost Plays, Socialist Modernity, and Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century China

Ghost and goblins, spirits and specters … such supernatural beings manifest in stories told around the world, including many classics of the Chinese stage. Yet these spooky tales presented a problem for twentieth-century reformers, who struggled to reconcile their condemnation of “superstition” with the fact that some of the country’s best-known artistic works included superstitious elements. “How,” asks historian Maggie Greene (Montana State University), “does a system update potentially problematic, yet culturally important, forms for a new political context?” Greene considers this question in her new book, Resisting Spirits: Drama Reform and Cultural Transformation in the People’s Republic of China (University of Michigan Press, 2019), which examines the many experiments in cultural production carried out in Mao Zedong’s China. Focusing her inquiry on ghost operas (guixi), Greene demonstrates that these otherworldly dramas were not, as we might have expected, immediately condemned as feudal and superstitious by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) upon its rise to national power in 1949. Instead, writers and artists sought to negotiate a path that preserved the best of China’s traditional works while also attempting to reshape them in accordance with the CCP’s vision for a cultural and political socialist modernity. In the excerpt below, Greene provides a short history of ghost operas and their place in Chinese literature, as well as the problems they presented to reformers, beginning in the late nineteenth century.


“Stories of the strange,” anomaly accounts, and all manner of ghosts, gods, and spirits have long been important parts of the Chinese literary canon. From folk stories to highly literary compendia, from plays to novels to film, they appear in many forms and in many periods. One of the most important forms of strange tales is the ghost opera (guixi), which constitutes a number of important works in many operatic forms and was a beloved genre for literati and popular audiences alike. In using the term “ghost opera,” I hew to how the phrase was deployed throughout much of the high socialist period, defined as “the time between agricultural collectivization and nationalization of industry in the mid-1950s through the end of the 1970s,” although my study begins in the early 1950s. Between 1949 and 1966, the general idea of what a guixi was remained relatively static. While not all plays involving ghosts were labeled as “ghost plays,” all ghost plays shared some common features. Most notably, they were always discussed in the context of “traditional Chinese opera” (chuantong xiju) and nearly always associated closely with historical (pre-twentieth century) settings. In 1961, the writer Liao Mosha remarked that “people say, ‘Without coincidences there would be no stories’ [wuqiao bucheng shu], as it happens … ‘without ghosts there would be no plays’ [wugui bucheng xi].” Liao’s rhetorical overstatement notwithstanding, his point that ghosts formed a very important part of the canon is key. Ghost stories litter the Chinese literary landscape, and even in the Maoist era, they were still important—and still potentially dangerous, particularly in a period that emphasized overcoming China’s “backwardness” through scientific, rational thinking. Audiences, artists, and writers were able to connect to a literary tradition stretching back centuries by viewing, performing, and writing such dramas, but there were serious questions about their suitability for a new, socialist China.

Concern over China’s potentially “backwards” culture, which included popular literature, and the impact such culture had on the masses, was a key component of intellectual and political discussion from the late nineteenth century onwards. In 1902, the reformer Liang Qichao fretted about the negative effects of Chinese literary traditions, claiming that a whole range of “superstitious practices,” ranging from geomancy to “praying to spirits,” all found their roots in fiction. Chen Duxiu, cofounder of the CCP, insisted fifteen years later that political reform could only come with the reform of literature, which in his view consisted of little more than “kings and officials, ghosts and spirits, of the fortunes and misfortunes of a single individual.” That is, in his telling, the literary canon was made up of individualistic, superstitious, or elitist tales, and precious little that spoke to the common person. More practical antisuperstition campaigns aimed at religious institutions were a feature from the Republican era (1911-49) onwards. As Rebecca Nedostup has explored, reformulating ideas about “religion,” including the creation of the category of “superstition” (mixin), was an important part of the “construction of Nationalist modernity and political power” during the Nanjing Decade (1927-37). By the socialist period, supernatural tales presented a particularly difficult conundrum for cultural and political leaders. These works were not just popular among the masses, but celebrated by the artistic and intellectual elite. The “strange tales” of Pu Songling and The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting) of Tang Xianzu, among a host of other works, were considered by many to represent some of the very finest achievements of pre-twentieth-century literary production. The question of what to do with this heritage—great cultural treasures on the one hand, but perhaps propagating “superstition” and “backwardness” on the other—would be of utmost importance to writers and artists even after 1949.

In 1963, theatrical ghosts would be banned entirely from Chinese stages for “spreading feudal and superstitious thought among the masses,” one of the earliest indications of the increasing radicalization of the cultural world. Between 1949 and 1963, theatrical ghosts had been bound up in larger questions regarding theatre reform and the scope of socialist culture. Naturally, cultural workers pondered how to incorporate beloved popular stories whose pasts were often questionable from a strictly socialist viewpoint. Ghosts could be read in many ways: as teaching tools, as representations of feudal superstitions, as encouraging fatalism. But until the total ban on ghost opera in 1963, a balance was maintained between two opposing viewpoints. Many cultural workers argued for the inclusion of even potentially problematic forms, such as ghost opera, on their didactic merits: theatrical ghosts were presented in ways that underscored their bravery and righteousness, and their ability to teach people how to resist great evil. However, an opposite line lumped ghostly literature in with other “superstitious” practices that the CCP was dedicated to stamping out. In this view, ghosts represented real-world forces that were frightening, and thus needed to be resisted. When this tension came to the fore in 1963, the critique of ghostly literature became the harbinger of increasingly vitriolic attacks on veteran cultural workers such as [writer] Meng Chao, which ultimately culminated in the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

According to policy and theory that emphasized “modern” artistic forms and themes, scientific and rational thinking, and the stamping out of superstition among the masses, the hostility displayed toward writers of ghost drama and their defenders in the mid-1960s seems unsurprising. But many artists, writers, and critics proved resistant to pruning the classical canon, particularly supernatural subjects. The CCP assigned the task of rectifying Chinese culture to “cultural workers” (wenyi gongzuozhe), a term for all artists involved in producing art and literature for the state, precisely in those fields that Mao asserted to be key components of revolutionary struggle. Who was—and was not—considered a cultural worker varied throughout time, and one person’s status could shift over the course of a lifetime. Cultural workers were bound to the state through institutions such as writers’ unions intended to focus the creative energies of their generation on the project of continuing revolution. Yet cultural workers, critics, and bureaucrats hotly debated traditional subjects in ongoing discussions that far predated 1949. Were such subjects suitable for a socialist society? What did they offer audiences and artists? Could the cultural world be remade without destroying treasures of the imperial past, even the problematic ones? What constituted the important parts of the literary canon? To what extent could a play with hundreds of years of history be changed to suit contemporary needs?

Despite the seeming paradox of imperial concubines and spirits on socialist stages, many cultural and political elites enthusiastically supported these popular parts of the literary canon for both their artistic and didactic qualities. Ghost characters, for instance, were often described as imparting a “resisting spirit” (fankang de jingshen) to audiences, while the special techniques, such as the “ghost step” (guibu) that actors deploy to make it appear as though they are gliding, were praised for their artistic value. Yet such support did not go uncontested, and anxiety often underpins many of the discussions on both sides. By the Cultural Revolution, many cultural workers, including Meng Chao, would be branded niuguisheshen, or “ox ghost-snake spirits,” an old Buddhist phrase that came to mean bad elements par excellence. Far from being a minor artistic or ideological row, many of the cultural and political tensions of the first decade and a half of Communist rule can be seen in the debates, products, and fates of artists, writers, and supernatural literature itself.

Copyright (c)2019 by Maggie Greene.

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