Those who survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution will not forget its horrors. It was a time when religion was labeled "superstition," intellectuals were branded "class enemies," and the underlying principles of China's 5,000 years of culture were destroyed.
Chinese dance, with its fluid movements and foundation in traditional beliefs, would soon be swept into a wave that would tear away its roots and establish it as a tool of the revolution. (Click HERE to learn about how Shen Yun Performing Arts are restoring these lost traditions and values.)
"Since the beginning of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has consistently claimed that the performing arts 'should assist in the process of educating the masses,'" writes Ellen Gerdes in an article in Asian Theatre Journal, citing leading China specialist Colin Mackerras.
On May 16, 1966, the first leader of the CCP, Chairman Mao Zedong, began the Cultural Revolution. The movement of killing “class enemies” and the destruction of traditional culture would last until Mao’s death on Sept. 9, 1976. It is estimated that the Cultural Revolution caused the deaths of up to 8 million people in just 10 years, according to the Global Service Center for Quitting the CCP.
Shortly after the Cultural Revolution began, Mao appointed his third wife, Jiang Qing, as the deputy director of the Central Cultural Revolution Group, and she would gain control over the CCP’s destruction and re-establishment of culture and performing arts.
When she still lived in China, San Francisco-based dance teacher Lily Cai was among those whose traditional dance practice was stopped when Mao’s wife took charge. Her story was outlined in a report from the Music Center of Los Angeles County.
Mao’s wife, referred to as “Madame Mao,” allowed only five “revolutionary stories to be danced,” and Cai was a principal dancer of one of these at the Shanghai Opera House. Mao’s wife, “controlled the style, themes and expression of art so that it was geared toward a revolutionary and military intent,” states the report.
“Lily Cai remembers that everyone on the street was fighting and students dropped out of school to promote the writings of Mao Tse-tung,” states the report. “At this time, all the people learned a Revolutionary Dance” that required “no technique.”
Co-Opting and Destroying Yangge Dance
Ellen Gerdes explored yangge dance, a specific form of Chinese folk dance with origins in agricultural ceremonies. It is believed to originate from the Song Dynasty (959–1278 CE). She says yangge dance "is particularly linked to the CCP’s policies during both the party’s establishment and the Cultural Revolution."
Yangge dance caught the CCP's eye, as its foundation as a farming dance tied it closely to the emerging regime's goal of rallying the lower class to revolt against the upper class.
"Because peasants throughout China practiced yangge as a collective dance … it was an important target for the CCP, which sought to unify the lower classes for one cause," states Gerdes.
In order to establish a new culture based in communism and atheism—to this day the Chinese regime remains officially atheist—the CCP destroyed China's traditional values and beliefs during the Cultural Revolution. The performing arts played an important role in this, and was "an important factor in the CCP’s victory," according to Gerdes, referencing Mackerras.
"The leaders of the CCP co-opted the processional manner and the symbolism embedded in these movements in order to create a dance of ordinary people who followed leadership," she wrote.
By 1943, the CCP was leveraging and promoting the use of folk song and dance. Its "New Yangge Movement" was also spread to areas still governed by the Kuomintang. "This yangge was not of traditional form, but rather a new form that developed in movement, theme, and popularity based on its utilization by the CCP," Gerdes wrote.
It was dubbed "Yan’an yangge," or "revolutionary yangge" and differed from the traditional dance form both in "theme and movement," according to Gerdes, adding "[it] was created by the CCP as it altered old yangge to meet the cultural policy of the government."
Next: CCP's use of yangge…