Sister AhQing, a smartheroine in modern Peking Opera ShaJia Bang.
By Wu Ziru
For people living in China today, it is hard to imagine "800 million people watching the same eight theatrical works," the scenario of cultural life during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). A new exhibition is reminding people of the past, with a large number of original stills of the works on show, offering a rare chance to look back at history.
The exhibition of Zhang Yaxin's photography presents nearly 300 stills taken of the eight model theatrical works that were commissioned for "entertainment" during the Cultural Revolution. The exhibition is underway at the See+ Gallery in the 798 Artistic District in Beijing and unveils the conditions and stories behind the images that were known to everyone in China at the time.
For those who lived through the 1960s and 1970s in China, the eight model theatrical works were an integral part of their lives. Along with the images, that were omnipresent across the country, the works were the full extent of Chinese people's cultural experiences at the time.
The eight model theatrical works, which included The Red Lantern, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and The Red Detachment of Women, were all produced to reflect Mao Zedong's idea that "literature and arts must serve the broadest masses and first of all, the workers, peasants and soldiers."
Just like the uniform clothing with the same style and color that Chinese people wore during the Cultural Revolution, culture was also streamlined, with few theatrical performances apart from the eight model works available.
A scene from Surprise Attackon White TigerRegiment.
The eight works included five Peking Operas, two ballets and a symphony with a Western-style orchestra. All were created to sing about Mao Zedong and the Communist Party's achievements. Originally set on stage, the eight works were later made into films for wide distribution.
Zhang Yaxin, born in 1933 and then a senior photographer at Xinhua News Agency, was among the few photographers commissioned to take stills of the eight productions. His works were printed and widely used in all aspects of Chinese life.
However, for Zhang himself, the political significance was far beyond the task itself, for the eight works played a dominant role in all Chinese people's lives.
Due to the task's particular political significance, Zhang was given the chance to be one of only three people in China equipped with a Hasselblad camera in the 1960s. The other two were Jiang Qing, the third wife of Mao Zedong and the most influential woman during the Cultural Revolution and Shi Shaohua, director of the photography department at Xinhua News Agency.
With his camera, Zhang traveled back and forth between the different film studios that were shooting the theatrical works for distribution and took hundreds of stills.
A large number of his pictures were widely copied for the people and printed on a variety of items such as posters, stamps, matchboxes, cups, plates and decorative ceramics.
"The eight model theatrical works used all the best facilities in China during that time and almost all of the best directors, musicians and actors, such as Xie Jin, were gathered together to create them," Zhang recalled. "I myself benefi ted a lot from communicating with them."
Color fi lm was so precious a commodity during that time that every photographer at Xinhua was only allocated two or three rolls of color film each year. Zhang was given access to an unlimited supply and could take hundreds of photographs each time he went about his special task, which made others quite jealous of him, Zhang added.
Many of the pictures in the current exhibition of Zhang's work will be easily recognized by people who lived in China during the Cultural Revolution, including images that were printed thousands of times, such as the classic scene from the end of The White- Haired Girl when heroine Xi'er embraces a new world with the sun rising behind her. A picture from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, is the famous scene of Yang Zirong, the main character, finally capturing Zuo Shandiao, the head of the bandits.
"No matter how people criticize the eight model works today, Zhang's pictures are of precious value," commented photography critic Chen Xiaobo.
"At least they make us reflect on what happened during that time," he added.
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