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By Walter J Meserve

Publication by way of Meserve, Walter J

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20 Yu Shizhi 于是之, who had read volumes of Mao’s works in order to act Mao’s brief appearance in this 1951 play, performed the role of Mao again in a 1978 film called A Great River Flows On (大河奔流), in which Mao meets the female protagonist of the film to encourage her efforts in leading the masses to tame the Yellow River, and again as a remote image without close-up shots. Since then more than thirty actors have impersonated Mao in numerous performance pieces until the present day. The chapter focuses on the central theme of “never becoming a Li Zicheng” 李自成 in several performance pieces on Mao, and I argue that theatrical allusions to Li as a peasant uprising leader who had overthrown the Ming dynasty, only to be overthrown himself three months later thanks to his own corruption, worked with the ruling ideology’s strategy in celebrating Mao as a wise leader who had warned his party never to repeat Li’s mistakes, after the CCP seized political power in 1949.

Tian’s brilliant leadership in traditional operatic theater reform ultimately led to the model theater as the perfect proletarian form of literature and art during the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, Tian pioneered theatrical representations of revolutionary leaders and heroines in his plays and films, which expanded on the post-Maoist and postsocialist stage into a thriving genre of plays of revolutionary leaders, thus participating in the rewriting and reconfiguring of socialist history and especially CCP history.

It is still important to offer, in this introduction, a few hints at the legacy of these three theater founders and their tremendous impact on performance culture in twenty-first-century China. At the same time, I hope to offer a brief historical survey of some crucial moments and issues in the history of modern Chinese theater in the Republican period to facilitate a better understanding of where the plays about revolutionary leaders in contemporary China (1949–present) come from and what has been transformed in the latter from their impressive predecessors.

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