Performing the Revolution: Socialist Realism and Its Heterogeneity in the Model Performances


Ruicai Kong

PhD defended at: 

University of Auckland



This study investigates heterogeneity in the representation of the theme of revolution in the model performances (样板戏) within the aesthetic framework of Socialist Realism. This thesis argues that understanding the theme of revolution in the model performances should be, first and foremost, mediated by Socialist Realism, which involves heterogeneous discourses that contaminate the purity of ideology. Through a rigorous critique of Socialist Realism, this study offers an aesthetic approach to the socialist culture of the Maoist era.

Four grand aesthetic trajectories of Socialist Realism are explored with regard to the representation of revolution: a) the representation of reality in the modern Peking opera Shajiabang, b) the trope of light in the Peking opera The Red Lantern, c) temporality, or the representation of ―the present‖ in the Peking opera Song of the Dragon River and d) optimism, and the visuality of the female body in the socialist ballets The White-haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women.

These heterogeneous discourses are shown to be closely conflated with the essential tenets of Socialist Realism, and as such to eventually contaminate and transform them. They manifest themselves in various ways, ranging from jianghu ambience in Shajiabang, a Confucian mode of affection in The Red Lantern, the temporality of the past in Song of the Dragon River, to uncanny visuality in the two socialist ballets. Since the theme of revolution in all these works is mediated by the aesthetic of Socialist Realism, the ideology of revolution is thus diluted and subject to other, heterogeneous, aesthetic doctrines. The theme of revolution represented in the model performances appears plural, unstable, and, more importantly, impure. This examination of Socialist
Realism and its heterogeneity, as manifested in the model performances, sheds new light on the complexity and ambiguity of Maoist culture and furthers our reflection on its revolutionary legacy.

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