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The Sound of Ghosts : : Ghost Opera, Reformed Drama and the Staging of a New China, 1949-1979


This dissertation is concerned with the reform and preservation of traditional drama, particularly those with supernatural subjects, in the People's Republic of China, largely as seen through intellectual debates of the 1950s and 1960s. I argue that between 1949 and 1963, the maintenance and reform of traditional opera was a key part of the Chinese Communist Party's policies toward cultural production. In contrast to narratives that characterize the socialist period primarily as one of cultural destruction, I assert that classical culture, as viewed through discussions on traditional opera, was treasured, promoted and protected by senior intellectuals. The first chapter follows the early efforts aimed at regulating traditional drama between 1949 and 1952. Specifically, it considers the decision of the Ministry of Culture to ban twenty-six plays and the impact the bans had on traditional repertoire and performances. Chapter two considers the fallout that stemmed from the early bans, as well as Ma Jianling's "ghostless ghost play" and the horrified reactions of intellectuals to his adaptation. The negative reaction of intellectuals forces us to reconsider preconceived notions of how Marxist intellectuals treated traditional culture. Chapter three places the production and reception of Meng Chao's Li Huiniang at its center. The play has generally been understood in the context of the Great Leap Forward; I argue we need to see it in the broader context of debates over ghost opera throughout the socialist period. Chapter four looks at the last open debate on ghost opera in 1963, the year that also saw ghosts banned from Chinese stages entirely. I argue that ghost opera is a barometer for the increasing radicalization of society, but that despite the leftward turn of politics, many people were not necessarily willing participants in the changes that were to sweep the country. Chapter five considers the role of ghost opera and traditional drama in the Cultural Revolution. I discuss two radical drama festivals and show that the cultural sphere was rather reticent to begin incorporating radical changes, until absolutely forced to in 1965. Finally, in the conclusion I briefly discuss the post-1976 story of Meng Chao and Li Huiniang and trace connections to cultural production as it exists today

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