The so-called eight model plays were officially formed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). They were the only plays performed at that time. Materials were from the communist activities or related subjects. Actually the then staged modern plays were not just limited to eight. They are the "The Legend of Red Lantern", "Sha Jia Bang", "The Harbor", "Takeover of Wei-Hu Mountain", "Hymn of Dragon River", "Battle on the Plain", "The Du-Juan Mountain", "Sweeping the White Tiger Regiment", "Pan-Shi-Wan" and "Red Woman Detachment". The model plays were then " translated" into other local operas. Usually that means adopting the playscripts as they were and changing the music accordingly.
Modern plays can be understood as a trial of reform to this grand old art. Traditional plays feature the stories of ancient or pre-modern Chinese history. There are certain forms for the costumes, the character face paintings, stage properties, musical melodies and stage actions. But most of these are not appliable to the modern plays. For example, modern weapons, such as pistols and rifles, are used on the stage in stead of pears and swords. Therefore new performaning forms were developed. The most famous change in the modern plays is the use of a huge orchestra including violins, piano etc instead of the usually small musical group, producing the most beautiful sounding effect. Stage setting was also enriched. Painted or light projected scenes were adopted. Costumes were different from the traditional plays. There were hardly any makeup applied. Therefore there was no face painted in the plays even some of the roles were still classified as fainted faces.
Model plays did not come in a sudden. Modern plays in Beijing Opera appeared probably as soon as the founding of the People's Republic. There were other modern plays before the model ones. Actually the model plays were just performance enhanced versions of the already-there ones. For example, "Sha-Jia-Bang" was originally called "The Sparks in the Reed Marshes", which was an adoption from a play in Shanghai Opera. There were other modern plays such as "Dai-Nuo", a story of a young minority doctor, "Jian-Gan River", a story of a Beijing suburb village with a sense of class struggle, "The Sixth Gate", an account of Tianjin rail workers' struggle in the "old society", "Jie Zhen Guo", a story on Tangshan coal mine workers during the anti-japanese war, and "The white haired girl". They were also great successes but not that famous than the model plays and gave ways when the model plays were on stage. All model plays were shot in color films. There was a period in the mid-70's when one month in each summer was assigned the month of modeal play film season. The model play films were shown in cinema, closed or open field, day and night.
After the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was gradually a de facto ban on the showing of some model plays. Class struggle was becoming out of time. Years later some of the play segments instead of the whole plays were occasionally performed. Arias from the model plays could be heared some time on the radio broadcast. A compile of original model play sections was aired for the first time after the Cultural Revolution on a national televion network to mark the 40th annuverary of the end of World War II. But political issues still influenced the performing of some model players who had had close relationships with the Gang of Four during Cultural Revolution. They had been baned from public performing and appearance for years. Even the parts of the sound track of the films were banned from airing. As a way of the efforts to rescue Beijing Opera in recent years, the model plays were touched again by some Beijing Opera performing troupes. Tianjin Opera Troupe made a tour to Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong with some modern plays including the "Takeover of Wei-Hu Mountain". A modified version (actually the version before it became the model one) of "The Legend of Red Lantern" was shown on the CCTV with almost all of the original actors and actresses, who performed the one which was filmed and labeled the model play.
First edition: November 8, 1995
Last revision: September 30, 1996
Copyright 1995-1996 by Xu-Ming Wang