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Holding up half the sky: revisiting "woman" messages in Model Plays during China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Zhou, Yuan

Abstract

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of China (the Cultural Revolution)from 1966 to 1976 is considered an unprecedented political and social upheaval in Chinese modern history. Model Plays were produced as the core of the Cultural Revolutionary propaganda in an effort to promote a new discourse of political and cultural ideology of and for the worker-farmer-soldier class. As images of heroic proletarian revolutionary women were expansively represented onstage, conventional gender norms and boundaries were challenged. This paper assesses the "woman" messages carried by Model Plays and the vision of Chinese women's liberation they depicted on the Cultural Revolutionary theatric stage. By analyzing images of Model woman characters in Model Plays, the author argues that these model plays and operas offer an idealized vision of Chinese women's emancipation and to certain extent serve as an empowering influence on women's social practice in real life during the Cultural Revolution; on the other hand, however, they reveal a central tension in the Chinese revolutionary discourse with respect to gender: women could be re-conceived as heroes, public actors fighting fearlessly for collective goals, yet these women heroes seemly could only take form in the absence of private ties: family bonds, marriage, and motherhood. So while there is something "new" and, perhaps, even liberating in these newly imagined women characters, the form they take falls short of truly reconfiguring gender relations in Chinese society.

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