INTO GUERRILLA COUNTRY
34. Women's Day
|WE HAD arrived in Pengcheng
on the eve of International Women's Day and all the streets were filled
with women and girls from the neighboring villages. In honor of these women,
an evening performance of White Haired Woman was staged that night in a
field in the open air.
The night was bitterly cold, yet a crowd of at least two thousand people came to see the play. County officials, workers from the pottery ovens, clerks from the co-operatives, old peasant women in shawls, girls in uniform and young farm girls in simple jackets and pants all crowded in a great semicircle around the improvised stage which was lit by a glaring pressure lamp. There were a few benches on which some lucky early-comers sat, but most reclined on the ground, the children down front, directly in front of the stage, with others standing in the rear on small elevated humps of ground. Here and there in the audience one could see militiamen with rifles, some of them equipped with bayonets which glinted fitfully in the light.
It would be hard to imagine a more democratic gathering. No tickets were sold, there was no dress circle and no preferred seats. The children in the front, directly below the stage, however, had a hard time seeing. Every once in a while they would climb on one another's shoulders to get a better look at the stage. This blocked the view of those behind who set up a critical clatter. Whenever this happened, one of the actors would reach out with a long stick and bang the offending child gently on the head while yelling out in a loud voice, "Children behave yourself." Sometimes the stage lamp went out. Then a stagehand would fetch a stepladder onto the stage and pump vociferously at the lamp for a few moments until the illumination was restored. Afterward, the actors would pick up their lines as if nothing had happened.
Before the performance, a girl in uniform mounted the stage and through a megaphone shouted out to the audience a synopsis of the play - something entirely unnecessary as, even to me, the story was abundantly clear. The girl had a long, thin body, like a stick, straight black hair, a pale, thin face, and she wore horn-rimmed glasses. Ugly of manner, she was belligerent in voice and she reminded me of the standard caricature of a long-haired radical - the only one of such appearance, incidentally, that I saw in 8th Route Army territory.
White Haired Woman was a tragic melodrama, but in certain spots it was deliberately funny. Yet when the audience laughed this girl mounted the stage and shouted through her megaphone: "Don't laugh." I told Mr. Chen I did not approve of this practice, but he could not agree with me. "I think it is necessary for us to improve the people and teach them sympathy for the suffering of others," he said. "Perhaps you have something to learn from the people," I replied. "This play is about their own experiences and they know what is funny better than anyone else. If you don't want them to laugh, you should change the play."
Actually, the play needed little changing. Written co-operatively by
a great number of writers and constantly rewritten on the advice of farmers,
it was by far the best of all the plays that I saw in the Liberated Areas,
and was probably the best known. The trouble with most Communist plays,
to my way of thinking, was not that they were propaganda, which they undoubtedly
were, but that they were too crowded with events, developing none of them
fully, so that most of the dramatic impact was lost. Then, the emphasis
being on events and themes and not on people, all the characters tended
to become cardboard types and not living human beings.
Though melodramatic in the extreme, this play avoided being ludicrous and generated a great amount of excitement, because of the sincerity of the actors and because of a few technical tricks, principally the use of a number of songs. The bitter reality of the play was not lost on the women in the audience many of whom, as I found out, had undergone similar experiences. At several points in the play I saw women, old and young, peasant and intellectual, wiping tears from their eyes with the sleeves of their jackets. One old lady near me wept loudly through nearly the whole play.
| Frankly, I was almost
as much affected by this play (or by the audience's reaction to it) as were
the women. As a matter of fact, the Communists' whole theatrical effort
was extremely impressive. While at Yehtao, during a three-day fair, I saw
as many as five plays going at one and the same time. The stages were makeshift
affairs and the properties the scantiest. Costumes, however, provided no
problem as most all the plays concerned everyday people. The actors and
actresses made up under a small awning in back of the stage, using flour
and axle grease to produce the effects they wanted. Though there were some
professional troupes, run by the army or the party, most were groups organized
by the villages themselves. If a village had a particularly good troupe
it wandered about the county performing on different fair days, without
pay and, only receiving transportation and food for their services. Until
very recently in China, as in Shakespeare's time, all women's parts were
played by men, but in the Communist areas, female leads were generally played
by women. And it was quite a moving thing to see women with bound feet,
who hitherto had not been allowed outside the home, toddling around the
stage and acting out the part of an emancipated female.
The next morning being Women's Day, a festival was held on the town's fairgrounds where fifty or sixty women performed a series of group dances with flowers and gaily colored sticks. The spirit of the dances, though the appearance was far different, was somewhat like our Maypole dances. There was nothing particularly athletic about them, certainly nothing militaristic; they were very simple and for that reason all the more impressive. There was no glorification of the body, no upstanding breasts, no sturdy thigh displays, no ruddy, glowing Womanhood, nor any attempt to glorify a national or a class ideal. The whole affair seemed more like a social gathering than an exhibition of mighty women, such as might have taken place in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.
At the end of the performance, the women in groups of six and seven, each accompanied by a man piping on a flute and another one beating cymbals, came tripping down the streets of the town, dancing the Yangko.
The Yangko was perhaps the most enjoyable thing to be seen in the Liberated Areas. So said all the foreigners who saw these dances and tried to imitate them and so said the youth and maidens themselves as they danced in circles on the strects, and so said even the grown ups who had first frowned on the dance, but later joined in the fun themselves and found them most pleasant! The Yangko was danced without any specific partner, either in a circle or in a kind of conga line which primary-school boys and girls often formed on the street as they came home from school.
Just now, a group of women, from six to sixty, had entered the narrow winding main street. Separating into individual groups, they waited for the music to begin. A one-eyed farmer leaned against the side of a house, raised a flute to his lips and piped a note, then a man with a fiddle joined him, and finally a small boy with a pair of cymbals. At the beat of the music a girl of about ten years looked sideways at her companions with a grave air, suddenly crooked her elbows, swung her arms from her sides, bounded forward like a ball, and launched herself in the dance. She glided forward two steps, her swaying body bent slightly at an angle, and, seeming not to notice the mule cart or the spectators that bad paused to watch, was dashing straight at them, when suddenly, arms akimbo, she stopped short on the toes of one foot, rocked back on her heel then all the way back on the other foot, stood so a second, then gracefully inclining her body to the other side, sprang forward again. Swiftly following in the circuitous wake described by their leader came the other girls, some awkward, some graceful, some swaying on bound feet, some jumping light-footedly on full-sized flowered slippers. Down the whole length of the narrow thoroughfare circles of girls were revolving in the dance. The flute player, now squatting on his haunches beside the girls' twinkling feet, raised his reed toward the sky and piped merrily on, his one good eye fixed in an unwinking stare. When the music ceased, the girls smiled gravely at each other, brushed back loose wisps of hair, then moved further up the street to repeat the same performance all over again.
I have spent perhaps more words than necessary to describe this dance,
because it was symbolic in a way of the nature of the Chinese Revolution.
A dance many centuries old, the Yangko had been suppressed by rural puritanism.
In the same way, Chiang Kai-shek, reviving Confucianism, and Madame Chiang,
instituting a New Life Movement, ordered public dancing in the cities
to be suppressed. In thus forcing arbitrary and entirely unnecessary codes
on their own countrymen, Chiang and his wife became superfluous in the
eyes of many Chinese.