Two stage sisters
The blossoming of a
revolutionary aesthetic

by Gina Marchetti

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 95-106
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

On the eve of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in 1964, Xie Jin brought to the screen a story about the changing lives of women in 20th century China set against the backdrop of the Shaoxing opera world. Although rooted in the intimate story of two actresses and the vicissitudes of their relationship, Xie gave the film, TWO STAGE SISTERS, an epic scope by showing these women's lives buffeted by tremendous social and political upheavals.[1][open notes in new window] The film covers the years from 1935-1950, the expanses of the Zhejiang countryside as well as Shanghai tinder Japanese and Guomindang (KMT) rule.

Chunhua (Xie Fang), a young widow about to be sold by her inlaws, escapes and becomes an apprentice in a traveling Shaoxing folk opera troupe. Yuehong (Cao Yindi), who plays the male roles in the all-female opera company, befriends Chunhua. After the death of Yuehong's father, Chunhua and Yuehong find themselves sold to a Shanghai opera theatre to replace the fading star, Shang Shuihua (Shangguan Yunzhu). Eventually, Yuehong falls in love with their manipulative stage manager, Tang (Li Wei), and the sisters quarrel and separate.

Inspired by the radical woman journalist, Jiang Bo (Gao Yuan-sheng), Chunhua continues her career, giving a political flavor to her performances. After an attempt to blind and ruin Chunhua by using Yuchong's testimony to trick her in court, Tang goes off to Taiwan to escape the revolution. Although unable to harm her stage sister in court, Yuehong, ashamed and abandoned by Tang, disappears into the countryside. After Shanghai's liberation by the Communists, however, Chunhua manages to track down Yuehong and the two reconcile.

TWO STAGE SISTERS uses the theatrical world of Shaoxing as a metaphor for political and social change. Also, the film represents a search for a Chinese cinema aesthetic based on these traditions as well as on Hollywood and socialist realist forms. This analysis will explore the intermingling of these aesthetic currents and the ways in which art and politics intertwine in TWO STAGE SISTERS. By placing the film within the context of the political and cultural movements which create it, the drama of the development of Chinese cinema aesthetics since 1949 can be understood more clearly.

TWO STAGE SISTERS' place within Xie Jin's career

Xie Jin's own background made him particularly well-qualified to direct this tale of Shaoxing opera and Shanghai's theatrical world. Xie was born in Shaoxing (Zhejiang Province) in 1923, but, at the age of 8, he and his family moved to Shanghai. From an early age, Xie Jin was fascinated by the theatre and cinema. While growing up in Shanghai in the 1930s, he had the opportunity to see the work of directors like Cai Chuseng, Sun Yu and Yuan Muzhi — the cream of Shanghai film's "golden era." Also, he began a life-long enthusiasm for the Shaoxing opera of the region.

During the Japanese Occupation, Xie moved to Sichuan province in the interior and studied theatre at the Jiangen Drama Academy. There, he worked with noted theatrical personalities like Huang Zuoling and Zhang Junxiang. In Shanghai and Sichuan, Xie encountered both Chinese folk traditions and Western dramatic and cinematographic forms, and this blending of these two traditions came to characterize his mature work.

When Zhang Junxiang accepted work at the Datong film studio in Shanghai in 1948, Xie went along as his assistant director. After 1949, Xie Jin continued on in Shanghai, co-directing A WAVE ON UNREST with Lin Nong in 1954. His first solo effort was SPRING DAYS IN WATER VILLAGE in 1955. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Xie's style matured in an aesthetic crucible, which ground together Hollywood classicism, Soviet socialist realism, Shanghai dramatic traditions and indigenous folk opera forms.

Many of Xies films focus on the lives of women workers, artists or students. WOMAN BASKETBALL PLAYER #5 (1957) explores the problems that a young female athlete faces in coming to grips with her ambitions in the field of sports. THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (1961) deals with the heroism of women who go from peasant life to guerrilla warfare in the 1930s. TWO STAGE SISTERS, of course, explores the lives of women working on the Chinese stage. In all these films, women's lives represent both hardship and oppression as well as the potential for revolutionary change. In fact, throughout most of his career, Xie has been at the forefront of the exploration of different representations of women within socialist cinema.

With the condemnation of Xie's comedy BIG LI, LITTLE LI AND OLD LI (1962) and TWO STAGE SISTERS (1964), followed by the complete shutdown of the Shanghai studios, Xic Jin's output dwindled to next to nothing during the GPCR. During that period, however, Xie did work on two films based on model operas — THE PORT (1972) and PANSHIWAN (1975).[2] Since 1976, Xie has made several films including YOUTH (1977), AH, CRADLE (1980), THE LEGEND OF TIANYUN MOUNTAIN (1980), THE HERDSMAN (1982), QUI UN (1983), and GARLANDS AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN (1984).[3]

All of these films made after the Cultural Revolution show a marked change in Xie's oeuvre. Diverging from his earlier films, which tend to deal with and support socialist revolution, the later works seem to be more nationalistic than revolutionary in character and are occasionally critical of past party policies. Recently, Xie has completed a film adaptation of the novel, A Small Town Called Hybiscus, which deals with life during the Cultural Revolution in the countryside.

The theatrical world of TWO STAGE SISTERS

TWO STAGE SISTERS is one of the few films made in the PRC to be based on an original screenplay rather than a script adapted from a well-known literary or dramatic work. However, the film still remains deeply indebted to the literary and theatrical world of modern China. In fact, the entire film revolves around the theatre and uses the stage to underscore the changes in its protagonists' lives as well as the dramatic political changes which occurred between 1935 and 1950.

The first third of TWO STAGE SISTERS deals with the itinerant opera theatre of Zhejiang Province. Shaoxing opera differs considerably from the Beijing style opera better known in the West. Although Beijing opera has set a certain standard of performance which has influenced regional styles considerably, other non-Mandarin language opera styles have always existed and continue to flourish in most regions of China. According to Cohn MacKerras' account of Chinese opera in The Chinese Theatre in Modern Times: From 1840 to the Present Day, Shaoxing opera originated in the later days of the Qing dynasty and is, therefore, a rather recent addition to the history of Chinese regional theatre.[4] Arising out of folk music traditions in the countryside, Shaoxing eventually became popular in urban areas, where it began to be performed in permanent theatres as well as tea houses and open-air market pavilions.

The prevalence of all female troupes makes Shaoxing stand out among other Chinese regional opera forms. Records show that in 1923 an all-female company performed in Shanghai. Eventually, schools were started in the countryside for actresses, and many troupes either added women to their companies or performed with exclusively female casts.

Because of its elegant costumes, complex gestures and often intricate plot lines, many may be under the mistaken impression that Chinese opera is an art form exclusively for aristocrats, intellectuals and the wealthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although performed at court and patronized by powerful landlords and businessmen, Chinese opera has always remained, far more importantly, a folk form enjoyed by a broad range of people in Chinese society.

In fact, the opening sequence of TWO STAGE SISTERS delineates the differences between the glittering fantasy of the stage performance and the poverty of both the players and their audience. Performed in marketplaces and financed by the passing of a hat, opera could be listened to and enjoyed by everyone regardless of social station or gender. The volume and exaggerated articulation of the singing, the use of stylized gestures in pantomimes, and the elaborate costumes attracted the attention of passers-by, who may have had no intention of watching the opera to begin with, but who were drawn in by the commotion.

If nothing else, Chinese opera is loud and its extensive use of percussion instruments like the pan (clapper) not only emphasizes important actions for dramatic effect, but also reminds an audience preoccupied with gambling, bartering, snoozing or chitchat that something important is happening on stage. Thus, as Chunhua's escape from her in-laws causes a tremendous ruckus in an already cacophonous marketplace, Yuehong, playing the young gentleman, and Xiao Xing, another actress playing a comic servant as indicated by the white band of makeup across her nose, barely bat an eye and continue singing.

Although many urban intellectuals were attracted to and wrote for the opera stage and although a select few opera performers like the noted female impersonator of Beijing opera, Mei Lanfang, achieved super-stardom, most opera singers and musicians were of peasant stock and as poor as their audiences. Most of these itinerant performers — like the theatre artists of the Elizabethan stage — were treated like thieves and prostitutes and considered the lowest rung of society. Despite this stigma, however, desperate women trying to escape the harshness of the feudal peasant family, or the impossibility of life in an overpopulated countryside bled dry by greedy landlords, continuously fueled the Shaoxing opera ranks.

In many ways, the life story of the Shaoxing actress Fan Ruijuan parallels that of the fictitious Chunhua in TWO STAGE SISTERS. Fan's account of her life on the Shaoxing stage reflects the same sense of desperation and determination evident in the film. As Fan Ruijuan states in her memoir, An Actress' Life in Old China, hers was not an uncommon life:

"I was only 11 when I joined a Shaoxing opera theater in 1935. At that time, more than 20,000 of the 400,000 people living in Chengxian County, my native place in Zhejiang Province and the birthplace of Shaoxing Opera, had left their homes to become opera singers. Life was hard. My family was living on bran cakes, sweet potatoes and clover, which were all that we could afford on father's meager income as an odd job man. To me, opera singing seemed to be the only alternative to the miserable life of the child bride."[5]

Ironically, for Fan, as well as for Chunhua in TWO STAGE SISTERS, joining Shaoxing meant jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Early opera training for these young girls consisted of beatings, starvation, humiliation and long hours of hard labor. Virtually enslaved to the troupe's manager, opera performers often worked for room and board alone in order to pay for their training. Underfed and often lice ridden or tubercular, they were forced to travel miles on foot through winter snowstorms and still perform flawlessly the moment the troupe arrived at its destination.

Aside from being indentured to a theatrical manager, opera performers were also looked upon as sexually available to customers. Throughout the history of Chinese opera, stories abound about young boys taken into opera companies to play female roles and act as homosexual prostitutes. Traveling female performers also often served as prostitutes. When the opera troupe in TWO STAGE SISTERS performs an all night stint, expectations extend beyond the mere singing of opera tunes. Lord Ni, a wealthy landowner, hopes to enjoy more than an evening of opera from Yuehong and Chunhua as an unspoken part of his agreement.

This incident not only underscores opera performers lack of power over their lives, but it also brings out the ironic contrast between the fantasies performed on stage and the actual lives of the Shaoxing actresses. Yuehong as the young gentleman scholar and Chunhua as the innocent ingenue sing operas about romantic love. Yet such romance was something completely beyond the expectations of young women born into a brutally patriarchal society of arranged marriages, child brides, concubinage, prostitution and child slavery.

Many operas feature dynamic female generals, swordswomen, and female fairy spirits with martial talents supported by a will to exercise them. In contrast, the lives of the actresses in Shaoxing only testify to the powerlessness of women in the Chinese countryside. In one scene, for instance, the local policeman sent by Lord Ni, after Yuehong refused the lord's advances, drags off and pillories Chunhua, still wearing the opera clothing associated with a female warrior role. Chunhua resists, but to no avail. Romance and martial victory for women on stage contrast sharply with oppression, humiliation and total impotence off stage.

The theatrical world Yuehong and Chunhua enter in the Shanghai of 1941 is, in many ways, as harsh and demanding as the one left behind in the countryside. However, they also enter an urban environment very different from rural life. Shanghai was a thriving port filled with Western concessions not allowed in other parts of China during the late Qing period. It had a reputation as a wide-open port and city of intrigue. It had always been a center of progressive ideas and innovative theatrical forms, as well as its seamy side of money, power, poverty and corruption. Notorious for harboring revolutionists, the Shanghai theatre district was home to many actors-turned-activitists from the time of the toppling of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

When a demonstration in Beijing on May 4, 1919, led to China's refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which favored Japanese interests in Asia, the Shanghai intellectual scene also helped to usher in a new movement begun with this demonstration and called the May Fourth or New Cultural Movement. Trying to bring China into the modern world, artists, politicians, literary and theatrical figures, young scholars and students in all disciplines looked to both the West and a new sense of Chinese nationalism for inspiration.

Although many artists involved with the New Cultural Movement tried to survive in Shanghai under the Japanese Occupation, most — particularly the most politically radical — fled either to the Communist Party strongholds around Yenan or to the KMT controlled areas in the south. Traditional opera and the world of light entertainment, however, managed business as usual under the Japanese.

After World War II, Shanghai once again fell under the control of the KMT. In TWO STAGE SISTERS, the bitter political struggles which ensued between the Communists and the KMT are metaphorically represented by the turmoil within the theatrical world. Jiang Bo, who represents the spirit of May Fourth and its hope for the emancipation of women, and Chunhua go to battle with the KMT-backed Tang over their right to produce socially conscious operas and compete with Tang's own theatrical interests.

In 1946, Jiang Bo takes Chunhua to a memorial exhibition commemorating the tenth anniversary of the death of Lu Xun. A principal motive force behind the New Cultural Movement, Lu Xun stands as a symbol of the interconnection between revolutionary politics and the arts. Born in Shaoxing, Lu Xun was associated throughout his life with the literary and theatrical world of Shanghai and Zhejiang Province. Always a champion of the rights of women, Lu Xun wrote essays on Ibsen's A Doll's House, against enforced chastity for women and the sexual double standard, as well as several essays commemorating the deaths of young female student activists.

Lu Xun also dealt with poverty and women's issues in his fiction. His novella, The New Year's Sacrifice, for example, deals with the plight of a poor widow in China, known simply as "Xiang Lin's Wife." When Chunhua sees an etching of this character from "The New Year's Sacrifice," a superimposition of her face with the print shows Chunhua's identification with Lu Xun's creation.

On stage, in an opera based on the novella, Chunhua appears as the doomed peasant widow — singing an aria in torn rags with whitened hair. This brief excerpt from the story acts as a shorthand reference to the quantum changes going on within Chinese theatre and, by extension, Chinese society. Western influences have been absorbed and come full circle, so that the plight of a downtrodden peasant widow can become fit subject matter for an art form which had entertained the imperial courts and the landed gentry. The opera world had changed significantly.

At this point, the on-stage world of TWO STAGE SISTERS parallels rather than contrasts with the back-stage drama of the film. Instead of a world of light comedy and romance, The New Year's Sacrifice points to the possibility of a socially and politically committed theatre. This theatre takes the plight of the average woman in China as a metaphor for the oppressive nature of all levels of society.

After the Revolution, Chunhua resumes her life as an itinerant opera performer — with a difference. Now, she performs revolutionary opera and travels from village to village as a theatrical cadre to educate the peasantry about revolutionary reform. She performs a type of opera stylistically closer to traditional Shaoxing than the socially committed New Year's Sacrifice, but with a clear political message.

In Hangzhou, where Chunhua had been pilloried, the troupe stages an opera version of The While-Haired Girl. Written in Yenan in 1943, this play became the standard for all sorts of revolutionary drama to follow after 1949. Originally written for the theatre, The White-Haired Girl, has been produced as an opera, filmed, danced as a ballet, and also inspired revolutionary graphic art.

After all sorts of violations and humiliations by feudal landlords and their minions, Xi-er, a young peasant woman, is driven to take refuge in a cave, living like a wild animal. Because of this adversity, her hair turns completely white and she acquires a reputation for fierceness as well as madness. The Red Army discovers her in her cave and she is reunited with her fiancé. As Raphael Bassan points out in his essay, "The Long March of Chinese Cinema," The White-Haired Girl contains all the elements necessary to insure it a lasting place of influence on all revolutionary film and theatre to follow in the PRC:

"It ["The White-Haired Girl"] serves as a model, particularly at the level of the presentation of the conflicts of the people in opposition to the landlords, for all revolutionary realism to come. All is, in fact, judiciously coded: the unfailing will of the heroine, the courage and abnegation of the disinherited, the always 100% negative profile of the oppressors, and, finally, the idealistic portrait of the Communist soldiers (who are also Party cadres), new guides of the Chinese nation."[6]

The spirit of Yenan drama as well as the theatre which followed the Revolution can be traced to Mao's personal interest in art and cultural affairs. In his famous "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art," Mao took time out from the arduous tasks of fighting the war against the Japanese and dealing with the daily difficulties of running the Yenan soviet to discuss the importance of China's "cultural army" in the country's battle against both foreign enemies and domestic strife. He calls for committed artists to draw on a variety of forms — including traditional ones — to both appeal to and educate the Chinese masses:

"We should take over the rich legacy and the good traditions in literature and an that have been handed down from past ages in China and foreign countries, but the aim must still be to serve the masses of the people. Nor do we refuse to utilize the literary and artistic forms of the past, but in our hands these old forms, remoulded and infused with new content, also become something revolutionary in the service of the people."[7]

Not surprisingly, Mao's talks at Yenan led to the type of revolutionary drama exemplified by The While-Haired Girl. Firmly rooted in traditional theatre and folklore, the play presents a clear moral universe with peasants replacing noble lords and generals as heroes and heroines. Its mythic elements, magical transformations, and stock character types place it squarely within folk theatre traditions. Later, Yenan theatre became the basis for Mao's "revolutionary romanticism" as well as the GPCR's model operas.

In TWO STAGE SISTERS, Chunhua's performance of The White-Haired Girl bears as much resemblance to The New Year's Sacrifice as it does to traditional Shaoxing opera. Within the film, it functions as a synthesis of the old and the new, China and the West, spoken and opera forms, and as the culmination of all the other, often contradictory, aesthetic currents referred to in the film. Although it relies on the stylization of traditional opera for its effect, it also deals with contemporary life, with actual change, with current political and social concerns. Performing in the public square of Hangzhou, Chunhua has come full circle — melding a May Fourth, urban critical realism with the fantastical nature of folk opera.

Taken as a whole, TWO STAGE SISTERS transcends the insular world of Shaoxing opera to make some far-reaching statements about the nature of oppression and the power of change in 20th century China. Shaoxing serves as a metaphor. Events in the theatrical world — from the feudal countryside through Shanghai enterprise to revolutionary promise — occur in the theatre, which stands as a microcosm of Chinese society at large. Similarly, Chunhua, Yuehong, and Jiang Bo stand in as everywoman, extraordinary in their notoriety, but only a step away from the vastness of the peasantry. The structural parallels are obvious but effective. The personal dramas of the stage sisters parallel the fictional worlds of the plays they perform, which, in turn, parallel the political changes occurring in Chinese society.

Perhaps the most important parallel to consider, however, is the connection between the aesthetic of the film itself and the aesthetic development of the fictional theatrical world it chronicles. After all, TWO STAGE SISTERS is itself very much like Chinese opera. Its episodic narrative structure, for example, relies on often disjointed, autonomous sequences to give it a sweeping scope and an ability to deal with all aspects of society.

Moreover, like opera, the film relies on music to both frame and underline important dramatic moments and to place these moments within a broader social and narrative context. For example, the film opens with a sweeping crane shot that takes in the expanses of the Zhejiang countryside before settling on the opera being performed in the marketplace. A female chorus accompanies this crane shot. The same chorus also accompanies similar crane shots later in the film as well as several montage sequences, which interrupt and comment on the narrative flow — just as traditional opera narrative may be interrupted by arias or by physical action sequences choreographed to instrumental music.

Similarly, as in traditional opera, an orchestra punctuates moments of intense drama with percussion or full orchestral musical phrases. For example, the music swells when Chunhua and Yuehong face each other after Chunhua's acceptance into the opera troupe and at other similarly dramatic moments. In addition, the gesture, speech and movements of the characters in TWO STAGE SISTERS often take on the highly stylized air of traditional opera.

Opera training, for example, involves hours of exercises devoted to making eye movements more expressive by following a candle flame in a darkened room. Many of the eye movements within the film draw on this aspect of opera tradition — e.g., Chunhua's passionate glances at Yuehong when the latter begins to drift away in Shanghai, Yuehong's startled and terrified glance at Tang after he slaps her across the face before their appearance in court, etc.

The similarity of the characters in TWO STAGE SISTERS to some traditional opera heroines must also be noted. In many ways, Chunhua appears as a modem recreation of the wu dan or dao ma dan — martial heroines like Mu Guiying, the famous female general of traditional opera stories.[8] Like the female warrior characters she performs on stage, Chunhua is aggressive, physically powerful, morally upright and inevitably victorious. In fact, the representation of the revolutionary heroine in the preponderance of films made in the PRC owes a great debt to traditional opera characterizations. Similarly, the villains take on characteristics of wicked generals, evil-spirited demons or monks from their stage counterparts.

However, although TWO STAGE SISTERS' aesthetics are rooted in traditional opera in many important ways, the film also gathers stylistic momentum from the other developments in theater alluded to in the film's plot. In many ways, TWO STAGE SISTERS owes a great deal to the same May Fourth impulses which gave rise to Lu Xun's mature style, represented in the film by The New Year's Sacrifice. Like Lu Xun's novella, TWO STAGE SISTERS uses central female characters to concretize all sorts of social ills.

In addition, TWO STAGE SISTERS makes full use of the naturalistic detail characteristic of May Fourth literature. Seemingly insignificant images take on dramatic weight — from laundry being washed in the river after sunset to drops of blood in a bowl of water or on a white sleeve to the straw hats an abandoned woman must make to survive.

Although epic in scope like traditional opera, TWO STAGE SISTERS also has the chamber quality of a literature influenced by Ibsen and Western critical realism. Jiang Bo cooks rice, which boils over as she discusses sexism, classism and the theatre with Chunhua. A montage sequence shows the daily routine of the traveling troupe from calisthenics for martial roles to memorizing lines while walking from town to town. This attention to what may appear to be nearly irrelevant detail creates a sense of the particularity of the social fabric, a concrete feeling of the historical period — as it does in the best of Western critical realism.

Just as the narrative of TWO STAGE SISTERS culminates with the performance of The White-Haired Girl, the aesthetic strivings of the film itself perhaps most closely resemble Mao's vision of a "revolutionary romanticism" wedded to that Western sense of realism. TWO STAGE SISTERS' plot, for example, follows the trials of a young peasant woman, who, instead of ending her life as an obscure beggar like Xiang Lin's Wife in The New Year's Sacrifice, almost magically transforms herself into a revolutionary heroine. With a few exceptions, TWO STAGE SISTERS deals with crystal clear conflicts — between masters and slaves, lords and peasants, powerful men and helpless women — in which traditional power relations are overturned. As in all revolutionary romanticism, the Revolution becomes the most important motive force for change. Its coming resolves virtually all of the narrative conflicts. Just as Xi-er joins up with her lover and the Red Army in The White-Haired Girl, Yuehong, transformed by her suffering at the hands of Tang, joins up with Chunhua and the revolutionary opera company at the end of TWO STAGE SISTERS. Individual concerns find public resolution in the political arena.

However, although TWO STAGE SISTERS conveniently contains the seeds of its own aesthetic unraveling within its plot, this discussion does not do justice to aesthetic concerns which transcend 20th century Chinese drama. Like most Chinese films of its era, TWO STAGE SISTERS walks a tightrope between indigenous forms and very foreign influences — between "revolutionary romanticism" and what Godard has called "Hollywood Mosfilm."

Hollywood and Moscow: Matters of Fact and Questions of Form

During his sojourn in China, Jay Leyda found himself quite taken aback by the Chinese film industry's indebtedness to Hollywood:

"The influence of Hollywood, and in one of its worse aspects, was a shock. First, it contradicted everything that I heard and read here about the poisons and falsehoods of Hollywood being discarded by a revolutionary, bold, new Chinese cinema. The Soviet cinema had been occasionally tempted in the same way, but never so unblushingly as here. And I was shocked to find here a part of the past revived that was long since judged as a sham and embarrassment, while a new important Chinese film [SONG OF YOUTH] turned away deliberately from the progress being made in world cinema, even so near as Moscow and Warsaw" (Leyda, p. 247).

Certainly, the influence o Hollywood on TWO STAGE SISTERS cannot be denied. In fact, if the character of Jiang Bo and the Revolution were erased from the script, the film could quite easily be mistaken for a Hollywood backstage melodrama. It has all the classic narrative elements — the hard struggle to the top of the theatrical profession, the bitterness of the aging actress' lot, the inevitability of decline, sour romances, misguided ambitions, competition, romantic needs vying with the dream of theatrical success, the hardships of the actors' exploitation by unsympathetic bosses.

However, in addition to this indebtedness to Hollywood and despite Leyda's comment that Chinese film tends to ignore Soviet cinema, TWO STAGE SISTERS also owes much to Soviet socialist realism. In fact, a careful examination of the film underscores the similarities as well as the fundamental differences between classical Hollywood realism and Soviet socialist realism.

With some exceptions, for example, TWO STAGE SISTERS seems to strive for that transparency and clarity so prized by both Hollywood and socialist realism. The film creates a self-contained world: lit, photographed, composed, edited, and scripted in a self-effacing, Hollywood style. Characters are not as psychologically complex as their Hollywood counterparts, perhaps, but they are more than uni-dimensional. The narrative is linear, if episodic. The familiar codes of narrative and aesthetic form allow disbelief willingly to be suspended.

However, although Hollywood and socialist realism may be spoken of in the same breath as essentially the same thing, actually the two differ fundamentally. TWO STAGE SISTERS perhaps owes a greater debt to Moscow than Leyda would be willing to admit. Characterization in TWO STAGE SISTERS, for example, follows many of the conventions traditionally associated with socialist realism. Each character represents a certain class position and the contradictions associated with a specific historical period. Lord Ni and Tang, for example, represent a position of power through ownership, which exploits the women peasants and workers in the film. Although individually quite distinct, these characters function as "types" — exemplary of the ruling order in both rural and urban pre-revolutionary China.

However, typage by gender and class does not rubber stamp a character, but it allows for possible points of identification. Each character embodies a certain idea and has a certain abstract potential. Chunhua, for example, functions often as an icon beyond the narrative, an abstraction of a "typical" woman's awakening into class and social consciousness. She represents both a psychologically credible Hollywood-styled character and an abstract idea, a type in the socialist realist mold.

With history foregrounded as a narrative force in socialist realism, other classical realist narrative techniques also change. In the socialist realist text, a tension surfaces between polemics and plot; plot structure becomes subordinated to the rhetorical necessity of making a political point. Narrative structure seems to be transformed by this injection of history and the necessity of generalization and abstraction operative in socialist realism.

For example, although TWO STAGE SISTERS' narrative is, for the most part, linear, it certainly does not follow the Aristotlean dramatic unity so dear to most types of classical realist fictions. In order to broaden the geographic, temporal and social scope of the issues dealt with in the film, the episodic narrative presents incidents often only tangentially related to the development of the principal plotline. The device of the itinerant theatrical troupe provides an excellent vehicle for this. Both before and after the Revolution, the troupe drifts along the river in the countryside — encountering peasants and wealthy landowners. Characters appear, are used to make a point, disappear, occasionally reappear to make another point, or simply vanish.

In addition, the film structures events into a series of dialectical relations. Chunhua and Yuehong's lives not only parallel one another, for example, but they have a profound effect on one another. Moreover, by seeing their lives juxtaposed, the viewer can synthesize certain ideas about the treatment of women, the limitations on their lives, and their struggles.

In the cases of Chunhua and Yuehong, two approaches are explored — thus, Chunhuas choice to work against the system is understandable only in relation to Yuehong's decision to live within it. When the two clash in the courtroom, the whole system explodes, and the Revolution arrives in the streets of Shanghai in the following scene — a direct result of dialectical conflict.

The Brecht Connection: Chinese Opera and Epic Theatre

After I have discussed TWO STAGE SISTER's roots in Chinese theatre, Hollywood melodrama and socialist realism, the aesthetic sum of all this seems to add up to something rather different from the aggregate of its parts. After all, Xie Jin has taken from a genre at the edges of Hollywood classicism — the melodrama.

Recent criticism has pointed out that melodramas often strain the formal foundations of classical Hollywood realism to its limits.[9] Perhaps Xie Jin delivers on this promise. If TWO STAGE SISTERS resembles Hollywood melodrama or Soviet socialist realism, it still remains at the edge of those forms — at the boundary between classical realist conventions and something quite different.

There seems to be something within the formal structure of TWO STAGE SISTERS — coupled with the film's revolutionary politics — which places it very close to Brecht's notion of epic theatre. Although Xie Jin would be the first to deny any conscious similarity between his work and Brecht's, perhaps a closer look at both the film and Brecht's writings may reveal some interesting parallels.[10]

Despite the notoriety of his debates with Lukacs on the applicability/inappropriateness of taking up the 19th century realist novel as a model for socialist art, Brecht, while arguing against that form of realism, never placed his own aesthetic ideas outside of a broader realist tradition. Anti-illusionist and anti-Aristotlean rather than anti-realist, Brecht sought to break down the illusion of transparency created by bourgeois theatre as well as the emotional identification and catharsis invited by Aristotlean drama.

Instead, Brecht tried to distance the spectator from the drama by breaking the illusion of an invisible fourth, wall and by distancing the spectator from the actors on stage by making the viewers constantly aware of the fact that the players were simply presenting a role constructed for them. In this way, Brecht hoped to create a critical distance between the play and the spectator, so that the playgoer would be inspired to think about the social and political issues under discussion rather than become involved with the characters as "real people' with individual problems.

Certainly, similar principles of distanciation can be seen at work in TWO STAGE SISTERS. After all, the film revolves around the performance of other fictions, i.e., operas, which constantly alert the viewer to the fact that the film, too, is a constructed fiction. Moreover, TWO STAGE SISTERS's structure resembles opera — with disjointed episodes, major leaps in time and distance, choral interludes, and many other elements which foreground its structuring principles and place it far outside Aristotlean traditions. Both the orchestra and the camera intrude self-consciously on the drama, acting as storytellers, commenting and reflecting on the characters' place within the historical moment.

Similarly, just as Sirk or Fassbinder create compositions which frame characters within doorways and window frames to place them figuratively outside society, Xie uses the same techniques for political analysis. This distance allows the viewer room for reflection on issues outside of any emotional involvement with the characters as individuals.

For example, after a scene which features a political discussion in Jiang Bo's apartment, a storm develops outside. Chunhua and Jiang Bo go to the rooftop apartment's doorway. The camera frames them inside and dollies back. With this shot, the camera figuratively places the characters' lives in perspective. The narrative comes to a temporary halt — and the viewer may reflect on these characters' position within history, within a developing political struggle.

Political changes break like a storm, and the implicit metaphor takes the viewer away from the drama for a moment. As Brecht hopes "the spectator stands outside, studies" in epic theatre, Xie Jin's camerawork seems to formally allow the viewer this same critical distance in TWO STAGE SISTERS.[11]

The similarity between TWO STAGE SISTERS and Brecht's notion of epic theatre goes beyond mere coincidence. However, although TWO STAGE SISTERS postdated epic theatre and achieves several of its hoped-for effects, it would be taking the argument too far to say that Brechtian aesthetics directly influenced Xie Jin. Rather, the common roots and common purposes of Brecht and Xie must be kept in mind.

At bottom, Brecht and Xie both owe a considerable aesthetic debt to traditional Chinese opera. Although originally a folk form, Chinese opera developed a high degree of stylistic sophistication within its long history. Outside of traditions of Western realism, Chinese opera formed its own aesthetic standards, its own perspective on the relationship between art and actuality. Brecht particularly admired Chinese opera's aesthetic self-consciousness and delight in conventionality.

In an essay entitled "Mei Lanfang, Stanislavsky, Brecht — A Study in Contrasts," Huang Zuolin notes that Brecht was particularly taken with the famous opera star Mei Lanfang's acting technique and with the Chinese opera's attitude toward performance in general. In fact, Huang traces Brecht's notion of "quotation" acting to traditional Chinese storytelling techniques:

"In the course of his work, Brecht actually adopted a number of techniques from the traditional Chinese theatre. One of these is his method of 'quotation.' He makes an actor 'quote' the character played, like a traditional Chinese storyteller who steps in and out of the role at will, sometimes into the part, sometimes making comments in the first person. This shifting of position facilitates the unfolding of the story, the delineation of character, and the elucidation of the author's intention."[12]

Brecht states in his essay, "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting":

"Above all, the Chinese artist never acts as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him. He expresses his awareness of being watched. This immediately removes one of the European stage's characteristic illusions. The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place. A whole elaborate European stage technique, which helps to conceal the fact that the scenes are so arranged that the audience can view them in the easiest way, is thereby made unnecessary. The actors openly choose those positions which will best show them off to the audience, just as if they were acrobats…The artist's object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work.[13]

Similarly, in TWO STAGE SISTERS, as the narrative bandies back and forth between on-stage and off-stage life, characterization takes on a quality of quotation.

Furthermore, the visual presentation of the self to be looked at by others also operates as an "alienation effect." To cite simply one example, when Chunhua and Yuehong first arrive in Shanghai, they see Shuihua for the first time backstage as she puts on her makeup. The camera's position allows the viewer to see Shuihua looking at her reflection in the mirror as well as the dumbfounded faces of Chunhua and Yuehong. Whether the two young actresses arc openmouthed because of the older actress' age or because they are simply star struck is never elucidated.

However, in this shot, the film viewer confronts a character, aware of being watched within the narrative, preparing to be watched within another fictional drama, i.e., the opera to be performed. Chunhua and Yuehong seem aware of their own similar positions as actresses aging within the theatre. Perhaps the viewer becomes aware, at this dramatically intense moment, of yet another element — the fact that all three are portrayed by screen actresses who may face similar career problems. (Since this film was not released to the general public until after the GPCR, this effect may have been further heightened by the fact that the actress who portrays Shuihua, Shangguan Yunzhu, had died during that period; her death was subsequently blamed on the stress she underwent because of the GPCR.) This moment allows the viewer to think critically about women's lives, class struggle and the nature of oppression — reflecting on the drama as Shuihua reflects on her image in the mirror.

In many ways, e.g., in its allusions to other dramatic works, its narrative ellipses, its stylistic self-consciousness, TWO STAGE SISTERS must be regarded as a very sophisticated film by Western standards — with certain affinities with Western modernism and international developments in Marxist aesthetics. However, beneath this complexity, there is also an innocence, a moral directness, an ingenuous hope for a brighter future.

Coming from traditional theatre, a folk aesthetic, TWO STAGE SISTERS certainly has a "naive" quality, and this quality finally brings the film closest to Brecht's dream of a drama which is both didactic and popular, critical and supportive of revolutionary change. In his essay, "Epic Theater and Counter-Cinema's Principles," Alan Lovell makes the following astute observation: "Increasingly, Brecht described the quality he was searching for in his art as 'Naivete.'"[14]

Perhaps, TWO STAGE SISTERS comes close to Brecht's longing for "naivete," since it draws on the folk art roots of Chinese opera to shape a modern aesthetic, to reform a relationship between art and the people obscured within a post-industrial era.

TWO STAGE SISTERS and the Cultural Revolution

After tracing the aesthetic roots of TWO STAGE SISTERS from folk opera through Lu Xun to Brecht and Mao himself, it seems unlikely that anyone could come up with another film indebted to as many strains of Marxist aesthetics. However, TWO STAGE SISTERS was not released to the public until after the GPCR had ended, and the film was viciously attacked politically while it was still in production. In order to understand the reasons for TWO STAGE SISTERS' suppression, the film must be placed within the context of the political events going on at the time of its production.

In 1958, Mao Zedong launched China on an exceedingly ambitious project of reform which he called The Great Leap Forward." Designed to quicken the transformation of China into a model socialist society by increasing the size and power of both rural and urban communes, the program rather quickly collapsed the following year. In 1959, Mao stepped down as chairman of the People's Republic in favor of Liu Shaoqi, although Mao remained head of the Communist Party.[15]

In his essay, "The Limits of Cultural Thaw: Chinese Cinema in the Early 1960s," Paul G. Pickowicz notes that the end of the Great Leap Forward and Mao's temporary loss of power had some significant effects on the Chinese film industry.[16] Even though there was a decrease in production, greater emphasis was placed on quality filmmaking and carefully crafted stories.

As Pickowicz points out, the publication of an essay by Xia Yan in 1961 entitled "Raise Our Country's Film Art to a New Level" ushered in the new era for the Chinese cinema. One of the best known of the "left-wing" filmmakers during the golden age of the Shanghai studios in the 1930s, Xia Yan had risen in the Party ranks after 1949 to become Vice Minister of Culture. In this 1961 essay, implicitly critical of the Great Leap Forward, Xia calls for greater autonomy for artists and for more diversity within the cinema.

Certainly, Xia's directives had an impact since this period — between the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution — was characterized by a tremendous diversity in both form and subject matter within the cinema. Production ranged from domestic comedies like LI SHUANGSHUANG (dir. Lu Ren, 1962) to dramas about life in pre-revolutionary China like THE LIN FAMILY'S SHOP (dir. Shui Hua, 1959). Stories about intellectuals and their romantic as well as political exploits like Xie Tieli's EARLY SPRING (a.k.a. SECOND LUNAR MONTH, THRESHOLD OF SPRING, 1964) were produced alongside films about revolutionary activities in the countryside like Xie Jin's THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (1960).

However, this period came to a rather abrupt end with the reassertion of Mao's power in the mid-1960s. The Cultural Revolution saw the mobilization of youth in the guise of the Red Guard, further radicalization of peasants and workers, dismantling of huge chunks of the bureaucratic superstructure, and purge of many Party cadres.

Interestingly, many of the Cultural Revolution's most heated battles were fought in the aesthetic realm, and the Shanghai cinema industry became one of its prime targets. In fact, during much of the Cultural Revolution, feature film production ceased. Because of his calls for reform after the Great Leap Forward, Xia Yan stood out for censure. As Xie un has pointed out TWO STAGE SISTERS fared particularly badly because of Xia Yan's association with the project:

"Wutai jicmei" [TWO STAGE SISTERS] and 'Zaochun eryue" [Xie Tieli's EARLY SPRING] were attacked above all because of Xia Yan who had made corrections and suggestions on the screenplay. By attacking the films, they wanted to attack him. For "Wutai jiemei," Xia Yan not only helped me a lot in writing the screenplay, but it was he himself who encouraged me to make the film. And that was one of the 'crimes' of which he was accused during the Cultural Revolution.[17]

Jiang Qing, Mao's wife and head of the "Gang of Four" in power during the Cultural Revolution, had a particular dislike for Xia Yan, which extended back to her days as an actress in Shanghai. Beyond the personality clashes, Jiang Qing also had very clear and firm ideas about what a Chinese revolutionary drama should look like. The controversy became divided along geographic lines, which paralleled political ones. Revolutionary art outside the boundaries of the aesthetic developed in the Yenan soviet during the War lost all validity and was thought of as somehow "impure."

If TWO STAGE SISTERS could be looked at not as a harmonious mixture of Yenan and Shanghai influences, but as a battleground between two notions of what a politically progressive art should look like, then perhaps the bitterness of the film's condemnation can be better understood. Although indebted to Yenan's "The White-Haired Girl" and Mao's "revolutionary romanticism," TWO STAGE SISTERS' aesthetic heart remains in the world of Shanghai, and this aesthetic debt assured its condemnation.

Even in works like TWO STAGE SISTERS, which so fervently support the Party and the Revolution, the GPCR's proponents could unearth a bourgeois, Western sensibility. In literary and dramatic works, characterization became a politically charged issue. A notion of a "middle" character developed. In TWO STAGE SISTERS, for example, Yuehong stands out. Neither heroic nor villainous, she aids her own oppressors through avarice and sheer stupidity. She is also, however, sympathetic, a victim, and she is eventually "redeemed" by the love of her stage sister. The morally ambivalent nature of this character places her somewhere outside the realm of heroics or infamy. In the "middle," moral ambivalence leads to ambiguity and, in turn, to the possibility of subversive readings. Likewise, the illusion of psychological complexity which characterized the "middle character" places Yuehong squarely with a Western tradition of naturalism. Descriptive detail outweighs didactic precision, and once again, the possibility of a subversive reading appears.

No reading could be more strained than this, however. More important, no degree of censure should rob TWO STAGE SISTERS of its right to he taken seriously within the history of Marxist aesthetics. In its attempt to locate a peculiarly Chinese socialist aesthetic which can do justice to the representation of women, TWO STAGE SISTERS raises issues which go beyond the Chinese film industry and the Cultural Revolution.


Most of the research for this paper was done in Paris, France, Fall 1982-Spring 1983, under the auspices of a French Government Grant. I would like to thank Janet Yang of World Entertainment, Inc. for arranging for me to interview Xie Jin while he was in the United States and translating for us. A shorter version of this paper was presented at the 1985 Society for Cinema Studies conference at New York University.


For an overview of film in the PRC, see Jay Leyda, Dianying: Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and Film Audience in China (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972) or Regis Bergeron, Le cinéma chinois: 1949-1983 (Paris: L'Harmauon, 1984). Kwok and M.C. Quiquenelle, "Le cinéma chinois et le réalisme," Ombres électriques: panorama du cinéma chinois, 1925-1982 (Paris: Centre de Documentation sur le Cinéma Chinois, 1982) is also informative.

2. For information on film during the Cultural Revolution, see Paul Clark, "Filmmaking in China: From the Cultural Revolution to 1981," The China Quarterly, June 1983, pp. 304-322.

3. For more biographical information on Xie Jin, see Marco Muller, "Les tribulations d'un cinéaste chinois en Chine," Cahiers du cinéma, No. 344 (Feb. 1983), pp. 16-21. Same interview in Italian: Marco Muller, "Intervista con Xie Jin," in Ombre Electriche: Saggi e Richerche sul Cinema Cinese (Milan: Gruppo Editoriale Electra, 1982). Charles Tesson, "Xie Jin: Celui par qui le melo arrive," Cahiers du cinéma, No. 344 (Feb. 1983), pp. 12-15.

4. Cohn Mackerras, The Chinese Theatre in Modern Times: From 1840 to the Present Day (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.)

5. Fan Ruijuan, "An Actress' Life in Old China," in When They Were Young (Women of China and New World Press, 1983), p. 158.

6. Raphael Bassan, "La longue marche du cinéma chinois," La revue du cinéma, No. 380 (Feb. 1983), p. 77. Translation mine.

7. Mao Zedong, "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art," Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1971), p. 259.

8. Opera terms are in Mandarin, taken from Dong Chensheng, Paintings of Beijing Opera Characters (Beijing: Zhaohua Publishing House, 1981). For more information on the relation between Chinese opera and film, see Geremie Barme, "Persistance de la tradition aux 'royaume des ombres.' Quelques notes vis ont a contribuer a une approche nouvelle de cinema chinois," in Le cinéma chinois, ed. Marie-Claire Quiquemelle and Jean-Loup Passek (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1985).

9. For example, see: Griselda Pollock, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Stephen Heath, "Dossier on Melodrama," Screen, 18: No. 2 (Summer,1977), pp. 105-119.

10. Interview with Xie Jin by author, translation by Janet Yang, San Francisco, April 1985.

11. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 37.

12. Huang Zuolin, "Mei Lanfang, Stanislavsky, Brecht—A Study in Contrasts," Peking Opera and Mei Lanfang: A Guide to China's Traditional Theatre and the Art of its Great Master (Beijing: New World Press, 1981), p. 16.

13. Brecht, "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting," ibid., pp. 91-92.

14. Alan Lovell, "Epic Theater and Counter Cinema's Principles," JUMP CUT, No. 27 (July, 1982), p. 66.

15. For more information on the relation between revolutionary politics and aesthetics in 20th century China, see Johnathan D. Spence, The Gate Of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution—1895-1980 (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1981). Chapter 12 includes extensive background information on the period under discussion here.

16. Perspectives in Chinese Cinema, ed. Chris Berry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985).

17. Muller, ibid., p. 19.