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Revolutionary opera

Shanghai Noir

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle: publication date 01.04.2017

By the time you read this newsletter, I'll be in London. This is my first trip of the year and will be filled with all the things my husband and I love to do when we travel. Gorge ourselves on museums, tramp about town to see what takes our fancy, eat ourselves silly, buy more books.

My second book review of the year is of Madeleine Thien's novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I may have been coming down with a bout of reviewer-itis when I started it. A little too eager to cast judgment rather than let the story take me away. Or maybe Thien's magic is the stealthy sort that needs time to creep up on you. In any case, she caught me in a big way with her tale of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square and the elasticity of time. The geek in me loved the music and the math. Hence the title of my review: Geometry.

Thien's novel also features in this week's blog. Her focus is on the devastating impact Mao's cultural policies had on music but it's clear that all the arts were similarly affected. Writers, composers, performers and critics were all expected to toe the line. But readers and listeners were punished too if caught in the possession of "incorrect" works.

The last 10 years of Mao's rule are generally regarded as the cultural wasteland for China. But the salinization process started much earlier. Since 1942, Socialist Realism was the only art form sanctioned by Mao Zedong. Art that serves the needs of the socialist state. Some Chinese dissident artists like Ai Weiwei would say that this edict holds true today.

Art that serves a purpose - didactic or political - is rarely good. It might not even be art. But imagine living in a society where there are no alternatives to state-dictated paintings, revolutionary novels or model operas like the one pictured above. Red Detachment of Women is one of the eight model operas permitted during the Cultural Revolution. This ballet scene was performed at the Great Hall of the People for President and Mrs. Nixon during their trip to Peking in 1972.

Hard as it is to imagine a society deprived of the right to choose what to read, I have to try. Here's why in this week's blog post: Socialism Is Great!

2017 in Words & Pictures
The Smell of Opium
To Teach or Not to Teach
Speaking in Dialects
House of Books

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