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Born-again Maoist
Chinese Playwright Leads a Cultural Revolution, of Sorts

audioListen to Anthony Kuhn's report.

Aug. 23, 2001 Zhang Guangtian has always been a rebel. First, under the influence of Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan, he was a proponent of establishing a Western-style democracy in China. After he spent three years in prison for his role in the student protests of the mid-'80s, he emerged as a different kind of rebel -- for China, an older kind. He was a Maoist.

Che Guevara play

Zhang Guangtian's play Che Guevara is packing theaters and stirring controversey -- and Communist party attention -- across China.
Photo: Courtesy Zhang Guangtian

The Shanghai-born playwright, songwriter, and musician believes that the Communist Revolution in China didn't fail, but was just aborted. His plays and songs take aim at self-serving politicians who, he says, oppress the working classes while claiming to represent them. As Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, Zhang's latest play, a tribute to the Latin American guerilla leader Che Guevara, has played to packed theaters, stirring controversy across China.

"We used to say that the revolutionary masses couldn't exist without the Communist party," he says. "I think that's rubbish. It's a trick. In fact, it's the Communist party that can't exist without the revolutionary masses. If the masses don't call for revolution and support the party, then the Communist party is not the Communist party."

Zhang is not alone, as the crowds at his play attest. Both aging revolutionaries and neo-leftists feel abandoned by the party. And the party has taken notice: Officials recently closed two leading Marxist journals that had warned about allowing capitalists into the Communist party.

Zhang Guangtian

Zhang's songs carry the same revolutionary message as his plays. "I'll walk through a forest of rifles and a hail of bullets with you, Chairman Mao" he sings in one.
Photo: Courtesy Zhang Guangtian

Some people dismiss the leftists as dogmatists who are living in the past. But others warn that they are a dangerous throwback to the Maoist era, when millions died from persecution or famine.

"Mao Zedong thought is brewing again among the lower levels of society," declares author and environementalist Dai Qing, herself a former Maoist. "It's very dangerous."

Still, Zhang's message is hardly sparking protest among the unemployed or disposessed in China. Avant-garde theater of his sort is most popular among white-collar urban dwellers, students, and foreigners.

But the government is nevertheless paying attention. Authorities have apparently put pressure on some venues to bar him from performing. And Zhang suspects an official hand is behind recent attacks on his Web site, which features leftist critiques of art and politics.

Other Resources

"Workers' Rights Suffering as China Goes Capitalist", reports The New York Times

The U.S.-based publication AsiaWeek examines Che Guevara