When Beijing Opera Represented Taiwan

In 1973 and 1974, the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC) government dispatched its “National Chinese Opera Theater” (NCOT) to the United States in order to challenge the international image of its archrival, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the NCOT failed to generate widespread political support for the ROC. The ROC’s reliance on an American impresario to organize and market the performances contributed to its difficulties in disseminating the desired political messaging. Yet despite the PRC’s growing consolidation of international representation of “China”, its interpretation of Chinese culture remains contested even today.

In 1949, the ROC’s territory shrank to mostly Taiwan, where the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party retreated after losing the civil war. By 1971, the ROC had lost its seat at the United Nations to the PRC. Still, it tried to disrupt the rapprochement between Beijing and Washington and continued to proclaim its standing as the government of “China”. The NCOT was part of this counteroffensive.

To reinforce its legitimacy, the ROC government branded the NCOT as “Chinese Opera” rather than “Beijing Opera”. This branding shrewdly targeted the PRC, where the contemporaneous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) purged the traditional repertoire from Beijing Opera and reduced it to a handful revolutionary model plays.

In extolling the genre as the “embodiment of China’s 5,000 years of civilization,” the NCOT playbill intended to garner popular support through the familiar Cold War rhetoric: the performances represented an epic battle between the responsible guardian of an ancient civilization and the reckless Communist “rebels” who ruined traditional culture. Yet, it was also a hyperbole, as scholars generally date Beijing Opera back to the late eighteenth century.

The NCOT succeeded as a visual spectacle. Its repertoire consisted of selective scenes based on historical events dating to the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) and popular Chinese folk tales such as the Legend of the White Snake. To appeal to audiences with little knowledge of the genre, ROC cultural officials specifically picked scenes with dazzling costumes and spectacular martial arts. While American critics sometimes found the vocal aspect trying, they generally agreed that it was “a feast for the eyes.”

The NCOT is useful in understanding the ROC’s resilience and the ongoing contestation over Chineseness on the international stage. Before the NCOT, several table-tennis teams from Taiwan also toured the United States and Canada in 1971 and 1972, aiming to disrupt the momentum of the celebrated ping-pong diplomacy between Beijing and Washington. And by the early 1970s, Taiwan’s booming economy allowed the government to bankroll the NCOT. This would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.

The PRC also dispatched various performing troupes around the world. However, this stopped with the onset of the Cultural Revolution, before Taiwan’s NCOT was formed. Compared to the NCOT, the PRC troupes usually covered more genres than Beijing Opera and they emphasized the artistic achievements of the ordinary people. But the PRC was less interested in the opera’s proclaimed antiquarian pedigree as a way to justify its legitimacy.

The differences between the two sides did not prevent Taipei from secretly learning from its nemesis. After reading a New York Times critic’s praise of the NCOT’s 1973 tour amid even more fond remembrances of an earlier PRC performance in Western Europe, an ROC diplomat in the United States dusted off a pirated film of an earlier PRC performance in Canada, the sole audiovisual material of its kind in the office files. The diplomat conceded the PRC troupe’s superior choreography and recommended the cultural officials supervising the NCOT in Taipei to strengthen that in the rehearsals in order to make the following year’s tour a success.

Despite the spectacular content and generous funding in the 1970s, the ROC government still lacked its own institutional platform to advertise the NCOT directly in America’s competitive show business. The service of a commercial impresario was indispensable. When the impresario threatened to quit after the ROC’s consulate general in Seattle proposed an additional free show for the local Chinese community on the ROC’s National Day in 1973, the government rushed to pay more for the NCOT’s publicity in order to keep him. Trying to balance politics and business, the government had to tolerate the impresario’s pecuniary interest amidst its own political agenda.

Since the beginning of the reform period in the late 1970s, the PRC has gradually taken over the ROC’s mantle as the guardian of ancient Chinese cultural heritage. In summer 2015, the National Peking (intentional older spelling rather than “Beijing”) Opera Company performed at the prestigious Lincoln Center in New York as part of the PRC’s high-profile cultural exchanges with the United States to promote the “national essence.”

The PRC also established its own institutional platform of cultural diplomacy in many parts of the world, including the Confucius Institute — something the ROC was unable to achieve. Yet since the early 2000s, Falun Gong, the spiritual movement the PRC government banned as a “cult,” has promoted its Shen Yun troupe to perform traditional dance and music in the United States and beyond. The contestation over Chinese culture is far from over.