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Nanjing Cancelled a Western Play and Instead Hosted a Revolutionary Opera

The City of Nanjing cancelled “An Enemy of the People,” an 1882 play that Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote, which was originally scheduled to play on September 13 and 14. Instead Nanjing decided to host “The Legend of the Red Lantern” on October 4 and 5. It is one of the eight revolutionary operas created during the Cultural Revolution. The Central News Agency reported that the public questioned why the revolutionary opera was allowed but not Ibsen’s famous work and whether it was an indication of what the authorities wanted and what they are afraid of.

“The Legend of the Red Lantern” was created in the early 1960s. It is based on the period when China was fighting the Japanese invaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It describes the plot of three generations of anti-Japanese workers who are underground Chinese Communist Party members and it showcases the status of the party during the war. Many of the lines in the play such as “All have a bright heart,” “It is hard for the world to beat the Communists,” and “Blood debts and blood to pay” are familiar to many Chinese in the middle-aged and senior generations.

The official cancellation statement of “An Enemy of the People” cited technical issues, but, according to the New York Times, when the show was playing in Beijing, in one part, the cast asked the live audience to shout out their dissatisfaction. The exchange between the cast and the live audience included the audience members expressing their strong desire for free speech and their dissatisfaction with the government, with corruption, and with the financial scandals. The director of “An Enemy of the People” told the New York Times that he believed that the theater in Nanjing cancelled the show because they were afraid of a similar response and of potential liability.

1. Central News Agency, September 15, 2018
2. New York Times, September 14, 2018