In Music, Art, TV, Film and Literature, These Are Eight of China's Pop Culture Heroes

UPDATED 12/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

Rarely in world history have art and politics clashed as vividly as they did during China's Cultural Revolution of the late '60s and early '70s. Now, as the trial of the so-called Gang of Four proceeded in Peking, Americans focused again on the Byzantine details of that faraway battle in which cultural works considered "decadent" by politicians were banned—and their creators exiled to labor camps for "reeducation." On these pages are eight of China's most prominent artists and performers, all of whose lives were touched in some way (often brutally) by that conflict. They speak in a still intense environment; when China's esteemed poet Ai Qing was questioned about politics since the Cultural Revolution, his wife begged, "Please don't ask him that." All eight work with relief and pleasure in the more liberal atmosphere the arts in China enjoy today—and all betray the fear that it could change tomorrow. They spoke with Jan Wong of PEOPLE.

Chanteuse Li Guyi: 'I made revolution'

Onstage in her black lace-trimmed dress, permed hair, false eyelashes and rouged cheeks, singer Li Guyi, 36, would be at home in any nightclub in the world. In reality her life seems far from glamorous. Her Peking apartment is nothing more than a makeshift dormitory room. Her bed is a straw mat, the floor bare concrete and the walls plywood. Although Li receives 150 fan letters a week, she is rarely recognized on the street. "People don't expect me to look this ordinary," she says.

Her romantic misadventures are anything but ordinary. After her husband, a fellow singer with the Central Symphony Orchestra, proved to be sterile, Li took a lover by whom she had a baby girl, now 2. For three years she and her husband considered themselves "separated," but because of the housing shortage lived in the same room. "We had different beds and never touched, but we talked a lot," she explains. A divorce—rarely granted in China—came through this year, and friends say she plans to marry her lover, the son of a commander in the Chinese navy.

Dismissed in some quarters as "decadent and bourgeois," Li earns a modest $35 a month. When she records a song she receives an extra $5. She has had more than 30 hits, four in China's Top 15 this year alone. Envied and resented by her colleagues in the orchestra because of her popularity, she depends as much on her political talents as on her voice. Asked how she escaped punishment during the Cultural Revolution, she says with a grin, "I made revolution." There are few love ballads in her repertoire. "My songs are about political martyrs," says the petite soprano. "They are about people who suffered under the Gang of Four."

Painter Yuan Yunsheng: 'The way is not clear'

If Yuan Yunsheng wasn't already China's most controversial painter, the Affair of the Airport Mural guaranteed it. Last January Yuan, 43, unveiled his masterwork, Water Festival—Song of Life, on a wall in a restaurant at Peking's international airport—and sparked one of the most spirited debates on artistic freedom since Mao died. Not only were the elongated, Modigliani-like figures an affront to traditional realism, the peasant women in Yuan's painting were shown with bare breasts. "My inspiration was from real life—that is Realism," Yuan insisted, but the controversy boiled up to the highest political levels. Party strongman Deng Xiaoping reportedly approved of the mural; the Communist party chairman, Hua Guofeng, apparently did not. For a while the painting was covered by a curtain. But after the National People's Congress met in September, the government decided to allow Yuan's work to remain. "After all," the painter observes wryly, "it is in a restaurant that is only open to foreigners."

Yuan has been the target of official meddling throughout his career. His lack of orthodoxy got him expelled from the Art Academy in 1957 and sent away for several years of farm labor. After returning to his studies in 1963, he insisted again on defying the conventions of Socialist Realism. "Art depends on the artist," he still says. "It must come from the individual." That attitude landed him in Manchuria, where for 15 years he taught painting at an adult workers' cultural center. In 1979 he was allowed back in Peking, where his doctor wife and three children have joined him. They live in his one-room studio at the Art Academy, and Yuan is guardedly optimistic about his future. He has submitted sketches for a mural for the restaurant of a new hotel, but admits with a laugh, "I don't think they'll be approved." In a voice of experience, Yuan adds, "The way is not yet clear for artists in China."

TV star Zheng Peidi: Her crime was gossiping

She has one of the most familiar faces in China. When television personality Zheng Peidi walks into a crowded restaurant, admirers give up their tables for her. Until her husband left for two years to get a master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he regularly bicycled down to the train station to pick up sacks of potatoes and oranges, porcelain tea sets and bags of rice that viewers all over China sent her as gifts. Wrote one Shanghai devotee: "I have switched from the day shift to the night shift so I can catch your program."

Zheng is not the star of some bourgeois soap or sitcom; she is a 40-year-old university teacher who offers English lessons three mornings a week to an audience of two million. The daughter of a civil engineer father and a mother who was an amateur Ping-Pong champion, Zheng wears her celebrity well. "I always used to quarrel with rude salesclerks," she sheepishly concedes. "But now that I am easily recognized, I have to watch myself."

Zheng is paid about $1 per broadcast, plus $40 a month from Peking University. She and her two children still live in a two-room apartment. But her modest life is a distinct improvement over her plight during the Cultural Revolution, when she was beaten and jailed for six months for passing along a bit of romantic gossip about Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. Now Zheng is a best-selling writer, too. The English textbook she co-authored has sold 1.6 million copies (she receives no royalties, alas)—and because of a paper shortage is difficult to find. One lucky soldier on the Soviet border who received an autographed copy wrote her in exultation: "Tomorrow at the riflery competition I'll fire in the air as a salute to you, Zheng Peidi!"

Poet Ai Qing: 10 years' work in exile was lost

So many admirers visit Ai Qing each day that the poet must rise at 4 a.m. to write while his wife sleeps. He does not complain. After serving four and a half years in prison as a radical in pre-revolutionary China and 15 years of hard labor as a rightist in Communist China, Ai Qing has been vindicated. At 70, he is a vice-chairman of the prestigious Chinese Writers Association and is acclaimed as the country's finest living poet. His $200 monthly salary is close to what Chairman Mao made. On top of that Ai Qing earns as much as $75—or twice an average worker's monthly wage—for each of his poems. On good days, he can write as many as 10 of them. (Their subject matter is life in liberated China.) "Our livelihood is guaranteed," he says gratefully.

For Ai Qing, security has been rare. During his exile to prison camps in desolate northern China, he cleaned outhouses and ate animal feed. His wife, Gao Ying, now 47, was pressured to divorce him but refused. "I had to take care of him and give him hope," she says. It wasn't easy. He lost the sight of one eye after years of writing by dim kerosene lamplight. A decade of work produced under such difficult conditions was destroyed by rampaging Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Today Ai Qing and Gao Ying live in a small Peking apartment while their 17-room house—confiscated when he was sent into exile—is prepared for them. But the horrors past are clearly still vivid to the old poet. He will not comment on China's new writers or on politics, and when asked about the future he shows the reticence of a man accustomed to cruel surprise. "I'm not a fortune teller," he answers. "I don't even know what will happen tomorrow."

Comedian Hou Baolin: Pollution isn't funny

Chevy Chase he's not. Hou Baolin, China's foremost stand-up comedian, practices an ancient dialogue form of comedy called xiangsheng, which blends talking, singing and imitations. It is practically untranslatable into Western idiom. This year's material includes a kind of good news/bad news joke based on the cabbage crop which was destroyed by frost before the harvest. "The cabbages aren't freezing this year...only the people buying them."

You have to be there. With half a century in show business behind him, Hou Baolin, 64, has been a star since before the 1949 Communist takeover. In the '50s he gave command performances for Mao Tse-tung and other party officials. "When Chairman Mao laughed, he tried to suppress it," Hou recalls. "Sometimes his face would turn deep red. But Mao kept his finger on the pulse of society by listening to my xiangsheng."

Hou paid the price for his fame during the Cultural Revolution, when he was reduced to cleaning public toilets for $13 a month. After "rehabilitation" his revenge was sweet: six years of back pay bought him a priceless collection of antique furniture and porcelain. His monthly salary now is a whopping $240.

Hou remains one of China's top celebrities, but last year a funny thing happened to him. He wrote a comic dialogue about China's severe air pollution that ridiculed high officials. The piece was banned. Hou doesn't appear onstage anymore. "I can't talk about it," he says, admitting only, "It is painful for any artist to leave his audience."

Director Yu Lan: 'In China we are just artists'

Film actress Yu Lan survived the Cultural Revolution, but her beauty did not. Banished to the countryside, she fell while working on the roof of a new farm building and disfigured the right side of her face. Finally permitted to return to the Peking Film Studio, she began a new career as a director. She is still frequently stopped on the street, but "I am rarely recognized as Yu Lan the actress," she observes. "People think they must know me as a neighbor, because I look so average."

Of her suffering during the political upheaval, Yu Lan, 59, says, "I am sick of talking about what happened to me—others had it much worse." Still, in addition to her injury, she lost her older brother, a victim of Red Guard persecution, and her husband, former Film Bureau head Tian Fang, who was denied treatment for cancer. Yu Lan herself now suffers from cancer and has had a mastectomy, but she continues to work. "To become a director, it doesn't matter if you're a woman," she says, "only if you're good."

Because she is a high-ranking Communist party member at her studio, she has such rare perks as a private telephone and use of an official car. Her two sons live with her in a five-room Peking apartment. One is a movie sound technician, the other is studying to be a director. Yu Lan, who earns $70 a month, sometimes complains that uniform, guaranteed wages among actors stifle incentive, but on balance she prefers the Chinese studio system. "Actors in the West have to be both businessmen and artists," she says. "Here we are just artists."

Actor Ying Ruocheng: 'Who is Raquel Welch?'

When Bob Hope toured China last year, stage actor Ying Ruocheng took on the daunting task of translating the comedian's routine before a live audience. At one point Hope compared the Great Wall to a well-known American monument. Ying stopped his rapid-fire Chinese to ask in bewilderment: "Who is Raquel Welch?"

China has no parallel for the U.S. star system. For centuries acting was a low-prestige occupation. Although there are still few stage celebrities, all actors are supposed to work steadily and receive regular salaries. "You get a lot of deadwood," says Ying, 51. "But we have no starving actors here."

Ying left his profession during the Cultural Revolution, when "if the veins in your forehead didn't bulge and you didn't yell at the top of your voice, you weren't considered a good actor," as he puts it. He advised the party to stop interfering with art. "Actually, I didn't say 'party,' I said 'those damn fools,' " he remembers with a smile. He was sent to the country for seven years of farming, returning to the Peking stage only after the 1976 fall of the Gang of Four.

With his wife, Wu Shiliang, who is a playwright's assistant, Ying lives comfortably in Peking on a monthly salary of $80. His main problem these days is one all Chinese actors share: unruly audiences. "It feels lousy to have to compete against 1,400 people," Ying says. "But I suspect that in a place like the National Theatre in London, the actors are never quite sure how they are doing. Here you always know."

Writer Zhang Jie: 'I kept silent'

Zhang Jie, 43, is one of China's most popular short story writers, but until two years ago she had never published a word. "I hated all the distortions in literature and everything else that came in with the Gang of Four, so I kept silent," says Zhang. The divorced mother of a teenaged daughter, she worked as an inventory checker in an electronics plant until she felt the political atmosphere was hospitable to her writings. Her first short stories celebrated the triumph of the human spirit over political tyranny; their reference to the Cultural Revolution was ill-disguised. In 1978 she won a major national literary award for one of them; she won it again last year for a story with a nonpolitical theme.

Zhang unabashedly looks to the West for inspiration, citing among her influences the works of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dickens, Stendhal and Erich Segal, presumably in that order. "I think that a lot of young people just want to take from society without wanting to give anything first," she says. "I hope my stories will encourage them to make a contribution and do something good for society." Zhang often publishes in small provincial journals—which pay far less than Peking magazines—simply because they allow her greater latitude to express her feelings. "I don't write about peasants, workers or soldiers," she says. "I write about intellectuals. This would have been impossible before." Western readers would find her books tame, sentimental and a bit too wholesome. But Zhang has enthralled her audience in China by writing about "the things that move people," as she puts it. As a creator of sensitive heroes she is, in China, a pathfinder. "Human beings often seek happiness, generosity and beauty," she observes. "All people have this in common."

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