During the Cultural Revolution, all production of art and literature came under the control of the Propaganda Department, which was led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In the early 1960s, Jiang Qing realized the need to reform the performing arts— to purge all feudal aspects from Chinese opera and to infuse it with revolutionary content. Along with large teams of veteran composers, directors, writers, choreographers, and set designers, Qing created a new paradigm for the performing arts, a “model” Chinese opera that combined certain aspects of Western music and dance with Mao Zedong revolutionary ideology.
In total, Qing and her followers created eight model performances for mass consumption: five Chinese operas, two ballets, and one symphony. The operas included Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, The Red Lantern, On the Docks, Shajiabang, and Raid on White Tiger Mountain; the ballets, which centered on female lead characters, were The White Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women, while the single symphony was an orchestral version of Shajiabang.
The performances, which drew their plots from contemporary plays or novels, featured easy-to-follow plot lines that promoted class struggle and glorified the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party. The stories were didactic, meant to provide the masses with examples of good revolutionary behavior. Stage direction, choreography, and scenery were easy for the viewer to decode, with heroes presented as “bright, shining, and red,” (紅，光，亮）while villains were portrayed as dark and ugly. The performances were intended to serve as standardized and easily reproducible “models” of the revolutionary arts.
During the Cultural Revolution, the model performances were ubiquitous, and oftentimes, they were the only form of entertainment available. Traveling theatre troupes, who were given scores and production guides, performed the works in every corner of the nation and music from the works was splayed over the radio. Eventually, films were made of each of the model performances and these were screened widely in both cities and the countryside. The model performances were also reproduced in paper— in the form of posters, books, and comics. The works were so popular that other model performances were codified and added to the list, although these never reached the same level of popularity as the original eight.