China’s New WWII Era Opera Aims at Soft Power Influence in Russia

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dq5China has held a Russian Premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St.Petersburg of the opera “The Dawns Here Are Quiet”, featuring a full Chinese cast of singers, choreographers, conductor, and librettist. While not so surprising in itself, the subject matter, taken from a book by Boris Vasilyev and then turned into a highly popular Soviet era film in Russia during the early 1970’s with a remake in 2015, is.

The performance, staged by the Beijing National Centre For The Performing Arts, was written by Wan Fang and was state sponsored to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over fascism – a theme held in much esteem by Russia but relatively new to the Chinese. That victory, referred to in Russian as the Great Patriotic War and elsewhere simply as World War Two, saw Russian troops defend the country against invading Germany at great cost. An estimated 20 million Russians died in the conflict.

China at the time had not yet been unified under Mao Zedong and was enduring both a civil war between the Communists and the Koumintang, while also facing invasions from several fronts against the Japanese. The Communist Red Army was primarily engaged with fighting the Koumintang; there was fighting against the Japanese too, but this was often carried out in conjunction with Allied troops – rarely Russians.

The story tells of several Russian women soldiers, all of whom end up on the front as their husbands or fiancees have otherwise been killed or are in action elsewhere fighting the Nazis. The score heavily follows the Russian traditional opera format with tragic arias, considerable drama, and reliance upon well known pieces such as the Song of the Volga Boatmen, and excerpts from Eugene Onegin, Katyushka, and so on – all tunes written by Russians and part of the national psyche.

The staging is elaborate and costumes first class. Beijing has spent a great deal of money making this production, even though the story is not Chinese. It appears to have been developed purely as what the Chinese are stating a mark of “deep respect, gratitude and admiration” towards the Russian people.

But there are problems.

Firstly, the Chinese cast shows the heroes and heroines as Chinese acting as Russian soldiers. What Russian cast there is are depicted as grateful peasants and children. That could be due to its staging in St.Petersburg rather than China (it received its Beijing premiere in 2015). Seeing then Chinese soldiers fighting the Nazis in forests close to Moscow is both entirely inaccurate and frankly, weird. The final scene, where an elderly Chinese General (albeit playing a Russian) is kissed by very local Russian children in gratitude seems distinctly odd. Chinese were nowhere near fighting Nazi soldiers in WWII.

The producers will retort “Yes, but they are playing Russians” but to me it seemed rather more deliberate an attempt to persuade future generations of Russians it was the Chinese who came to their aid rather than the Allies. In which case, the entire opera becomes an ideological Trojan horse; a re-writing of World War II history, one in which the Chinese are heroes and won the war.

The audience also appeared to have been targeted, it was very much full of patriotic Chinese shouting “bravo” at every opportunity (Russian audiences know when to applause) while the balance were mainly Russian students of university age and up.

The Russian establishment needs to be careful with such dramas. Chinese nationals did not fight the Germans in Russia during the Great Patriotic War, dressed up as Russians or not. What the Chinese have done is create an opera with a Russian story close to Russian patriotism and close to very sensitive memories. At best, “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” is an archaic throwback to Soviet style operas, of which both the Chinese and Russians produced in some numbers. At worst, though, it is an example of Chinese soft power, aimed directly at the Russian people’s psyche and suggesting, “We fought together in Russia against our mutual enemies”, which is both profoundly untrue and deliberately misleading. The Russian establishment needs to be careful about getting too carried away with Chinese examples of cultural gratitude, and certainly when they can be construed at re-positioning the Chinese as victors, and the Russians as grateful peasants.


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