Against the backdrop of the evolution of Shanghai-based Yueju (aka Shaoxing opera), Two Stage Sisters unfolds around Chunhua, a child bride who runs away from her arranged marriage in 1935. Taking refuge with an itinerant Yueju company, Chunhua becomes an apprentice in that opera troupe and befriends the master’s daughter, Yuehong. On stage Chunhua and Yuehong play duets together, while the troupe travels from village to village in the countryside. After the demise of the troupe master in 1940, however, Chunhua and Yuehong find themselves sold to an opera theatre in Shanghai, where all-female Yueju has recently attained an enormous popularity. Both Chunhua and Yuehong rise to stardom in the following years. However, Yuehong then falls for the manipulative stage manager, Tang, and gradually recedes from the performance scene. Chunhua, by contrast, is firmly dedicated to her career, and is gradually drawn to left-wing politics under the tutelage of female journalist Jiang Bo. Adding a political flavour to her performances, Chunhua irritates those in power, namely the KMT Nationalists at the time, whose failed attempt to blind and ruin Chunhua instead infuriates the public. To alleviate public anger, Tang forces Yuehong to bear the responsibility of the attack and give false testimony in court. Yet the public does not fall for the ruse, and the court falls into chaos. Then, there comes the Liberation. In deep remorse, Yuehong disappears into the countryside, but Chunhua manages to track her down, and the two stage sisters ultimately reconcile and reunite.
In English language scholarship director Xie Jin’s films have been predominantly assessed through a melodramatic approach.1 Nick Browne in particular challenges the applicability of Western ‘family melodrama’ in a Chinese context while proposing the idea of ‘political melodrama’ to better appreciate Xie’s work after the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Browne defines political melodrama as ‘an expression of a mode of injustice … in which gender as a mark of difference is a limited, mobile term activated by distinctive social powers and historical circumstances’, while it addresses ‘the relation of the individual to the social as a fully public matter’ mediated by both ‘the expectations of an ethical system’ constituted by Confucianism and ‘the demands of a political system’ dominated by socialism.2 While Browne’s elucidation foregrounds the changed dynamic between the ethical system and the political system in the post-Cultural Revolution era, we can borrow the idea of ‘political melodrama’ to highlight the very marriage between a melodramatic format and a blatant political agenda, particularly the socialist revolutionary ideology hardly challenged in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) until the late 1970s. As a form of melodrama, China’s political melodrama, too, aroused emotions like sympathy and righteous indignation in the audience, providing the latter with ‘both the depraved intrigues of villainy and the pathetic suffering of its innocent and helpless victims’, to paraphrase Paul Pickowicz.3 If, as Peter Brooks argues, ‘[m]elodramatic good and evil are highly personalized’, then political melodrama shows its viewers ‘the highly personalized human faces of virtue and evil’, wherein the meaning of the self and the fate of the family are articulated through the public and the political.4
There is no doubt that in Two Stage Sisters the antagonistic forces are affiliated with those contradicting the political-economic interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the ‘people’ it allegedly represents. Such antagonistic forces include the Japanese intruders (against the parameters of Chinese nationalism), the KMT Nationalists (adversary to the ‘progressive’ politics represented by the CCP), the rich and the landlords (opposed to the proletarian class), and the USA (evoked in the film as the ‘big brother’ behind the Nationalists and the ultimate representative of capitalism and Western imperialism). In a highly personalised manner, these oppositional forces are vividly embodied by such characters as Lord Ni, Manager Tang, and Auntie Shen.
Lord Ni, a gentry-landowner in the Zhejian countryside, appears early in the film. Watching Yuehong and Chunhua perform on a public stage, Ni lusts after the two sisters, and engages the troupe for an all-night small-scale performance in his residence. However, his demand that Yuehong stay over after the performance is declined, which in turn leads to the local police interrupting their public performance under the banner of ‘maintaining social morality’. Though the police action aims at abducting Yuehong for Ni, it ends with arresting Chunhua for her effective intervention. Under the rhetoric of ‘disobeying laws’ and ‘assaulting policemen’, Chunhua is sentenced with a ‘public exhibition’ on a public square. Clearly, Ni represents someone who not only possesses land and wealth, but who is also salacious, immoral and affiliated with the local police, who, unfortunately, are equally venal and corrupt. These happenings manifest, in melodramatic terms, a high dramatisation of a series of events, the suffering of the innocent, and an intense moral and emotional appeal to the audience. Given the police abusing their power in public for evil, the suffering of an innocent individual, importantly, transcends the personal, and is translated into a public matter with a political overtone.
Aside from Lord Ni, the antagonistic forces are also personalised in two opportunistic characters: Manager Tang and Monk Ah-xin. Originally the manager of the opera troupe tutored by Yuehong’s father, Ah-xin is responsible for hooking up the two sisters with Ni. Soon after Yuehong’s father’s death, Ah-xin makes a profit by selling the two sisters to Manager Tang, while he himself becomes one of Tang’s henchmen. Whilst Ah-xin is an opportunist who gravitates toward whoever possesses wealth, Tang is an opportunist who, with wealth, gravitates toward whoever is in power: the Japanese and the Nationalists. In a sequence dated 1944, we find in Tang’s office a doll in a kimono in a glass case. Though the Japanese (alongside the Americans) remain off-screen, this Japanese-styled ornament indicates Tang’s rapport with the Japanese, and thus Tang’s treacherous character. After the Sino-Japanese war, however, Tang’s liaisons with the Japanese are replaced by those with the Nationalists, as epitomised by Commissioner Pan and a Nationalist agent who inspects the political activities in Shanghai. At one point, the Nationalist agent demands that Tang take action in thwarting Chunhua bringing to stage ‘New Year’s Sacrifice’ – Lu Xun’s acclaimed novella highly critical of society. Tang’s action is deemed as returning a favour to the Nationalists, who supposedly have helped Tang cover up the scandal concerning his unpatriotic relations with the Japanese. It is evident that Tang is conceived as the character central to reactionary influences in this political melodrama.
Notably, among all the aforementioned male antagonists comes a female character – the wealthy, middle-aged Auntie Shen – who is also portrayed as negative and reactionary. The characterisation of Shen reveals some intriguing ramifications about gender. In the episode where Shen tries to dissuade Chunhua from performing ‘New Year’s Sacrifice’, Shen’s image as an amicable woman effectively facilitates her approaching Chunhua (while male characters Tang and Ah-xin, with their tough looks, stay behind). Shen’s mediation between Tang and the actresses, with Shen’s resort to the rhetoric of ‘woman’, eventually proves, from the film’s dominant perspective, to be an intrigue that leads the sisters astray from the route of righteousness and, by extension, away from socialist revolution. As something that can be appropriated by the reactionaries to perpetuate their interests, gender in Two Stage Sisters is strategically conceived as a category secondary to class. The point of Auntie Shen in this political melodrama is therefore not so much about gender itself as about class and, specifically, class struggle under the guise of gender. Complicit with Tang in reactionary behaviour, Shen personalises foremost a force adverse to the class-based socialist revolution. It is under the influence of Tang and Shen that Yuehong, with her inclination to vanity and vulnerability to material temptation, eventually marries Tang and gives up her stage career. Though she still preserves some feelings for Chunhua, Yuehong becomes a member of the anti-revolutionary camp.
Contrary to Manager Tang, Auntie Shen and the antagonistic forces they represent, female journalist Jiang Bo personalises the positive and righteous influence around Chunhua. Under the guidance of Jiang Bo, Chunhua is introduced to movies and spoken dramas that represent a more ‘progressive’ political stance than that of traditional Yueju. In Jiang’s company, Chunhua also visits the exhibition commemorating Lu Xun, which indicates a more direct impact of leftist politics on Chunhua, as evidenced by her subsequent adaptation of ‘New Year’s Sacrifice’. Chunhua’s identification with the novella’s protagonist, Xianglin’s wife, resonates with the perceived tragic fate of women in feudal China. In a pivotal montage-sequence, through the technique of superimposition, the images of Chunhua’s contemplative gaze, the woodcut of Xianglin’s wife, Chunhua’s humiliation in public, as well as Little Chunhua – a miserable child bride also named Chunhua – powerfully come together to solicit empathy from the spectators of this political melodrama.
While Chunhua has told Little Chunhua that she would never return to the village where she has been unjustly punished, towards the end of the film, Chunhua nevertheless revisits the very location of her persecution, which is made possible by the communist revolution. Chunhua’s revisit indicates that the once wronged is now rectified with the repudiation of the class enemies as represented by Lord Ni. If, as noted, the interplay between Chunhua and Auntie Shen is implicated in the ideology that privileges class over gender in China’s proletarian revolution, this finale seems to reiterate the same idea from another angle. That is, despite the fact that the proletarian revolution does not specifically focus on gender issues, women’s emancipation would ‘automatically’ follow the victory of the political mobilisation against forms of class-based oppression. Symbolically, when revisiting the place of her past persecution, Chunhua is depicted on tour performing The White-Haired Girl, arguably the most famous revolutionary drama of the People’s Republic. In terms of gender and the state politics, The White-Haired Girl – like Two Stage Sisters – also narrates the fate of a proletarian girl through the sociopolitical vicissitudes from the Republican era into the Liberation.
The tension between women’s liberation and class-based state politics has nonetheless been pointed out by critics. For instance, Meng Yue, in her study of the adaptations of White-Haired Girl, identifies two axes along which the story has evolved. One is ‘a gradual strengthening of [the protagonist’s] political instincts’, and the other ‘a gradual erasure of [her] body and her sexual situation’. With the female protagonist’s body and sexuality fading from the story, the term ‘class’, Meng notes, has gradually displaced ‘the sexual code’ in significance and becomes the constituent most essential to the story.5 Symptomatic of this in Two Stage Sisters is Chunhua’s plain dress when offstage and lack of interest in men throughout the film, in contrast to her growing enthusiasm for revolutionary politics.6 Writing on women’s representation in mainland Chinese cinema, Dai Jinhua likewise suggests that the decline of a desiring male ‘gaze’ (characteristic of classical Hollywood cinema) in the revolutionary narratives does not translate into women’s autonomy, for the gender binary between the characters is simply ‘replaced by class antagonism and political difference’. 7 Of the same proletarian class, men and women alike are the children of the same ‘spiritual father – the Communist Party, the socialist system, and the project of communism’, but women are still subjugated to a kind of gaze that, though not strictly male, is nevertheless paternal and patriarchal.8
This being said, the images of ‘new women’ are significant to the classical revolutionary canon, according to Dai. They represent either those who are saved and ‘turned over’ (fanshen) by the CCP, or those who grow up into heroic woman warriors. In revolutionary narratives women are generally caught up in the political struggle between the glorious Communist Party and the abysmal Nationalist Party until the arrival of a male Communist who saves and mentors the suffering women. Although Jiang Bo manifests an altered gender dynamic in the apprenticeship structure, Two Stage Sisters pretty much fits in the larger scheme of Chinese revolutionary cinema, wherein the two kinds of ‘new women’ Dai observes are vividly embodied by Chunhua and Little Chunhua, respectively. With the practice of child marriage abolished and the yoke of her enslavement thereby shattered, Little Chunhua represents the women redeemed by the CCP. Although Chunhua and Yuehong are both caught up in the political struggle, and Yuehong temporarily chooses the dark side, Chunhua, under the impact of Jiang Bo and leftist politics, successfully transforms herself into a valiant heroine. With her resolute devotion to performing revolutionary dramas, Chunhua demonstrates a ‘selfless’ woman warrior in service of socialist nation-building, embodying the pedagogical function of the socialist political melodrama.
1. See, for instance, Ma Ning, ‘Spatiality and Subjectivity in Xie Jin’s Film Melodrama of the New Period’, in Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau (eds), New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 15–39; Nick Browne, ‘Society and Subjectivity: On the Political Economy of Chinese Melodrama’, in Nick Browne et al., New Chinese Cinemas, pp. 40–56; Paul G. Pickowicz, ‘Melodramatic Representation and the “May Fourth” Tradition of Chinese Cinema’, in Ellen Widmer and David Der-wei Wang (eds), From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993; Jerome Silbergeld, ‘The Force of Labels: Melodrama in the Postmodern Era: Hibiscus Town’, China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema, London, Reaktion Books, 1999, pp. 188–233; Robert Chi, ‘The Red Detachment of Women: Resenting, Regendering, Remembering’, in Chris Berry (ed.), Chinese Films in Focus: 25 Takes, New York, BFI Publishing, 2003, pp. 152–59.
2. Nick Browne, ‘Society and Subjectivity’, pp. 43, 46–7.
3. Pickowicz, ‘Melodramatic Representation’ p. 322.
4. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1976, p. 16; Pickowicz, ‘Melodramatic Representation’, p. 322.
5. Meng Yue, ‘Female Images and National Myth’, in Tani E. Barlow (ed.), Gender Politics on Modern China: Writing and Feminism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1993, p. 121.
6. Although Chunhua shows no interest in men, her persistent emotional attachment to Yuehong potentially bears a homoerotic overtone.
7. Dai Jinhua, ‘Invisible Women: Contemporary Chinese Cinema and Women’s Film’, translated by Mayfair Yang, Positions Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 1995, p. 262.
8. Ibid, pp. 262–3. In Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China, Judith Stacey sees the Confucian tradition and the socialist order as two patriarchal systems that function together in the PRC. While the former maintains the family as the basic socioeconomic unit of the society, the latter places the family under the leadership of the CCP. Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1983.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: China. Production Company: Shanghai Tianma Film Studio. Director: Xie Jin. Producer: Ding Li. Screenwriters: Lin Gu, Xu Jin and Xie Jin. Cinematographers: Zhou Damin and Chen Zhenxiang. Music: Huang Zhun. Editor: Zhang Liqun. Cast: Xie Fang (Chunhua), Cao Yindi (Yuehong), Feng Qi (Master Xing), Gao Aisheng (Jiang Bo), Shangguan Yunzhu (Shang Shuihua), Li Wei (Manager Tang), Deng Nan (Monk Ah-xin), Shen Hao (Auntie Shen), Dong Lin (Lord Ni).]
Chris Berry, Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China: The Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution, New York, Routledge, 2004.
Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Gina Marchetti. ‘Two Stage Sisters: The Blooming of a Revolutionary Aesthetic’, in Sheldon Hsiaopeng Lu (ed.), Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, pp. 59–80.
Shanghai wenyi chubanshe (ed.), Wutai jiemei: cong tigang dao yingpian (Two Stage Sisters: From Story to Film), Shanghai, Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1982.
Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema, New York, Routledge, 2004.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.