“Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture” by Edward Tyerman

The 1930 New York production of Roar, China! (NY Public Library) The 1930 New York production of Roar, China! (NY Public Library)

Sergei Tretyakov is on something of a roll. The Soviet writer has featured in several recent books, including a new translation of (among other plays) Roar, China!, a new biography and a study of the Soviet-led drive for a “Leftist Literary Commons”. He also is a main character, arguably the protagonist, in Edward Tyerman’s Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture. China loomed large, both politically and culturally, in early Soviet thinking; this renewed attention coincides with today’s ever-closer Sino-Russian relations.


The political project of directing the global revolutionary process through the Comintern coexisted with a cultural project: to produce a sense of connection to an international community of enemies of capital. In the 1920s, the most important country for both these projects was China. Asia’s largest country offered a prime testing ground for the Soviet attempt to reverse Russia’s role in the world, from imperial power to leader of the global anti-imperialist movement… China and its contemporary fate emerged as a central theme in Soviet culture of the 1920s. Across the genres and media of the new society, in films, plays, and ballet, in fictional and documentary literature, China appeared at the heart of Soviet explorations into the nature and meaning of internationalism.


Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture, Edward Tyerman Columbia University Press, December 2021)
Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture, Edward Tyerman (Columbia University Press, December 2021)

Internationalist Aesthetics is an academic title and can in places be a bit dense for non-specialists who (like me) need to resort to a dictionary for terms like “semiotics” and “chronotope” (and who probably aren’t, to be fair, the book’s target audience), but when Tyerman turns to description and explanation rather than theory, the book is nevertheless both fascinating and straightforward.

Tretyakov’s play Roar, China! features prominently. Based upon an actual imperialist outrage, it was, for the first audiences, drama ripped from the headlines. Tyerman peels the play back to its basics, explaining Tretyakov’s political, literary and dramatic objectives, what he was trying to do and how he did it:


Tretyakov envisioned Roar, China! as the next step in his ongoing campaign to de-exoticize and decommodify the Soviet public’s relationship to China.


He had his work cut out. The cultural scene of early Soviet Russia was more vibrant than one might at first suppose:


one of the most famous spectacles of the 1920s Soviet stage [was] the Vakhtangov Theater’s 1922 production of Carlo Gozzi’s Princess Turandot, a commedia dell’arte classic set in a fairy-tale Beijing … playing more than six hundred times between 1922 and 1929. Vakhtangov staged Gozzi’s eighteenth-century fable—about a Chinese princess who asks her suitors impossible riddles—as a spectacle of theater coming into being… Vakhtangov’s cast did not even pretend to inhabit a fantastic, fairy-tale Beijing; instead, they portrayed Italian actors attempting to improvise their way through Gozzi’s text. These actors emerged from the audience to don their costumes onstage, used seemingly random objects for props, and signified China as their location by simply holding up a sign that read “Peking.”


Also, during the 1926 season in which Roar, China! debuted,


Leningrad’s Maly Opera Theater saw the premiere of Franz Lehar’s The Yellow Jacket (Zheltaia Kofta—Die gelbe Jacke) [perhaps better known it’s later incarnation as  Das Land des Lächelns — The Land of Smiles], a 1923 operetta centered around a transethnic romance between a Viennese countess and a Chinese prince. Chu-Iun-Vai, at the Moscow Art Theater’s Fourth Studio, was a translation of Julius Berstl’s The Lascivious Mr. Chu (Der lasterhafte Herr Tschu), a satirical fairy-tale set in China’s imperial past. The Chalk Circle, which played in Moscow and Leningrad under the title Chang-Gai-Tang, adapted the German poet Klabund’s 1924 version of the Yuan dynasty classic Hui lan ji (灰闌記) by Li Quanfu 李潛夫—the same play that would later inspire Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle… Georgy Pavlov’s The Bronze Idol at the Maly Theater Studio, was a homegrown piece of Chinese exoticism: an “over-loaded melodrama” whose “spicy, exotic sauce” included an opium den, a gang of pirates, and a man-eating bronze statue.


Tretyakov, on the other hand, had a “factographic ambition to connect his audience to contemporary China.” Roar, China!, for example,


seeks to overcome one of the most significant obstacles facing the construction of an internationalist sense of the world: the division of languages. It does so, however, by effectively bypassing the Chinese language altogether, replacing linguistic translation with the decoding and recoding of trade sounds.


Tyerman’s deep dive includes an illuminating discussion of the language of the play, including Tretyakov’s use of


Chinese Pidgin Russian, a contact language that developed along the Russian-Chinese border. Colloquially known as moia-tvoia, Chinese Pidgin Russian first appeared at the border trading post of Kyakhta in Mongolia.


The hard-hitting anti-imperialist play was by most standards a success with an international reach that stretched from New York to Shanghai.


Tyerman contrasts Roar, China! with The Red Poppy, a new Bolshoi ballet which followed quickly on the play’s heels and which told


reworked the well-worn narrative of the doomed transethnic romance into a tale of a Chinese dancer who awakens to revolutionary consciousness through her love for a Soviet naval captain… The symbolic mediator in this exchange is the red poppy, which passes back and forth between them, transforming its meaning from a token of semicolonial vice to a banner of internationalist solidarity.


It was a big hit:


At a time when the future of ballet seemed uncertain, The Red Poppy offered proof that a production with a revolutionary theme could be a hit… In all, the original production played more than three hundred times on the Bolshoi’s stage between 1927 and 1937.  Red poppy–themed perfume, soap, and confectionary appeared in the autumn of 1927, capitalizing on the show’s popularity.


The imagery didn’t however work across in the country where the ballet was set:


Chinese Communist spectators of the ballet, however, insisted that the poppy retained for them a different meaning: a direct association with the opium wars.


Later productions were revised but didn’t solve the problem.


In February 1950, Mao visited the Bolshoi to watch a performance of Swan Lake. He declined, however, an invitation to see The Red Poppy. China’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Wang Jiaxiang王稼祥, advised against it after his wife, Zhu Zhongli 朱仲麗, attended a dress rehearsal. Her account of the production suggests the alterations of 1949 did not achieve their desired effect. Zhu condemned the ballet for distorting the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the revolution, replacing its decades of struggle with an account of Marxism-Leninism entering China through an exchange between a Soviet sailor and a Chinese prostitute.


Tyerman’s discussion of cinema is equally interested and detailed. There was of course much more to early Soviet cultural life than China. But Internationalist Aesthetics also serves as a window onto this broader subject.

Seen from the perspective of a century later, when cultural soft power has largely been outsourced to the private sector, the faith Soviet practitioners apparently placed in the arts seems quaint and almost touching. Nor does it now seem that there was ever much to it: a couple of writers, and a handful of films, a ballet. And it didn’t last long; by 1927, when


the Nationalists turned violently against their Communist allies, putting an end to Soviet ambitions to shape the course of China’s political development


it was largely over. And despite attempts to rescue the portrayals of China from the “chinoiserie” prevalent in Russian and, more broadly, European portrayals,


the Comintern’s insistence on the universality of a Marxist-Leninist theory based on European class categories opened the door to a Soviet mode of Orientalism, which would relegate China to an earlier stage on the timeline of revolutionary development and position the Soviet Union in the role of advanced mentor.


In addition, those trying to create this new vision of China suffered the same lack of basics as those of some of their more modern counterparts:


Because Tretyakov and most other Soviet visitors to China had limited linguistic abilities in Chinese, their access to this foreign reality frequently required the mediation of Chinese intermediaries. These intermediaries possessed their own perspectives and agendas, shaped by the complex social dynamics of 1920s China and its relationship to Soviet Russia.


Both China and the Soviet Union seem to have decided that on the whole, they had other things to do.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.