Chen Zhaozi (1930–2002)
“My first memory is the army camp at Yan’an,” wrote Chen Zhaozi in his memoir. “That memory determined all the rest.” Chen’s father was a high-ranking officer in the Red Army, and Chen went on the Long March in his mother’s arms. In 1949, the family settled in Beijing. Due to his father’s position, Chen was able to study abroad at Humboldt University in East Berlin. He attended the productions of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and in 1951 began to write his first play, Autumn Harvest, in the style of Brecht’s epic theater.
Chen returned to Beijing in 1954 and took a position in the Ministry of Culture. He completed Autumn Harvest soon after; it was staged in 1956. The play depicts a 1927 peasant uprising in Hunan and concludes with what Chen called a “dialectical ballet.” Two years later, he completed The Water Seller, an adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, praised the play and encouraged Chen to try his hand at opera. Working with composer Zhang Ye, Chen wrote The Prairie Fire, which premiered in 1963. Set in the Ming dynasty, the opera concerns a group of farmers and their greedy landlord. Chen designed a grotesque mask for the landlord character, but the actor was unable to sing in it, and the mask had to be replaced with dark make-up.