Interview with Emily Wilcox

This interview is with Emily Wilcox, the author of “Sino-Japanese Cultural Diplomacy in the 1950s: The Making and Reception of the Matsuyama Ballet’s The White-Haired Girl,” which appears in the May 2023 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Emily Wilcox is an Associate Professor of Chinese studies  and the director of the Chinese Studies Program at the College of William & Mary. Read her article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

Sure. I am a scholar of Asian studies focusing on history, performance culture, and film of modern and contemporary China. I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard University, an MPhil from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. As part of my dissertation work at Berkeley, I conducted ethnographic field research as the first international visiting PhD student at the Beijing Dance Academy, China’s top professional dance conservatory. I was a faculty member in Asian studies at the University of Michigan from 2013 to 2020, during which I collaborated with the U-M librarian Dr. Liangyu Fu to create the U-M Chinese Dance Collection, now the largest library archive in North America dedicated to Chinese dance history. In 2017, Dr. Fu and I co-curated the public exhibition Chinese Dance: National Movements in a Revolutionary Age, 1945–1965 and launched the Pioneers of Chinese Dancedigital archive. In 2018, I published my first monograph, Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy, which won the de la Torre Bueno Prize from the Dance Studies Association. I have co-edited three books—Corporeal Politics: Dancing East Asia (2020), Inter-Asia in Motion: Dance as Method (forthcoming 2023), and Teaching Film from the People’s Republic of China (forthcoming 2024)—and published 30 journal articles and book chapters in English and Chinese on Asian dance and performance. I currently serve as an associate professor of Chinese studies at William & Mary, where I also direct the Chinese Studies Program.

Your article focuses on cultural relations between China and Japan and production of a Chinese revolutionary opera by a Japanese ballet company. How did you come to focus on this fascinating subject?

In my research on Asian dance studies, I became interested in how diverse communities across Asia are linked through dance. While dance in Asia is often framed in national terms—“Chinese dance,” “Japanese dance,” “Indian dance,” etc.—there is much dance activity that crosses national borders, and this has produced a rich history of what Dr. Soo Ryon Yoon and I have theorized as “inter-Asia dance.” Border-crossing dance activities are often integral to the formation of national dance forms and traditions, in addition to being illuminating spaces of inter-Asia relationality and interculturalism. I first explored this dynamic of inter-Asia dance in an article titled “Performing Bandung” that examined China’s dance exchanges with India, Indonesia, and Burma during the 1950s and early 1960s at the height of the Bandung Afro-Asia movement. I then furthered this research by examining the transnational careers of Korean dancer Choe Seung-hui, who shaped the development of multiple dance forms across Japan, North and South Korea, and China from the 1930s to the 1960s, and Chinese dancer Liang Lun, who was instrumental in the history of Chinese diaspora dance in Southeast Asia in the 1940s. The current article looking at Sino-Japanese dance exchange in the 1950s through the Matsuyama Ballet’s White-Haired Girl is a continuation of my work on both Chinese dance history and twentieth-century inter-Asia dance.

As a political theater piece, The White-Haired Girl appeals differently to audiences from disparate nations and political backgrounds. How did audiences react differently in China and Japan?

The White-Haired Girl was first premiered in the Communist Party base areas of China as a musical theater production in 1945. It became an important piece of political theater across the country during the Chinese Civil War and the land reform movement. In 1950, a Chinese feature film with the same title was made based on the production, which was also extremely popular in China and won awards abroad. In 1952, a member of a Japanese trade delegation brought the 1950 Chinese film back to Japan, where it could not be shown publicly because of anti-Communist policies restricting access to cultural products from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Despite these restrictions, the film was screened in hundreds of underground viewings across Japan in 1952 and 1953. According to reports in the Chinese media during this time, highly positive responses to the film came from diverse groups of the Japanese public, from rural farmers and the elderly to university students and intellectuals. Inspired by the film, the leaders of the Matsuyama Ballet, a Japanese dance company based in Tokyo, decided to create a ballet based on the story. The ballet premiered in Tokyo in 1955 and was shown in venues across Japan. Although the Japanese responses to this production are still not well known, some reports suggest the ballet, like the earlier film, was also suppressed because of its pro-Communist content. In 1958, the Matsuyama Ballet toured an expanded version of their ballet in four cities in China, where it received rave reviews by Chinese audiences and left a lasting impact on the history of ballet in China.

Following up, what do these differing reactions expose about the two nations in this era?

During the 1950s, China and Japan were on opposite sides of the Cold War, and this deeply impacted cultural practices in the two countries. Officially, Japan was an ally of the United States and a member of the capitalist bloc in international geopolitics. Thus, although there were subsets of Japanese society that advocated stronger ties with the PRC and engaged in diverse modes of informal exchange with China during this period, officially Japan did not normalize its relations with the PRC until 1972. In this context, the differing reactions in China and Japan to both the earlier The White-Haired Girl film and the later Matsuyama Ballet production clearly reflect the fact that, while Communist art was mainstream official culture in the PRC, the very same art was considered underground, radical, and antiestablishment in Japan. The many adaptions of The White-Haired Girl created both inside and outside China during this time received strong support from the PRC state and wide praise from leaders at all levels of the Chinese government, as well as from prominent members of the Chinese cultural sphere. In Japan, it was mainly members of the Japanese left and others invested in promoting stronger Sino-Japanese relations who took part in the creation and promotion of such works. These groups often experienced fraught relations with the Japanese government and were also very diverse internally, creating a much more complex and decentralized cultural landscape in the Japanese context compared to what existed in China at this time.

Your article is a fascinating study of transnational ballet production and performance. How did you conduct this research?

Thank you! It has long been known in Chinese studies scholarship that the first ballet production of The White-Haired Girl was created by a Japanese ballet company and that this company’s tour to China in 1958 most likely inspired the later Chinese revolutionary ballets popularized during the Cultural Revolution, one of which was also an adaptation of The White-Haired Girl. Although this connection was widely known, however, no one conducting the English-language scholarship had delved into the details of this exchange. While I was creating the Chinese Dance Collection at the University of Michigan, I discovered that the collection included several original performance programs from Matsuyama Ballet tours to China, one of which was an original program from the 1958 tour. This 30-page primary source document is extremely rich with details not only about the production itself—including stage photos and scene-by-scene descriptions of the ballet—but also about other works in the company’s repertoire, the history of the company and its founders, and statements by individuals involved in the production and its 1958 tour to China. While conducting research in Hong Kong, I also came across a collection at Hong Kong Baptist University Library that contained Cold War–era documents from the United States Information Services, including extensive media clippings from Chinese newspapers about the 1958 Matsuyama Ballet tour. I used all of these materials together with other published Chinese sources discovered through my personal collection of Chinese-language dance publications and digitized Chinese periodical and newspaper databases. I then employed secondary scholarship to contextualize the primary source material within Sino-Japanese relations during this period.

You focus on the notion of people’s diplomacy in contacts between the PRC and nonsocialist world. How does people’s diplomacy provide another avenue for historical inquiry?

People’s diplomacy was a strategy developed by the Chinese government to interact with countries with whom it did not have formal diplomatic relations. The goal of people’s diplomacy was to use unofficial contacts as a way to build ties that would eventually lead to the establishment of formal relations. Because people’s diplomacy involves so many different sectors of society, it can be difficult to trace in a holistic manner. In the case of people’s diplomacy between China and Japan in the 1950s, for example, the groups involved ranged from the Red Cross and military families seeking repatriation of former soldiers to artists and intellectuals interested in leftist politics or Chinese studies research to members of the business community seeking to increase commercial trade opportunities. Each group involved in people’s diplomacy brings its own historical narratives and research questions. As a whole, however, I would say that people’s diplomacy is an important area of research for 1950s China because it illuminates the many ways in which the early PRC was not as isolated from the world culturally as has often previously been thought. Attention to people’s diplomacy helps us to see the ways in which Mao-era China was engaging in different ways with different parts of the world, and it especially brings to light China’s connections with other countries in Asia and around the world beyond the socialist bloc. When looking outside China, attention to people’s diplomacy helps to distinguish national-level policy positions from the activities of diverse nonstate groups. In this way, it draws attention to discord and contention within countries, thereby challenging the notion of firm boundaries between various sides of the Cold War.

You examine cultural diplomacy in Sino-Japanese relations in the 1950s. What does your study unveil about the bilateral relations of the era?

Existing studies have shown that China and Japan had significant engagement during this period, but the topic as a whole has been understudied, and the role of the arts in particular has received limited attention compared to other domains. In the study, I challenge conceptions of cultural diplomacy as a precursor to or a cover for economic and political engagement. I show instead how, in the case of the Matsuyama Ballet, an early trade negotiation was the impetus that led to the later dance production and exchange. I also show the important role played by long-standing participants in Japan’s left-wing art circles, many of whom had spent time in the Soviet Union, in sustaining Sino-Japanese cultural diplomacy during this period. By closely examining the Chinese responses to the Matsuyama Ballet’s performances, I note that a difference existed between discourses about Sino-Japanese relations in China and in Japan during this period. Notably, whereas wartime memory was an important component of the public discourse in Japan regarding the Japanese left’s desire to re-establish relations with China, in the published Chinese discourse wartime memory is completely absent. Instead, the Chinese discourse on Sino-Japanese relations surrounding the Matsuyama Ballet tour focuses on three factors: 1) the advanced nature of Japanese ballet art as demonstrated by the Matsuyama Ballet company; 2) the Japanese dancers’ success in drawing on Chinese folk dance traditions and portraying Chinese characters and stories; and 3) similarities between Japanese and Chinese society and the Japanese people’s purported desire to follow a socialist revolutionary path similar to China’s. Whereas Japanese discourse was in part backward-looking, China’s highlighted an imagined future that gained embodiment through the Japanese adaptation of The White-Haired Girl.

Prior works have discussed Sino-Japanese relations through political, diplomatic, and economic histories. How does your cultural history work complicate our understanding of this critical field?

Looking at cultural history helps us to understand the symbolic and aesthetic dimensions of transnational relations, to gain deeper insight into the ways in which diverse communities are imagined and encountered in international contexts and how this in turn shapes relations between groups. In the case of the Matsuyama Ballet’s The White-Haired Girl, the Japanese adaption of a renowned work of Chinese revolutionary drama provided a symbolic and aesthetic space for both Japanese leftist dance artists and Chinese audiences and critics to project a vision of Sino-Japanese relations that was grounded in shared revolutionary imaginaries. Because the ballet was a cross-cultural performance, the Japanese dancers who performed in it physically embodied Chinese characters on stage and took on the bodily and creative labor of promoting Chinese revolutionary ideology and aesthetics in a new artistic medium. This act of both embodying and transforming China’s revolutionary culture made the Japanese artists appear to participate in the work of revolutionary transformation. It presented an image of Japanese society to Chinese viewers that aligned with Chinese discourses about socialist internationalism, especially the idea that even capitalist nations allied with the United States harbored popular revolutionary movements within their borders. The Matsuyama Ballet’s performance of a Chinese revolutionary drama helped to convince Chinese viewers that China and Japan were fundamentally similar and that the policies of the Japanese state did not reflect the will of the Japanese people, two important principles of China’s people’s diplomacy at the time.

You argue that the cultural exchange in The White-Haired Girl must be placed in the longer history of Sino-Japanese and Japanese-Soviet relations during the Cold War. In turn, how would you place your study into the longer history of Sino-Japanese relations and East Asian history?

When I embarked on this project, I was initially struck by the ways in which Chinese responses to the Matsuyama Ballet production of The White-Haired Girl echoed discourses of Pan-Asianism that had circulated in East Asia earlier in the twentieth century, yet without any acknowledgement of this earlier history or its recent violence in the context of the Sino-Japanese War. The tension between sameness and difference evident in Chinese discussions about the Japanese dancers’ portrayal of Chinese characters and stories in Matsuyama Ballet’s The White-Haired Girl seemed to reflect a tension inherent in socialist internationalism that was also present in the earlier Pan-Asianist discourses. As I delved deeper into the backgrounds of the Japanese artists involved in the production, however, I saw another set of transnational connections that offered a different set of historical contexts for the intercultural practices at play in this exchange. Namely, from the biographies of the artists involved, it became clear that this production was as much a product of Sino-Japanese relations as it was of long-standing interactions between Japanese artists and the Soviet Union. It was surprising to me that these interactions persisted during the 1950s despite Cold War politics. I feel that in our understanding of modern East Asian history, the dimension of Japanese-Soviet relations deserves more attention, especially in terms of its impact on the cultural field of Japan and Sino-Japanese interactions during the Cold War.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

This article will form a part of a chapter in a larger book project I am currently working on, tentatively titled Performing Solidarities: Dancing the World in Mao’s China, 1949–1976. The book examines Mao-era China’s engagements with international communities and cultural enactments of these engagements in emerging notions of socialist internationalism, Cold War politics, Afro-Asianism, and Tricontinentalism through the lens of dance. The first section of the book, of which this study is part, attempts a comprehensive account of international dance tours to China during the Mao era. In addition to Japanese dance ensembles, I look at tours by dance companies from North Korea and from South and Southeast Asia, as well as from Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. In other sections of the book, I also look at Chinese dancers and ensembles that performed international dance styles, as well as dance choreographies staged by Chinese dance groups that depicted international current events, such as the US civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Congo Crisis. My goal in this book is to think about Mao-era China’s relations with the world in a holistic way that recognizes porous boundaries of the Cold War world and investigates performances of concepts such as anti-imperialism, socialist internationalism, and even early formulations of ideas we know today as people of color and the Global South. The project centers the role of art and specifically staged performance as an important space in which new concepts of global belonging were developed and circulated internationally during this period. Because cross-cultural performance is such a central component of these dance exchanges and performances, I also interrogate the ethics of cross-cultural performance and its diverse impacts in varied sociocultural and political contexts.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

My research draws attention to the contributions of dancers and other performing artists to the making of China’s cultural history and shows how dance materials can add texture and diversity to the primary sources historians use to research China. My research advocates for a broader view of Chinese socialist culture that moves beyond the narrow focus on model operas and ballets from the Cultural Revolution that often dominates popular understandings of this period. By taking a transnational approach to Chinese socialist culture that emphasizes engagements with Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, my work invites collaboration and dialogue between historians of China and scholars working in other parts of the world, especially beyond English-speaking communities and those based in North America and Western Europe.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

My goal for the next several years will be to complete and publish the larger book project, Performing Solidarities, to which this study contributes. The global scope of the project is challenging because each visiting ensemble and choreographic work indexes a different national context and international relationship with China. I am currently working on two case studies that are part of the project—a 1964 production by Chinese choreographers about the US civil rights movement and two tours to China by dance groups from Mexico in 1957. For the former, I consulted the Robert and Mabel Williams papers and am working through historical sources about visits the Williamses made to China in the 1960s, other artistic projects about US anti-Black racism created around the time in other parts of the world, and the larger context of China–African American relations in this period, all of which serve as necessary context for interpreting the piece. For the latter, I have been cross-referencing the names of Mexican dancers and dance works listed in extant Chinese-language performance programs with scholarship on Mexican dance history to identify the dancers and choreographers and reconstruct the tours’ repertoires. I am also collaborating with a scholar specializing in modern Mexican dance history who notated one of the productions performed on the tour and interviewed a living tour member. Since I am the first scholar to write about these exchanges, I plan to first publish full-length articles on each case study, as I did for the Matsuyama Ballet’s The White-Haired Girl, in order to make the historical results available to readers in a more comprehensive manner. I will condense the cases and develop overarching historical arguments and conceptual frameworks in the book.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

For further reading on Sino-Japanese relations and people’s diplomacy in the 1950s, I recommend the work of Takeo Arai, Kurt Radtke, Franziska Seraphim, and Casper Wits. Kurt Radtke’s book China’s Relations with Japan, 1945–83: The Role of Liao Chengzhi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990) is especially rich in original historical material and remains an authoritative account of this topic. The book contributed significantly to my understanding of this period and was instrumental in my writing and analysis. Herbert Passin’s book China’s Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Praeger, 1963)—although it is not a scholarly work and is very much a product of the Cold War era from which it emerged—contains interesting accounts based on his firsthand experience and offers an interesting window into US perceptions of China’s people’s diplomacy in the early 1960s. The book could provide ideas for historians researching this topic to pursue in the future.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

I want to thank Twentieth-Century China for theirsupport of this article and you for taking the time to do this interview. I am excited to see the field of Chinese history growing in so many exciting new directions and grateful for Twentieth-Century China’swork in this area.