Do fables have something to contribute to the modern world? What do they show us about our society and ourselves?
The Cultural Revolution took place in China from 1966 through 1976 with the goal of removing capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society. Educated men and women were removed from their homes and taken to rural locations to be “re-educated”. They were subjected to backbreaking work and could be beaten or killed for any action, any creation that did not build up the “modern” ideals of the Party. The view was that mankind needed absolute realism and absolute equality to make progress. The goal of the Cultural Revolution proved impossible, but the process left a deep mark.
Video via sinoprod on Youtube.
This Chinese video from Su Yang takes a traditional courtship song and turns it into a warning. The original song, written before the Cultural Revolution, tells of an ill-fated couple who dare to love across class lines. In this version, we see Phoenix and Peony, who have a bright and happy future taken away by dark forces that awaken from under their home. A relentless drive for production destroys dreaming and the simple life and ends by destroying the family, but Phoenix remains. Like his namesake, Phoenix is made from fire; he cannot be destroyed by it.
There are three elements of this video which evoke a sense of timelessness and elevate Phoenix to the status of a cultural fable. First there is Su Yang’s vocal: throaty, raw and modern, vaguely reminiscent of Adam Durwitz of Counting Crows, and wedded to a repetitive, old-fashioned chorus style melody. Add to this the use of the matouqin, known in the Mongol tongue as the morin khuur, an extremely traditional Mongolian stringed instrument and you have a disorienting recording that has one foot in the past and one in the present. This might be interesting enough for some listeners, but it is the stellar animation by Hu Zhong Qiang that steals the show. Echoing the musical elements, it is stunningly modern even as it uses traditional Chinese images: beautiful peonies and birds, stylized people, and the phoenix itself. We experience a sense of loss as the dragon, an ancient symbol of China, is converted into a train. We experience horror as the sleeping animals below the Peony tree become mechanized agents of destruction. We identify with the sadness, hope, and burning defiance of Phoenix, which recall a legend more familiar to the Western mind than the dragon or the Peony. The visuals tell the story in a childlike way, yet the subject matter is hardly that of childhood. Or is it?
The genius of the video is that it is quintessentially Chinese, but retains a universal humanity that dissolves barriers. We can all appreciate and mourn the loss of culture, home, and family. Art at its best reminds us not only that we are precious individuals, but that we are connected by shared experience. This is a fable for all of us.
Are there fables that have stuck with you from childhood that appear in your dreams or in your art?