A Survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution Falls Victim to the Cancel Cultural Revolution

Bright Sheng survived Chairman Mao, but his career may not survive showing his class Laurence Olivier's portrayal of Othello.

Above: a 2015 promotional photo for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Otello . . . immediately before the company had a change of heart and eliminated makeup for the tenor in the title role

In 1996 newspapers across the country ran a tragic story that seemed to embody a ghastly form of irony: someone who survived Cambodia’s killing fields was murdered in Los Angeles:

Academy Award-winning actor Haing S. Ngor--who survived the savage horrors of the Khmer Rouge before starring in “The Killing Fields,” a movie about the brutality in his native Cambodia--was found shot to death outside his apartment near Dodger Stadium, police said Monday.

I couldn’t help but think of that story when I read the mind-boggling stupid story this week of Bright Sheng, a music composer who survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao, only to be purged by a member of the new cancel-culture Red Guard right here in the good old US of A. Professor Sheng’s offense? Showing his music composition class the Laurence Olivier version of “Othello” in preparation for a seminar that would show how Giuseppe Verdi had transformed the play into an opera.

(If you haven’t seen the opera, I highly recommend it. You could do worse than to start with this version featuring Placido Domingo at La Scala.)

Sheng is a world-renowned composer, pianist, and conductor, who has received a MacArthur fellowship and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Students should feel thrilled to be able to learn from him. But you never know when the Red Successors will point their fingers and screech.

The article in the Michigan Daily on Bright’s Great Bourgeois Offense is bonkers. Just when you think it can’t get any crazier, you keep scrolling, and the insanity multiplies. It starts off this way:

Sheng, a highly accomplished composer, conductor and pianist, has had his music featured by prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Sheng also received a commission in honor of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visiting the White House in 1999, as well as numerous awards and fellowships.

. . . .

On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface. 

“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.” 

It’s all there, complete with the reference to a “safe space.” The need to treat college students as young children doesn’t end there.

The blackface incident also elicited response from the graduate students in the program. According to a graduate student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, many of the graduate students started reaching out to the undergraduate community after they heard about the incident.

“It was sort of a protective reaction from the grad students, like ‘what can we do to help the undergraduates? What do they need?’” the graduate student said. “Clearly they’re not going to be in a room with (Sheng) anytime soon.” 

Oh my God! You have just suffered the worst indignity one can imagine! You were forced to watch one of the greatest Shakespearean actors ever to be captured on film, performing one of the greatest plays ever written! What can we do to make it right? Can we bring you a teddy bear? A soft pillow?

If you wish to watch the horror that Mr. Sheng subjected his class to, you can watch it on YouTube:

Hurry, before they take it down!

In case you think I am exaggerating about the extent to which these professors treat their students like little kids, I am not. Christina Sommers, who brought this story to my attention on Twitter, gives us this video of one of Sheng’s accusers congratulating the class of 2020 in one of the creepiest videos I have seen this year. You seriously owe it to yourself to click through and watch the whole nauseating thing. Imagine your own college-age students being addressed this way.

I think I need a safe space to protect me from that. Here’s that same cretin quoted in the Michigan Daily story:

“To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Chambers wrote. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”

Ah yes, the old “you’re a racist regardless of your intent” ploy.

Naturally, the story also features an apology—you know: a forced confession, just like they used to do back in the days of the Cultural Revolution (about which, more below). But, like the old forced confessions obtained by Mao’s goons, all this apology did was get Mr. Sheng in deeper trouble:

On Sept. 16, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. He wrote that after doing more research into the issue, he realized the true extent to which racism impacts American culture, adding that he failed to recognize the racist connotation of blackface makeup.

“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought of this more diligently and fundamentally; I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry,” Sheng wrote. “It also has made me lost (sic) your trust.”

However, the apology has been another source of controversy among students. Students have taken particular issue with the section of the letter where Sheng lists multiple examples of how he has worked with people of color in the past. 

“At the world premiere of my opera The Silver River in South Carolina in 2000, I casted an African American actress (for the leading role), an Asian female dancer and a white baritone for the three main characters,” Sheng wrote.

After a few more examples, Sheng concludes by writing that he has “never thought (of himself as) being discriminating against any race.”

Ms. Cook, the poor college student so badly traumatized by the horrific incident, was not having any of it:

Cook told The Daily she felt the letter was shallow. By listing out all of his contributions to people of color, he failed to understand the gravity of his actions, Cook said.

“He could have taken responsibility for his actions and realized that this was harmful to some of his students that are within his class,” Cook said. “Instead, he tried to make excuses. Instead of just apologizing for it, he tried to downplay the fact that the entire situation happened in the first place.”

Actually, it sounds like he was simply trying to explain that he had no racist intent. Saying he gave a role to a white baritone was not part of a “listing” of “contributions to people of color” but rather an assertion that he tries to assign roles based on criteria other than race. As he put it in an email to the school’s paper:

In regards to the “Othello” incident, Sheng told The Daily he made a mistake and was “very sorry.” He wrote that the original intent was to show how the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. Since cross-casting was frequent in opera, he did not think Laurence Olivier’s performance was “intended to be the same as the minstrel performances which did degrade African Americans.”

“I thought (that) in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” Sheng wrote. “Of course, time (sic) has changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.” 

I said up front that this story is tragically ironic because Sheng survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Here is an excerpt from an interview he did in 1999:

I took piano lessons when I was a child. According to my teacher, I was talented, although I didn't really like it. Then the Cultural Revolution started and the Red Guards came and took the piano away, as it was considered "bourgeois." I was rather happy at first about that since I didn't have to practice. But a year later, I heard piano music on the radio one day and I realized how much I missed playing the piano. Since I didn't have a piano at home, I would play it at school. Shortly afterwards, I decided I would like to play the piano all my life, although I didn't think I could be a musician. My family isn't a musical family.

During the Cultural Revolution, there was no high school and college because one of Mao's missions was to demolish the education system. All the young teenagers graduating from junior high school could become social problems if they did not have jobs. Because the economy was not so great at the time, he decided to send all the young city people to the countryside to be "re-educated'' by the peasants. Those who had some talent in the performing arts could escape a career as a farmer because Jiang Quing, Mao's wife, wanted to make a reputation for herself as a patron of the arts. She gave state funding to arts companies and encouraged them to bring in young people. My very limited piano skills became my great escape.

In a way, Sheng explained, but for the Cultural Revolution, he would never have become a musician. Which is not to say that he has fond memories of that insane time: “I wrote a piece on the Cultural Revolution called H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976 and that piece is full of anger.”

But for the Cancel Cultural Revolution, he would still be teaching undergraduate students. If he wrote a piece about his current experience, I wonder what emotion it would eonvey.

If you’re looking to learn about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, I recommend Red Scarf Girl, a book I wrote about in this post from 2017:

I recently read Red Scarf Girl, a book recommended to me by Mark Hemingway. The book is Ji-li Jiang’s memoir of experiencing Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a young girl of 12. The book is incredible for its description of the wave of utter insanity that washed over China in those years. The country had already experienced the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s Orwellian name for the economic program that killed over 50 million people. But of course nobody talked about that — and while the threat of going to jail and being tortured loomed over everyone’s heads, one should not minimize the genuine love that many people seemed to feel for Mao. You either loved him or pretended to love him, and Mao didn’t much care which. Even if you loved him, a neighbor who didn’t like you might make up a story about you — and if that happened, you were done. You would be made to confess thoughtcrimes you had not committed. You would be tortured until you fabricated stories about the guilt of friends and neighbors who had never helped you do anything.

I highly recommend the book. After I read it, my daughter chose it as a book to read and report on for school. Children need to learn about such cults as they begin to form their opinions about the world.

What does the Cultural Revolution have to do with Bright Sheng’s current controversy? Well, nobody is being jailed or beaten or killed . . . yet. But think about this:

In the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the people were told that they must adhere to a particular set of beliefs, which emphasized the newly elevated nature of a formerly oppressed group. Meanwhile, the citizenry was told to despise all members of the former ruling class—including many who were hardly elites, but who could be argued to have some distant relative who might tenuously be labeled elite in some way. The belief system was in many ways bizarre and at odds with common sense, but that didn’t matter. The citizens were told to believe it, or else. Children were told to report to the authorities any adults failing to conform. Suspected offenders were hauled before secret tribunals and harangued until they were forced to confess to offenses that in many cases they had not committed. They were told that the confessions would save them from ruin, but in most cases the confessions actually cemented their removal from society. The atmosphere in the air was thick and oppressive—filled with the paranoia of those who never know when their own time will come.

Does any of that sound . . . familiar?

I bet Bright Sheng thought he had escaped all of that when he managed to make it to the United States.

He has now learned otherwise.