Children of the Revolution



Children of the Revolution came in second place to Jason Morningstar’s first draft of Grey Ranks in a game design contest, “Iron Mace,” in 2005. In this game, you play hungry children during China’s Cultural Revolution who are wandering from village to village trying to earn enough food and money to save their hometown by performing Revolutionary Operas. It’s an interesting concept and the this draft has a few neat mechanical ideas, but it’s not quite ready for playtesting yet, I don’t think.


Children of the Revolution takes place in China, circa 1966-1976. During this period, the young People’s Republic, having just recovered from The Three Bitter Years, a famine of epic proportions brought on by forced communalization and horrendous mismanagement (long story), was quickly plunged into the turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao Zedong, along with his wife, Jiang Qing, and their supporters, pushed for a total social transformation:

    Now our goal is to smash those capitalist roaders in power, to criticize the reactionary bourgeois “authorities” in science, to criticize the ideology of bourgeoisie and all other exploiter classes, to transform education, to transform the literature and art, to transform all areas of the superstructure mismatching economic base of socialism, to promote the strengthening and development of the socialist system.

    Decisions on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966)

The transformation most important to this game is the one that was enacted in “literature and art,” specifically the transformation of traditional Chinese theater and dance. The Cultural Revolution began with Jiang Qing’s denunciation of a play, the historical drama Hai Rui Dismissed from Office by Beijing’s Deputy Major, Wu Han. Mao’s wife understood the play to be a veiled criticism of her husband. This would not do. Soon, Jiang Qing was responsible for overseeing the production and development of the Model Operas, which were the only state-approval theatrical performances allowed during the Cultural Revolution years.

Drawing on some elements of traditional Chinese opera and dance, the Model Operas, generally speaking, removed all references to the emperors, kings, generals, concubines, and warrior maidens of classical antiquity, favoring instead to portray the struggles of recent memory, namely, the Anti-Japanese Resistance (World War II) and the revolutionary struggle leading to Liberation (the Second Chinese Civil War). The heroes of the operas were the “revolutionary classes” – workers, peasants, and soldiers – who triumphed over “class enemies” – landlords, imperialists, capitalist roaders, petty bourgeoisie, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, Rightists, traitors, and criminals – thanks to the power of Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought.

Though the content of the operas was completely different, the form and methods of performance were largely the same. Traditional singing techniques were used, acrobatics, dance, and martial arts were spotlighted, and every movement – from delivering a blow to a Japanese collaborator to a courageous fist raised in display of “class feeling” – carefully choreographed in accordance with long established guidelines. This mixture of classical and super-modern was hugely popular among people of all class backgrounds. Children and adult audiences were known to practice Model Opera songs until they knew them by heart.

Even today, almost forty years since Mao’s death in 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution, when China’s newer capitalist revolution keeps threatening to overshadow the few remnants of Marxist ideology, Model Operas are still widely performed, usually by the same troupes that are committed to preserving traditional theater and dance forms. So it is not at all unusual to walk into an theater and hear the protagonist shout or sing:

    Communist Party Members are not afraid to die!
    Certainly none of you will succeed in escaping
    the severe punishment of the People!

    The Red Detachment of Women

Examples of Revolutionary Opera

There are ten major Model Operas that are among the most successful and most widely admired of this genre. They include:

  • Azalea Mountain: In 1928, the Communist Party sends Ke Xiang to Azalea Mountain to organize a peasant revolt. A landlord and a traitor from the peasants’ Self-Defense Corps capture the mother of peasant leader Lei Gang to lure him away while they put down the uprising. Ke Xiang sees through the plan, but Lei Gang does not listen to her and goes to rescue his mother. In the end, Ke Xiang leads a group of rebels to liberate both Lei Gang and his mother.
  • The Red Lantern: When Li Yuhe, a railroad worker and Party organizer, is detained by government agents, Grandma Li worries that she will eventually be arrested as well. She decides to tell her granddaughter Tiemei the truth about her parents, who sacrificed their lives for the Revolution. After hearing their story, Li Tiemei is determined to follow the example of her martyred parents and join the Revolutionary cause.
  • The Harbour: Shanghai dockworker Han Xiaoqiang regrets spending 12 years in school to only end up a laborer. Meanwhile Qian Shouwei, a class enemy, creates a diversion on the docks and mixes fiberglass into a shipment of wheat intended to ease hunger in Africa. Qian convinces Han to carry the bag into the storehouse, hoping to damage China’s international reputation when the poisoned wheat is shipped abroad. Fang Haizhen, the party branch secretary for the dockworkers, discovers the contaminated bag and immediate seeks to root out the culprit. Qian attempts to escape, but is captured. Han apologizes for his part in the incident and rededicates himself to revolutionary thinking.
  • The Red Detachment of Women: During the first Chinese Civil War, the women of Hainan Island threw off their shackles, took up arms, and joined the Red Army, forming the Red Detachment of Women. This opera tells the story of Wu Qinghua, a young woman struggling under the brutal landlord, Southern Tyrant, who is liberated by army cadre Hong Changqing. Next, Hong disguises himself as a wealthy merchant and infiltrates the Tyrants’ camp to seize his grain supplies for the peasants. Enemy soldiers eventually capture and execute Hong, who dies a martyr’s death. In the end, however, Hong is avenged by Wu Qinghua, the Women’s Detachment, and the Red Army, who resolve to carry on the struggle.
  • Battle on the Plain: To break a stalemate, the Eighth Route Army sends platoon leader Zhao Yonggang to attempt guerrilla raids on Japanese encampments on the plains near Taihang Mountain, supported by local peasant communities. Zhao Yonggang fights valiantly, cuts off the enemy’s links to supplies and reinforcements, and even succeeds in killing the opposing commander.
  • Raid on White Tiger Regiment: During the Korean War, the American-led United Nations forces and Li Cheng Wan’s South Korean puppet army pretend to negotiate a cease fire while their main force, White Tiger Regiment, plans a massive assault on the allied Chinese and North Korean forces. In order to expose this deception, Yan Weicai leads a platoon of volunteers and, with the help of the Korean People’s Army and peasant forces, sneaks into the White Tigers’ regimental headquarters, razes it to the ground, and throws a monkey wrench in the imperialists’ plans.
  • Spark Amid the Reeds: In 1939, the New Fourth Army is fighting a moving battle with the Japanese and is forced to leave 18 wounded soldiers in the care of teahouse matron A Qing, who conceals them in the reed marshes. The Japanese instruct their puppet army under the traitorous Commander Hu Chuankui and his spymaster Diao Deyi to seek out and eliminate the wounded soldiers. This draws A Qing and Diao Deyi into a battle of trickery and deception in which A Qing ultimately triumphs.
  • Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy: The People’s Liberation Army sends out a detachment to round up a die-hard gang of Nationalist Party bandits. Scouting leader Yang Zirong recruits Hunter Chang and his daughter to act as guides for. the larger group of soldiers soon to arrive. Then Yang Zirong work sneakes into the bandits’ lair on Tiger Mountain. The people of valley rally around the newly arrived PLA soldiers, Even the hunter’s daughter, Chang Pao, requests permission to help wipe out the bandits. Meanwhile, Yang Zirong kills the bandit Luan Ping, their Second-in-Command, in a gun battle. In the end, Yang Zirong and the pursuing detachment, destroy the bandits and capture their commander, “Mountain-Sitting Vulture.”
  • White-Haired Woman
  • Dragon River Song

I didn’t have time to read these last two operas and write a plot summery for them. But you should be able to get a good enough idea from the eight plays described here.

The Premise

Children of the Revolution lets players take on the roles of a rural opera troupe from Three Birds Village during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution. The last few years have been very difficult for peasant farmers. A long period of drought was eventually broken by heavy flooding that washed most of the crops away, and now famine conditions have appeared in Three Birds Village. Assistance from neighboring communities or even villages in surrounding counties is unlikely to come, since the whole area is experiencing similar shortages.

Due to the political chaos gripping the country, city and provincial governments are in tatters. Urban youth have risen up, denounced the adults in power for their lack of revolutionary thinking, and moved on to other targets, leaving a huge void in the normal structures of authority. Mr. Chen, the village head of Three Birds has tried to contact regional and provincial governments many times, hoping to find someone who can send a shipment of rice to the starving population, but he has been completely unsuccessful.

Before the famine began, the young people of Three Birds Village had been rehearsing a local, amatuer production of The Harbour, one of the approved Model Operas. Reaching desperation, Mr. Chen decided that the village opera troupe should travel to larger communities giving performances, in the hope that, in return, the townships they visit will offer food to the young actors, some of which can be saved and brought home to their families. Not knowing what else to do, the other village members quickly agreed and the children prepared to leave for Great Unity Township.

That’s where the trouble began. After two days’ journey, the youth from Three Birds performed The Harbour for a large crowd at Great Unity, only to be beaten and dragged to the edge of town before the performance ended. The play’s story about sacks of grain led hungry crowd members to seize the burlap traveling bundles being used as props, only to be disappointed when they found nothing edible inside. They were not amused.

Now the youth are heading towards Silent Pond Township, but they are not sure what they will perform once they get there. Many are determined not to make another attempt at The Harbour, for fear that the audience’s response will be equally negative. But they do not know any other Model Operas. The oldest girl, Chen Hua, the village head’s daughter, knows a few of the songs from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and Azalea Mountain, but not enough to recreate an entire play.

The children must, then, plan for the performance of a new opera in the “Model” style, using only the limited knowledge and training they possess. Their lives and those of their friends and family members depends on their success.

Play Overview and the Youth of Three Birds Village

Children of the Revolution has two main phases of play, Plotting and Performance. The Plotting Phase takes place while the youth of Three Birds are traveling to the next township, when they quickly decide on the characters and assign the characters scenes in the opera they’re going to present when they arrive.

The Performance Phase is when they actually present their improvised, cobbled-together opera to the townspeople and receive their reaction, including, hopefully, sustenance.

During the game, each player will take on the role of one of the youth performers of Three Birds Village. All of the children have been taught to address each other as “Comrade,” regardless of age or gender.

Character Creation and Archetypes

Model Operas make use of the long tradition of stock character archetypes developed in classical Chinese opera, though these archetypes obviously take on new forms in a modern setting. Sword-swinging generals may become PLA officers, while corrupt eunuch ministers may be replaced by Japanese collaborators. Each player’s youth will represent one major character in the opera. Every player should, in conjunction with the others, select an archetype, making sure there is a decent distribution among the four major types of roles: Sheng, Dan, Jing, and Chou.

Sheng roles are those of male peasants, workers, and soldiers, as well as traitors, spies, collaborators and other characters that disguise themselves as members of the Revolutionary Classes. Sheng characters represent something of the Everyman, and, in Model Operas, represent the masses and the proletariat. While they may not get as much attention as the flashier Jing characters, they are critical to the story, being the foundation of the Revolution and those doing the real work in the trenches. Sheng roles are traditionally divided into Lao Sheng (older men), Xiao Sheng (young men), and Wu Sheng (martial men).

Dan roles represent most of the female characters in opera, traditionally divided into Qing Yi (young women), Hua Dan (beauties), Wu Dan (military women), and Lao Dan (older women). Female characters are critical in Model Operas, for they demonstrate the Revolution’s commitment to women’s liberation and having women in positions of authority. Looking through the opera plots described earlier, it’s easy to see how often the plays feature female leaders, which may be at least partially due to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.

Jing roles were traditionally fierce warriors, kings, generals, and gods. While the showy headdresses and face paint of the past are no longer available to them, these characters are all presence and action on stage. They are larger-than-life heroes and villains, possessing a bit of mystery and mythology about them. The headstrong scout leader Yang Zirong, from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, could be considered a Jing role, as could the flashy Revolutionary martyr, Wu Qinghua, from The Red Detachment of Women.

Chou roles are clowns and tricksters, someone for the audience to laugh at and sympathize with. They traditionally come in two varieties, Wen Chou (cultured clowns) and Wu Chou (martial clowns). Chou are often foolish, a bit stupid, clumsy, or just confused about the events in the world around them. In Model Operas, other characters may spend time explaining the nature of the Revolution or the need for Class Struggle to clowns, which serves as a way to teach the audience and propagate the Communist message.

In addition to possessing characters from a range of archetypes, it is important to have characters from the ranks of each Revolutionary Class (peasants, workers, and soldiers), women in positions of authority, at least two class enemies (one who attacks from outside and one internal, if you can manage it), and one or more characters who are not already members of the Revolution, but who will be excited about joining the cause. If you don’t have enough players to represent all these necessary roles, having players take on additional minor roles (such as a Class Enemy who has one or two scenes, before being captured, or a railroad worker who joins the Red Army and then fades into the background) is not a bad idea.

Revolutionary characters should refer to each other and to members of the Revolutionary Classes (even non-recruited members) as “Comrade,” regardless of rank or age, so you could have character names like “Comrade Plum Blossom,” “Comrade Glorious Nation,” “Comrade Righteousness,” or “Comrade Treasured Pearl.” Generally, girls are named for flowers, precious stones, birds, and other beautiful things. Boys are named for virtues and abstract qualities. Additionally, since these characters stand for the ideals of the Revolution, they may have naively hopeful or patriotic names like “Glorious Nation” or “Bright Future.”

Class Enemies will have names that show their treachery and duplicity. Nationalist or Japanese puppet generals should have grandiose, evil names, such as Mountain-Sitting Vulture from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Landlords can possess impressive nicknames, such as Southern Tyrant. Traitors and collaborators should have names similar to the Revolutionary Classes, but with a twist on them that makes them sound not so righteous, such as Comrade Receives Bounty or Comrade Early Frost.

How A Performance Works

Unlike most roleplaying games, Children of the Revolution requires an audience, that is, one or more players who will not take part in playing characters or creating the “story” of the opera, but who will still “play” in the sense that their contributions are critical to the game. The job of the audience is to represent the reactions of the people of Great Unity Township. Chinese opera involves a large degree of audience participation, in that the audience claps and cheers for performers when they are impressed by their singing or moved by other aspects of the performance. In Children of the Revolution, the audience is also responsible for hanging out the currency of the game, coins that the players use to do certain things. In order to gain coins, the players must impress the audience with their performances, winning a coin each time they earn cheers or applause. The number of coins the audience starts with can vary, depending on how rare you want the currency to be. You probably want the audience to start with 7-10 coins for each performing player, but feel free to alter this between games.

The audience should clap and award coins for three major things: significant declarations of impressive Communist rhetoric, high romance, and diabolical fiendishness. The audience loves to hear that the oppressed Revolutionary Classes are endowed with dauntless courage and Class Feeling that leads them to defeat their Class Enemies and usher in a new age of prosperity and equality. They also love romance, not in the sense of love stories, but in the sense of idealized high adventure and sweeping sentiment; if things are exciting, glorious, and exaggerated, such that it makes them go “wow,” the players involved should definitely earn coins. Finally, players that are portraying Class Enemies should earn coins for being the slippery devils that they are. Villains have always been well loved by audiences, as well as being fun roles for actors to play, and ensuring that their characters meet an appropriate end can also earn applause for a great performance.

Model Operas had a variable number of scenes, but we’re going to simplify that by having a simpler 8 scene opera. Each player gets 6 Opportunities to be in a scene, at least 4 of which must be determined during the plotting stage (for example, Player A might choose to put her Opportunities in scenes 2, 4, 5, and 8), to make sure there will be at least 1 or 2 characters in every scene. The undetermined Opportunities can be assigned to scenes during play, even after a scene has already begun.

Characters don’t necessarily have to be “on stage” at the beginning of a scene in which they have an Opportunity, but can enter at any point. Players that choose to have their characters begin “on stage” should quickly decide where they want their scene to take place, what their characters are doing when the scene begins, and whether any additional minor characters are present. Minor, non-named characters can be summoned or narrated for whenever necessary. For example, any player could declare, “I enter, backed by a squad of elite PLA army troops,” or “A messenger enters and hands a letter to Commander Xu.” Players narrate the actions of their own characters or minor characters in rotation, narrating a few lines of dialog or a few simple actions, before passing to the next player. Players can be skipped if they don’t have anything to contribute, or to focus the action on a few characters who are having an exchange.

Combat, both social and physical, is handled by flipping coins. Any number of players can be involved in a single combat, once it is declared, assuming that they have coins. Combat can be declared against a player that doesn’t have any coins, but the declarer must possess at least one coin themselves. Combatant players line up on two sides, that of the declarer and that of their chosen opponents. Both sides flip all their coins, counting heads as successes. The side that gains the most heads triumphs and can narrate social or physical difficulties for the loser, such as being knocked to the ground, being tied up, being ridiculed by a crowd, being abandoned by their friends and followers, or being humiliated and shamed. Note that both the winner and loser of a combat can gain coins from the audience for their performance of victory or defeat. And the audience’s sympathies are often drawn to the underdog. It is rather typical for Class Enemies to win combats early on in the opera, only to be eventually overcome by Revolutionary forces.

Song Cards allow characters to perform songs, which pause the action on stage and shift the spotlight to a particular player and character. Song cards are purchased for 2 coins and can earn the performer between 1 and 4 coins from the audience, depending on how well they thought the song was performed. Actually singing a song is optional, but players must spontaneously invent a few poetic and romantic lines based on the words or themes written on the card. Less than great earn 1 coin, adequate ones get 2, good songs earn 3 coins, and show-stopping songs that bring down the house earn 4 coins. So performing impressive songs is a good way for players to earn more coins. For more information, see the examples of Song Cards, below.

Extended combats can also occur, in the form of Class Struggle, the only way to eliminate characters from the opera. Class struggle can be initiated against both members of the Revolutionary Classes and Class Enemies. Elimination of one character by one or more others requires winning a series of three normal combats, the result of which is the capture or death of the losing character by either the Revolution or counterrevolutionary elements (the Japanese, the Nationalists, landlords, capitalists, etc.). Players who have one or more of their characters eliminated can shift any re- maining scene Opportunities to their other characters or, if necessary, invent new characters and pass those Opportunities on to them.


At the end of the game, the performing players should count all the coins they’ve earned during the course of their performance and compare them to the number of coins the audience still has. If the performing players have more coins, then the children of Three Birds impressed their hosts enough that their strengthened sense of Class Feeling leads them to share their limited resources with the youth. Otherwise, the children will still be hungry and be forced to seek food in another township.

Song Cards

Create Song Cards by writing the following words or themes on index cards or slips of paper. Feel free to make up your own Song Card contents as well.

  • the Sun and Moon
  • the River and the Waves
  • the Clouds and Birds
  • Class Feeling
  • Mao Zedong
  • the Boat and the Current
  • the Sword and Spear
  • the Forest and the Flowers
  • Mountains and Hillsides
  • the Communist Party
  • the People’s Liberation Army
  • Universal Brotherhood
  • the Glorious Future
  • the Destruction of Our Enemies
  • the Old Ways

References Search=modern+beijing+opera

2 Responses to “Children of the Revolution”

  1. terje Says:

    This is one of the coolest game concepts ive come across in quite a while! I guess the chances of seeing it in print arent that great?

  2. Maybe. I’ve been thinking about doing a collection of all of my short contest games at some point, with all of them revised and polished up. I might call it “Low-Res RPGs” or something like that.

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