The Red Detachment of Women Revisited

Remarks at the Freer Gallery, 11 November 2012, Washington, D.C.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

I first saw this story performed live as a ballet at the Nationalities (民族文化宫) Theater in Beijing on the evening of February 22, 1972.  I was then 28 and a member of President Nixon’s official entourage on his path-breaking encounter with the People’s Republic of China.

I was not then aware that the 红色娘子军  (Red Detachment of Women) had been a non-fiction novel, then a hugely popular film, and only then the ballet I just saw again for the first time in almost 41 years.  As part of my study of the Chinese vernacular, I had read the libretto for the Beijing opera version – one of the eight 样板戏 (model operas) — the year before (1971) in Taiwan.  Such subversive, Communist literature was banned on the island but available on a restricted basis to students and Chinese Nationalist Party-vetted instructors at the Foreign Service Language and Area Studies school then situated in Taichung.  One does not expect complex characterization in operatic melodrama, still less propaganda, so I was not disappointed by its absence from the libretto.

Anyway, on that evening in February forty years ago, I found myself sitting behind 江青 (Jiang Qing) who, as 蓝苹 (Blue Apple) had fished her way sexually through Yanan in the late 1930s, finally hooking the greatest fish of them all, Mao Zedong.  I exchanged a few words with Madame Mao about “revolutionary opera.”

Jiang was by then a pretty woman of 58 years who wore glasses and dressed to exemplify the austerity her earlier life had not.  (Anyone who sees the films she made in Shanghai can appreciate what a sultry number she had been in her movie-star phase.)  Jiang Qing was also then the capricious arbiter of what passed for higher culture on the Chinese mainland.

I noted that she looked like she was chewing a prune — obviously less than entranced by her role as the evening’s hostess for Richard Nixon and his traveling gang of American imperialists.  Her appearance in that role was intended to silence her own opposition and that of her many followers to the Chinese opening to America.

I was, of course, not aware of the developing complexities of her relationship with Mao, from whom she separated a year later, but I did have a sense of her political and cultural role in the People’s Republic.  As I watched the ballet, I remember thinking — between fade-outs from jet lag — how many ironies it embodied in terms both of China’s history and Jiang’s own past.

When the heroic events the novel, film, opera, and ballet portray actually took place on Hainan Island, Jiang Qing was living a dissolute life as a celebrity in Shanghai.  When Japan took Shanghai, many Chinese fled to Hainan, where they, the survivors of the Red Detachment of Women, and the 黎 (Li) minority (who are related to the Zhuang, Dai, and Thai) fought a savage war of resistance against the Japanese occupation (in which one-third of Li men perished).  But Jiang Qing fled into the arms of the Communist revolution, changed her name to Blue-Green River, and became first a queen, then finally an empress.

Jiang was in many ways in the tradition of 慈禧太后 (the Dowager Empress) — someone who appeared to value Chinese authenticity and reject foreign ways.  But she was also a former celebrity in cosmopolitan Shanghai and a convert to the Chinese version of Marxism.

Chinese Marxism was an anti-western westernizing philosophy.  Its appeal as an ideology lay in its forceful condemnation of the moral evils of Western ways .  This served at once to excuse major departures from Chinese tradition and to facilitate the embrace of major elements of Western-pioneered modernization like the scientific method, industrialism, the idea of human progress, and disciplined political party structures.

Jiang Qing embodied this essential contradiction even as she championed the excesses of the ten-year-long 无产阶级文化大革命 (the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) that in 1972 still raged through China, combining protests against modernization along Western lines with a systematic effort to smash China’s cultural heritage.

When I and other members of the Nixon entourage met Jiang Qing and the other three members of the 四人帮 (Gang of Four) [张春桥 (Zhang Chunqiao), 姚文元 (Yao Wenyuan), and 王洪文 (Wang Hongwen)], she had been a member of the Politburo for 3 years.

Despite her support for radical nativism, Jiang Qing was a cultural innovator who combined Western musical and other artistic traditions with those of China while denying ordinary Chinese access to anything other than this hybrid culture and its propaganda on behalf of the Communist revolution.  She was also a woman and addicted to power.  The ballet version of the Red Detachment of Women showcases all these things.

Hainan folk songs are rendered in the idiom of Western classical music.  Heroic Chinese women use the beautiful techniques of classical ballet to reenact a central myth of the Chinese Communist revolution.  Chinese acrobatics and martial arts poses join bayonets in their portrayal of historical events.  This is cultural syncretism if not great art.

In that sense I found it impressive.

For better or ill, the hybrid culture Jiang Qing helped impose on China remains alive, though no longer restricted to propaganda or dictated by officialdom.  It is beginning to yield artistic results of world value.

It turns out that no one, not even Jiang Qing, is all bad.