by Ernie Diaz
We know the wide odds of your actually going to see China’s National Ballet perform Red Detachment of Women – that’s OK. It’s not like any of them will be Dancing with the Stars. We’d just like to let you know what you’re missing. Oh, a lot more than some flexibly-executed socialist claptrap. You’re missing a gander at the very essence of Chinese womanhood.
To understand a Chinese woman’s character, one must observe her actions, her eyes, and not pay undue heed to her words, for she has been raised from infancy to dissemble as a weak and helpless creature. Metal is forged in fire; mettle is forged in suffering. And to know from the start that men are better than you, by dictate of ancient Confucian law, is the kind of suffering that breeds inner strength, the best kind, albeit a host of esteem issues as well.
The strength lying behind the feminine veil is the true theme of Red Detachment of Women. Liberation of the oppressed is a secondary, correlated theme, for even the most exploited feudal Chinese serf had his wife to go home and boss around. If you’re in the mood for contemplating yin and yang, you can reflect on Mao’s making good on his promises by snapping many of the links that kept Chinese women chained at home. If you’re in the mood for conjecture, you can contemplate the outcome had Mao five divisions of Red Women, instead of a Detachment. His troubles with the Guomintang would have been over far more quickly, we wager.
Yes, Red Detachment of Women is based on a true story, one of a female special company, more than one hundred strong, formed in 1931. They fought out of Hainan, and when the Nationalists destroyed the communist base in Hainan almost all of them survived, through valor and deceit, far more able to melt into the populace than their one-dimensional male counterparts. After the founding of the PRC, surviving members of the company were summoned to Beijing so Mao could formally inspect and praise them.
But there is a more personal layer to the story, one so potent that Zhou Enlai took it upon himself to direct the film version, which preceded the ballet. The story begins with a landlord, an evil landlord. Let us cry out – a cry to fall on the deaf ears of millions of Chinese who dream of passive income from their cleverly-bought real estate – an evil, despotic landlord. He’s raised the rents far beyond what his Warlord Era tenants can afford, and imprisons those who can’t beg, borrow, or steal the balance.
Thus does Wu Qinghua, worthless daughter of another faceless peasant, languish in the landlord’s dungeon, up to her knees in the brackish water so close to surface in Hainan. She manages to escape briefly with a well-timed kick at the jailer, only to be swiftly caught, dragged back, and whipped catatonic. Only a man can save her, see. That’s the fiction part of the story.
That man is Hong Changqing, Party representative of the Red Detachment. He hears of Wu, and cunningly disguised as a businessman, buys her from said landlord, ostensibly as a slave, in reality the detachment’s newest, fieriest addition. It’s revenge Wu wants. Revenge on behalf of dead family members or wrongful imprisonment is the stalest trick in the movie-maker’s handbook. But both the movie and the ballet it’s based on transcend that cliché, for Wu turns into a true revolutionary, fighting and sacrificing on behalf of oppressed proles everywhere. It’s cliché that a man has to show her the way, of course, but hey, it was still the twentieth century back then.
That’s why Wu’s mentor Hong gets to die the martyr’s death (oops- belated spoiler alert), immolated by the evil landlord before the Red Detachment can get to the hideout and save the day. One woman giving her ipso facto worthless life – where’s the great tragedy in that?- we ask rhetorically. That Wu takes over Hong’s post as Commissar of the woman’s detachment – now that’s catharsis, progress, and women’s lib all in one.
There’s catharsis in ballet, too, by the way, to see the freedom a body can achieve after years of subjection to tortures Dick Cheney himself would think twice before authorizing. And to witness Red Detachment of Women’s entr’acte, the grand jete of ballerinas flying across the stage in a seemingly endless procession, well those are moves to shame even the most ecstasy-crazed raver, even Beyonce writhing in her latest video.
Chinese women revealing their fierce dignity in a wordless setting – refreshing, if not cathartic. And ballerinas in military garb, not tutus, holding rifles, well that shook up not just China but the bourgeoisie dance world when it premiered in 1964, just in time for Gloria Steinem and bra burning. Back in China, the stakes for liberation were much higher, but Red Detachment of Women managed to make the list of eight model plays, the only officially acceptable entertainment during the Cultural Revolution. What Nixon really thought of the ballet when he saw it on his watershed visit is lost to press release platitudes. We like to think he was scared to his tricky shoes.