The Red Detachment of Women: Inspiration from Socialist China’s Cultural Revolution

August 10, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

Lincoln Center in New York City, one of the most prestigious cultural venues in the U.S., is not usually associated with revolution, socialism, and communism. But on July 11, 2015, before an audience of about 2,000 people, something unique and almost surreal occurred: An amazing opportunity to see and experience a stupendous performance of a great work of art produced during the Cultural Revolution in China—the high point of the first wave of socialist revolution.

Scene from The Red Detachment of Women, 1972.A s

A scene from the 1972 production of The Red Detachment of Women.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The National Ballet of China, the pre-eminent ballet company of capitalist China, performed The Red Detachment of Women, a ballet written and first performed in 1964 when China was socialist.

The story is simple yet powerful. It begins with the heroine, Qionghua, chained and enslaved by a landlord, about to be sold. But she manages to escape, meets up with the Red Army and through twists and turns becomes a leader in the revolution.

This takes place on Hainan Island in the 1930s, an intense stage of the revolutionary civil war in China. Many poor peasant men had joined Mao Zedong’s Red Army and women also banded together to defend themselves against reactionary forces. The communists helped these women acquire weapons and learn guerrilla techniques and, out of this, a legendary Women’s Detachment of the Red Army emerged. This is the unit Qionghua joins after Red Army soldiers rescue her.

“Breathtaking” is a word much overused in describing works of art. But when Scene 2 opened, it was literally breathtaking. The dancing is dazzling and amazing—and not what you typically expect when you go see ballet. In the beginning scenes the stage was dark and dreary, emitting the oppressive atmosphere of feudal China. But when the curtain rose for Scene 2 in the “Red Area,” the audience erupted into loud roars and applause. The sky is a bright blue, colorful flags are flying, there are blossoming trees—it looked higher than life, like a truly liberated area.

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The audience for this performance was part of this unique experience. It included many Chinese people now living in the U.S. who had lived in capitalist China for many decades but had also lived in China when it was socialist. There were younger Chinese people in the audience who had only heard stories—and many lies—about the Cultural Revolution. There were also people who had been inspired by Mao and socialist China during the radical and revolutionary upsurges in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s; as well as younger people who were seeing a revolutionary work of art from the Cultural Revolution for the very first time. This was not your usual cultural event at Lincoln Center, or typical audience, to say the least.

At the very beginning, when the music started, right away there was a gleeful, collective energy from a huge section of the audience who immediately reacted in nostalgic recognition. Like embracing an old and dear friend, many in the audience start clapping and moving to the music, nodding their heads when the main characters took the stage.

The Red Detachment of Women was an amazing work of revolutionary art, performed during the Cultural Revolution, when hundreds of millions of people in China were taking part in the most radical and most liberating social experience in modern history, when Mao and revolutionary leaders were mobilizing and relying on people to prevent the return of capitalism. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, it was summed up that most culture in China still reflected the old feudal society, old thinking and old ways, and that movies, plays, and books were still dominated by “emperors, princes, generals, ministers, scholars, and beauties.” And there was a huge struggle to put the masses of people—the peasants, soldiers, workers, and revolutionary heroes on stage.

When Red Detachment was first performed in 1964, ballet had only been practiced in China for 10 years. The choreography and dancing in Red Detachment achieved a very high technical and artistic level, but was also transformed and revolutionized, in content and form. The whole ballet company went to Hainan Island to become familiar with the revolutionary areas and to meet former members of the women’s detachment, and several songs written for the ballet were inspired by folk pieces from the island. The choreographers created specific dance vocabulary to express the revolutionary ardor and militant force of the characters—incorporating new poses and martial arts movements. In the various dance movements, for example, the hero always stands up, head raised and chest high. And for the heroine, Qionghua, a set of clear-cut, concise dance movements were developed to bring out her deep suffering and bitter hatred, as well as her rebellious character. An article written in China at the time about Red Detachment said: “A pose cannot last very long, sometimes only for a moment. But in this twinkling of an eye a pose can crystallize the most essential qualities of character, thus leading the audience more deeply into the soul of the hero, and intensifying the impact of the art.”

The women dancers themselves were put front and center on the stage as fighting alongside the men for the revolution. And the struggle for women’s liberation was central to the storyline. This stood in stark contrast to traditional ballet works where women were usually the dainty love interest of a hero. The program notes (for the 2015 performance) acknowledge that “the plot features female advancement during a time when such mobility was practically unattainable in other parts of the world.”

During the Cultural Revolution in China, artists saw their role in society as “serving the people” and being part of the revolutionary struggle to change society. But after the death of Mao in 1976, there was a reactionary coup d’état, the socialist revolution was defeated and now for the last four decades, China has been a capitalist society. Now the motto of the National Ballet of China is: “United, Pragmatic, Independent, and Enterprising.”

The Chinese government proclaims that China is “socialist with Chinese characteristics.” But in fact China is a thoroughly capitalist society. This is exactly what the Cultural Revolution was aimed at preventing! So it is no surprise that the official line of the regime in China is that this period in Chinese history was a “disaster” and a “nightmare.” But the current ruling class in China has its own interests in selectively allowing certain works of art produced during the Cultural Revolution, like The Red Detachment of Women, to be performed. On the one hand, some of these works remain very popular. On the other, and more importantly, the current rulers want to utilize them in a way that can promote patriotism and nationalism that will serve the reactionary interests of building a more powerful capitalist China, at home and internationally.

But overall, this 2015 production of The Red Detachment of Women stayed mainly true to the original, artistically and in content.* And the choreography and music, dancing, costumes, and staging were amazing. It wouldn’t do justice to try and describe it here. But the whole thing was, as all great art should be, a higher than life experience—the 3D sets, the 70-piece orchestra, the chorus of 40 singers, and above all the 80 dancers doing fantastical feats that seemed to defy gravity.

During the Cultural Revolution a tremendous amount of culture flourished throughout society—in a way that had never happened before and that involved the masses of people, not just as spectators but also as non-professional practitioners of art. And emphasis was put on bringing revolutionary cultural works to the peasants in the countryside and having common people take up the production of revolutionary culture as integral to revolutionizing all parts of people’s daily life and thinking.

Bob Avakian has studied the experience of socialist revolution in the Soviet Union and China—the great achievements as well as the shortcomings. He has drawn from wide spheres of human experience. And he has brought forward a new synthesis of communism that builds on but goes beyond what came before. Bob Avakian has talked about how the advanced cultural works produced during the Cultural Revolution were really world-class achievements in revolutionary content as well as artistic quality. And he has also talked about how, at the same time, there were certain tendencies towards rigidity and dogmatism, and nationalism. One thing he points out is that there was not a full understanding of the distinction between what needs to go into creating model cultural works and what should be broader artistic expressions, which might take a lot of diverse forms, and should not be supervised and finely calibrated in the same way necessary to produce model cultural works. To read BA’s insights on art and culture during the Cultural Revolution in China people should really check out “The Cultural Revolution in China...Art and Culture...Dissent and Ferment...and Carrying Forward the Revolution Toward Communism.”

The Revolution Today

Before the performance at Lincoln Center, Revolution Books, New York set up a book table, talked to people arriving for the performance and passed out a provocative leaflet—which talked about the significance of The Red Detachment of Women and upheld Mao and the Cultural Revolution. A major mission here was to introduce people to Revolution Books as a place to learn the real history and real lessons of the Cultural Revolution... why the world is the way it is and how it can be transformed through revolution; a place to learn about the revolutionary leadership of Bob Avakian. And people were called on to join the emergency campaign to save and re-open Revolution Books in NYC. After 35 years in downtown Manhattan, the store has been forced to temporarily close and people were called on to contribute to the campaign to raise $150,000 to move Revolution Books to Harlem.

Someone who participated in the Cultural Revolution as a student attended the performance, read the leaflet, and later came to talk with someone from Revolution Books. He said he has been really wrestling with what happened and trying to figure out whether it was a failure or a defeat when, after Mao died, capitalism was restored in China. He had already gone to the website and read Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage—A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and now wants to study the special issue of Revolution, You Don’t Know What You Think You “Know” About... The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future.

After seeing The Red Detachment of Women, a group of about 20 people, including members of the Revolution Club who had gone to the performance, went to a nearby restaurant to eat, drink, and talk about what we had just experienced. Everyone was just so high off the whole thing. People talked about what really struck them about the performance; there were questions and discussion about the background and current relevance of the ballet. The youth, in particular, were extremely blown away by the power of The Red Detachment of Women, how moving it was and they were also thinking about what it means for building a movement for revolution today.

One young woman in her late 20s, visiting the U.S. from another country, said: “It was a very powerful ballet and for many different reasons I enjoyed it a lot and I felt very lucky to be there. For me it was traveling to a time, going back to a period, which I didn’t have a chance to live in.... You can see that when there are different values in command, different types of art are coming. And it was very powerful for me and I felt that, wow, what would it feel like if I was living in such a society in a world where women are not sex objects and I wouldn’t just see half- naked, sexy-style, Barbie-style women everywhere and I wouldn’t feel the pressure like that. And from another perspective, it was a masterpiece, artistically—the music, the lights, all the single movements, and I enjoyed it a lot and I wish there were more of such things.”

A young Black man who is a member of the Revolution Club said: “It blew my mind, I was just on my feet, I was just almost about to jump over the rail, it was just so inspiring, it was strong, it was hard core, it makes you just want to fight harder and make the Revolution Clubs what they need to be. It’s the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. It’s in my head right now. It’s hard to get it out of your head and I think it brought our Revolution Club even closer with everyone seeing it together. The Rev Club went together and the next day we were trying to think on how we need to have a force [out there] like how everyone greeted each other on the stage, the men and women were equals, they were all strong people and they were all trying to lift each other up and trying to help each other.”


Many people used the word “inspiring” to describe how they felt after seeing The Red Detachment of Women, whether they had seen it before or for the first time. And this is because, as has been the case now for half a century, this ballet—through its dance, music, costumes, choreography, and story—is a work of art that is both higher than life but also gives people a very concrete picture of the kind of revolutionary changes that happened in China during the Cultural Revolution, from morality, to the kinds of values that people had, to the transformation of relations, like between men and women, to the level of culture. There is a lot here to enjoy and delight in. To cherish and learn from, to build on, and then to go farther and do better, in continuing the fight to emancipate all of humanity.

* There was at least one significant change in content to note. In Scene 3, the hero Hong Changqing goes to the evil landlord’s house in disguise. The plan is for him to fire a shot to signal the Red Detachment to begin their raid. But when Qionghua arrives she cannot suppress her rage and shoots at the landlord, accidentally setting off the raid early; the landlord is wounded but gets away. When the next scene opens, members of the Red Detachment are attending a lecture. A chalkboard with the lesson for the day emphasizes being “Organized and well-disciplined.” The program notes explain: “Hong Changqing lectures the Red Detachment of Women on politics and reminds the soldiers of the need for discipline. Quionghua understands and becomes determined to fight for the liberation of the country.” But according to the original script/libretto, the blackboard is supposed to say, “Only by emancipating all mankind can the proletariat achieve its own final emancipation.” And the original stage notes indicate that the lesson is that “Revolution is not simply a matter of personal vengeance... Its aim is the emancipation of all mankind.” This is a pretty significant change. Bob Avakian has emphasized and really deepened this important principle of the communist revolution—that the communist revolution must NOT be about individual revenge where “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” But that it MUST be a revolution to emancipate all of humanity. [back]




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