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  • Re-makes/Re-models:The Red Detachment of Women between Stage and Screen
  • Kristine Harris (bio)

In February 1972, as Richard Nixon watched the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women (Hongse niangzi jun) alongside his host, Madame Mao, he famously declared his admiration for the "musical," as he styled it, and requested the names of the writer, composer, and director. Good question, Mr. President. By this time, of course, Comrade Jiang Qing had so publicly insinuated herself into The Red Detachment of Women that hers was the name most linked to its production. But this time for Nixon, she gave the pure socialist response: it was, she informed him, "created by the masses."1

The Cultural Revolution's accent on the collective, "mass" quality of the "model works" produced for stage and screen in 1960s and 1970s mainland China readily suggests that they were forms of "proletarian mythmaking," or even quasi-religious enactments of political ritual, intensively reproduced and refined, often at great cost to the numerous artists involved.2 Yet the brief dialogue between Nixon and Madame Mao crystallizes for us crucial questions about the genre, medium, and authorship of these works. The "revolutionary dance-drama" Red Detachment was most emphatically standardized as a script "revised collectively by the China Ballet Troupe" in May 1970 and adapted for film just a few months later, as part of the broader drive toward popularizing the model works and expanding their role as everyday guides for political morality. But just as certainly, the Red Detachment that Nixon saw was also an important episode along a far longer continuum of works evolving through a variety of different media over the past fifty years—starting with an early reportage account and a local opera, a popular film melodrama and comic book, the celebrated ballet, and a Peking opera version. (The model ballet performance hosted by Madame Mao for the visiting American president even entered the international opera lexicon as a focal point of act 2 in the 1987 John Adams/Alice Goodman opera Nixon in China.)3 Red Detachment fell out of circulation in China after the 1976 demise of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, but it has gradually reemerged, reconfigured into a television series, stage revivals, DVDs, documentary photojournalism, and even a theme park. [End Page 316]

Socialist Auteurs and The Red Detachment of Women

It has long been assumed that the Cultural Revolution "model work" The Red Detachment of Women, in both its ballet and Peking opera forms, grew out of the famous 1960–61 feature film directed by Xie Jin. In some particular ways, this was certainly true. In 1963–64 several eminent playwrights, including A Jia and Tian Han, were asked to adapt the prizewinning film into a libretto that could be staged as part of a larger festival presenting new Peking operas on contemporary themes.4 Likewise, during this same period, the Beijing Ballet School developed a dance rendition of The Red Detachment of Women in a similar effort to create new ballets based on Chinese experience. As part of their preparation, the dancers consulted with Liang Xin, who had been the scriptwriter for Xie Jin's film.5 Both the Peking opera and the ballet versions drew some axial narrative elements and key characters from the feature film, which centered on a young slave girl in tropical Hainan Island named Wu Qionghua, who escapes from brutal servitude during the 1930s with the help of a male local Party representative, Hong Changqing, and finds refuge in a Red Army base, where she joins a detachment of female fighters, becomes a loyal party member, and learns that collective action is more effective than individual revenge in vanquishing the local tyrant and his Nationalist cronies. As we shall explore below, many facets of the film were altered to fit the formal qualities of ballet and Peking opera and to meet changing aesthetic and political expectations of the Cultural Revolution.

Although the 1960–61 film version most directly influenced the ballet and opera, there were actually several earlier creative renditions of this early Communist unit of women soldiers—renditions that never received the kind of mass attention or enduring...


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