Red Detachment of Awesome

This Wednesday thru Friday, if you’re in Beijing, you shouldn’t miss the best of the “model operas,” The Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军). Playing for three nights only at Poly Plaza.

It’s called a model opera, but it’s actually a ballet. The eight model operas were, during the height of the cultural revolution, the only artistic performances allowed. Five operas, two ballets, and a single symphony, all of them micro-controlled by Mao’s psychopathic wife, Jiang Qing.

“The cultural revolution was all her fault,” an older Chinese woman told me recently. But an older man also said, “The only good she ever did for the country were those eight model operas.”

I first came across them a few years ago, when Photo Art gallery held an exhibit of newly-uncovered prints.

“They’re by a photojournalist from the 1970s,” said the receptionist, who was pitching I buy them at just $300 each. “He’s very old, and he’s probably going to die soon.” What a morbid promise.

“But they’re not really the photographer’s art. He just held the camera. They’re really all Jiang Qing. She made them.”

The Red Detachment of Women is her production of the true story of an all-women brigade of revolutionaries in Southern China’s Hainan. Driven by their dreams of a free China, they posture melodramatically, hop and skip and toss grenades, and, best of all, free the enslaved and make fools of wealthy landlords.

But it’s a strange show to see. The play was produced by a psychopath, one of China’s most reviled villains. It celebrates, and nostalgicizes, the cultural revolution, one of China’s darkest periods. And yet it’s still a magnificent, dazzling affair. It’s incredible, a visual version of The Internationale, and a performance of it — even just the music from it — still brings tears to the eyes of mainland Chinese over 40. (Would a Jonestown survivor thrill to the sound of archives Jim Jones speeches? I guess you’d have to ask Debbie Layton, but I’d bet so.)

(One of the original troop members, interestingly, is still alive, a living tourist attraction.)

I took these photos at a National Ballet performance last year. They’re nothing like the PJ’s shots above, but they give a great idea of it all… Or you could just watch the movie of the 1961 drama or the 1970 ballet. Both of them are absolutely great, too.

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