The Red Detachment

red detachment“What performance did you just see,” asked the taxi driver as I hopped into his cab late one night outside of the Poly Plaza Theater.

“The Red Detachment of Women,” I said.

As I had anticipated, he swung his head around and let out a big “Hah!” “You, a foreigner, went to see that revolutionary opera?”

“My friends gave me a ticket,” I said.

He asked me what I thought.

“Interesting,” I replied, because what’s not interesting about square-jawed socialist warriors in shorts leaping around a stage waving rifles?

He told me that was the music he had grown up with during the Cultural Revolution, then proceeded to sing the songs from it as we traversed the city on the Second Ring Road.

“The Red Detachment of Women” was one of  the most popular operas in China during the  Cultural Revolution.

This week the BBC ran an interesting story about the revival of Madame Mao’s Model Operas in China today.

Created by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, these were the Yangbanxi, the Eight Model Operas with intriguing titles such as The White Haired Girl and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

For the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) they were virtually the only films, stage performances or music available to the entire Chinese population.

These state-sponsored works combined opera and ballet with simple plots about brave peasants uniting to defeat evil landlords, Japanese invaders and other enemies of the revolution.

Heroes looked like heroes with rouged faces, kohl-lined eyes and great hair, while villains were easily identified by their sneaky demeanour and bad moustaches.

And here’s a bit about their comeback:

But since the 1990s there has been an unexpected revival of the model operas. The White Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women have become part of the standard repertoire of the Central Ballet of China. Journalist Sheila Melvin, who writes on the arts and culture of China, explains when the Central Ballet of China go abroad they perform those “because they’re the ones that have stood the test of time.”

“When they began redoing them in mid-early 1990s they’d change the lyrics that were particularly offensive to rich people but the audience would get mad and shout out real words because they didn’t want it changed: this is what we grew up with and we want it sung the way it was written!” 

You can listen to the full report here.

In a society that has perfected the art of bubble-gum pop and lives off free music downloads from Google, it’s hard to imagine a time when there were only a handful of approved ‘red’ songs.

You’ve come a long way, China. 

(Image source: China Daily)