Watch a Melodramatic Communist Ballet from 1964

Watch a Melodramatic Communist Ballet from 1964

What you need to know

A ballerina weeps over the hammer and sickle in Mao's production of "The Red Detachment of Women."

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, traditional performances like the Peking opera were denounced as bourgeois and classist. In their place, Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) wife, Jiang Qing (江青), introduced “Eight Model Operas (八個樣板戲).” These new performances that were intended to replace the old and promote the ideology of the young People’s Republic. One of them was 1964’s communist ballet, “The Red Detachment of Women (紅色娘子軍).”

The ballet tells the story of a peasant girl, Wu Qinghua (吳清華), who escapes from slavery on Hainan Island to join the Red Army and form a new China. In this scene, she stumbles upon the army’s camp after surviving a brutal beating at the hands of the vicious “Tyrant of the South.” Wu is given a rifle and warmly accepted into the ranks of the Women’s Detachment, who plan to rescue the other peasants from the oppressive landlords.

“The Red Detachment of Women,” which was adapted from a 1961 film of the same name, was based on the true experience of an all-female Special Company of the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War. They survived a brutal attack on Hainan Island while their male counterparts did not, and were honored by Mao himself. Perhaps because of the heroic, proto-feminist tale, or maybe just because it was good entertainment, the ballet became intensely popular. This version of the ballet was filmed in 1971, and a performance was staged for Richard Nixon during his landmark visit to China in 1972.

Even for all of its political camp, “The Red Detachment of Women” remains a favorite in the ballet world for its music and choreography, both of which take from Chinese folk traditions. Watching the ballet in its entirety, it’s hard not to be moved by the melodrama of the many tableaus in which the youthful rebels raise their fists to a distant horizon — an image straight off a propaganda poster.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Atlas Obscura here. (Atlas Obscura is the definitive guide to the world's wondrous and curious places.)

Editor: Olivia Yang