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Rhetorically re-configuring China's past and present through nostalgia: Chinese media coverage of the 50th Anniversary of The Red Detachment of Women.

In 2014, Chinese media outlets heralded the 50th anniversary of the ballet The Red Detachment of Women, or RDW, describing the work as "magical" and representing "the culture of a generation." (i) However, for over fifteen of its 50 years, the ballet was banned from being publicly performed. Jiang Qing designated the ballet as one of eight yang ban xi, or model works, to guide the creation of proletarian art and literature during the Cultural Revolution. Constrained by strict guidelines during this time period, art was expected to support the revolution's aims by promoting proletarian ideology, drawing from traditional Chinese culture, and revising foreign art forms to advance the revolution (Roberts, 2008, p. 3). (ii) RDW symbolized the revision of a distinctly Western bourgeois art form into one that championed the ideals of the proletarian revolution (Roberts, 2008, p.1). After the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government issued a moratorium on performing yang ban xi, which remained in place until the late 1980s. RDW disappeared from the stage from 1976 to 1992, when the National Ballet of China, or NBC, petitioned the Ministry of Culture to begin rehearsing the ballet again. Since then, RDW has become one of the most successful revivals of the model works as both the Shanghai Ballet and NBC have incorporated it into their permanent repertoires, and it has been performed in numerous foreign countries including the United States, Russia, and France (Eng, 2009, p. 10; Zhang, 2014).

Perhaps no other artistic work captures the evolution, fluidity, and complexity of Chinese social memory and nationalism than RDW. From the moratorium on its performance to the ballet's selection as the first production staged in the National Grand Theater in 2007, the ballet has "undergone a radical transformation--from abandoned relic from an evil past to cherished representative of Chinese artistic achievement" (Eng, 2009, p. 10). Chinese media coverage of RDW's anniversary provides insight into how contemporary Chinese state nationalism and social memory of the Cultural Revolution are constructed through rhetorical reconfigurations of China's past.

As social memory is created through and embedded in cultural practices, narratives, memorials, and commemorations, media coverage of RDW's 50th anniversary is a rich area for inquiry. Commemorations have significant implications for how memory is constructed, contested, and circulated. Paul Connerton asserts that societies remember in three ways: via inscriptions onto cultural texts, through the use of the human body to convey social memory, and through commemorative rituals that promote participation in social action and rationality (1989). Invocations of memory in commemorative events often convey "political agendas which serve particular ideas about the virtues of the nation, the family, or the current government" (Hodgkin & Radstone, 2003, p. 5). Judgments regarding which people and events are memorialized and what forms such memorializations take are significant as they reveal societal issues "of present and future concern" (Blair, Jeppeson, & Pucci, 1991, p. 263). Historically, the social memory of the Cultural Revolution has been a site of controversy, contestation, and conflict within China (Kleinman & Kleinman, 1994, p. 714; Kraus, 1991; Jiang, 2007; Clark 2008). Thus, Chinese media coverage of the ballet's anniversary offers an opportunity to examine how cultural remnants of China's tumultuous past are revised to meet contemporary challenges facing the nation.

Since NBC is a state-supported institution, I assert that its celebration of RDW's 50th anniversary, and Chinese media coverage of it, provide insight into Chinese state nationalism. Within modern China, state nationalism is the dominant form of Chinese nationalism. Directed by political elites, state nationalism associates China as a nation "with the communist state" (Zhao, 2013, p. 537). This conflation of the PRC with the CCP can be traced back to the nation's founding. Under Mao's leadership, the Party asserted it represented "the revolutionary masses," thereby claiming the PRC and the CCP "were fused into an inseparable whole" (Gries, 2004, p. 133). Encompassing devotion to the Communist state, Chinese state nationalism constitutes a restricted form of patriotism (Chang, 2001). Aiguo zhuyi, or patriotism, "which is to love and support China" is "always indistinguishable from the Chinese state and the Communist Party" (Zhao, 2004, p. 31). Shenshen Cai explains how "patriotism has long served as the main form of nationalism in modern China" (2015, p. 36). Replacing Marxist ideology with nationalism, the CCP has used nationalism as a means to encourage unity, promote stability, legitimize its authority, and deflect attention from internal and external problems (Zhao, 2004, p. 8; Zheng, 1999, p. 17).

This study examines rhetorical constructions of both Chinese state nationalism and social memory regarding the Cultural Revolution in Mainland Chinese media coverage of RDW's 50th anniversary. It does so by pursuing the following research questions: How did media coverage describe RDW and its anniversary? To what extent and in what manner were the ballet's connections to the CCP and the Cultural Revolution depicted? How did this media coverage encourage and discourage specific forms of social memory concerning the Cultural Revolution? What insight can Chinese media coverage of RDWs 50th anniversary provide in comparing historical and contemporary state nationalism within China?

These questions will be examined through a rhetorical analysis of articles published online by Chinese media outlets that discuss the 50th anniversary of RDW. A rhetorical approach is beneficial as it allows scholars to probe symbols at the level of their meaning, explore how they function, and examine the manner in which they are employed to discern relationships regarding language, power, and authority (Burke, 1969). An Internet search for coverage of the ballet's anniversary yielded 15 articles from both state and non-state run media outlets. After eliminating articles that did not deal specifically with RDW, the sample was narrowed to 11 articles. A certified Chinese translator then translated these articles into English. The articles were then analyzed to identify reoccurring themes within media coverage of the ballet's anniversary. By tracing the discursive themes and patterns permeating these articles, this study provides insight into the rhetorical intricacies involving social memory of the Cultural Revolution and articulations of contemporary Chinese state nationalism.

I argue that Chinese media coverage of RDWs 50th anniversary portrayed the ballet as a metaphor for the CCP. By focusing on individual stories, privileging nostalgic views of the past, and praising the ballet as a distinctly Chinese achievement, media outlets depicted RDW as a positive cultural achievement and attributed it to the CCP. Through emphasizing nostalgic views of the CCP and claiming that RDW transcended the politics of the Cultural Revolution through its artistic innovation, news coverage purified the ballet's social memory and distanced the CCP from this devastating time period. Although media coverage of the ballet's anniversary distilled social memory of the Cultural Revolution into a seemingly innocuous form, I contend that such nostalgic remembrances belie troubling parallels between the nationalism propagated during the Cultural Revolution and President Xi Jinping's revival of absolutism and centralized power in contemporary China.

This study will begin by discussing the CCP's role in the development of ballet within China and the creation of RD W. It will then examine the controversy regarding social memory of the Cultural Revolution in China. This will be followed by a rhetorical analysis of news coverage of RDW's 50th anniversary. Finally, the study will conclude by assessing what insight RDW can provide in terms of the parallels between historical and contemporary Chinese state nationalism.

An Intricate Dance: The CCP's Role in the Development of Ballet within China

Ballet is a relatively young art in China. Its origins can be traced to the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution when Russian emigres came to China. Russian dancers were among these newcomers, and they began teaching their craft to children of wealthy Chinese families and foreigners (Harss, 2015). Margot Fonteyn, the future star of Britain's Royal Ballet, was one of these early pupils (Harss, 2015). While Russian emigres kept their art alive while in exile, ballet in China would not be nationally organized until the mid 20th century.

The history of ballet in China is inextricably intertwined with the history of the CCP as Party leaders encouraged the development of the art form. Influenced by their studies in France, Russia, and England, CCP leaders founded the Beijing Dance School in 1954 (Crompton, 2008). Five years later the school's Experimental Ballet Company evolved into the National Ballet of China, or NBC, headed by Dai Ailian and Russian Pyotr Gusev (Chan, 2015). Trained at the St. Petersburg School and a former dancer with the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet Companies, Gusev steeped NBC in the Russian style by implementing a distinctly Russian training regimen (Crompton, 2008; Roy, 2011). After the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, Gusev and other Russian artists returned to the USSR (Roy, 2011). However, the seed of Russian ballet that had been planted was preserved as Russian-trained Chinese dancers returned to the PRC and shared their expertise (Roy, 2011).

Profoundly shaped by Russian influence, the NBC performed classic Western works like Swan Lake and the Nutcracker. In 1963, Premier Zhou Enlai directed artists to make more revolutionary and nationalistic art. He suggested that the Beijing Ballet School create a work focusing on revolutionary themes such as the October Revolution or the Paris Commune (Dai, 1995, p 94). In response, officials at the school suggested creating a ballet based upon the 1961 film The Red Detachment of Women directed by Xie Jin. The film chronicled the saga of a slave girl who escapes from a tyrannical landlord, joins a women's detachment of the Red Army, and later returns as a model revolutionary to kill the landowner who had oppressed her. Xie's film drew inspiration from the real life story of a Red Army detachment of female soldiers on Hainan Island in the early 1930s that fought the KMT and mobilized villagers for the revolution. Historical reports of the detachment's activities briefly mentioned a 16-year-old woman named Qionghua who joined the detachment and who may have been the inspiration for the film's lead character Wu Qionghua (Harris, 2010, p. 317). Recognized for its patriotic themes and artistic merits, the film earned four awards at the 1962 Golden Rooster Film Festival (Harris, 2010, p. 322). (iii)

Premier Zhou Enlai approved the project, and Lin Mohan, Deputy Minister of Culture, oversaw its development. Consulting with Liang Xin, scriptwriter for the film version of RDW, the Beijing Ballet School adapted the movie for ballet in 1963. Authorship of the ballet remains disputed. Although some point to Jiang Qing as the author, scholarship has shown that the Beijing Ballet School, Zhou Enlai, and the China Peking Opera Academy all contributed to the decision making process (Harris, 2010, p. 324). The ballet was initially created for the 15th anniversary of the National Independence Day in 1964; it premiered in September 1964. It was revised during the next six years after its premiere (Harris, 2010, p. 325).

In order to fulfill Zhou's directive of developing a distinctly Chinese art, the ballet infused classical Western ballet with Chinese culture by incorporating components of traditional Chinese opera like acrobatics, martial arts, and liangxiang, known as the frozen pose. The development of RDW as a ballet galvanized the Shanghai Dance Academy to adapt The White-haired Girl, a classic play, opera, and film, into a ballet (Roberts, 2008, p. 2). Jiang Qing, who had authority over all cultural matters during the Cultural Revolution, included both ballets in the first set of yang ban xi in 1967, which also included an orchestral symphony and five modern Beijing Operas. In order to broaden their circulation, both ballets were developed into films during the 1970s, which were shown throughout the country. RDW was named the "Classic Dance of China in the 20th Century" (Zhou, 2015).

During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang took control of NBC. Under her stringent reign, she banned foreign ballet terms as well as some steps such as the pas de basque, which she deemed "anti-revolutionary" (Roy, 2011). During this tumultuous political period, the company embarked on a grueling tour across China to promote the revolutionary aims of the model ballets. The dancers traveled on foot and performed outdoors, often on dirt stages (Young, 2011). Recounting the harsh conditions, Zhao Ruheng, a dancer with the company who would later serve as NBC's director from 1994 to 2009, explained how the dancers would wear their "ballet shoes performing on the snow covered ground" (Young, 2011). Zhao and other dancers sustained career-ending injuries during the tour. Yet she noted the positive implication of these performances as they introduced ballet to the nation. "Suddenly the whole of China knew about ballet," explained Zhao (Crompton, 2008). (iv)

NBC continues to perform RDW, often to sold out theatres (Harss, 2015). Part of the ballet's renewed popularity can be traced to its favorable reception abroad. The company has performed RDW in over 20 countries (Wang, 2013). In January 2009, NBC was invited to perform the work at the Paris Opera House, one of the preeminent institutions in the world of classical ballet (Eng, 2009, p. 10). The company has garnered praise from foreign critics for its performances of RDW abroad, with an Italian critic effusing that the ballet was a significant contribution to the "world history of mankind" (Yang, 2014). However, as we shall see, not everyone views the revival of yang ban xi as deserving of praise.

Social Memory of the Cultural Revolution and the Revival of Yang Ban Xi

The social memory of the Cultural Revolution within China has been fraught with controversy. By blaming the chaotic period chiefly upon the Gang of Four, political officials expunged the CCP from responsibility. As a result, "the social memory of the Cultural Revolution was silenced" in the government authorized account of the time period (Kleinman & Kleinman, 1994, p. 714). However, this historical revision has not prevented ruptures between governmental and individual remembrances of the Cultural Revolution. During the late 1970s, victims of the Cultural Revolution recounted the trauma they endured in numerous books and memoirs, known as "literature of wounds or scars." In 1980, political officials instituted a crackdown on such literature, which typically included a critical element (Kleinman & Kleinman, 1994, p. 714).

The debate within academic circles concerning the revival of model works illustrates the complexity of social memory of the Cultural Revolution within contemporary China. Until recently, scholars have widely regarded the Cultural Revolution as a period devoid of valuable art, omitting such works from scholarship (Jiang, 2007; Clark, 2008). However, scholars such as Clare Eng argue that model works such as RDW should be considered significant artworks (2009, p. 5). According to Eng, such consideration requires "separating them from the tragic events of those years, holding them innocent of the wrongdoings of that time"? 2009, p. 10). While Li Delun, a highly respected conductor and musician who participated in the creation of several model operas, acknowledges that those hurt by the Cultural Revolution view the model works as worthless, others "think that if you can separate out the politics, model operas are a kind of artistic experiment. So many talented people worked on model operas, and many say we'll never match that quality again" (Melvin & Cai, 2000). Additionally, a market has emerged for nostalgic remnants of China's past, including the Cultural Revolution. As Luo Zheng rong, a composer who worked on the model opera Shajiabang surmises, "there's a market for them. If there wasn't a market, they wouldn't be performed" (Melvin & Cai, 2000). Others have also argued that the revival of model works provides opportunities to both learn about their artistic merits and learn from their negative implications. While writer Zou Lianfeng notes that RDW contains "stains" from the political time period of the Cultural Revolution, he urges critics to provide "an objective evaluation of its artistic value and historical position" that includes "an in-depth analysis to avoid its negative impacts on the creation of music and dance" (2009).

RDW's revival and renewed popularity illustrate the successful distancing of the work from its associations with the Cultural Revolution. As part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the ballet, NBC toured the country performing the work with stops including Shandong, Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hubei, Chongqing, Guangdong, Beijing, and Qionghui. The first performance took place in January 2014 in Hainan to commemorate the origins of the ballet's story. Other activities commemorating the ballet's anniversary included documentaries, paintings, exhibitions, and seminars. The anniversary celebrations culminated with a performance in Beijing fifty years to the day that the ballet premiered in September 1964. As part of the special performance, former NBC ballet dancers took part in the celebration as well as other famous artists. That the ballet's anniversary was celebrated at all given that it was not performed for over a third of its 50 years points to an effective severing of the work from the Cultural Revolution. I argue that Chinese media outlets rhetorically distanced RDW, as well as the CCP, from the Cultural Revolution through privileging a nostalgic view of both the ballet and the Party. Encompassing a longing for an idealized past, nostalgia can be a powerful tool for promoting political ends and obscuring ways of seeing (Davis, 1977). I am not arguing that RDW is undeserving of praise or that viewers and journalists should refrain from recounting fond memories of the work. Rather, I am interested in how emphasizing nostalgic remembrances of the ballet encourages and discourages specific ways of viewing the work, the CCP, and their connections to the Cultural Revolution. The following section analyzes how this nostalgic view functioned in Chinese media coverage of RDW's 50th anniversary.

A Benevolent Party: Nostalgic Depictions of the CCP and its Connections to RDW

A silence falls across the audience as the heavy stage curtain slowly rises. A lone dancer strides confidently onto the stage. Gazing out at the audience, he spots a glowing ember in the darkness. The orb comes into focus, illuminating the face of Chairman Mao. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, the dancer finishes his performance. With a heaving chest, he rushes backstage to share the thrilling news of the chairman's presence with his fellow performers. After the performance, Mao pronounces the ballet a success, declaring, "the direction is right, the reform is successful and the art is also prosperously developing" (Yang, 2014).

Chinese media articles regarding RDW's 50th anniversary explicitly and implicitly linked the CCP to The Red Detachment through nostalgic depictions of CCP leaders. Reporters repeatedly recounted the above story of Wan Qiwu, who performed the role of Lao Si in the ballet, and who told of Mao's viewing of the ballet on October 8, 1964 and the leader's high praise for the work (Yang, 2014; Zhang, 2014; Yang, 2014a; Wang, 2013). In coverage of the ballet's anniversary, Mao's praise of the ballet signaled the CCP's endorsement of RDW Describing how the dancers were "excited and extremely happy" about Mao's attendance at their performance portrayed the leader in a positive light as a beloved and respected leader (Chen, 2014). Media coverage was not just about celebrating the ballet's anniversary. Rather, it is also communicated the CCP's support of and historical connection to RDW. By sharing the story of Mao's appraisal of RDW, Chinese media outlets positively associated the ballet with the CCP.

In addition to recounting Mao's viewing of and praise for RDW, Chinese news coverage repeatedly noted Premier Zhou Enlai's generosity towards NBC dancers. Dancers such as Zhu Yan and Liu Jin told of how the Premier arranged for the purchase of foreign medicine upon hearing that NBC dancers were ill. Former dancers also recalled how Zhou ordered a segment of flooring from the Great Hall of the People to be transferred to the dancers' dormitory so they could have a practice space that would better protect their legs and feet (Wang, 2014; Yang, 2014a; Wang, 2013). Reporting stories of Zhou's generosity toward the ballet dancers cast the leader and, by extension, the CCP, as benevolent. As a representative of the CCP, Zhou was portrayed as enacting the Party's mantra "to serve the people." Narrating positive stories of Mao's viewing of and praise for the ballet and Zhou's concern for the dancers' well-being privileged a positive, nostalgic view of both CCP leaders and, in turn, of the Party in news coverage of RDW's anniversary.

Jiang Qing was the only CCP official portrayed negatively in the news articles, and she was the only one criticized for her actions during the Cultural Revolution. Li Chengxiang, the original director of RDW, recalled how difficult it was to collaborate with Jiang on revisions to the ballet and how he feared she would later scapegoat him for the poor artistic decisions she had demanded (Zhang, 2014). It is important to note that this criticism was restricted to only one article, and it did not include a critique of the Party's role in the Cultural Revolution nor a detailed discussion of the scope of Jiang's own culpability for the horrors of that period. Predictably, state-run media outlets such as China Daily, Xinhua News, and the People S Dailey did not mention the Cultural Revolution in their coverage of RDWS anniversary. The only state-run outlet to do so was the Communist Youth League. Even then, it did not detail the negative consequences of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, it explained how RDW surpassed this tumultuous historical period through its high artistic value (Lun, 2014). Given the government's denouncement of Jiang and the other members of the Gang of Four for the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the governmental oversight of the Chinese press, such observations are hardly surprising. (v) However, such omissions are rhetorically significant as they absolve Mao and the Party from association with, and therefore responsibility for, the Cultural Revolution.

Reporters' lauding of RDW as a successful Chinese artistic achievement further amplified the positive connotations of linking the ballet with the CCP. Each article praised RDW as a significant Chinese cultural accomplishment. Journalists pointed to the ballet's unique subject matter and style as evidence of its merit. Deng Wei of the Beijing Daily emphasized the historic nature of RDW's contribution to Western ballet, explaining it marked "the first time that there had been such a female slave image with a great spirit of resistance in the 400 years of the world ballet history" ("Fifty years," 2014). Instead of being clad in tutus performing roles of fairies and princesses, dancers in RDW were transformed into patriotic soldiers fueled by revolutionary zeal who "don shorts, hold guns and knives" (Lun, 2014). Reporters repeatedly cited the ballet's distinctive fusion of Chinese folk dance and Western ballet as evidence of its artistic innovation (Yang, 2014; Wang, 2014; Chen, 2014a; Niu, 2014; "Ballet," 2014). Due to its "subversion of classical ballet's image," RDW was "a revolution" in the ballet world (Wang, 2013; Zhang, 2014). Indeed, the ballet was an artistic revelation as it combined movements from military training exercises and Chinese folk dance with classical ballet steps. In order to bolster the authenticity of the performance, the original cast of RDW received military training (Zhang, 2014). By heralding the ballet as an exemplar of creative ingenuity for its combination of Western ballet tradition with Chinese culture to create a new, innovative art form, reporters characterized the ballet as a point of national pride.

The merger of Chinese folk dancing, Western ballet, and revolutionary themes marked RDW as a distinctly Chinese artistic accomplishment. Several articles described RDW as representing a foundational work that signaled the beginning of a distinctly Chinese ballet tradition (Wang, 2014; Lun, 2014; "Ballet," 2014). As China's "first and most successful long form ballet," it represented "an important milestone in the history of Chinese ballet" ?"Ballet," 2014). Feng Ying, artistic director of NBC, emphasized the importance of the work's unique Chinese pedigree, claiming that "many countries can perform Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Quixote, but only China's ballet ensembles can perform RDW (Lun, 2014). Through praising RDW for its creative innovation and characterizing it as a distinctly Chinese artistic achievement, news coverage of the ballet's anniversary positioned it as a source of national pride, thereby further amplifying the positive association between the work and the CCP.

Further solidifying the connection between RDW and the CCP, articles reminded readers of the intertwined relationship between the Party and Chinese ballet. Xinhua News noted how the "National Ballet of China was founded under the care of the Communist Party" with the aim of stirring "national cultural rejuvenation" (Chen, 2014a). Other articles highlighted the role of Chinese leaders in the ballet's creation by mentioning Zhou's directive that led to the adaption of RDW into a ballet and by remarking that the work was created "under the care of the nation's leaders" (Wang, 2013; Wang, 2014; Zhang, 2014). Explaining the roles of the Party and national leaders in the development of NBC and RDW, journalists implicitly attributed the ballet's creation to the Party, thereby claiming the cultural achievement of the ballet as a positive symbol for the Party. The ballet was not only an exemplar of creative ingenuity, a source of national pride, and a distinctive Chinese cultural accomplishment; it was a metaphor for the Party itself. By privileging nostalgic depictions of CCP leaders that linked them with the development of RDW, news coverage of the ballet's 50th anniversary inoculated Party leaders, and by extension the Party itself, from the stain of the Cultural Revolution and instead associated them with the positive aspects of the ballet.

Transcending the Cultural Revolution Through Nostalgia and Art

Fifty years after RDW's premiere, over 6,000 spectators fill the Great Hall of the People to commemorate the ballet. A slender, elderly woman shuffles to the center of the brightly lit stage. Seventy-five-year-old Bai Shuxiang, the first dancer to perform the lead role of Wu Qionghua, joyfully describes her role as "a witness and participant of the ballet opera" (Wang, 2014). Explaining the ballet's special connection between the past and present, she describes the ballet opera as, "a team that lays the foundations, opens the future, ushers the path and makes contributions" (Wang, 2014).

Bai's remarks were part of the Beijing gala held at the Great Hall of the People on September 24, 2014 to celebrate RDW. Over 500 performers took part in the festivities. The culmination of the year-long celebration of the ballet's 50th anniversary, the event included brief interludes between the ballet's scenes during which current and former NBC dancers as well as famous musical artists took to the stage and explained what the ballet meant to them. Descendants of Red Army soldiers also attended the performance.

While Bai reflected upon her positive experiences of being a part of the ballet during the Beijing celebration, former RDW director Li Chengxiang recalled how the dancer endured darker times. Bai was deemed an "anti-reformist" during the Cultural Revolution. Barred from doing the work she loved, she was banned from the ballet. Instead, she was sent to a cadre school and forced to clean and do chores (Zhang, 2014; "Fifty years," 2014). Li himself was imprisoned for part of the Cultural Revolution; he was later released after several people spoke on his behalf. Several articles depicted both the positive and negative implications of the Cultural Revolution for Chinese ballet dancers.

While dancer Liu Qingtang, who performed the role of Hong Changqing in RDW, was promoted as Vice Minister of Culture during the Cultural Revolution, others, including Xue Jinghua "disappeared" as the ballet fell out of favor after the Cultural Revolution (Yang, 2014). Li described the time period of the Cultural Revolution as "ruthless" and lamented how "many talents were wasted" (Zhang, 2014). However, even when articles mentioned the suffering endured by those associated with the ballet during and after the revolution, the accounts were typically brief, did not refer to the broader devastation wrought by the tumultuous period outside of yang ban xi, and were outweighed by positive accounts of the ballet.

In articles that discussed negative aspects of the Cultural Revolution, RDW was clearly divorced from the political and social catastrophe. Journalists claimed the ballet had successfully transcended the chaotic "historical storm" through its exceptional artistic achievements (Zhang, 2014). In an interview with the Beijing Youth League, Feng Ying explained that although the ballet had ties to the Cultural Revolution, it "proved its classical property" (Lun, 2014). Similarly, an article by the Beijing Evening News quoted the praise of an Italian history professor who praised the ballet for surpassing "the restrictions and ideology of the era" (Yang, 2014). Several articles cited the ballet's artistic value and its unique fusion of Chinese and Western dance elements as enabling it to rise above the Cultural Revolution and as reasons why it was revived ("Fifty years," 2014; Lun, 2014; Yang, 2014). Through quoting experts who praised RDW as a "classic" and asserting that its creative combination of Western ballet with Chinese dance allowed it to surpass any potential controversy regarding its history, news coverage purified the ballet's social memory from its historical connection to the Cultural Revolution. In so doing, journalists directed readers to focus on the work's artistic elements rather than its historical political connections.

Further contributing to this severing of RDW from the Cultural Revolution, Chinese media coverage privileged a nostalgic view of the ballet through highlighting individuals' happy recollections of the work and how it positively influenced their lives. Reporting on the gala celebration of the ballet in Beijing, journalists recounted the stories of popular artists such as Yu Junhian and Pu Cunxin who told of how the ballet inspired them to pursue careers in the entertainment industry (Wang, 2014; Yang, 2014a; "Fifty years," 2014). Such upbeat stories could be found among audience members as well. Former classmates of Cui Ning, the Vice Chief of Beijing People's Art Theatre, reminisced about how they learned the ballet as young students and wanted to "recall their 'Red Sentiment'" by attending the performance together (Wang, 2014). Overcome with emotion, journalist Li Cheng described how he felt "especially touched" by the celebratory performance, explaining how hearing the ballet's familiar music brought happy tears to his eyes (Wang, 2014). Reporting numerous stories of individual performers' and audience members' fond memories of the ballet, reporters emphasized the positive effects of the ballet. According to these articles, RDW had brought joy and inspiration to untold numbers of people, positively influencing their lives.

Articles emphasized the significance of RDW to older generations of Chinese citizens as well as to the nation as a whole. China Art News described how RDW was a "special ballet" that encapsulated "the national memory" and served as a "collective cultural memory for a specific generation" (Zhang, 2014). In an interview with China Daily, Zhou Zhaohui, who currently performs the role of Hong Changqing in the ballet, explained how his parents were so proud of him being cast in the role, noting how the ballet meant "so much" to his parents' generation (Chen, 2014). RDW was characterized as having special meaning for Chinese people. As the executive director of NBC explained, the ballet "has special artistic value" and "still lives in people's memory" ("Ballet," 2014). Depicting the ballet as symbolizing the collective memory of the older generation as well as the nation's memory further bolstered RDW as a powerful, patriotic symbol of not only the CCP, as discussed in the previous section, but of the PRC as well. Such portrayals blurred distinctions between the two, thereby characterizing the Party and the nation as an indivisible entity. Describing how hundreds of audience members reveled in the familiar music and spectacle of the show, such coverage privileged a nostalgic, positive remembrance of the ballet's history that effectively severed the work, as well as the Party, from the Cultural Revolution, thereby obscuring their historical and contemporary political associations to this time period.


Not only did media coverage characterize RDW as a special work encompassing positive collective and national memories of China's past, it also claimed that the ballet served as an inspiration for the future. A dancer with NBC for over 15 years, Zhou Zhaohui described his role of Hong Chongqing in RDW as a source of "inspiration" for his life (Chen, 2014). Wang Caijun, deputy director of NBC, characterized Wu Qionghua's transformation from slave to soldier in the ballet as "a role model for today's young people, fighting for their future" (Chen, 2014). Chinese news coverage of RDW's 50th anniversary emphasized the ballet's continued relevance, claiming that it drew audiences among both the young and old (Chen, 2014; Wang, 2014; Zhang, 2014) and noting that it has been performed over 4,000 times since its creation, which the Beijing Daily described as "a miracle in the world history of ballet" ("Fifty years," 2014). Wang attributed the ballet's continued appeal among older and younger audiences to the fact that the work "connects with the audiences--not just the story but also the spirit of the roles" (Chen, 2014). Emphasizing RDW's continued relevance and popularity among young and old audiences implicitly conveys that the ballet, and the values it perpetuates, including support for the CCP, are relevant, important, and pervasive among young and old generations of Chinese. The ballet's story of an oppressed slave girl transformed into a heroic soldier through joining the CCP serves as an endorsement of the Party's claims to legitimacy--that it represents and safeguards the will of the people, that Chinese people's lives have been immeasurably bettered under CCP rule, and that the PRC and CCP are inherently intertwined.

News coverage of RDW's anniversary implicitly and explicitly supported these tenets of Chinese state nationalism by constructing the ballet as a metaphor for the Party. By emphasizing individual stories recounting happy memories of the ballet and the generosity and support of CCP leaders such as Mao and Zhou, reporters privileged a nostalgic view of the CCP. Lauding RDW as a distinctly Chinese artistic achievement whose creation was made possible by the CCP positioned the ballet as a source of national pride while simultaneously claiming it as a triumph of the Party. In turn, through asserting how RDW transcended the Cultural Revolution via its artistic innovation, journalists divorced the ballet and, by extension, the CCP, from the political stain of the devastating time period.

After a 2003 performance of RDW in Italy, a critic foreshadowed the themes that would come to dominate media coverage of the ballet's 50th anniversary--that the work had shed its propagandistic past through its artistic and cultural significance. The Beijing Daily recounted the praise of this critic who declared "if RDW was a propaganda tool of the Communist Party of China in the past, now we can say that it has become China's cultural wealth" ("Fifty years," 2014). The privileging of nostalgia in news coverage of the ballet's 50th anniversary not only obscured the ballet's historical political connections; it also belied its contemporary political associations. The nostalgic perspective that divorced RDW, and by extension the CCP, from the Cultural Revolution belied troubling parallels between nationalism that dominated the chaotic historical period and President Xi Jinping's conceptualization of contemporary Chinese state nationalism.

In his espousal of the "Chinese Dream," President Xi pledged to rejuvenate China by guiding the nation on a path of increased wealth, world power, and national pride in exchange for loyalty to the Party. However, Xi's efforts to bring the Chinese Dream to fruition bear similarities to Mao's rule. Commemorating the chairman's 1942 Yan'an lecture, President Xi espoused praise for Mao's belief that art should serve politics and asserted that contemporary art should "take patriotism as its muse, guiding the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country and culture" (Chin, 2015a). Critics have pointed to the aggressive promotion of Xi's personality in official Chinese propaganda, which includes musical tributes extolling the virtues of "Papa Xi" and the publishing of a collection of the president's speeches in nine languages, and his centralization of political power as bearing uncomfortable similarities to Mao's cult of personality and political rule during the Cultural Revolution (Jacobs & Buckley, 2015; Tsang, 2015). Xi's assertive anti-corruption campaign has enabled him to tackle rivals and bolster the centralization of power within the Party. However, his administration's campaign against "hostile foreign forces" points to insecurity and uncertainty in the Party's future (Wong, 2014).

These insecurities have manifested in policies such as increased Internet censorship, greater restrictions on foreign NGO's operating in China, and the detention and imprisonment of human rights activists and outspoken critics of the government (Chin, 2015; Lubman, 2015; Wan, 2015). Perhaps one of the best examples of the CCP's insecurity is Document No. 9, which was issued by the Government Office of the CCP Central Committee in April 2013 to warn against the dangerous effects of Western The document warns of threats to the CCP's authority and stability emanating from the infiltration of Western ideas via "anti-China forces in Western countries and domestic dissidents" in China (Ranade, 2013). According to the report, such threats include promoting Western constitutional democracy, replacing Chinese values with Western ideals, challenging CCP management of the press, and refuting the "scientific value and guiding role of Mao Zedong Thought" to list just a few (Ranade, 2013). Such actions and statements faintly evoke aspects of Mao's struggle against class enemies and what he deemed the polluting effects of capitalistic and bourgeois ideas, which he claimed had corrupted the Party and other realms of society such as education, art, and journalism (Tsai, 2001, p. 120). In order to purify the Party from corrupting Western influences and consolidate Mao's power, the PRC was virtually shut off from foreign contact during the Cultural Revolution.

Evoking aspects of Mao's anti-Western ideology, Xi's contemporary policies focus more on stemming the influx of Western ideology rather than charting a new path influenced by debating, revising, and infusing such ideas with Chinese cultural characteristics to meet the contemporary problems plaguing the Party. To be sure, this is not so say the West holds the key to China's ills. For example, the United States' staggering gap between rich and poor, rampant violence as evidenced by near daily mass shootings, perpetuation of racial inequality, and broken political system overrun by corporate interests reminds us that the espousal of Western democratic values is far easier than their implementation (Ingraham, 2015; Boren, 2014; Tyson, 2014). However, instead of conveying fear of Western ideas through tightening controls and increasing restrictions, the Party has the opportunity to re-invent itself in accordance with the shifting demands and contemporary challenges of an era of increasing globalization. After the Tiananmen Square protests, the CCP claimed its rule was necessary to maintain stability by asserting China was a unique nation not ready for the implementation of Western democracy. In so doing, the CCP revised the argument for its legitimacy, basing it upon the ability to afford political stability and economic growth through safeguarding "China's national interests" (Zhao, 2013, p. 537). With waning economic growth, increasing distrust of the government, and escalating calls for political reform in China, the Party must revise its narrative of legitimacy if it is to remain viable (Forsythe & Ansfield, 2015; Wong, 2015). The future of the CCP depends on how well it is able to adapt to the challenges facing not only the Party, but also the people of China.

Over fifty years ago, the CCP directed the revision of a historically Western, bourgeois art form into a distinctly Chinese art, signaling the beginning of a unique Chinese ballet tradition that continues to this day. The Cultural Revolution, and contemporary depictions of it, can teach us important lessons--the perilous consequences of attempting to isolate China from outside influences and the devastating effects of political fanaticism, as well as the potential innovation that combining Western and Chinese ideas can yield.


(1.) For a few examples of such media coverage, see: Wang, R. (2014, September 24). Ballet show Red Detachment of Women celebrates 50th anniversary: Five generations of Wu Qionghua. Beijing Evening Newspaper. Retrieved from:; and Zhang, Y. (2014, June 25). "Red Detachment of Women" Re-appeared on stage, brought another revolution to the world of ballet. Newspaper for Chinese Art. Retrieved from:

(2.) The origin of yang ban xi can be traced to a policy published on May 29, 1967 in Renmin Ribao titled "Summary of the Forum on the Work in Literature and Art in the Armed Forces with which Comrade Lin Biao entrusted Comrade Jiang Qing." Drawing upon five of Mao's written works, the policy emphasized the need to create art and literature in line with proletarian ideology to ensure the revolution's success. In service of this aim, art was expected to promote proletarian ideology, draw from traditional Chinese culture, and "remold foreign classical art forms to serve the revolutionary purpose" (Roberts, 2008, p. 3).

(3.) Xie's film also inspired the creation of a Peking opera about the revolutionary women's detachment.

(4.) After the Cultural Revolution, Dai Ailian regained artistic control of NBC (Chan, 2015).

(5.) The Party's Resolution of 1981 attributed the Cultural Revolution, in part, to Mao's errors. However, the document also shifts blame from the chairman by claiming that his errors in judgment were "taken advantage of by Lin Biao, Jiang Qing and others to commit many crimes behind his back, and brought disaster to the country and the People." See Resolution on CCP History (1949-1981), Authoritative Assessment of Mao Zedong, the 'Cultural Revolution,' and the Achievements of the People's Republic. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, E1981, 33.

(6.) For excerpts from the document translated into English, see Ranade, J. (2013, November 14). "China: Document No. 9 and the New Propaganda Regime." Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Retrieved from: commentary-china-document-no-9-and-the-new4175.html.

* The author would like to thank Lu Li for her translation of Chinese media articles for this project.

She would also like to thank Guo-Ming Chen and Chiaoning Su for their help in readying this article for publication.

Correspondence to:

Michelle Murray Yang, Ph.D.

Department of Communication

University of Maryland

2130 Skinner Building

College Park, MD 20742-7635


Michelle Murray Yang, University of Maryland, USA


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Author:Yang, Michelle Murray
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Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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