The Red Detachment of Women

Nicholas Quirke was getting a much needed injection of culture on the evening of 8 March 2021 when he was going to the Tianqiao Theatre, home of the Chinese Central Ballet, to see The Red Detachment of Women. The ballet which, premiered in 1964 at the same theatre, is regarded as a classic Chinese ballet, and its music is familiar to almost every Chinese person who grew up during that time. It is one of eight ballet and operas that dominated the stage during the cultural revolution and was performed for Richard Nixon on his visit to China in 1972. At the time It was renowned as revolutionary and modern when compared with traditional Chinese operas as instead of the “emperors, kings, generals and beauties” of the traditional Peking opera, which was banned as “feudalistic and bourgeois,” they told stories from China’s recent revolutionary struggles against foreign and class enemies. They glorified the People’s Liberation Army and the bravery of the common people, and showed Mao Zedong and his ’thoughts’ as playing the central role in the victory of socialism in China. They were performed or played from loudspeakers in schools, factories, and fields by special performing troupes and these ’Eight Model Operas’ dominated the stage in all parts of the country during the 10 year long revolution, leading to the joke “Eight hundred million people watched eight shows. The ballet tells the story of the liberation of a peasant girl in Hainan Island and her rise in the Chinese Communist Party and was based on the true stories of the 100+ member strong all-female Special Company of the 2nd Independent Division of Chinese Red Army, first formed in May 1931. Despite the backlash It remains a favorite of music and ballet lovers 40 years after the Cultural Revolution and to celebrate 100 years of the CCP the company were staging another revival. The day, coincidentally, was also International Women’s day which is an occasion cherished in China when all women are given a half day holiday. The performance was the highlight of his day that had started early following an unsettled nights sleep. He was teaching in the afternoon and decided to cycle to the tea rooms at Dongsi before heading to the school this took him to the north east of Tiananmen Square where as the CCP Meeting was still happening he had to avoid. His lesson was with Jean and during the class they were joined by another 7 year old, ‘Jimmy’ but he had been at an International school in Bangkok and though equally delightful he was more advanced and not a suitable classmate for Jean. Once the class was over, he jumped on a bike and cycled seven km south In the twilight to the theatre. By the time he arrived night had fallen and with it a drop in the temperature which during the day had noticeably improved. He was joined by Peng and together they luxuriated in the Communist propaganda. He had been to the theatre previously to see a contemporary dance show, The Great Wall, and this was his first Classical Chinese Ballet. Peng had grown up with the music and was not greatly impressed by the show and its rhetoric but to Nicholas it was completely redolent of the imagery he associated with the Peoples Republic of China. The story of ruthless landlords and the communist struggle against the ethos of ancient china was thrilling and when a 40 strong choir in military uniform took to the stage there was a sense of excitement and euphoria in the audience that he found intoxicating. They cycled home which was west of the theatre and by the time he got back he’s had ridden a complete circle of the city centre and notched up 21 km on the bike. It was late and once again there was no time for a film. It was straight to bed and sleep.

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