Sunday, June 7, 2009

Red guards in Chengdu and Red Detachment of Women

Emy and I chanced upon a dance school performance in Zijing Park yesterday. Groups of little girls (and a few serious kungfu boys) dressed in all manner of costumes and colours scurried about, got shouted at by their dance instructors, scolded by their mothers (who primped and bettered make-up, tweeked costumes and acted general maternal fuss-buckets), jumped up on stage, twirled around (pink butterflies), flapped their long sleeves (Tibetans) and brandished large red stars (red guards), all with enormous dedication, enthusiasm, flashing of blinding white teeth, boldly made-up eyes and tightly pinned and coifed hair. Seldom have I seen so many ponytails in one go.

It was the last group of red star carrying girls that caught my attention though. Their faces were heavily painted, they wore braids and grey Mao caps each with a red star in front, had militant little shorts-pants on and bold red leggings. Their faces were frozen in dedication, perfect miniature Red Guards (紅衛兵 Hóng Wèi Bīng) about to perform a dance from the model opera Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军 Hóngsè Niángzǐjūn). Emy who is 10 years old didn't give it a thought and most likely not the little girls themselves who all seemed to be the same age and probably had no understanding of late 1960s China and its politics. But I wondered what the people in the audience felt when seeing these girls dress as they were and dance as they did.

But how wrong I was. According to Wikipedia this Chinese ballet premiered as early as 1964, two years before the start of the Cultural Revolution. It was adapted from an earlier film that was in turn adapted from a novel which was based on a true story that happened on the island of Hainan in the 1930s. During the Cultural Revolution however it was selected as one of the "eight model operas" (八个样板戏 bā gè yàng bǎn xì) permitted. It was this opera that Richard Nixon saw when he visited China in 1972, seven years before the normalization of the Sino-US relationship. It remains a very popular ballet today and is still performed, both in China and around the world.

Despite its political overtone and historical background when it was created, it remains a favorite of music and ballet lovers nearly 30 years after the Cultural Revolution in China. Many numbers were based on the folk songs of Hainan Island, a place that, with its coconut trees rustling in tropical wind, evokes much romantic ethos. Though there are unmistakable elements of Chinese music, the music of this ballet was performed with basically a Western symphony orchestra.

A photograph will be posted sometime in the future...

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