Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

October 19, 2007

The Red Detachment of Women (1970)

I’ve been neglecting this blog recently.  Mainly because my final year has crept up on me, and the ensuing panic has caused me to devote a little more time to actually writing-up my damn thesis!  But I have been watching The Red Detachment of Women on DVD (in two sittings – the casts’ endless ‘determined fists’ get a little wearing after a while!).

Well, I can see why this and the other revolutionary operas were so appealing to audiences.  I know very little about ballet, but the performance of the cast is clearly dazzling (unsurprising given the harsh regime meted out by studios – read Anchee Min’s Red Azalea for more details), the score is rousing and colours vivid (and of course, red predominates).  Added to that is the fact that there would have been very little ‘entertainment’ available during the Cultural Revolution, making the opportunity to see a film – regardless of its propagandist content – a real treat.

The story is a fairly formulaic, gender-role reversed take on good vs. evil; girl escapes from dastardly landlord, hero saves girl, girl joins the Red Army (okay, that’s not in the vein of most classic stories!), girl leads her detachment into battle, hero is injured but survives only to be captured by evil landlord, girl single-handedly does for evil landlord and saves the hero, the masses are liberated by the victorious Red Army, etc, etc,.  Added to that is the propagandist sub-plot, i.e. join the Red Army, it’ll be fantastic.  You’ll have a great time (much like the adverts for the forces currently shown on TV!), plenty to eat and the locals will think you’re great!  Plus, if you’re a woman, you’ll get to wear a natty knee-length shorts with leg warmers combo (a sartorial choice which had no – as far as I am aware – basis in reality).  A half-arsed attempt at ‘sexing’ up the film to appeal to the masses, perhaps?  Seems a rather bizarre decision for the costume designers to take, given that they were working in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, with its emphasis on androgyny and desexualisation of women.  Still, having said that, cultural supremo, Jiang Qing, was a rather peculiar woman herself.

Of course, Mao’s famous proclamation that ‘women hold up half of the sky’ is the basis for this tale, and – perhaps – for the reversal of roles between the male and female heroes. In many ways it is a celebration of women; overcoming the barriers, restrictions and mistreatment imposed upon by men (some men – not their enlightened male comrades in the Red Army, of course).

 Another interesting aspect of the film I’ve noted, refers back to Bright Sheng’s comments in the radio interview I’ve blogged about before.  The strange mixing of traditional and Western elements in the production of these revolutionary ballets, which seems at odds with the ethos behind the diktats imposed on practitioners working in other creative fields.  The influence of Western ballet is unmistakable here, as is the only slight adaptation (the inclusion of occasional ‘bursts’ from traditional Chinese instruments) of Western classical music for the score.

Anyway, back to the film itself… I’m not certain how available this, and the other revolutionary operas are in Britain.  This copy came from China.  Thankfully, this is where YouTube, as a research tool, excels

The heroine escapes and hides in the forest from the landlord’s henchmen:

After suffering a brutal beating at the hands of the landlord’s henchmen, the heroine stumbles upon a detachment of the army…

An ensemble piece which follows the detachment’s assault on the landlord’s compound:


Oh, and finally, I should apologise for the rather strange appearance of Cogs and Wheels at the moment.  I’m working on a re-design.  🙂



  1. Hi, came across your blog looking for random post-cultural revolution Chinese art blogs. Refreshing to read reviews of classics such as this one from someone with an academic interest, especially from a non-Chinese perspective.

    These so-called 样板戏 i.e. “Model theatre” are to me excellent examples of how wonderfully beautiful something can still be regardless of external restrictions & ideological background. They lack the grandeur of the east is red, but it carries the same rigidity in formal precision in terms of choreography & art direction, and imho far more elegantly. This being the more “progressive” of the 8 since formally it is ballet, but many elements, especially gestural & facial expressions, can still be traced back to Chinese operatic traditions, and far more easily observed in pieces like “assault on the white tiger battalion” & “sha jia bang”.

    You are quite right concerning the comparatively revealing (as in even a hint of contours in the human anatomy) costumes in this, and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed amongst the people. I remember reading an memoir by someone lived through time it and felt guilty that he went to the screening a few times because of the ladies & not because of his devotion towards the party, and admonished himself because of his corrupt thoughts. The irony is that the mentality which made him regard this as being perverse is perhaps in itself perverse – strangely something you’d nearly always find in totalitarian regimes as official doctrine, be it Communism, Nazism or Catholicism.

    I don’t know whether you have seen “Les Chinois à Paris ” or not, not a great movie per se, but if memory serves, there was a rendition of this with French dancers, along with many other such reinterpretations. There is something quaintly attractive in watching the satirisation of something that can only be regarded as satirical in itself – especially with hindsight. I was lucky enough (wait – is lucky the word?) to have experienced the very end of communist orthodoxy first-hand as a child, even though the cultural revolution was long over when I was born, I was still doused, I mean blessed with the same stuff since birth. Whilst just somewhat disillusioned in the glorious monolithic ideological saviour of the oppressed masses worldwide that is Chinese communism, but I have remained devoted to the artistic & cultural aspects, or at least what they represented to me.

    Comment by radzi — November 15, 2007 @ 2:19 pm

  2. Hi

    I came across your blog while looking for copies of Red Detachment of Women and some of the other 8 Model Plays on DVD. Could you tell me where you got yours and if you were happy with the quality. Mostly all I’m finding are VCDs.


    Comment by Monetta — January 14, 2008 @ 11:43 pm

  3. Actually, the copy I saw was lent to me by my landlord. He’d got it from a Chinese friend. I’d be keen to find an outlet for DVDs too! Sorry I can’t be of much help.

    Comment by amyjaneb — January 15, 2008 @ 10:29 am

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