A core component of revolutionary themes in China is the focus on the all-female brigade. Empowered by the party and emancipated from their traditional bonds, the archetype of the all-female battalion shows that anyone can be part of revolutionary change, and that women are just as capable as male soldiers while serving on the frontlines. This theme is so important to the revolutionary mythos of China that, within the National Museum of China in Beijing, just across the street from Tiananmen Square, there is a painting in the central hall of contemporary art celebrating this fact. Next to such iconic paintings as The Founding Ceremony of the Nation (1953) is a painting titled Eight Women Throw Themselves into the River (八女投江), which depicts the true story of eight soldiers of female squadron who give the ultimate sacrifice while fending off enemy troops, one by one perishing in the watershed. The prime audiovisual representation of this archetype of emancipated womanhood was the socialist realist film The Red Detachment Of Women (1961), which follows the journey of a slavegirl as she exacts revenge on her former master with the help of the near-unbreakable, all-female Special Company of the 2nd Independent Division of the Chinese Red Army.
The Red Detachment Of Women (1961) was written and produced only a decade after the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China, and only a few years before the Cultural Revolution would kick off and standardize creative processes all across the nation. The story takes place on the Chinese island-province of Hainan, a location historically separated from the rest of mainland China. At present, the province is mainly a tourist attraction, like Florida or Hawaii.
The themes in The Red Detachment Of Women are simple, and the story itself is a classic good versus evil tale, only with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party as protagonists. Unlike Spring in a Small Town, there is no lusting between characters, all emotion is focused towards the greater good. The relationships formed are almost emotionless, and a wedding scene in the middle of the film is focused more on the collective celebration of everyone involved rather than the intimacy between two lovers. Characters go out of their way multiple times to mention how their conflict is only a part of a national battle for freedom, and many become martyrs themselves. The way the movie is set up, the only connection or motivation for any protagonist is that of the Party itself.
The Red Detachment Of Women was eventually made into a traditional Chinese opera, and remade several times with the same themes intact. The opera version became important because of its inclusion into the repertoire of the “eight model plays,” a select few Revolutionary Operas that were allowed to be shown during the Cultural Revolution. These operas made a new genre all their own, co-opting the style of traditional Chinese opera, while changing the narrative focus towards socialist idealism, instead of cajoling emperors and generals. If an opera wasn’t on the list, it couldn’t be practiced or performed, leaving the opera version of The Red Detachment Of Women in a position to cement itself into the new cultural fabric of a nation in the midst of continued cultural change and reevaluation. When President Nixon took his historic visit to China, the opera that was shown to him, and therefore the entire West, was The Red Detachment of Women.
Grab some baijiu and get ready for a different kind of patriotism with this week’s Collegiate Lenses.
The Red Detachment of Women Drinking Game Rules
Take a drink…
- If something dastardly or gluttonous is perpetrated by the owning class
- Whenever a character repeats a Communist Chinese maxim about destroying the old traditions
- For the duration of a montage
- If Dadao are wielded by Kuomintang soldiers onscreen
- Finish your drink when a protagonist becomes a martyr for the cause
Take this list as a suggestion, and drink responsibly. As always, enjoy the show.