The communist regime in China sometimes has a funny way of building international understanding. Last weekend, for example, propaganda and cultural czars took the bold step of holding a Cultural Revolution-era “red ballet” at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
The ballet, called The Red Detachment of Women, glorifies the history of the communist land reform campaign in China, which included torture, arson, live burials, smashing, and theft directed at “class enemies.”
Hundreds of thousands were killed in the campaigns that took place in bursts from the late 1920s until the 1950s.
But the ballet puts a rosy face on the affair, and posits the Chinese Communist Party as the savior of the nation.
The event was part of a month of China-related activities, jointly organized by the Chinese Ministry of Culture and the Kennedy Center.
Chinese-American democracy activists are dismayed and furious, given that half of the Kennedy Center’s budget comes from the U.S. government. They say that the ideology of class struggle, hatred, and violence advocated in the performance runs counter to the freedom America represents.
“Americans used to oppose communist propaganda, but now they’ve relaxed and the Chinese Communist Party is infiltrating the society. This is very dangerous,” said Wei Jingsheng, often referred to as the godfather of the Chinese democracy movement, at a rally meant to raise awareness about the performance.
“They’re bringing over this stuff—that even Chinese people have already rejected—and performing it on stage for Americans. It reminds me of the horrible violence and hatred of the Cultural Revolution era. I am shocked that they would perform this. It’s just so brazen.”
He added portentously: “They’re trying to poison people’s thoughts, and this is only the first step.”
The Kennedy Center dodged repeated emails, messages, and phone calls from The Epoch Times requesting comment. In one instance the press director, John Dow, transferred the call to a message machine immediately upon learning the subject of the reporter’s questions. When the reporter called back 20 seconds later, his secretary said he was not in.
Acts I and II from “Red Detachment” were held from Sept. 22–24 during the month-long program China: The Art of a Nation. Though it was under the aegis of Chinese culture, experts say that “Red Detachment” is not even traditionally Chinese.
The Epoch Times spoke to Lucy Xing Lu, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago who wrote a book about language, propaganda, and art during the Cultural Revolution.
“Red Detachment does not represent anything of Chinese culture or tradition. The story is relatively contemporary … western art expression,” she said in a telephone interview.
“It’s communist propaganda,” she added.
—Wei Jingsheng, Chinese democracy activist
Only eight model operas were allowed in China during the 1960s and 1970s, when the arts were controlled by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. The plays were meant to foster a “deep hatred for all class enemies and love for the Communist Party,” Lu wrote in her book.
The “Red Detachment” is an epitome of the genre, eulogizing communist ideology and raining hatred on class enemies.
“Oh, it was a red terror,” Lu said of the period. “People become oblivious and forgetful, and then there’s government censorship not to talk about the Cultural Revolution,” she said.
“People have not given a thoughtful reflection on this time period … like how Germany, for example, reflected on how they treated Jewish people. The Chinese government deliberately shut down any conversation or critiques of the Cultural Revolution.”
‘Bandits and Arsonists’
The specter of Nazism and how it is treated differently from communism in the public sphere was raised by others commenting on the performance, too.
Wu Fan, editor of China Affairs and co-author of the letter that opposed the performance, said that the “Red Detachment” portrays “bandits and arsonists attacking wealthy people, taking their property, and splitting the profits—and they’re portrayed as heroes.”
The “land reform” campaign was often carried out in gangland fashion: Mass accusation meetings were held where innocent victims—singled out because of their class background as land owners—were lynched or executed.
Wu Fan said: “Americans would not stand for a ballet that made Hitler seem glorious. Why should they accept one that makes Mao heroic? Both are mass murderers.”
In 1931 Mao signed an order saying “exterminate the landlords,” according to the late China scholar Laszlo Ladany, who wrote a book based on Communist Party documentary sources.
One Chinese media report says that Kennedy Center originally wanted a full performance of the Red Detachment of Women but Feng Ying, the director of the National Chinese Ballet, felt that the mixed arrangement would better display the company’s “comprehensive strength.” The Kennedy Center did not respond to requests to verify that claim.
Normally the play would end with the protagonist vowing to follow the Mao Zedong motto that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
It was performed in the theater named for former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in his time was a staunch anti-communist. For three days at the Kennedy Center the refrain was sung: “Communist ideology is the truth, the Party leads the way.”