Chinese Ballet at Lincoln Center Glorifies the Violent Class Struggle That Killed My Great-Grandfather

“The Red Detachment of Women” sugarcoats a hatred-filled campaign to exterminate a whole class of people, dulling our recognition of the mass killing.
Chinese Ballet at Lincoln Center Glorifies the Violent Class Struggle That Killed My Great-Grandfather
Dancers from National Ballet of China wait backstage for their turn to perform the Mao-era ballet "The Red Detachment of Women" in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

My great-grandfather was a landowner in southern China prior to the communist takeover in 1949. Possessing about three acres of rice paddies and a lychee orchard placed him squarely in the “landlord” class—a group of people the new regime was determined to dispose of using “the greatest force,” as Mao Zedong put it.

Accompanying and legitimizing Chairman Mao’s coming campaign of mass murder was the remolding of national arts and culture.

“The Red Detachment of Women,” a 1964 Chinese ballet and one of many works glorifying violent class struggle, opened to New York audiences on the evening of July 11 at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.

Performed by the state-run National Ballet of China, the piece—one of just eight Party-approved model operas performed during the 10-year Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)—showcases the heroic defeat and execution of an “evil landlord” by communist partisans in the 1930s.

And right now on the website of the Lincoln Center, there are scenes from the play with the big Chinese characters on red banners saying: “Smash the landlords, divide up their land,” and “Catch the Tyrant of the South alive.”

The “land reform” campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s was a nationwide massacre and a direct result of Maoist theories, which openly called for terror and killing as a means of uprooting the landed gentry—or those wrongly classified as such. Scholar Ralph Thaxton said that the term “landlord” did not exist in Chinese until invented by the communists. Demonized by communist propaganda and agitators, China’s rural property owners were killed in frightening numbers. Reasonable estimates put the number killed in the millions.

Like his other countrymen labelled landlords or rich peasants, my great-grandfather was brought before a village tribunal organized by the communists. That he was a well-regarded figure in the community who had financially contributed to local education and culture meant nothing: his ownership of property made him, a priori, an oppressor, and he was summarily executed in 1952.

It took years for my grandmother, then studying in the Soviet Union, to ascertain the details of her father’s death. Decades passed before she would speak candidly about it.

Ballet dancers perform the "Red Detachment of Women," in Nanning, China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in 2009. (AP Photo/Liu Guangming/Xinhua)
Ballet dancers perform the "Red Detachment of Women," in Nanning, China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in 2009. (AP Photo/Liu Guangming/Xinhua)

In Search of Pride in a Historical Black Hole

Nearly four decades following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and despite the utter brutality of the Chinese regime’s anti-landlord campaigns that “The Red Detachment of Women” glorifies, the play has remained a staple of the National Ballet of China.

And reactions to its performance in the United States imply approval: one review published by The New York Times compliments the model opera for its “easily understood” tale of “liberation and just revenge.”

Mark Harrison, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick, whose research focuses on Soviet history, said that the New York performance of “Red Detachment” underscores the Chinese regime’s need to legitimize its Maoist past—a period Harrison describes as a “black hole in which tens of millions of people died.”

“The Communist Party has a legitimacy problem,” Harrison told Epoch Times in a telephone interview. “They have to have parts of their history of which they are proud.”

Looking to the Cultural Revolution, in which China’s ancient heritage, along with millions of intellectuals, was ruthlessly attacked and destroyed, is off the table. So is the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, where unfeasible political and economic plans led to the starvation deaths of over 30 million people.

“Dealing with that period is a big issue,” Harrison said.

‘A Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party’

The Red Detachment’s narrative of struggle against the landlord class taps into an age-old conflict between rich and poor, and one not unique to China. “There is a strain of public opinion in the U.S. at the moment, of the 99 percent against the 1 percent,” Harrison said. “In this case, the 1 percent happen to be killed.”

A more notorious example: Nazi German propaganda played up the supposedly parasitic nature of the Jew, “as someone who extracted wealth through misery,” Harrison said.

“The Eternal Jew,” an anti-semitic documentary produced by Nazi Germany in World War II, describes “a race of parasites” dependent on bartering the products of Aryan man’s labor to achieve economic dominance.

Likewise, Mao Zedong called for the violent destruction of landlords and “evil gentry” as a class on grounds that they had supposedly kept the rural population in destitution for millennia—“Without using the greatest force, the peasants cannot possibly overthrow the deep-rooted authority of the landlords which has lasted for thousands of years,” the communist ruler wrote in a 1927 report on the peasant situation in southern China.

The report is also the source of Mao’s oft-quoted “a revolution is not a dinner party” and “a revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

‘Mass Killing is Mass Killing’

My grandmother tried to reconcile her father’s murder with the communist ideology in which she and the rest of China were forced to believe. For decades, she tried to convince herself that as a landlord, he had deserved his death. Only in 2004, with the publication of the “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party“ editorial series in the Chinese-language edition of Epoch Times, did she begin to see the history of her family and country in a new light.

She knew something was wrong when one of her letters was returned to Moscow, where she was studying, with the words: “Your family has been struggled against in land reform. Don’t write any more letters.” Later, her brother told her simply that “dad died.” His body was left under a thatch mat, rather than being buried in the ground per funerary custom.

In a personal letter she wrote to the family, setting out the incident, and shared with me recently, she explores her conflicted feelings upon learning the news. “The death brought a contradiction in my thinking. I thought that he had been killed in a ’movement‘ of the communist thinking I followed. But how could a ’good' ideology kill good people? I was so conflicted!”

The way the slaughter has been subsumed in a broader narrative of China’s rise, and even discussed as an amoral “moment in history,” as Lincoln Center’s Nigel Redden explained it to the Wall Street Journal, dulls our recognition of the hate-filled nature of the murders. In China, the regime has done this thoroughly.

Outside China, it is less excusable. “If it’s based on social class, we don’t count it,” Harrison said. “But mass killing is mass killing. What we’re talking about here is mass killing.”