For decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has employed large numbers of performers in what are known as “cultural arts units.” As communist troops brought bombs and bullets to the battlefields of the Chinese civil war, these propaganda brigades served Mao in winning over the hearts and minds of the masses.
But this once important symbol of the regime’s military has sunk to scandalous depths. The “entertainment army,” as it’s often called, is riddled with corruption, and the all-female cultural troupes have come to be regarded as material for illicit trysts with military officers and Party officials.
The PLA is a highly powerful institution in China, and because military officers and Party leaders are not subject to the scrutiny of a free media, their abuses including the treatment of women remain “open secrets.” Such matters are widely accepted and discussed among Chinese people, but hard evidence that would typically emerge in societies with functioning judicial systems is often lacking.
The result is that this seedy set of relationships has been known about for years, but details are often scarce. A veteran of one PLA troupe, however, has now shed new light on one of the most high-profile instances of a military singer becoming a mistress: Song Zuying, the consort of former Party leader Jiang Zemin.
A Veteran’s Secrets
The relationship between Jiang and Song, a singer with the navy’s Song and Dance Troupe, has been tabloid fodder in the overseas Chinese press for decades.
Speaking to Epoch Times using the pseudonym Xiao Mei, a veteran of a PLA cultural troupe said that during her five years as one of Song’s assistants, she learned of Jiang’s licentious inclinations from the singer herself, as well as details about how the female song and dance troupes in the military were regularly used to satisfy senior male officers.
The individual cannot be named, or her years of service revealed, for reasons of personal safety, given that discussing Party leaders in China can be met with retaliation.
“Many female soldiers in the cultural troupes of the Navy and in the Beijing Military Region had to be screened by Jiang Zemin,” Xiao Mei said. “This means that military aides would send pictures of the women to Jiang’s office. Those who caught his eye would be summoned to his residence. If one night was insufficient, he would have the girl as many times as he liked, until he tired of her.”
Xiao Mei explained further how these women would be distributed among Jiang’s political allies if not chosen by the Party boss himself. “Those high-ranking officials … would pick from the female soldiers and use them to satisfy their lust,” she said. Though the women might come from “good family,” they had little agency in the military structure.
Many chose to leave the army with large sums of hush money, while others would increase their connections and become cadres. “Someone in the long-term graces of a high-level official can go from first lieutenant to major or even lieutenant colonel. What happens behind the scenes hardly needs mentioning,” Xiao Mei said.
Behind a Star’s Rise
Xiao Mei’s superior, Song Zuying, had made meteoritic strides in the Chinese navy’s now-defunct Song and Dance troupe that earned her the nickname of “rear admiral” despite her noncombat role. It has been widely rumored that she earned her position by being Jiang’s mistress.
“Whenever Song hears some news about Jiang, the expression in her eyes becomes odd,” Xiao Mei said. “There seems to be some undisclosed matters between them.”
Song is believed to have caught Jiang’s fancy in 1990, when she performed during the Chinese New Year Gala aired on state television. Four decades her senior, Jiang was photographed holding the singer’s hands tightly. The next year, Song was transferred to the Song and Dance troupe attached to the PLA navy political department—a branch Jiang often frequented.
For 24 years, Song appeared in the Gala every year, winning awards and honors in China and abroad. This coincided with the period of time during which Jiang Zemin and his associates generally enjoyed political dominance in the Communist Party.
In one episode from May 2010, Xiao Mei recalled how Song Zuying was picked up by a car bearing a Beijing Military Region license plate right after she had performed in a high-profile concert held at Shanghai Stadium.
Xiao Mei is a graduate of a well-regarded Chinese drama academy. She was recruited into one of the navy’s cultural troupes, where she met and served Song. This turned out to be of aid whenever Xiao Mei encountered “military lechers”—Song would pull strings and have them leave her alone.
In one incident, a female officer who was acquainted with Xiao Mei tried to set her up for a meeting with a senior official. Wary of the official’s intentions, Xiao Mei called Song, who told her she would take care of the matter. An hour later, the female officer returned to Xiao Mei and gave a frenzied explanation excusing her from the meeting.
Xiao Mei said she decided to speak out about her experiences in the cultural troupes in order to reveal the perils it presents to the young women it recruits.
Controversy surrounded the PLA’s cultural troupes even before China’s economic liberalization. When they were created on the orders of Chairman Mao in the 1930s as part of the communist military wing, senior general Peng Dehuai questioned the decision to move attractive performers to a centralized organization.
General Peng had said that it would seem as though “the selection process for imperial concubines” had made a comeback, according to an account by Mao’s personal doctor Li Zhisui.
These biting criticisms, in addition to the other ways in which General Peng displeased Mao, may have struck a chord. According to his doctor’s memoirs, Mao frequently sought out young virgins from the cultural troupes for his personal enjoyment. General Peng was denounced during the 1960s and died a political outcast in 1974.
More recently, the cultural troupes have continued to be the object of public scrutiny and racy conduct, particularly during the time of Jiang Zemin’s political influence.
Tang Can, a singer of the Beijing Military Region who earned the dubious distinction of “the military’s bewitching belle,” abruptly dropped out of view and has made no public appearances since. Speculation abounds that she was involved in a major corruption case investigated by the Communist Party’s internal disciplinary agency; or that she was the mistress of one or more high-ranking officials or military officers who have recently been purged.
Wang Shouye, formerly the deputy commander of the PLA navy, had liaisons with many women from the cultural troupes. One of them allegedly bore his illegitimate child, had a falling out with him, and eventually reported him to the authorities for corruption. Wang was sentenced in 2006 for the embezzlement of over 100 million yuan (about $15 million).
As a teenager, Chinese-American actress Bai Ling said that when she was posted to Tibet with the PLA, she and other performers were often forced to drink with male officers. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2011, she said she was raped and forced to have an abortion, and later had to be committed to a mental hospital.