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Sex drugs and revolutionary modern ballet

Trevor Hay, Guo Jian, Mama’s Tripping

Trevor Hay is a Melbourne academic and writer, author of several books and short stories about China, who has also written a doctoral dissertation on the model theatre of the Cultural Revolution.

Guo Jian, Trigger Happy X!! Guo Jian, Trigger Happy X!!
Private Collection, Melbourne, courtesy Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney
Sydney artist Guo Jian, in conversation with novelist and China scholar Linda Jaivin (see facing page), reminisces about his reaction to the revolutionary modern ballet The Red Detachment of Women—one of the ‘8 model works’ of the Cultural Revolution which inspire him still, although not exactly as intended by their creator, Madame Mao.

I loved it. We all did. Why? Thinking back, it’s got to be all those women in shorts! At the time, you never got to see women’s legs. But you could go to The Red Detachment of Women without anyone calling you a hooligan or suspecting your motives. In China, sexuality carries a negative connotation. You don’t admit to sexual desire. But even army propaganda used subtle sexual imagery to draw us in.

In Guo Jian’s recent exhibition, Mama’s Tripping, these strictly licensed legs appear, among other more ‘explicit’ imagery, in a series of kitschy, carnal tableaux (which wouldn’t be out of place in a 1960s soft porn magazine feature spread) under the title Madame Mao’s Red Detachment of Gals and Gags. Meanwhile, Jiang Qing has re-surfaced in Anchee Min’s latest book Becoming Madame Mao where, in the opening scene, she sits thinking aloud, as though contemplating her own performance, rather like Norman Bates sitting in his cell demonstrating for an imaginary audience that he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Well, I won’t surrender. When I was a child my mother used to tell me that I should think of myself as grass—born to be stepped on. But I think of myself as a peacock among hens. I am not being judged fairly.

At least we hear her side of the story as the young revolutionary Li Yunhe (Cloud Crane), the Shanghai actress Lan Ping (Blue Apple), and the designing woman of Yan’an, Jiang Qing (Green River) mesh to become, for foreigners anyway, ‘Madame Mao.’ She is a character of “historical fiction” we are told on the front cover, which shows a raven-haired and ruby-lipped beauty, wrapped Manchu concubine-style, in a red blanket sequined with glittering Mao badges, awaiting her elevation to the head of the imperial couch. The Emperor Mao takes his concubine impatiently “like a tomb robber grabbing gold”, Anchee Min tells us, and in time the pair will fuck with the minds of a billion people. If there’s ever a collaborative Linda Jaivin/Anchee Min/Guo Jian rock opera about Jiang Qing, I want to see Cher come rolling out of this blanket, hoist herself astride a PLA tank barrel and belt out Believe for an ecstasy and coke-fuelled mass audience of Red Guards in Tian’anmen Square.

Anchee Min has a way with beginnings and endings, closely related to the Chinese stage. In her last work, Red Azalea, she began: “I was raised on the teachings of Mao and on the operas of Madame Mao, Comrade Jiang Ching.” Jiang Qing tells us on the final page of Becoming Madame Mao:

Don’t be surprised to see my name smeared. There is nothing more they can do to me. And don’t forget that I was an actress, a great actress. I acted with passion. For those who are fascinated by me you owe me applause, and for those who are disgusted you may spit. I thank you all for coming.

As we learn in a stage direction for this very theatrical book about a very theatrical person, Jiang Qing never did learn the trick of escaping criticism for “the crime of the century.” There is some sort of truth in her observation about being smeared. She was wickedly cruel and ruthless and may well have deserved everything she got and more, but she still got one of the bum raps of the century, consistent with the twin calamities of being a Chinese woman and an actress. As she maintained at her famous trial/performance, she was Mao’s dog and when he said to bite, she bit, but no one wanted to hear about responsible dog ownership in those days.

If Anchee Min and Guo Jian (not to mention Linda Jaivin) are anything to go by, the China arts field has produced some fun people in recent times. Red Azalea was an ostensibly autobiographical work into which Anchee Min inserted a character who could only have been Jiang Qing (see Trevor Hay RT#1 & #10). Are we to think from Red Azalea that the author was actually rescued from exile in the countryside during China’s rustification movement by some sort of lesbian cross-dressing relationship with none other than Madame Mao, or is she pulling our leg and taking advantage of the fact that this is one of the last literary frontiers, a ‘Fabulous Woman’ that Westerners still don’t know much about yet? Good luck to her if she is having us on. We richly deserve it after all those wild swans and falling leaves. I half expect her next book to be called The Peony Drops.

The ‘True Story of Mao and Jiang Qing’, whoever tells it, will have a lot to do with sex—sex, drugs and revolutionary modern opera. Ironically, Jiang Qing, during her campaign to reform Beijing opera and create the genre of ‘8 model works’, had a bit to say about unwholesome sorts of addiction created by foreigners:

Capitalism has already had several centuries, but its output of so-called ‘classics’ is negligible. The capitalists have produced a few works modelled on these ‘classics’ but they are stereotyped, unappealing and therefore in total decline. On the other hand, there is a great torrent of mind-numbing poison, like rock and roll, jazz, strip-tease, impressionism, symbolism, abstract art, fauvism, modernism and so on, endlessly. In a word, there is enough corruption and obscenity to poison and paralyse the people.

Guo Jian has produced scatological satire out of the iconography of the puritanical Cultural Revolution, but Jiang Qing’s words reveal that she is not so far from him in her preoccupation with the link between propaganda and popular culture. The difference between now and then for people like Guo Jian is that he is free in all matters of indifference to our political masters, such as art and culture, and can let his head go. As a result, he goes in for the joys of overkill. He uses a very strong solution of satire to dissolve a very flimsy outer layer of hypocrisy. The point Guo Jian may well be making is that the inside layer of violence and corruption in Party propaganda always was at least as obvious, and yet as secret, as the contents of the Red Detachment’s Bermuda shorts.

In Nicholas Jose’s introduction for the Mama’s Tripping catalogue he refers to the “mind-fucking drug” of the Cultural Revolution and the “images that were used to sell a society to its people.” These images were present in incomprehensible profusion and variety of form. But no propaganda was more carefully crafted and contrived—and few things gave a greater sense of illicit pleasure—than Jiang Qing’s model works, in particular The Red Detachment of Women and The White-haired Girl (the 2 very popular female protagonists are combined in one of Guo Jian’s works, Trigger Happy XII).

The model works were meant to reproduce in their audience the kind of conversion and revelation taking place on Madame Mao’s revolutionary modern stage, or at least the outward appearance of it. Those in the audience who interpreted her works correctly, as a performance text for the Cultural Revolution itself, quickly transformed themselves into true revolutionaries, who could readily be distinguished from counter-revolutionary revisionists by the way they hated and persecuted anyone they called a revisionist after passionately identifying with the persecuted heroines. If you are wondering what kind of mind produced that kind of logic don’t miss Becoming Madame Mao. The women of these ballets were among the most memorable of all Jiang Qing’s creations precisely because they, unlike the principal heroic figures of other works, could be both persecuted and fallible. Perhaps Jiang Qing’s life experience got in the way of her dramaturgy.

Meanwhile, Guo Jian confides to Linda Jaivin how he once decided if he ever survived the PLA he was going to get “the prettiest girlfriend.” I just hope for her sake she doesn’t mind being dressed up as a peasant slave girl in long braids and red pants and chained to a post for not paying her cruel and exorbitant rent while the blood-sucking, evil tyrant landlord brandishes his whip as she stands with head and chest high, her eyes blazing with indomitable hatred at the outrageous injustices inflicted on the workers and peasants of China for a thousand years.

Guo Jian, Mama’s Tripping, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, September 9-October 21; Anchee Min, Becoming Madame Mao, Allen & Unwin, 2001.

Trevor Hay is a Melbourne academic and writer, author of several books and short stories about China, who has also written a doctoral dissertation on the model theatre of the Cultural Revolution.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 9

© Trevor Hay; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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