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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Beijing

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, July 19, 2002
From the Field
York Geoffrey


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Pictures from Beijing

Wu Ching-hua and her comrades-in-arms mourn Comrade Hung Chang-ching; they resolve to carry on the cause of the fallen hero and wage revolution until final victory.
Photo: Handout

A worker cleans the steps in front of the mascot for a 100-lane bowling alley in Beijing. The complex is the largest bowling alley in Beijing and caters to an ever growing middle class with spare cash for entertainment.
Photo: Greg Baker/AP


Beijing -- In my first five months as the Globe's bureau chief in Beijing, I've been struck by the absence of Communist icons on the streets of the Chinese capital. Aside from Mao's famous tomb and giant portrait on Tiananmen Square, it's difficult to find a revolutionary statue or a flag or banner in this increasingly capitalist city.

The hulking Museum of Revolutionary History is shuttered and empty, closed for an indefinite period -- presumably for rewriting. The little red books of Mao's quotations are sold only at souvenir stands for tourists. The propaganda billboards on the streets are filled with slogans about China's entry to the World Trade Organization and Beijing's successful bid for the 2008 Olympics.

I wondered whether I had arrived here too late to find the ideological soul of the world's biggest Communist state. Was there any soul left at all? Or has this become just another globalizing economy?

That's why I was intrigued to hear of a revival of China's most famous revolutionary ballet, the Red Detachment of Women.

Here finally was a chance for a first-hand glimpse of the old Maoist fervour. On an earlier visit to Beijing I had found a wonderful old faded set of propaganda postcards from the ballet, showing slender ballerinas in military costumes, striking heroic poses as they brandished pistols and bayonets in a battle of liberation against despotic landlords in the tropical Chinese island of Hainan.

The ideology may be outdated, but at least here were people with beliefs about something bigger than making money.

"The red sun shines over Coconut Village and the impoverished peasants, victims of centuries-old oppression and exploitation, stand up and become their own masters," said a postcard showing peasant ballerinas casting away their chains as their female liberators waved their daggers and guns.

Another postcard, slightly more bloodthirsty than the first, portrayed two ballerinas wielding a hand grenade and a rifle as they performed a spectacular leap. "Sustained by hatred for the oppressors, Wu Ching-hua, now a Red Army fighter, together with a company commander, goes through a tough training course in preparation for killing the enemy," the caption read.

I rushed off to get tickets to the ballet. My first shock was the price. The top tickets were selling for 580 Yuan -- more than $100 (Can.) each, or close to a full month's wages for a typical Chinese factory worker. Clearly this was not a performance for the impoverished proletariat of Coconut Village. You'd have to be a despotic landlord to afford a ticket.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the theatre, the spectators were a cross-section of China's new bourgeoisie: businessmen and their families, well-paid bureaucrats and yuppies, all looking for a carefree night of nostalgia and fantasy.

The next surprise was the glossy red program distributed to every spectator. While it contained the usual information on the plot and performers of the Red Detachment of Women, it was basically a disguised catalogue for Max Factor SK-II beauty products, including some very expensive skin-care creams and facial-treatment mask, all part of the giant Procter & Gamble corporate empire.

Has it really come to this? China's revolutionary ballet now sponsored by the ultimate icon of American consumer products?

The ballet itself was terrific, if slightly cartoonish in its violence and drama. Graceful ballerinas tossed grenades and clutched bayonets as they danced delicately across the stage, assassinating the villainous landlord in cold blood with pistol shots to his back, all to a soundtrack of machine-gun volleys and a chorus of achingly pure women's voices.

"March on, march on," the theme song rang out. "A soldier's burden is heavy. A woman's hatred is deep."

The Red Detachment of Women was created in 1965 under the supervision of Jiang Qing (the fearsome Madame Mao, later the ringleader of the Gang of Four). It tells the true story of a women's guerrilla unit that led a Communist uprising among the coconut groves of Hainan in the 1930s, advancing onward to fight hundreds of other battles for the revolution.

It was a curious feeling to sit among an audience of affluent Chinese and watch the scenes of evil landowners gorging themselves at feasts and tossing coins onto the ground for their henchmen to fight over. Most of the spectators were probably aspiring to be landlords themselves, if they were not already. Getting rich today is glorious, not evil.

"When I was little, I took this all so seriously," said a Chinese friend who sat next to me, giggling at the villains. "I was very emotional about it. Now it's just a story. We have a different opinion of the bad guys now."

Yet there was something oddly stirring about the ballet. It was a return to a time when people still believed in the purity of ideals and the struggle to liberate the oppressed.

When the red sun shone over Coconut Village at the ballet's finale, I couldn't help feel a slight yearning for a time when sacrifice and solidarity were understood to be more than just a night's entertainment.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.