The Red Detachment of Women & Chinese State Propaganda
Although the film and ballet versions of The Red Detachment of Women tell the story of Wu Qinghua, a peasant girl who joins a female detachment of the Red Army after being rescued by Hong Changqing, there are differences in both versions’ plots that serve their purposes.
In the film version, there are purposeful scenes between Hong and Wu that feel intimate, and the scriptwriter intended for a love plot, but their confessions were excluded from the final draft.
Furthermore, Hong’s character has slightly more dimension in the film, and their relationship becomes ambiguous because of the traces of an undeveloped love plot. This drew much criticism, since it resembled “bourgeois love,” which catered to people’s private desires and was the opposite of “proletarian love,” which catered to the public desires of people. Thus, the ballet adaptation by Madame Mao sought to address these issues to emphasize nationalist and proletarian ideals by excluding certain story aspects from the film and including details that do not resemble any platonic relationships.
One of the ways the storyline differs between the film and ballet versions of The Red Detachment of Women is the lack of a love plot in the ballet version.
Although the explicit love scenes were deleted from the film, there are still traces of an ambiguous romantic relationship between Hong and Wu, represented by the exchange of four silver coins throughout the film.
The first scene occurs after Hong frees Wu from Nan Batian’s torture at Border hill. There is a close-up of Wu’s face as she smiles for the first time in the film, indicating her attitude positively changes toward Hong. Then, he gives her the silver coins to pay for food along the way to meet up with the Red Detachment of Women. However, Wu is given food in the ballet version by an unknown company commander, not a known individual like Hong.
It is important that the company commander is unknown because she represents the Red Detachment of Women as an entity.
If Hong gives the food, it could suggest a relationship between him and Wu, which is the “bourgeois love” that is repulsive to audiences. Through this detail, the Red Army becomes more than just a force against the KMT but also a place of belonging and community for the proletariat.
In the second scene with the silver coins, Wu reflects on her failure to follow orders during her spy mission and talks to Fu Honglian, a proletariat woman who also joined the Red Army. Wu takes out the coins to feel them and starts talking about Hong with a smile shortly after, displaying an association between the coins’ tangibility and Wu’s thoughts toward Hong as a role model and further enhancing the ambiguity of their relationship. In the third scene, Wu and Hong are on the battlefield with the coins.
Wu finds out that her application to the Chinese Communist Party has become approved.
In addition, Hong tells her that she is now a “proletarian pioneer fighter.” Then, Wu gives Hong the silver coins in a close-up shot of his palm. Hong clenches his fist, and the audience can feel mutual respect between the two characters and their shared passion for revolution from their personal experiences. However, the ballet version does not depict this part of the story. And the two characters overpower their enemies easily until Hong tells Wu to retreat. Then, Hong and his two comrades battle the enemies on their own. And Hong becomes captured as Nan Batian’s prisoner, like in the film. Instead of having an intimate moment with Wu.
Hong’s sacrifice is evidently for the greater cause of revolution, and there is no ambiguity in his motive.
In the last scene with the silver coins, Wu goes through Hong’s bag after Nan Batian executes him, and Wu finds the four coins. She clenches her fist just as Hong did in the third scene with patriotic music in the background and dramatically raises her fist to communicate her resolve and determination to succeed Hong. Still, their relationship is ambiguous. Because their emotional bond conveyed through the coins becomes entangled with Wu’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.
According to Xiao Liu, “The power of the coins comes precisely from the fluid movement between the private and the public, the concrete and the abstract. The indeterminate relationship between Hong and Wu leaves the significance of the four coins open throughout these scenes: they could be a token of their love or of the “emotional currency” that binds together an individual and the Party… The intertwining of personal feelings and devotion to the Party not only renders money—the most abstract, impersonal currency—into powerful, tactile traces but also makes the four coins a palpable medium between personal life and political cause.”
The film version of The Red Detachment of Women portrayed an undeveloped love story and contained the “bourgeois love” in the form of private desire.
The film’s scriptwriter, Liang, received criticism for traces of a love story written off the original script. According to Marcia Landy, “The victims are most often females threatened in their sexuality, their property, their very identity. Often orphaned, subjected to cruel and arbitrary treatment at the hands of the domineering paternal and maternal figures or their surrogates, they experience a number of trials, until, if they are fortunate, they are rescued by a gentle and understanding lover, the ‘happy, unhappy ending.’”
In other words, hints of the cliché of the “woman’s film” love story from Hollywood and pre-PRC Shanghai were apparent to the audiences watching the film. While Liang tried to make a distinction between “bourgeois love” and “proletarian love,” the relationship between Hong and Wu was ambiguous, and the images on the screen turned out to be “vulgar individual desire.”
The ballet and film versions of The Red Detachment of Women also differed in the storyline to represent Hong as the ideal comrade, not someone with ambiguous relationships.
At the beginning of the ballet version, Wu is being tortured. And she looks fearless, with no expressions of pain. After escaping, she becomes left for dead by Nan Batian. And his lackeys since a thunderstorm is coming. Although in both versions, Hong saves Wu, he does it in different contexts. In the film, Hong voluntarily requests Wu as a slave girl after seeing her tortured by one of Nan Batian’s lackeys. However, Hong’s intentions are unknown since his relationship with Wu is ambiguous.
On the other hand, Hong saves Wu when he is doing reconnaissance in the forest.
And he points her to the army camp. Thus, at the film’s beginning, the relationship between Hong and Wu becomes intimate, as Wu’s attitude changes when talking to Hong. In the ballet, Hong helps Wu because she is the proletariat, and Hong’s personality is one-dimensional, so his motives are clear. In addition, in the film version, Wu witnesses Hong’s death and it comes across as personal for her because they share an emotional bond throughout the film and the camera pans away from Hong to show Wu crying in response to his death.
However, Wu is not there to witness Hong’s death in the ballet version.
Instead of panning away from Hong while becoming burned alive, he strikes a pose engulfed in flames. As a result, immortalizing Hong’s revolutionary spirit. And serving as a role model for audiences watching the ballet. At the ballet’s end, the Red Detachment of Women kneel and pay their respects to Hong as a martyr for their revolutionary cause. Hence, while the film version puts forth a potential platonic relationship between Hong and Wu. The ballet strictly portrays the two characters as comrades in arms fighting for the same revolutionary cause. And Hong becomes portrayed as a role model.
In the ballet adaptation, story aspects are different from those in the film to emphasize revolutionary ideals instead of cliché love stories with “bourgeois love” elements.
For example, the ballet adaptation does not include the four coins that are metaphors for the “emotional currency” and the ambiguous platonic relationship between Wu and Hong. Instead, Wu and Hong strictly have a relationship between a student and a mentor; and Hong and Wu serve as role models for audiences of their respective genders. However, while the ballet sought to eliminate all semblances of “bourgeois love,” the lines between the public and private sphere can become blurred.
Xiao Liu states, “These imaginations didn’t lie with the end of the Cold War and the global setbacks in twentieth-century socialist movement. But continued to inspire us to rethink the relations between the public and the private, the political and the personal.”
In other words, how can we improve our understanding of what we consider public and private. And lastly, what can become permitted?
Written by Martin Min
Liu, Xiao. “Red Detachment of Women: Revolutionary Melodrama and Alternative Socialist Imaginations.” Differences, vol. 26, no. 3, 2015, pp. 116–141., https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-3340396.
The Red Detachment of Women & Chinese State Propaganda