In his memoirs former US president Richard Nixon recalls the one event on his historic trip to China in 1972 that filled him with particular dread: a performance of The Red Detachment of Women.
His apprehension was understandable. China’s first full-length ballet (and one of its eight ‘model’ agitprop or agitation propaganda operas) The Red Detachment earns its standing ovations with a revolutionary theme: “Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance and struggle.”
But to Nixon’s surprise, he actually quite enjoyed the show and when the curtain fell, he turned to his host, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, to ask who had written it.
Jiang had herself helped to adapt the ballet from a film of the same name (she was lauded at the time for having “successfully stormed the most stubborn fortress of art till then so tightly controlled by the Western bourgeoisie”). But with Nixon she stuck to the socialist script, telling him that it had been “created by the masses”.
Of course every creative work has an author and for The Red Detachment it was Guo Liangxin, then a member of the army’s sprawling entertainment division. He penned it during the Cultural Revolution.
The original script – loosely based on real events – tells the story of Wu Qinghua, a young servant girl who flees the abuse of an evil landlord to join the People’s Liberation Army in its fight against the Nationalists on Hainan Island. Even today it remains a signature work of China’s National Ballet (NBC), drawing large audiences with its rifle-toting ballerinas, acrobatic choreography and tropical backdrop.
Yet Guo – now 87 – has received only a few thousand yuan for his input, and programmes and posters for the ballet often fail to include his name. To remedy that situation his daughter and her husband took the NBC to court last month for recognition of Guo’s copyright. They also asked for Rmb550,000 in compensation, as well as an apology that his contribution had not been better acknowledged before.
Guo’s family have said they are acting out of a sense of “filial duty” – the NBC have accused them of opportunism. It claims it bought the rights to the work in 1993 – shortly after China first introduced copyright law – for Rmb5,000.
Some newspapers have taken the view that Guo got a raw deal and that the NBC should share some of its profits from the performances. But the ballet company counters that there isn’t anything to share – it states that revenues from The Red Detachment cover less than a quarter of its staging costs.
Guo’s family says plenty of other companies have expressed an interest in adapting the work.
“I won’t let it die – if the national ballet won’t dance, others will,” his son-in-law told the China Daily.
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