In February 2017, everything that is difficult about cultural engagement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was on display inside and out of the Arts Centre Melbourne. The National Ballet of China, at the invitation of the new Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (AsiaTOPA), was staging The Red Detachment of Women. The ballet tells the story of a poor peasant girl who is saved from the clutches of a despotic landowner by the Chinese Red Army in the 1930s. She joins the women’s military corps and returns with them to heroically defeat and kill the landowner and his allies. With its epic themes of victimhood and revenge, and its cast of gravity-defying, rifle-toting, flag-flying, stern-faced ballerinas, The Red Detachment of Women is a song-and-dance spectacle of a scale and type rarely seen on the Australian stage.
But just how do we “see” it? The ballet is also a work of unabashed propaganda about a violent period in modern Chinese history, told in unambiguous terms, with clear heroes and villains. It was inspired by a true story – but there are other true stories, too. My friend Hou Dejian’s grandmother owned a small amount of land in a remote Sichuan village. During Land Reform, the revolutionaries wrapped her hands in cotton and set them alight, crippling her for life. Visiting the village half a century later, I was taken aback to see just how modest was the house she’d lived in, how few were her fields. Certainly, there were greedy, cruel and exploitative rural overlords who badly abused the landless farmers who relied on them. But propaganda permits no shades of grey, no universal notion of humanity, no empathy.