“Gender Trouble” in Model Plays: A Different Kind of Feminism?


huai003by Huai Bao

Western feminist scholars commonly assume that “there must be a universal basis for feminism, one which must be found in an identity assumed to exist cross-culturally…” and that “the oppression of women has some singular form discernible in the universal or hegemonic structure of patriarchy or masculine domination” (Butler, 3). Such assumptions of universality fly in the face of feminist scholarship’s simultaneous injunction to listen to the subaltern and to honour experience. This leads us to ask, for example, does socialist feminism in the People’s Republic of China share the common grounds? Is there really a universal patriarchy? Do all feminist movements go through a common process and achieve a universally desired status?  Is there a universal feminism?

Although his famous slogan, “women hold up half the sky,” earned him global feminist applause, Mao Zedong, and likewise his wife, Madam Mao or Jiang Qing, have been criticized by diasporic Chinese feminist scholars in recent years for the detrimental effect of so-called feminist politics on flesh and blood Chinese women. Mao and Jiang, who was his closest assistant, employed literature and art as a propagandistic tool to enact a romanticized feminist project.

huai005Mao’s government enacted a reform campaign to examine and reorganize the repertoire, artists, and the regulation of theatres, keeping some “good” plays while banning those with “harmful” feudal content. Before too long, the campaign developed into the ban of all traditional and Western-influenced plays and the creation of the eight “model plays,” which included modernized Beijing Opera plays and ballets, all communist-themed. The eight productions were five modern Beijing Opera plays–The Legend of The Red Lantern (filmed in 1970), Shajiabang (filmed in 1971), Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (filmed in 1968), Sweeping the White Tiger Regiment (filmed in 1972), and On the Docks (filmed in 1973), two ballets–The Red Detachment of Women (filmed in 1971) and The White Haired Girl (filmed in 1972), and one symphony, Shajiabang (first recorded in 1971). These, along with other Beijing Opera plays, subsequently added to the revolutionary repertoire, such as Song of the Dragon River (filmed in 1972) and The Azalea Mountain (filmed in 1974), mostly highlighted a prominent female protagonist who represented an idealized communist-liberated woman.  Such were figures such as Li Tiemei and Grandma Li in The Legend of The Red Lantern, Aqingsao in Shajiabang, Fang Haizhen in On the Docks, Wu Qinghua in The Red Detachment of Women, Xi’er in The White Haired Girl, Jiang Shuiying in Song of the Dragon River, and Ke Xiang in The Azalea Mountain. These characters demonstrate qualities, such as courage, determination, inner strength and rebelliousness, normally perceived as masculine. Nor is any female protagonist depicted as a wife or in a romantic heterosexual relationship; they are all independent small business owners or fighters, unmarried or widowed, or with an unclear marital status.

huai002In creating heroic images, the productions all employ masculine bodily movements for female characters. In The Red Detachment of Women, for example, the pas de deux is eliminated or “modified to eliminate classical ballet’s dual objectification of the female body” (Roberts, 2010). Such masculinization suggests that women’s liberation requires the destruction of  “the traditional concept of female sexual stereotypes” (Bai, 2010). Women’s true emancipation is to be achieved only by participating in the class struggle led by the Chinese Communist Party (2010). Unlike Western feminism, socialist feminism in the People’s Republic of China was mobilized by the state leadership and given some cultural authority in artistic production.

Despite these works’ promotion of women’s liberation, social justice and gender equalitarianism, and their condemnation of feudal patriarchy and gender oppression, some feminist scholars have recently questioned the de-gendered and asexualized images of women as ideal, normative, and pro-revolutionary (Bai, 2010; Roberts, 2010). While the revolutionary artistic repertoire appeared to embrace female agency, it also erased women’s specificity, and in particular their sexual desires. In contrast, other feminist scholars considering Mao’s artistic legacy reject this more negative interpretation. Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak argues in a recent conversation (2012) that since masculinity and femininity are culturally constructed, female masculinity as shown in these model plays should not be perceived as “unnatural” and disruptive. Criticism of Mao’s heroines as suffering from “de-gendering” or “gender erasure” ultimately seem premised on a faith in a pre-existing gender pattern assigned to women, a pattern that contemporary gender studies calls into question.

The feminist heroines of Mao’s communist theatre challenged long-standing stereotypes of Chinese womanhood.  Feminist scholars studying that disruption now argue about the liberatory potential of female characters.  Created to stir up “gender trouble” in their own time, Mao’s feminist acts now provide a potent source of debate for feminist scholarship.



Bai, Di. 2010. “Feminism in the Revolutionary Model Ballets The White-Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women.” In Art in Turmoil: The Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Ed. Richard King. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press. 188-202.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Liu, Siyuan. 2009. “Theatre Reform as Censorship: Censoring Traditional Theatre in China in the Early 1950s.” In Theatre Journal. Volume 61. Number 3: 387-91.

Roberts, Rosemary A. 2010. Maoist Model Theatre. The Semiotics of Gender and Sexuality in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Leiden: Brill.

Wichmann-Walczak, Elizabeth to Huai Bao. Phone conversation. November 20, 2012.

Huai Bao
Huai Bao, a.k.a. H. B. Dhawa, received his Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University. Thanks to the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, he is currently conducting postdoctoral research with the host institution being University of Toronto. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Waterloo, and has published two books and numerous peer-reviewed scholarly articles in North America, Europe, and Asia. His personal website is www.hbdhawa.com