“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.

Lillian Dyck

copyright Canadian Senate

copyright Canadian Senate


Lillian Dyck (b 24 Aug 1945-)

Lillian Dyck is a Canadian Senator from Saskatchewan, appointed by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005. As one of the first Aboriginal women in Canada to pursue an academic career in the natural sciences, Dyck has been recognized as both a scholar and a leader for Aboriginal women. Reflecting the complexities of Canadian multiculturalism, she was both the first female Indigenous senator and the first Canadian-born senator of Chinese origin.

Dyck was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, to a China-born father, Yook Chun Quan, and a Saskatchewan-born Cree mother, Eva Muriel McNab, who was a member of the Gordon First Nation. Her family moved frequently through small towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan while Dyck and her brother worked in her father’s Chinese cafe, a common institution in mid-20th century Canada (Choi).  Her mother died when Dyck was eleven and her father as she finished high school. Before her death, her mother told Dyck not to tell anyone she was Indian as “life would be too difficult.” Dyck later reflected that she believed her mother, a former residential school pupil, had used marriage as a “survival strategy” to escape an abusive home life (“Lillian Dyck – Not Just Chinese”). She personally also found that there was “more discrimination against Indians than against Chinese” (ibid). Only as an adult did she feel sufficiently confident to present herself publicly as both Chinese and Indian.

Dyck holds a Bachelor of Arts (1968) and a Master of Science in Biochemistry (1970). She earned a doctorate in Biological Psychiatry (1981), when her only child, a son, was aged seven. That same year, she decided that it was “time to come out of the closet” and acknowledge her Cree ancestry. Prior to entering the Senate, Dyck worked as a neuroscientist at the University of Saskatchewan. Initially she sought to represent the New Democratic Party but since it advocated the Senate’s dissolution, she identified as ‘Independent New Democratic Party.’ In 2009 she joined the Liberal Senate caucus.

Dyck’s Parliament of Canada website highlights advocacy for equity in the education and employment of women, Chinese Canadians and Aboriginal people.  Her Senate biography describes her as an activist, as well as university dean, neurochemist, and professor. Her awards include a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Science & Technology in 1999; A YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Science, Technology & the Environment in 2003; and two eagle feathers in 2005. She has also been honoured by a play, Café Daughter, by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, based on her life.  It premiered in 2011 in Whitehorse, Yukon (Nahwegahbow).

As protests against government policies escalated in the second decade of the 20th century, Dyck proved an unusual patronage appointment. In December 2012, she protested the Conservative government’s passage of controversial Bill C-45 (now known as the Jobs and Growth Act, 2012). She also highlighted Chinese Head Tax redress funding and the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women Inquiry. In January 2013, she identified with the Idle No More Movement, speaking at a rally in Saskatoon on 5 January alongside Indigenous historian Dr. Winona Wheeler, whose family also originated in the Gordon First Nation. On 6 February 2013, Dyck was one of three senators to walk out of a meeting of the Senate Aboriginal Affairs Committee meetings, dramatically indicating her opposition to a proposed Conservative ‘First Nations Accountability Act’.

Dyck’s determined activism and championship of democratic movements from the Canadian Senate, traditionally a symbol of male and white authority, like that of New Brunswick’s Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, suggests that the warning of poet Audre Lorde that ‘the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house’ may be worth at least somewhat reconsidering. In the meantime, she is a provocative reminder of the many identities that Canadians bring to the struggle for greater equality.


Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Aboriginal Senators Walk Out on Aboriginal Affairs Minister.” February 7, 2013.

Canadian Senate, “Biography of Lillian Dyck,” Accessed April 5, 2012

Chinese Canadian Stories. “Lillian Dyck – Not Just Chinese.”  Film. July 14, 2011.

Cho, Lily. Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Nahwegahbow, Barb. “Café Daughter reveals the secret and a dream,” Windspeaker, v. 20, iss. 11. 2013

Roy, Marc “Liberal Senators Taking Action in support of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,Liberal Senate Forum. December 5, 2012.


Empress Dowager Cixi


Born Anhui Province, 29 November 1835; died Zhongnanhai 15 November 1908. Initially brought to the Forbidden City to join the Manchu Emperor Xianfeng’s harem. When Xianfeng died, as mother of emperor Tongzhi, Cixi became “empress dowager” and regent, known later as ‘the Last Empress.’ While her sexuality and fertility gave her initial power, Cixi soon proved charismatic and strategic. Historians and popular writers have been deeply divided about her responsibility for the fall of the Manchu dynasty and China’s difficulty in dealing with European imperialism.


Further Reading

Bensen, Amanda. (2008) “Cixi: The Woman Behind the Throne.” Smithsonian.com. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/da-cixi.html

Chung, Sue Fawn (1979). “The Much Maligned Empress Dowager: A Revisionist Study of the Empress Dowager Tz’u-Hsi (1835-1908)”. Modern Asian Studies 13 (2): 17

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong and Agnes D. Stefanowska, ed., 1998. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: the Qing Period 1644-1911. Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe.

Vare, Daniel (1936) The Last Empress.  N.Y. Doubleday

Seagrave, Sterling and Peggy (1993) Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China.  N.Y. Vintage Books.