When President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, his hosts treated him to a performance of The Red Detachment of Women, a “revolutionary ballet” in which girls with guns dance en pointe to music about the evil of landlords. When Nixon expressed his admiration for the production to Madame Mao, she replied with a ready-made quip: What the president had just seen was not the work of a single individual, but rather the art of the masses.
Because they represented the triumph of collective action, entertainments like The Red Detachment of Women were supposed to eliminate the need for cultural imports, which might threaten to spread decadent ideas. Indeed, virtually all Western movies and music were banned under Mao’s regime—at least for the little people. As revealed in this lengthy discussion of Maoist film, the elite rather enjoyed checking out the cultural artifacts they were happy to declare verboten for the masses—though they were not quite honest enough to admit their reasons for doing so:
There were so-called “internal” (neibu) screenings of banned works and foreign works that were not released to the general public. In theory, these were to inform trusted central figures of what to be on guard against. But tickets to internal screenings were highly sought after, and not always for those reasons. I believe that Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) was a huge fan of The Sound of Music.
If a mere peasant or shopkeeper were caught watching a Julie Andrews film, I very much doubt he could escape punishment by claiming he was simply boning up on what to avoid.
More from The Red Detachment of Women here. I’d love to see a sequel to Black Swan that centers on Mila Kunis’s efforts to depict Wu Qinghua.