Cold moon and wolf's breath

The visit of the Shanghai Ballet performing The White-Haired Girl prompts Trevor Hay to consider Jiang Qing’s curious tolerance for this model ballet

When the man behind me in the stalls at Melbourne’s State Theatre asked his Chinese companion if The White-Haired Girl was a well-known story in China, I was praying she’d at least ask him if Swan Lake was a well-known story in Australia. But, of course, she gave him a very courteous Chinese reply. At the risk of being misunderstood I tried to turn round and get a peek at how old she was—perhaps she didn’t know much about the work either. They used to say, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, that 800 million people had seen only eight plays for eight years and the ‘revolutionary modern ballet’ (now styled ‘classic modern ballet’), The White-Haired Girl, was one of them. Yet it would be quite wrong to think everyone got to see a live performance, since it was extremely difficult to get tickets, and most Chinese I have spoken to saw only the film version—which they loved. The problem was never that the work was propaganda only that it was part of a very limited repertoire of propaganda. So, for me, who saw some of these works in the 70s as a privileged foreign visitor, and my Chinese friend who saw films of them, this was a very exciting occasion, although there is little in the Shanghai Ballet’s promotion that would prepare you for it.

In fact, this is one of two ballets in the famous repertoire, the other being Red Detachment of Women, which is regarded as a technically superior work. The great thing about The White-Haired Girl however is its folkloric power, the fact that it had already taken its place in Chinese culture as a legend, factual story and opera (and black-and-white film of the opera) before becoming a model opera in the 1960s.

This is the work Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) must surely have felt most ambivalent about, since it was a kind of ghost story, and she was always determined superstition would be rooted out of the Chinese theatre, which had long been a haven for fox-fairies, snake goddesses and erotically inclined transmigratory souls. She may also have had strong feelings about the storyline, which is reminiscent of her own life. She hinted to her biographer, Roxane Witke, that her mother was forced into prostitution—that she became accustomed from an early age to ‘walking in the dark’ in search of her mother. Her fear and loathing of dogs is also suggested both in official biography and in the roman-à-clef novel Red Azalea, in which the body of a fallen woman, being unsuitable for burial with her ancestors, is interred outside the city gate where her bones are gnawed by wolves. All this fits with The White-Haired Girl, which is based on the Chinese legend of hungry ghosts, the vagabond undead who plague the living unless they are offered sacrifices like other respectable spirits with decent filial descendants.

Jiang Qing actually played a starring role in a 1936 film called Blood on Wolf Mountain based on a novel, Cold Moon and Wolf’s Breath, in which a community of human beings triumphs over marauding wolves—the Japanese. The White-Haired Girl is set in northern China before the organisation of resistance to the Japanese invasion. In the 1940s opera which preceded the ballet (and won the 1951 Stalin Prize for Literature), the peasant girl Xi’er is sold to a landlord against the will of her father, abused by the landlord’s mother, made pregnant and then thrown out of the house to be remaindered as a prostitute. She flees into the mountains and becomes a white-haired, cave dwelling spirit, frightening local peasants who take her for a hungry ghost to be offered food sacrifices. In her wiId outcast state, she is constantly threatened by the elements, and in the ballet version we see this luminous, ragged-maned creature darting eerily through rain and lightning, always a step away from howling wolves and their human incarnation—rapacious landlords and their feudal lackeys.

Finally she is discovered and redeemed by members of the Communist Eighth Route Army, who do not believe in ghosts. As Marxists and materialists they appreciate that her white hair is simply the result of a lack of salt and sunshine. She emerges from her cave into the brilliant sunlight—also the symbol for Mao Zedong—and stands with her comrades in a famous last act tableau celebrating her unmasking and metamorphosis from mysterious renegade ‘animal’ outcast to member of the new proletarian, human family. In the ballet version there are a number of changes but the major one is her repulsion of the landlord’s attacks—this heroine cannot be sullied, which is not good news for real rape victims.

In the 1950s, before the ballet was created, there was considerable theoretical discussion about realism in literature, and Xi’er—the white-haired girl—was seen by some as a character who demonstrated the ‘typical’ qualities required of a proletarian hero without sacrificing distinct individuality. At this point she was still real enough to be raped, become pregnant and have a child—and her father was real enough to commit suicide. She was described by one critic and writer—soon to be denounced as a rightist during the Hundred Flowers Movement—as “an ordinary girl with an unusual destiny”.

That she managed to live down her association with rightist theoreticians is an indication Xi’er may well have had genuine supernatural abilities. In fact, during the Cultural Revolution she became a pin-up girl, and her picture was pressed lovingly into boys’ wallets; but, in spite of this dangerous habit, she remained an untouchable symbol of proletarian purity. Curiously, in the ballet, more than in the opera, there is a strong hint of that kind of U.R.S.T (‘Un-Resolved Sexual Tension’) beloved of modern television scriptwriters, although, it must be said, this ghost does get laid. Revolutionary Romanticism steers perilously close to True Romance at times and there is a lovely sensuality about this moonlit apparition in her papercut, Peter Pan-ish costume—the garment of the tale gapes, as Roland Barthes would have said. On top of it all there is a suggestion of primitivism and even ‘Fauvism’ which Jiang Qing specifically denounced in one of her key speeches on the arts. Yet this is the model work which suffered the least interference from Jiang Qing, the relentless censor and inquisitor.

There is a good deal of the world’s folklore, ancient and modern, about The White-Haired Girl; lupine themes have been appropriated from peasant story-tellers for use as moral education for bourgeois audiences (a similar thing happened to Little Red Riding Hood); familiar motifs of starvation, rape (the Neapolitan version of Sleeping Beauty), child-selling (Rumpelstiltskin), and banishment to the wilderness (Rapunzel), are apparent. Perhaps, with European ballet and music wedded to Peking Opera movement, with traditional folk storyline and the use of modern peasant protagonists, Jiang Qing succeeded, in spite of the ideological difficulties presented by this story, in creating the international proletarian fairytale.

The German Marxist Walter Benjamin said fairytales told us of “the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest”. The wicked witch is dead, but in The White Haired Girl we may still see Jiang Qing’s attempt to get the nightmare of truth off her chest and transform it into the power of fairytale.

RealTime issue #16 Dec-Jan 1996 pg. 9

© Trevor Hay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1996