Last night, while I was listening to a piece of Salsa music on Youtube that my teacher David Zepeda played when he taught me dancing, La “Chinita“(Spanish:The Girl or Woman) by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, my eyes scanned something that was surprisingly unexpected to see, especially on Youtube. The title was even in Chinese: “快乐的女战士－万泉河水” （The Happy Women Soldier–The Water of the Wan Quan River). I scrolled up and down and found many more ballet episodes of this huge, one of a kind performance – one of the eight model plays of the Cultural Revolution, the one and the only 7 others that were established as revolutionary and modern operas by Jiang Qing – the one and only “Chinita,” serving as the only permitted spiritual nourishment for an entire nation during the 10 years of Revolution, the ever gracious ballet: The Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军 pinyin: Hóngsè Niángzǐjūn).
I was so intrigued and drawn to it that I wasted no time in clicking it open. Oh, my goodness! It was a video of the Vienna Orchestra Symphony playing two merry pieces from this historically significant and classical Chinese repertoire: “The Happy Women Soldiers and The Water of Wan Quan River” from “The Red Detachment of Women,” one of the most unforgettable revolutionary kind. The performance took place in the world-renowned Vienna National Concert Hall with a Chinese conductor who was probably born after the end of the Revolution leading all those musicians from Austria and all over the world.
The music starts with a pluck on the harp strings. A few notes of the special pentatonic accord of harp strings set the story in the Red Army Camp on the quiet and peaceful banks of the Wan Quan River. Its “ding dong” sounds display the Wan Quan River flowing joyfully as the sunshine rays flicker from the gentle ripples. One oboe softly catches what is left by the strings and extends the scenery with tall and graceful coconut trees. The relaxed and soothing sound of the prudent oboe brings the heart deep into a land of unrevealed happiness and far into a place where the river flows away.
The other oboe continues and the harp travels in-between the aspirations of the oboe players. The sweet, deep, relaxing oboe sound depicts the Hainan villages in the coconut forests perfectly, twilight tranquility and hidden joy yet to arrive… Silently a young girl in semi-military dress comes into view, looking at the river afar; another girl comes in, twisting her cotton towel full of sweat after a day’s work with the peasants.
Then the flute sends out quick, squirrel-like running notes that introduce the start of a naughty play, as a third girl pours some water over the head of another. The double basses in their low, heavy, and seemingly dark yet whimsical notes lay down the base and contrast for the other flute which joins in, the two flutes blowing their notes to the highest level to let us feel the chill of the “Clean Clean Wan Quan River Water”- a Hainan folk song that has become the core theme of this Ballet symphony.
Who says that music is just sound? It has life, a genuine life that represents all lives, in different times and eras, different political systems, countries, sad lives, complicated lives, and trouble-woven unsolvable lives… bloody lives, pleasant, joyful and inspiring lives like those of las Chinitas (Spanish plural form: the girls or women), displayed by the impossibly happy music of the Red Detachment.
Now the two oboes, side by side, lead your pulse to follow the two girls as they chase the naughty water-splashing girl as she escapes. The flute is the wicked girl! Listen, listen, as she dodges the chase and the revenge, gliding and hiding behind the third girl. The girls’ play goes on for half a minute in a merrily but progressively cautious atmosphere of oboes and flutes, under the monotonous accompaniment of simple chords in the double basses and bassoons, until the violin tutti and French horns push their joyful play to its summit.
Now the four cellos, the most graceful of all instruments, stretch their legs and lengthen their necks lying comfortably in their players’ arms as if they were in the arms of their lovers! Their chests are full of easy and healing emotions, gently brought out by every inch of the bows’ movements; in between the constantly oozing pleasure of the cellos’ legato, we hear now and then the oboes – two girls, and especially the flute – the wild girl, together with the jolly staccato of the violin tutti. The flute enjoys its solo while the wicked girl leads her sisters in playing tricks on their old army cook.
As the oboes and flutes slow and quiet down, we know that they are murmuring about the strategy of how to get the water buckets off the shoulder of the cook. Right after, there sounds a heavy running of his old legs, chasing after his stolen buckets in hurried trumpet blows while the bassoon utters in a low and stern voice saying: “stop, girls! Give back my buckets!” And yet the old cook mumbles his grudges only to his superior commander in chief.
The bass-like bassoon wakes up the peaceful evening with its accelerando in its fatherly, throaty, yet sweet and calming voice, as if to a baby girl sleeping with her ear next to his chest. The flute then becomes the symbol of joy and happiness. With the legato of violins, the solo of the key oboe, again, there sounds the folk song of Hainan: “Wan Quan River Water,” its ultimate beauty and grace revealed! Its ideal concept of Chinese merits and harmony is triumphant, with French horns and trumpets like the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”
The graceful, pentatonic “Wan Quan River” completely threw me into my first public dance experience outside school. I knew a little bit of the “Happy Women Soldiers” movements, only a little bit, because it was my older troupe members who were supposed to dance this episode. On July 1st, 1970, when I was just an eight-year-old girl, I was too young to play one of the women soldiers. Yet when I was sitting on a little army stool watching our own show put up for the 7659 Railroad Army, who were celebrating the accomplishment of the railroad, my father, who was the assistant school master and the director of our Mao Ze Dong Thoughts Propaganda Troupe, came and told me that I needed to replace one of the five girls who had sprained her ankle. Oh my! I had no time to hesitate and was snatched away from my stool and put into an army costume. With nothing in its place and way too baggy for me, I found myself on the stage together with four other girls of about 13-15. Obviously, I could not have been naughtier and messier than the girls in the play, better to call me Tchaikovsky’s 5th ugly little wicked swan. Nevertheless, the soldiers might never have known the difference between me being properly wicked and decently trying to be weirdly proper.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that this ballet was performed for US President Richard Nixon on his visit to China in February 1972, under the personal direction of Zhou Enlai. I wonder how President Nixon felt about this piece of typical pentatonic Chinese revolutionary music, composed in the western mechanism and danced in light grey ballet shoes and army uniforms. Did he feel a little bizarre, as well as amazed, at the realization that music is universal and without boundaries? How smart was our savvy En Lai, who used the charm of music to knock down the serious historical barriers of prejudice between capitalism and socialism! How smart he had been, to have directed Nixon’s attention and favor to the basics of human nature.
Among Chopin’s works there is the Etude Opus 10 No.5. It was composed on the piano’s black notes, which form a pentatonic scale. Even though it has nothing to do with Chinese music, it does sound Chinese. Why is this pentatonic scale so special that Chinese fundamentally favor it? Isn’t “The Red Detachment” the best example of this pentatonic scale music? What else do grace and beauty need to express themselves, other than using this scale? What kind of harmony and merit does it bring to the heart and soul of Chinese people in its simple five-note scale?
I just read an article on Alberto Forchielli’s blog about a Montrealer Canadian professor who praised China as a Meritocracy. What is he talking about? I need time to think about what he said about the Chinese political system and its base – this merit, grace, and harmony-preaching Confucius. For a huge feudalist and socialist country that has been proven to be almost impossible to go democratic, Prof. Daniel A. Bell obviously doubts what democracy could bring to it anyway. Democracy, dictatorship, or this evolved meritocracy from dictatorship, or this future ideal-ocracy for China, or for any other country, the core question is what this country is working for and how it is working out.
I do know one thing about humans: each one is flawed for another, and even for ourselves. Will the theory based on trusting human nature, its conditional merits and good behaviors work out well on a larger scale than the pentatonic one? Will a country that should represent the benefit of the majority be fine, provided the powers be given to the idealized and almost utopian merits of the elite? I do greatly enjoy the pentatonic music of China, especially the two pieces that I just took great time praising, and must have listened to over 15 times by now, and I do hope Professor Bell can help compose some other beautiful, graceful and merit-reflecting pentatonic orchestra symphony with his western heritage! Maybe after all these years of living in China with his Chinese wife and in-laws, Daniel is seeing China as a nation with only black keys?