When I was listening to a piece of Salsa music on Youtube called La “Chinita” by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico last night, a piece that my Salsa teacher David Zepeda played when he taught me dancing, 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 Soldiers–The Water of the Wan Quan River). I scrolled up and down and found a whole bunch of videos of ballet episodes of this huge one of a kind – one of the 8 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 the only “Chinita”, serving as the allowed thus the only spiritual nourishment for a whole nation during the 10 years of this 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 clicking it open. Oh, my goodness! It was the video of the Vienna Orchestra Symphony playing, from this Chinese historically significant and classical repertoire, two merry pieces: “The Happy Women Soldiers and The Water of Wan Quan River” in” The Red Detachment of Women”, one of the very unforgettable revolutionary kind. The performance took place in the worldly honoured Vienna National Concert Hall with a must-be Chinese conductor who might be born at the end or even after the revolution, with all those Austrian or worldly musicians.
The music starts with the 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 bank of Wan Quan River. Its “ding dong” sounds display the Wan Quan River jumping joyfully and the sunshine rays flicker from the gentle ripples. One oboe softly catches what is left by the strings and extends the scenery with tall graceful coconut trees. The relaxed and prudent soothing sound of the oboe brings our 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 player travels in-between the asperation of the oboe players. The sweet, deep, relaxing oboe sound best depicts the Hainan villages in the coconut forests,twilight tranquility and hidden joy yet to arrive… Silently a young girl in semi-army dress comes into view looking at the river afar; another came in, twisting her cotton towel full of sweat after a day’s work with the peasants.
Then the flute sends out squirrel-like quick running notes that introduce the start of a naughty play of the third girl who pours some water over the head of one girl. The double basses in their low, heavy and seemingly dark yet whimsically played fast notes lie the base and contrast for the other flute which joins in, blowing their notes to its highest to let us feel the chill of the “Clean clean Wan Quan River Water”- the Hainan folk song that has become the core theme music of this Ballet symphony.
Who says that music is just sounds? It has a life, a genuine one that represents all lives, in different time, eras, different political systems, countries, sad lives, complicated ones and trouble-woven unsolvable ones…bloody ones, pleasant, joyful and inspiring ones like those lives of las Chinitas ( women) displayed by the extremely happy music of the Red Detachment.
Now the two oboes side by side lead your pulse to follow the two girls who are chasing the naughty water-splashing girl in escape. The flute is the wicked girl! Listen, listen, she is dodging the chase and the revenge, she glides and she hides behind the third girl. The girls’ play goes on for 35 seconds 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 forever graceful of all instruments stretch their legs and lengthen their necks lying comfortably in their players arms as if they were lying in the arms of their lovers! Their chests were full of easy and healing emotions that were gently brought out by every inch of the bows’s 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 playing tricks with their old army cook.
As the oboes and flutes slow and quiet down, we know that they are talking about the strategy of how to get his water buckets off his shoulder. Then there is wild running of his old legs chasing after his stolen buckets in hurried trumpets blows , while the bassoon talks with a low and stern voice saying: “stop, the girls! Give me back my buckets!’ yet the old cook mumbles his grudges only to his superior commander in chief.
The bass like bassoons wake up the quiet-down evening in its accelerating pace with its fatherly chesty-throaty yet sweet and calming voice to a baby girl as if she was sleeping with her ear next to his chest. The flute then becomes the symbol of joy and happiness. With legato of violins, with solo of the key instrument oboe, again, there sounds the folk song of Hainan: “Wan Quan River Water”, its ultimate beauty and grace revealed! Its complete ideal concept of Chinese merits and harmony are triumphed with the French horns and trumpets like that in the French national anthem: “La Marseillaise”.
This graceful pentatonic “Wan Quan River” threw me completely into my first public dance experience outside school. I knew a little bit of the “Happy Women Soldiers” movements, just a little bit, because it was my older troupe members who rehearsed this episode. On July 1st, 1970, as an 8 years 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 was celebrating the accomplishment of the railroad , my father came and told me that I needed to replace one of the five girls, who sprained her ankle. Oh, my! I had no time to hesitate and was grabbed away from my stool, put on the army costumes. With nothing in its place, 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 call me the 5th ugly Tchaikovsky’s little wicked swan, nevertheless, the soldiers might never have known the difference between me being properly wicked or decently trying to be weirdly proper.
Only by reading 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 Chinese pentatonic music yet composed in the western mechanism and danced in light grey ballet shoes and army uniforms. Would he feel a little bizare as well as amazed that music is universal without boundaries? How smart was our savvy En Lai who used the charm of music to knock down the prejudice of capitalism towards socialism, or simply how smart he had been to have directed Nixon’s attention and favour to the basics of human beings.
Among Chopin’s works, there is this 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 favour it? Isn’t this “The Red Detachment” the best example of this pentatonic scale music? What else grace and beauty need to express themselves than using this scale? What kind of harmony and merits it brings to the heart and soul of Chinese in this simple mainly five-notes scale?
Just read an article on Alberto Forchielli’s blog about a Montrealer Canadian professor China as a Meritocracy. What is he talking about? I need time to think about what he said on Chinese political system and its base – this merit, grace, harmony preaching Confucius. For a huge feudalist and socialist country which has been almost proven impossible to go democratic, Prof. Daniel A. Bell obviously doubts about what democracy will bring to it anyway. Democracy, dictatorship, or this evolved meritocracy from dictatorship, or this future ideal “cracy” for China or for any other country, the core is a question of 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 behaviours work out well on a larger than the pentatonic scale? Will a country which should represent the benefit of the majority be fine provided the powers be given to the utopian merits of the elite? I do enjoy greatly the pentatonic music of China, especially these two pieces that I take great time praising and listened to over 15 times by now, and I do hope Professor Mark 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, Mark is seeing Chinese as a nation of having only black keys?!