Heritage and the Politics of Culture
Ballet training was introduced into China by the Soviet Union during the decade of the Sino-Soviet Friendship Alliance. Nearly from the beginning there were calls that ballet be “made Chinese” (minzuhua 民族化) or given “Chinese form” (minzu xingshi 民族形式), where the word minzu, volk, conveys the weightiness of these goals. These expectations came from all directions – from the ballet world itself, from government cultural policies and, after the companies began to perform internationally, from dance critics in host countries. There was, however, disagreement on how to go about this, given ballet’s highly stylized technique and conventions and its European models. Cutting through these debates came the creation of the two ballets of the Cultural Revolution era, Our Red Army Girls 紅色娘子軍and White-Haired Girl 白毛女. They were the most thorough fulfillment of the demand to be Chinese. Conceptually, however, these are the easy examples, having stripped away everything but pointe shoes for the main girl dancer.
This paper analyzes two recent, less absolutist ballets in terms of “making ballet Chinese”: Peony Pavilion (2008), based on Tang Xianzu’s famed 1598 kunqu opera, and The Chinese Nutcracker (2010), a Chinese version of a ballet that is a Christmas staple in any place that has a ballet company. The Chinese nature of both works may appear self-evident, but because “Chinese” and “heritage” are vague and mutable, a closer look will suggest their divergent, sometimes contradictory manifestations and how ballet remains a rich medium for the shaping of national identity.