Russia and China’s Diplomatic Dance10 min read

The Russian ballet that offended Mao and harbingered the Sino-Soviet Split – by Eveline Chao


On June 30 2017, China’s state-owned paper People’s Daily declared “China-Russia ties better than ever in history”. A few days later, Xi Jinping reiterated the sentiment during a state visit to Russia. While rhetoric never quite reflects truth, it was certainly a major leap forward from 1969, when the two nations spent seven months in undeclared military conflict over their shared border, during the height of the Sino-Soviet split.

Unsurprisingly for two enormous and ambitious countries, relations between the two have always been touchy. One the one hand, they have been brought together by common concerns: fighting in the Korean War, countering the United States, and, more recently, keeping North Korea in check. On the other hand, they are also rivals: they have fought often for control of Mongolia and Manchuria, and each nurtures a vision of former glory that, if restored by one, could put the other at a disadvantage. Each country’s fate impacts the other’s.

The diplomatic dance between the two nations is aptly embodied in a real-life dance that premiered 90 years ago this year, at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. The ballet was called The Red Poppy, and it portrayed a Soviet vision of Chinese revolution, in which Soviets were heroes, leading the way forward into glorious liberation, and the Chinese were downtrodden victims in need of saving. In 1950, while Mao Zedong was in Moscow negotiating the Sino-Soviet treaty, he was invited to see The Red Poppy, and it became a battleground for the USSR and the CCP’s conflicting visions of each one’s relationship to the other.

A Soviet steamer pulling into a Chinese port in The Red Poppy

The Red Poppy first premiered at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater in 1927, and was lauded by the Kremlin as the very first Soviet ballet. Mikhail Kurilko, the theater’s designer, claimed that he came up with the idea for it when he saw a news item in Pravda about a Soviet ship that had been detained at Port Arthur, in China, by imperialist English officials, thereby preventing food from reaching Chinese workers (in truth, he conflated two unrelated news stories into one). For the bureaucrats who oversaw the Bolshoi, a revolutionary theme combined with an exotic setting was a winning formula, and Kurilko’s pitch was green-lighted. It went on to be an enormous hit, and was performed across the USSR some 3,000 times before fading away during the 1930s.

The ballet depicted a Soviet ship docked in China, whose noble captain intervenes to stop the beating of a group of Chinese coolies oppressed by an evil English dock master, then a dancer named Tao Hua, who falls in love with the captain. (In the opening passage, composer Reinhold Glière wrote “lifeless China” in the notes, accompanying it with the inevitable sound of gongs.) The story culminates with Tao Hua being told by her evil master Li Shanfu – who is in cahoots with the English villain – to poison the Soviet captain, refusing, and being killed by a gunshot from Li Shanfu intended for the captain. Somewhere in there, Tao Hua is awakened to the glories of Marxism-Leninism, and the ballet ends with a vision of Chinese liberation represented by red poppies raining down on the stage.

In 1949, a real-life Chinese revolution arrived, and the Bolshoi revived The Red Poppy, both due to the events in China and to celebrate Stalin’s 70th birthday. That same year, Mao traveled to Moscow to negotiate the Sino-Soviet Treaty. While there, he was invited to see the ballet. Mao declined, but sent Chen Boda and several other members of his delegation to see it instead.

Mao’s response must have been received with surprise by the Soviets. After all, the subject matter was apropos, and they had invited him not just to any mere viewing, but to a special performance with its famous and now-elderly composer Reinhold Glière in attendance. Clearly, the Soviets were proud of the ballet, and thought it to be a positive depiction of Sino-Soviet solidarity. However, it turned out that Zhu Zhongli, the wife of the Chinese ambassador to the USSR Wang Jiaxing, had seen a dress rehearsal, and reported back that it was offensive and distorted the Chinese Communist Revolution.

Ironically, the revival of the ballet included a number of changes from the original that suggest the Soviets had, in fact, been concerned about how it might look from a Chinese perspective. For example, the 1920s version had featured a fantastical second act in which Tao Hua smokes opium and hallucinates dragons, phoenixes and dancing flowers. Russian theater critics of the time had panned it as regressively Orientalist and at odds with the realism of the first act. In the revival, Tao Hua falls asleep sans opium, and her dream sequence is given a more realist hue.

Another change was that in the revival, the Chinese dock workers go on strike, and among them is a new character: Ma Licheng, who gets his own solo dance and spearheads full-scale rebellion at the climax of the ballet. It is he that the villainous Li tries to shoot, rather than the Soviet captain, when he accidentally kills Tao Hua. “It’s not so straightforward that the Soviet captain arrives and inspires Chinese revolution. The revolution is already happening in the 1949 version,” says Edward Tyerman, a Slavic Studies professor at Barnard College.

Ekaterina Geltser in the role of Tao Hua

Ma Licheng is also Tao Hua’s love interest in this version, rather than the Soviet captain. “You can see how the inter-ethnic love plot … might have been offensive to the Chinese audience, given that it has echoes of things like Madame Butterfly, and this cultural trope of Western men seducing then abandoning Asian women,” says Tyerman. Finally, in the revival, the villain went from being an imperialist English dock master to an imperialist American shipping boss – a nod to the new, common enemy that Russia and China now shared.

Despite these hints at some sensitivity on the Soviets’ part to a Chinese perspective, the Chinese still wound up offended. When Chen and the other members of Mao’s delegation attended The Red Poppy, they were accompanied by Nikolai T. Fedorenko, a Russian diplomat who often acted as Mao’s interpreter. In his memoir Stalin and Mao Zedong, Fedorenko recalled that Chen found the Li Shanfu character – who is implied to be a pimp, and who like the other Chinese characters was done up in bright yellowface – “monstrous”.

“It was only with great difficulty that Fedorenko was able to keep the Chinese from leaving early,” writes scholar Dieter Heinzig in The Soviet Union and Communist China 1945-1950. Heinzig also points out that the incident reflected not just Soviet insensitivity, but the Chinese guests’ lack of familiarity with Western art forms. On other occasions, Chen also reportedly took offense at female dancers appearing to be naked in Swan Lake, and laughed at what he perceived as the bull-like “shouting” of a famous Russian bass opera singer on TV.

Fedorenko also recalled that after the performance, they met with the director of the Bolshoi, who asked Chen what he thought of the ballet. Chen declined to speak, saying he didn’t want to seem ungracious. When pressed, however, he said he was uncomfortable with the ballet’s name, because red poppies symbolize opium, China’s “worst enemy”. (The 19th-century Opium Wars, when China was forced by Britain to cede territory and allow international trade of the drug, are still considered by China to be the most humiliating episode of its modern history.) Following the incident, the ballet was temporarily removed from the schedule.

Complaints about the ballet were further voiced by Emi Xiao, a poet and former classmate of Mao who was a major intermediary between the Russians and Chinese. Xiao suggested changing the title to The Red Rose, and also complained that one of the male characters wore a pigtail, or queue – a symbol of oppression that had been outlawed in China since 1912. He also expressed unhappiness over the heroine appearing to be a prostitute, as connoted by her being a dancer.

A Chinese graduate student in Moscow, Zeng Xiufu, also had many criticisms, detailed in Sino-Soviet Alliance by Austin Jersild, a history professor at Old Dominion University. Zeng thought the ballet “should be done with Chinese folk music” rather than music clearly intended for Russian sensibilities. He thought the Chinese laborers came off as too “servile”, and rather than being coolies and rickshaw drivers – stereotypical Russian and European images of Chinese – they should be industrial workers expressing “Chinese dignity.” He felt the hero’s name, Ma Licheng, sounded Muslim, and thought the ballet should focus on exploitation and colonialism not just by Americans, but Europeans too. For the name, he suggested The Red Flower.

That the heroine Tao Hua, and thus the ballet, was named The Red Poppy never made any sense in the first place, because Tao Hua in Chinese means “peach blossom”. The Chinese criticisms were duly noted, and when the ballet was revived a third time in 1957, its name was changed to The Red Flower, Tao Hua became a freedom fighter, and nary a pigtail remained. Later, however, after Sino-Soviet relations fell apart, the name was changed back to The Red Poppy, and remains so today.

Perhaps the exact details of what the Chinese took issue with never mattered in the first place. Edward Tyerman argues that “the Chinese delegation felt they had to protest in order to assert their own right to assert their own interpretation of history”. In other words, it may have been more about the power struggle between the two nations than the ballet itself. Records of the conversations Mao had with Stalin during his visit, not released until the ‘90s, show that despite the show of unity suggested by their signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty in 1950, their relationship was full of tension – as evidenced by the two sides’ differing takes on The Red Poppy.

Much like Xi Jinping during his visit with Vladimir Putin earlier this year, Mao called the moment “a new, remarkable page … in the history of Soviet-Chinese relations”. But during the visit, Mao spent 17 days stewing angrily in a cold dacha, waiting to meet with Stalin. Mao realized that the Soviet Union saw China as a junior partner, and he later expressed unhappiness over the “unequal” relation between the Chinese Communist Party and the Soviet Union. The Russians “have never had faith in the Chinese people, and Stalin was among the worst,” Mao told Soviet Ambassador Pavel Yudin in 1958.

These tensions culminated roughly a decade later in the Sino-Soviet Split, which in turn helped the West win the Cold War. The years surrounding the split were rife with clashes that, like the discussions around The Red Poppy, were as much about symbolism as anything else. Fifty years ago in August 1967, Red Guards laid siege to the Soviet embassy in Beijing, breaking windows and furniture, and setting fire to files. A few days before it, another group of revolutionary Red Guards had seized a Soviet cargo ship in Dalian because a crew member had supposedly dishonored Mao by failing to accept a welcome badge with his likeness on it.

Mao’s brush with Russian ballet seems to have left at least some positive impact on him. While he declined to see The Red Poppy during his Moscow visit, he did go see Swan Lake, just before he and Stalin signed their pact of friendship that has now been given new life, albeit with similar inherent tension, by Xi Jinping and Putin. Mao said he enjoyed the performance. And judging by the CCP’s own later embrace of ballet as a tool of statecraft – for example, when it treated Nixon to a performance of The Red Detachment of Women during his historic 1972 visit – it would seem that he learned a few lessons about diplomatic choreography. ∎


Further watching: on YouTube, watch a Czech film of the 1949/1950 version of The Red Poppy ballet