Madame Mao’s Nietzschean Revolution

People's Pictorial/Red Detachment of Women, 1967

The peasants had starved, the Soviet advisors were gone, and the Communist Party had begun to tear itself apart. 1965 was turning into a bad year for China. But its famous first lady had other concerns. Through the viewing screen of her Hasselblad camera, Jiang Qing studied a young ballerina. In her hands, this dancer was about to become a hero.

Years before, Jiang had been on the other side of the camera as a young starlet in Shanghai. But no longer. She had aged since then and her cheeks had hollowed. The fine wrinkles around her eyes had been well-earned on the mule train to the Communist Party base in Yan’an. No longer an actress, she now wore the uniform of a cadre and the horn-rimmed spectacles of an intellectual.

But in her ballerinas, Jiang was reborn. Xue Jinghua, the ballerina before her, said years later that she was chosen for her resemblance to Madame Mao. Whether or not that was true, her physical perfection—a strong body, considered too physically imposing by the standards of the pre-Cultural Revolution period, and a solemn, beautiful face that floated like a specter over the shorter dancers—embodied Jiang’s ideal hero. Jiang agreed with the Greek attempts to mirror the Olympians: a strong will produces strength and beauty.

Dressed in the hero’s uniform from Red Detachment of Women, fatigues tightened and trimmed to show the perfection of her body and its movements, Xue kicked back into an arabesque, holding a saber above her head. This was the moment in the ballet when the ammunition had run out and she would begin to cut down foes with her blade. Completing the movement, Xue then stared into the distance—pausing only a split-second before returning to the task of destroying the old world.

The lights glared. Jiang snapped the picture. It captured the ballerina, suffused with an otherworldly glow, shot from below to exaggerate her height, showing off a physical perfection gained through blood and sacrifice. It appeared on the cover of China Pictorial a short time later. The photograph reeks of blood and gunpowder. The hero, saber ready, rises above the battlefield and off the pages of the magazine. She has cast off slavery, abjection, and all traditional morality to become a symbol of physical and spiritual strength. This was the ideal, representing the victory of physical power and force of will over all limitations, toward which Jiang Qing’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would march. Jiang wanted her viewers to be awed.

It was only unbending will that had brought Jiang herself this far. Born to a poor concubine, she had become a great performer in Shanghai. When forced to flee by the Japanese invasion, she reached Yan’an to become the lover and then wife of Mao Zedong. For more than two decades, her official role as China’s first lady had come at the price of staying out of politics. But as Jiang worked away on her craft, all that was ending. The Cultural Revolution was about to begin.

Within a year of the picture being disseminated around the country, Jiang had seized power. For ten years, she led the most radical factions of the Chinese communists from her offices in the Central Cultural Revolution Group and the Politburo. She became a member of the radical Gang of Four faction, which also included propagandist Zhang Chunqiao, literary theorist Yao Wenyuan, and labor activist Wang Hongwen. She incited young Red Guards against the party officials she believed had corrupted the revolutionary spirit.

It all lasted until 1976 when Chairman Mao died and Hua Guofeng put the Gang of Four under arrest. Charged with persecuting party members and workers, plotting to overthrow the party and assassinate Mao, and leading an insurrection in Shanghai, she received a death sentence. When it was commuted to life imprisonment, she was left to see the era of Reform and Opening Up bury her dreams for China.

When Jiang took her own life in 1991, she cursed Deng and his “revisionist clique” in her last letter, promising to seek out Mao in the hereafter. Even in her suicide, she wanted to be remembered as unbowed and unbroken.

China’s Nietzschean Revolutionaries

Jiang’s philosophy of heroism seems unusual for the wife of China’s most famous communist. Marxist analysis doesn’t obviously lend itself to individual valorization. But Marx was not Madame Mao’s teacher in these matters. That role fell to Friedrich Nietzsche.

Jiang was hardly the only Nietzschean in the red camp. Mao Zedong himself had been exposed to Nietzsche before Marx. Late Qing reformers had picked up Nietzsche’s ideas as they visited Japan and Germany; the young Mao devoured their work. The archives preserve Mao’s first writing on Nietzsche, scribbled in the margins of Cai Yuanpei’s translation of Friedrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics. Mao admired the neo-Kantian Paulsen but had an instinctual sympathy with Nietzsche’s view that traditional morality needed to be upended. Only by harnessing powerful, buried forces did Mao see a path toward a new world.

The artists and thinkers of the early Republican period were likewise enthralled by Nietzsche, the rebel philosopher who believed in the power of culture. For those focused on sweeping away the dust of feudal China, his nihilistic attack on tradition and call to overcome slave morality translated well into the post-imperial context. It is no wonder that Nietzsche was idolized by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, who would go on to found the Communist Party.

Even once figures like Chen, Li, and Mao turned left, they continued to absorb Nietzschean ideas. His thinking permeated many of the Bolsheviks, as well as radical Russian intellectuals and artists. Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Aleksandr Bogdanov, and Nikolai Bukharin all refer to Nietzsche explicitly or implicitly. Bukharin and Bogdanov, in particular, drew on him enough to be dubbed “Nietzschean Marxists” by scholars. In the words of historian Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Nietzsche was “a vital element of Bolshevism,” animating an “activist, heroic, voluntaristic, mercilessly cruel, and future-oriented interpretation of Marxism.” This line of Soviet cultural revolution intensified under the leadership of Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s: monumental art glorified the proletarian hero. There was even room for the Dionysian excess of the Russian avant-garde, though Stalin eventually turned against it.

Jiang, moving in radical circles in the 1930s, absorbed these ideas. Her study of Nietzsche came through the scholar Lu Xun. Before becoming the patron saint of socialist literature in the People’s Republic of China, Lu was its foremost interpreter, translator, and popularizer of Nietzsche. Jiang idolized him, later declaring that while Mao was her political north star, Lu Xun provided her cultural guidance. While his books had been bowdlerized to remove more provocative texts, Jiang kept an unexpurgated 1938 edition of his collected work on her bookshelf deep into the Cultural Revolution, handbound in twenty volumes.

Lu Xun was a Nietzschean through and through. His reading of ​​Thus Spake Zarathustra in Japan in 1902 changed his worldview completely. In “On Cultural Extremism,” an essay published in 1908, he pointed to the ideals of Nietzsche as the solution to China’s ills—only the will to power of supreme individuals was capable of leading the benighted masses. Jiang would certainly have read “On Satanic Poetry,” which Lu wrote under the stated influences of Nietzsche and Lord Byron. In it, he called for spiritual fighters and savage rebels to destroy the ultrastable system of Chinese ethics. Like Maxim Gorky in Russia, Lu’s political allies downplayed his Nietzschean sympathies after he moved to the left, but they continued to energize his writing, theory, and criticism until his death in 1936.

When the communists took control of China in 1949, Nietzsche was in the bloodstream of the party. His thinking would inform the psychopolitical project of creating the New Socialist Man in the ashes of the old society. When Jiang led her Dionysian artistic assault on the Apollonian state, Nietzsche was with her.

Later, when Jiang sat in Qincheng Prison, her enemies used this lineage against her. In 1977, Cao Boyan and Ji Weilong sought to protect the party’s ideological continuity by condemning the Gang of Four as Nietzscheans who contradicted Maoism. Through 1978 and 1979, articles like Zhang Wen’s “The New Disciples of Nietzschean Philosophy” and Zhang Zhuomin’s “The Will to Power and Social Fascism” attacked the Cultural Revolution as an expression of the will to power. An essay by Dai Wenlin charged Jiang with trying to create a new social fascist model of the Übermensch.

The commentary against Jiang revealed for a moment what most historiography of socialist China has worked to conceal: Nietzsche haunts all of the revolutions that China experienced in the twentieth century.

A Heroic Revolutionary Art

Jiang’s entry into the practice of cultural struggle began in the early 1960s when Mao found himself sidelined by his own party. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were rising in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference, with pragmatic policies that Jiang saw as unacceptably revisionist. She turned to culture to defend the cause. This was not merely a means to propagate political messages or attack enemies; following Nietzsche, Jiang believed that the world’s existence was justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Following Lu Xun, she also believed that culture could overcome the hegemony of conventional ethics.

She did not command from afar but traveled around the country, giving direct guidance to culture workers and drawing theorists and artists around herself. Revolutionary operas and ballets were her canvas. Apart from Red Detachment of Women, there was Shajiabang, an opera first staged in 1958, which told the story of a village hiding wounded soldiers of the New Fourth Army from Japanese and Nationalist scouts. In Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, Jiang dramatized the anti-bandit struggle in Northeast China.

This focus on heroic cadres laboring in the provinces was politically useful, since highlighting prominent leaders could backfire in the event of a later purge. But it was also part of the Maoist endeavor to create a new revolutionary culture among Chinese peasants and workers. In his “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” Mao had previously promoted the use of folk forms and the magnification of heroic traits. Jiang’s application went even further and demanded their complete transformation:

Out of the worker, peasant, and soldier, we must enthusiastically and by any means create heroic images. As Chairman Mao told us, the world represented in art can and should surpass reality. It should be stronger, purer, more perfect, and more idealized. Don’t be limited by real people and events. Stop writing about dead heroes when we are surrounded by living heroes.

Echoing Nietzsche’s division of art from truth, Jiang called for a break from the rules of realism, revolutionary or otherwise. Other Chinese thinkers had critiqued realist ideas with the concept of revolutionary romanticism as the Sino-Soviet split took effect. Jiang outstripped them, calling for heroes that defied reality itself.

China’s consciousness had been defined by generations of conflict against more powerful actors. Internally, the communists had led a revolt against landlords and aristocrats. Geopolitically, China had valorized the West for generations even while being colonized by it. From a Nietzschean perspective, China’s position of servility could not help but corrupt its spirit. China was now independent, but its consciousness had been shaped by domination. Jiang was determined that her heroes should not reflect this consciousness, but rather the heroic and agentic will to power that the Chinese people now had to cultivate. While the party had acted as the spearhead of this will during the war for liberation, the masses had barely begun to participate in it. The use of folk forms was helpful in teaching China to look within, but they had to be transformed before they could properly convey the consciousness of the new society.

While Jiang personally directed the productions created in this process of aesthetic reorganization, her fellow Gang of Four member Yao Wenyuan later systematized these ideas. He outlined the “Three Prominences” which Jiang and Yao believed all cultural productions should highlight: the prominence of positive characters in a work, the prominence of heroes among the positive characters, and the prominence of the major heroic protagonist among the supporting heroes. Nothing was left to interpretive chance: the protagonist would always be “Red, Bright, and Clear”—accompanied by a literal red glow, projecting an aura of willful positivity, and with an unobscured role and set of virtues. A third principle, “Tall, Mighty, Complete,” set forth that the main hero must physically dominate and appear to tower over surrounding characters with an overpowering presence, free of negative characteristics.

Anti-heroes and navel-gazing introspection about the cause had no place in the revolutionary operas. While these tropes later gained popularity in China and had already become more prominent in Western literature, the apparent “moral complexity” they allowed for only served to diminish the heroic consciousness. They cultivated a suspicion toward the heroic impulse, which became seen as a mask for morally compromised souls as lowly and unworthy as everyone else.

By contrast, Jiang’s insistence on the aesthetic and physical valorization of the hero made them more real than the world they struggled against. They did not fall into the trap of slave morality by letting their enemies define them. Vividly more worthy than those they fought against, they overcame them by sheer force of will. Their noble character also served to accuse those supposed allies with compromised commitments—they were without excuse for failing to live up to the heroic ideal. Again and again in the revolutionary operas, those who join the hero’s battle end up reflecting their beauty and vitality.

In the late 1960s, these theories of cultural struggle would become potent political weapons. The Cultural Revolution itself was unleashed with a piece of literary criticism: Yao Wenyuan’s 1966 article attacking a 1961 Ming dynasty period piece called Hai Rui Dismissed From Office on the grounds that it was against collectivization and the cult of personality.

The Transvaluation of the Cultural Revolution

Despite Jiang’s appearance of being in control of conventional politics, she continued to devote much of her time to running the cultural bureaucracy from the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. Marshal Lin Biao, the Cultural Revolution Group head Chen Boda, the spy chief Kang Sheng, and other members of the Gang of Four ran day-to-day operations.

Jiang did not lack collaborators. The left-wing artists that had driven Chinese culture in the 1930s were given a long leash by a party leadership made up mostly of urban intellectuals. Dance, in particular, had become a refuge for artists and composers. Jiang was uninterested in the numerous modern dance dramas, which included topical productions about the Vietnam War and Patrice Lumumba, and in experiments in adapting folk dance. It was the revolutionary modern ballets that held the most appeal for Jiang. They exemplified high-art elitism. She loved her hardened, beautiful ballerinas and the heroic themes present in ballets like Red Detachment of Women and The White-Haired Girl.

As the Cultural Revolution progressed, her guidance saw revolutionary ballets become extensively modified. New pieces were composed or sections removed to push them toward pure heroism and compliance with the “Three Prominences,” “Red, Bright, Clear,” and “Tall, Mighty, Complete.” In her selection of artistic forms, Jiang maintained the standard that what was beautiful should not be debased at the hands of popular instincts. The ballet, opera, and cinema that defined the Cultural Revolution were not vulgar kitsch, unlike much of the literature of the time. Jiang was interested in high art and her speeches and writing gave no consideration as to whether or not these forms would be appropriate for the masses. Yet, they proved popular enough that they are still performed today.

The filmed version of Ode to Yimeng, released in 1975, is the pinnacle of Jiang’s vision for ballet. While it retains a scene from older renditions of the protagonist feeding a wounded partisan from her breast, in the hands of Jiang it is less a fable of feminine sacrifice than of individual ungendered heroism. With Cheng Bojia dancing as the lead, the tall, powerful beauty seems just as prepared to toss the wounded soldier over her shoulder as she is to suckle him. Her knife fight against local goons, charged in earlier versions with fear of the woman being overpowered, becomes slightly surreal as she seems to tower over her opponents while cast in a red glow and moving effortlessly en pointe. The reels were quickly transported around the country. Urban audiences sat in theaters and villagers gathered around projectors under the stars to watch Cheng Bojia as the national embodiment of Jiang’s Nietzschean heroine.

Meeting the technical, artistic, and ideological perfection that Jiang demanded was no easy task. The heroic art Jiang envisioned required her to mobilize the best and brightest. Yu Huiyong, a composer and theorist, became Jiang’s constant companion as she oversaw this program of cultural engineering. He had originally won the right to work on revolutionary opera in a contest held by Jiang in Shanghai in 1965. The contest reflected Jiang’s demand for raw aesthetic ability: twenty composers were charged with creating an original aria inspired by a lyric from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.

After Yu fell afoul of Jiang’s own atmosphere of persecution—he was attacked both for slavish devotion to Western forms and for failing to support Jiang’s call to add Western instruments to Chinese orchestras—she rehabilitated him. Jiang wasn’t going to be politically pedantic. Working with the right kind of visionaries came first. Those with ability could be forgiven for political transgressions that condemned the less-than-worthy. Drafted into service alongside many of the best artists and musicians, he worked with Jiang to fine-tune her favorite works in a production process similar to the Hollywood studio system.

The revolutionary opera On the Docks became a shared masterpiece between Yu and Jiang. Yu had worked earlier on experiments in combining Chinese and Western instruments and tuning, as in the incorporation of “The Internationale” as a leitmotif in The Red Lantern, and On the Docks would be the perfection of these attempts. This arrangement of Chinese and Western orchestras would eventually become common, but Yu was the first to pull it off. Yu’s compositions, like the choreography for the revolutionary modern ballet, forged something new from the deconstruction of indigenous folk forms and Western high art. The result is considered a triumph of Cultural Revolution art.

Perfection was the rule. When a film version of On the Docks was shot in 1972, it only circulated for a brief time before Jiang’s careful review found deficiencies: the color grading was too pale, robbing her heroes of their red glow, and the cinematography failed to live up to the demands of “Red, Bright, Clear.” A reshoot appeared the following year, using the same performers and crew.

But while her art was reaching its zenith, Jiang’s hold on power was beginning to weaken. When Lin Biao died in 1971 on a flight to the Soviet Union, Zhou Enlai and his State Council took command of most of the government. Old adversaries, like Deng Xiaoping, were rehabilitated. But she kept making movies and producing operas and ballets as if nothing had changed—and, for her, nothing had. The Cultural Revolution, for Jiang Qing, was about culture.

When her political luck ran out, she refused submission. As one biographer wrote: “She held fast to her moral sovereignty as an individual.” Charged under Article 103 of the Chinese criminal code for committing counter-revolutionary acts that caused grave harm to the state and the people, death was a likely outcome. On the stand, she gave her final performance as the hero in chains, persecuted by the rabble. “I fear nobody,” she thundered. “I am above the law of men and of Heaven!”

Uphold Jiang Qing Thought

In the end, Jiang lived long enough to see what Deng Xiaoping’s cultural bureaucracy did to the program she had created. Reform and Opening Up became an age of individualist ressentiment, rather than cultural affirmation. Envy, persecution, and petty hatreds became the obsessions of new waves of art and film. Writers turned to “scar literature,” detailing their suffering under the Cultural Revolution.

Popular films showed the persecution of intellectuals by the Gang of Four. The victims, unlike the peasant girl in Red Detachment of Women, did not rescue themselves. Instead, they were made pure by their suffering. Artists were encouraged to turn inwards, to find their deepest pain. In Nietzschean terms, it was a full re-embrace of the slave morality that finds moral worth in the negation of health, power, and vitality—traits now associated with the art of the Cultural Revolution. Mobilization for economic development was acceptable to the leadership, but grand visions now risked political conflict. Politically, it was more expedient for artists to brood on the troubles and resentments of daily life.

The theories of Jiang’s reformation, including both the Nietzschean impulse and the orthodox Maoist call for artistic engagement with the masses, were reversed with market-driven mass media. Cinema in this period degenerated into violent pornography; many films made in this period, like the 1988 productions Silver Snake Murders and Obsession, could not be released to overseas markets without extensive cuts by local censorship boards and cannot be screened in China today. Experiments in stream-of-consciousness work, abstract impressionism, and performance art became popular.

Compared with Jiang’s mobilization of the best artists and musicians into large-scale productions with heroic ideological goals, the new era was a managed descent into cultural chaos. The ideal artist was now an entrepreneur that could keep themselves afloat on the seas of the market economy. Locked into private competition, shock and vulgarity were the best ways to inch ahead of one’s rivals. It was not conducive to heroic impulses or high-minded political action.

The “Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution Debates” and “Campaign Against Bourgeois Liberalization” were launched in 1983 and 1986 as attempts to rein in the excesses by restoring guard rails on expression, but reformers allied with Deng ultimately cut these campaigns short. The intellectuals and artists that the party gave space to repudiate the Cultural Revolution kept going right up until the summer of 1989 when China was rocked by nationwide protests.

The years since 1989 have seen an attempt to contain what was unleashed by this cultural free-for-all. This has sometimes involved marketization, banking on the fact that existentialism is not profitable, but also an abortive revival of the Jiang Qing line. The Central Ballet staged Red Detachment of Women for the first time since the Cultural Revolution in 1992. China Central Television still broadcasts new productions of Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, and the films made under Jiang Qing’s leadership in the 1970s were never actively suppressed.

But it is hard to find the heroic aesthetic of the Cultural Revolution in the official art promoted since 1989. Jiang Qing commanded high art for the masses, without any competition from the market. The newer works merely ape some of the principles.

The worthwhile lesson of Jiang Qing is in her refusal to impose powerlessness and victimhood on her subjects. She refused to sanction what Pierre Bourdieu, invoking Nietzsche, once called a “sociologically mutilated being” as a model of human excellence. Instead, she invited the masses at gunpoint to contemplate beauty and strength. The power of her project can be seen in the transformative chaos of its age. As she learned from Lu Xun, also invoking Nietzsche, the artist must be capable of driving men mad.

The popular audience for Jiang’s elite high art was large and enduring enough that these works were performed long after the appreciation mandated by the Cultural Revolution had ended. Folk culture was not, in practice, displaced; instead, it existed alongside a popular audience for the revolutionary ballets. The goal of Jiang’s art was not to push aside all that came before; it was to absorb and transform it. In her vision, the dominant must not impose ressentiment on the dominated—to do so would be aesthetically disgusting. Jiang’s heroes were personalities to aspire to, not moral battering rams. This vision was accomplished by nurturing individual and collective creativity, pursuing technical perfection, and tolerating the transgression of traditional ethics.

These were Jiang’s lessons for China and artists. The tyranny of irony can be cast off by heroic sincerity. Mythology can become a true ethos. By giving up on victimhood, one gives up on misery. Without the narcissistic compulsion for representation of one’s petty flaws, it is possible to imagine true heroes.

The pinnacles of such art require the same kind of mass mobilization as any other achievement of modern society. As far back as the 1920s, directors like Fritz Lang commanded masses of people and machines with a firm hand to create masterworks of cultural production. But this apparent stiffness shelters the artist’s disruptive impulse. Jiang tolerated the transgressions of once-in-a-lifetime geniuses like Xue Jinghua or Yu Huiyong for a reason. The real crime she did not allow was the aestheticization of petty transgressions into ideals.

Jiang was under no illusions that the average viewer would be directly transformed into a great hero by their aesthetic experience. Her own “Three Prominences” assume that such heroes are few. But by refusing to valorize the sociologically mutilated individual, Jiang swept away the conditioning of powerlessness and victimhood. Her struggle was to inculcate a new heroic consciousness. In her works, the enemy became an adversary against which the heroes test their courage, nobility, and commitment to the cause. Jiang does not allow her villains to produce envy and deforming hatred in her protagonists or her audience. Instead, the fate of the enemy is that they will be forgotten entirely in the glorious finale, swept aside by the unstoppable, superior personalities of the protagonists.

Jiang’s core message, and her alternative to the celebration of victimhood by contemporary cultural orthodoxy, was the power of heroic ideals to make even overwhelming opposition irrelevant. Armed with her culture of self-justifying strength and beauty, her noble-souled heroes cast off any thought of victimhood to pursue their own glorious visions for their own sake.

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.