Madame Mao's Nietzschean Revolution
Mao's wife Jiang Qing helped lead the Cultural Revolution with a Nietzschean philosophy of art. Through revolutionary operas and ballets, she sought a heroic consciousness to could transform society.
Whether it comes in the form of a musical composition, a ballet, or a violent revolution, a great work always involves self-overcoming. Palladium correspondent Dylan Levi King’s new piece on the philosophy and art of Jiang Qing, a leader of China’s Cultural Revolution and wife of Mao Zedong, takes a look at the philosophy that motivated “Madame Mao’s” performance art. Believe it or not, it came less from Karl Marx and more from another nineteenth-century German philosopher of a completely different caliber—Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s philosophy stressed self-overcoming and a “transvaluation of all values” in which superior humans shed traditional moral values to embrace their natural role as masters over society. One would think such a radically anti-egalitarian philosophical system would repel those who believed in building a classless society, but as it turns out many communist revolutionaries of the early twentieth century were directly or indirectly influenced by his work. Such was the case with Jiang:
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.
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As one of the most powerful people in China, Jiang had the resources to launch a cultural campaign that aimed to simultaneously incorporate and transcend the eternal rhythms of Chinese folk culture. Her ballets depicted simple peasant heroes in the place of aristocrats or mythological figures. But the style, messaging, and even casting of these performances were decidedly “Olympian” in outlook:
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.
Many of the artists she collaborated with were not ideologically orthodox either. The composer Yu Huiyong, for example, was attacked for “slavish devotion to Western forms.” But in the pursuit of truth and beauty, ideology never came before the work. Jiang’s obsession with aesthetic perfection would pay off:
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’s artistic ethos holds lessons for anyone. Her humble origins, as well as the sheer force of will that went into transcending the limitations of traditional artistic forms, teach us that even the mundane can be transformed into the stuff of legend. But as is often the case, the same ambition that makes this possible leads to hubris and the embodiment of other dramatic archetypes. When Jiang was eventually put on trial for counter-revolutionary activity, her defiance of mortality was like a tragic foreshadowing of the suicide she would commit a few years later:
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!”
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Madame Mao’s Nietzschean Revolution by Dylan Levi King. As Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing helped lead China’s Cultural Revolution with a Nietzschean philosophy of art. Through revolutionary operas and ballets, she sought a heroic consciousness that could transform society.
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