The Raffles City mall is the kind of temple to globalized capitalist consumerism that might drive Mao Tse-tung to apoplexy if he were still alive. Inside, Chinese shoppers toss down credit cards at Sephora and chomp on Kentucky Fried Chicken. Outside, a Jumbotron beams highlights of the World Cup.
But as dusk begins to settle over the shopping center, there’s a stirring in the muggy plaza that would warm Chairman Mao’s red heart.
Zheng Xiaoyan, 57, a retired restaurant manager and leader of the Nanguan Arts Group, is assembling his troupe of nearly two dozen graying dancers and musicians for its nightly performance of “red songs,” communist ditties popular during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
In the last six years, the performers have built a repertoire that includes “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China,” “Remembering Mao’s Words in My Heart,” and “The People’s Liberation Army March.”
This year, the self-organized group has chipped in for costumes and even prop knives and guns, which have proved to be crowd pleasers for tunes such as “Cut the Devil’s Head Off With the Big Knife.” Two men in green military hats and Hitler-esque fake mustaches play the role of Japanese soldiers who invaded the mainland in the 1930s. Female dancers, wielding pirate-like swords, surround their knock-kneed quarry as a singer belts out the lyrics:
March bravely, our Chinese army / Aim straight at the enemy / Destroy them! Destroy them! / Charge! ... Kill!
“It’s good for my health to be able to come out and exercise. When I do the dances, it reminds me of my younger years when I was doing similar dances during the Cultural Revolution,” said Liu Jilu, 66, a retired driver who is one of the band’s drummers. “I feel the same kind of spirit and emotions.”
Thanks to their high-profile “stage” in the center of Beijing, their above-average showmanship and strong political themes, the Raffles City dancers have attracted widespread media attention this summer.
The group is just one of thousands of so-called square dancing troupes of Chinese seniors that have sprung up in the last few years, descending on public plazas, parks and other urban open spaces across the country daily for nostalgia-infused light cardio workouts.
The phenomenon has grown so widespread that it’s causing social friction, with multiple groups battling for pavement space and sonic supremacy in many parks, much to the annoyance of often younger nearby residents.
Police have been called to settle fights between rival bands of dancing grandmas. A court in the southern town of Qingyuan recently ordered one squad of dancers to pay a woman in a rival troupe $660 in medical fees after a turf battle turned physical. Authorities in some cities have been forced to draft statutes to limit the time and volume of such activities.
In Wenzhou, a residents committee spent $40,000 on a sound system of its own in a bid to drive out a group of square dancers after police refused to evict them. The speakers looped a stern, high-volume message: “Please comply with the People’s Republic of China Environmental Noise Pollution Prevention Law....”
The dance craze has even gone global. Chinese dance squads have popped up in public spaces in Moscow, Paris and New York.
Though not every group is partial to red songs — some prefer folk music, others ballroom dance or more modern tunes — sociologists say the phenomenon is rooted in a strong affinity for noisy, collectivist activities among Chinese seniors who came of age during the heady era of Mao’s Red Guards.
Mobilized by the Chairman in the mid-1960s to attack intellectualism and “capitalist roaders” through a mass spiritual purification campaign, these youths were raised on a diet of propaganda broadcast via loudspeakers from sunup to sundown in schools, factories and villages. The cacophony of today’s square dancing is a sonic memory bridge to an idealized past, according to Song Jiahong, a humanities professor at Yunnan University.
“The intimate memories of the loudspeakers are lodged deep in the subconscious of the old Red Guards,” he wrote in a recent article. “They have no concept that this can actually annoy others.”
It’s not just dance troupes that have been reviving red songs in recent years: Schools, offices, TV stations and karaoke clubs have held red song singing contests as well, often at the behest of local propaganda officials. Before he fell from power and was jailed on corruption charges, Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai launched a zealous and controversial campaign to promote the melodies there.
Yu Hai, a sociologist at Fudan University, said some troupes’ recent emphasis on anti-Japanese themes may reflect the influence of contemporary politics. Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have become strained in the last two years, and Chinese authorities have launched a publicity campaign dredging up details of Japan’s wartime atrocities. “This shows how propaganda can seep into people’s minds,” he said.
Still, Yu said, very few of today’s square dancers see their performances as political, let alone politically incorrect. Instead, square dancing is more about satisfying a need for physical activity and social engagement among China’s rapidly growing cohort of retirees, many of whom would otherwise find themselves idle and isolated in giant new urban developments.
“Some of these dancers were forced into early retirement because of reforms in state-run enterprises, and they really do feel that the time under Mao was better, with a stronger social safety net,” said Yu. “But for the majority of participants, it’s more about exercising, socializing and connecting to the beautiful and good emotions and memories of their youth.”
Retiree Zhang Jierong, 63, who participates in a red songs show almost every night at a park in the Tongzhou district in east Beijing, said the gatherings are about community cohesion and maybe a little patriotism.
“Everyone loves to come out and listen to us sing. There are husbands and wives, old people with their grandchildren,” said Zhang. “The red songs can always remind us what the Chinese leaders did for us to have a good life today and how they fought hard for the ordinary people in China.”
Guitarist Zang Ning, 55, who works in a pharmacy, said the group began gathering about three years ago and is sponsored by a local businessman, who bought speakers and instruments.
“We all like red songs. When I first learned to play guitar in the 1970s, there were only red songs to learn with. I didn’t learn how to play rock songs at all.”
There are a few youngsters among the performers. Tian Yuze, a 20-year-old college student majoring in piano, joined the Tongzhou group recently to get some experience performing an unfamiliar genre.
“Personally, I like rock and jazz. My favorite artists include Linkin Park, Akon and Eminem,” said Tian. “Only people who lived through those years can feel for the red songs. Younger people like me can’t really get the same kind of emotions as they do when hearing them.”
Though at least one social scientist has suggested that raising China’s retirement age would help curb the square dancing craze and its attendant annoyances, Yu predicted that the phenomenon will naturally fade away.
“Each generation has different values and influences, and most young people today don’t know any of these songs,” he said. “And each generation uses public space in different ways too.... Nowadays around the Fudan campus, a lot of the kids love skateboarding. They’re invading the squares around here with skateboards.”