From Hainan to World Stage

Wong How Man

Iconic scene of the Red Detachment lead dancer.Finally I look at history in the eyes, and hold history in my hands. Her hands are so fragile that I cannot help but hold them lightly. Wang Yunmei was born during the Qing Dynasty; to be exact, on May 23, 1910, a year before the Chinese Republic was established by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Today, she is 103. Sitting next to her, I feel the diminutive size of her body does not reflect the giant place that she holds in China.

Wang isn’t just any Centenarian; she is an icon who hailed from a tiny village with a dozen or so households in Hainan Island. Circumstances would catapult her and the group she belonged to into center stage in Beijing, China and even the world. Wang Yunmei is a member of the Red Detachment of Women, a guerrilla force of about a hundred amazons formed in 1931. It was an intelligence-gathering cum fighting brigade of the early Red Army on Hainan, this tropical island off Guangdong Province with almost the size of Taiwan.

Wang with military salute. The renegade group would fight for the better part of two years against local landlords and the troops of the government, as part of the early liberation movement between the communist Soviets and the conservative nationalists. Some were caught and executed. Others disbanded into the hills and were later repatriated home. But their isolated story later became a mainstream legend of women’s participation in a national movement for the liberation of the country.

Fortuitous as it may be, had it not been for the Cultural Revolution and the wife of Chairman Mao, this special detachment of women might remain little-known except to revolutionary historians. The story of this particular troop of women was chosen by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, as the theme of arguably the most popular revolutionary ballet opera created during the turmoil years in China of the 1960s and thereafter.

Wang’s ID showing her age. First it was staged in Beijing, with Chairman Mao attending the premiere performance with many state leaders. Later it was made into a popular movie shown all over China and the world. It help inspired an entire generation of young radicals at university campuses, both in China and around the world. Even today, various dance troupes in China would perform this ballet as one of the most significant revolutionary numbers to a cheering crowd. Over ten years ago, then President Jiang Ziming presided over the audience at one such revival performance in Beijing.

Seven other operas were to define those turbulent years, but the “Red Detachment of Women” is perhaps the most popular, with its theme songs leaving indelible memories in Chinese minds, young and old. It would not be an overstatement to say those tunes, and the stories they help portray, are familiar to all who lived in China from the 1960s to current times. For Wang Yunmei, her fortune might very well have been different as well, and be forgotten in the wheel of history. However, history was kind to her. Even today at the advanced age of 103, she stood tall, though with a tiny and diminutive body, in Hainan and in China.

Xi Jinping and Wang salute each other. I had the great fortune of meeting Wang Yunmei at her home, rather than at the memorial garden/exhibit center the government put together as a showcase about early communist struggles in China. She was installed there as a living icon, drawing tourists and visitors to the park. Due to a recent accident and thus an injured arm, her family brought her home for recovering and recuperation. Thus my visit with her was in a much more natural and homey setting than at a commercial and political facility.

Yunmei can only speak her local Hainan village dialect, thus all our questions were translated or answered by her granddaughter Ma Xiju. Whenever we tried to take her picture, she would put her right arm up and do a salute like an army officer. Changing from a red velvet hat to her army hat with a red star, it was obvious that she took her role of a military icon with great pride. In April 2010, Xi Jinping, China’s President-in-waiting, visited her and a picture on her wall depicted the two saluting each other.

Wang with How Man. “People used to ask her when she joined the Party,” said granddaughter Ma, referring to a much asked question which usually defined a person’s seniority within the communist pedigree. “She would always answer by simply saying that she was a part of the Liberation Red Army,” added Ma. It was much later when they discovered that, despite her fame, she had never formally joined the Party.

At a very senior age, every year Wang would ask her family whether they could help her join the Communist Party as she doesn’t know how to write and fill out necessary forms and protocols. A petition was finally made two days before her 102nd birthday, and quickly approved. Thus, today Wang Yunmei is a Communist Party Member.

Wang’s insignia for joining the Party. While there must be other relics of this vintage in China, among Centenarians, no doubt Wang Yunmei must be the oldest applicant ever to be admitted into this special Club, with over 80 million members in China. As I rose to leave the tiny Big lady, her granddaughter brought out a small badge, her insignia of being a proud member of the Chinese Communist Party. I had the great honor of tying that very pin to her clothes before taking leave of her.