Tuesday, May 24, 2016, 7:59 PM CST – China


Art Soldiers


The lavish treatment and military honors afforded to China’s “art soldiers,” the song-and-dance wing of the military, are coming under attack from a skeptical public

Art soldiers in Guangzhou perform for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, 1977 Photo by Xinhua

An art troupe performs for frontline troops during the Chinese Civil War Photo by FOTOE

Li Shuangjiang performs in Beijing, 2013 Photo by CFP

Song Zuying in concert in Beijing, 2011 Photo by CFP

Han Hong attends a CPPCC conference in Beijing, 2013 Photo by CFP

In an attempt to assuage growing public criticism, the National Security Ministry of South Korea finally announced it would disband its scandal-plagued “art division” on July 18.

The announcement came in the wake of media reports on expensive visits to beauty parlors by seven South Korean art soldiers, including the singing star Se7en. The country’s art division became controversial after it was revealed that superstar pop idol Rain had regularly slipped out of his barracks for trysts with his girlfriend during his national service.

In the eyes of many South Koreans, the “art units” affiliated with the country’s military, once a key force in maintaining national morale under the imminent threat of invasion from the communist North, have long ceased to be necessary. For many, South Korean morale is better served by the country’s legion of home-grown pop stars, many of which have been signed to major international labels and perform to sold-out crowds across Asia and the world.

Nowadays, South Korea’s art division has become a refuge for mainstream teen idols to bumble through compulsory military service without having to get their hands dirty. Art soldiers, according to the media, are exempted from training exercises, enjoy additional vacation time, and are often treated to lavish banquets and favors by their commanders.

Across the sea in China, the controversy surrounding South Korea’s art soldiers also began to make headlines. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s thousands-strong art division dwarfs its South Korean equivalent. Even more importantly, a number of scandals have recently rocked its formerly tight ranks.

Wartime Cheerleaders

When the PLA was founded in 1927, modeled on the Soviet Red Army, it adopted many Soviet idiosyncrasies wholesale, one of which was its own song-and-dance troupe which, at the time, was seen as an essential propaganda tool for the Communist Party of China (CPC). In December 1929, the Red Army established an “art club” in each military company, organizing those with singing or dancing talent into human loudspeakers for Party doctrine.

“Off the battlefield, the Red Army should focus on propaganda and education, leading the soldiers and the masses in the right proletarian direction,” read Mao Zedong’s thoughts on the subject. “This is what distinguishes the Red Army from all older armies.”

Given that the CPC’s revolutionary activities were largely conducted in rural areas typified by a life of dull routine for both soldiers and farmers, the chance to see musical and dance performances meant these art divisions soon became wildly popular. “With ballads, operas, dances and music, we helped spread the Party’s ideas while cheering up the troops,” Ye Zhizhong, a former art soldier from Guangdong Province, recalled to a local paper. “Our arts were our weapons.”

The PLA’s art soldiers played a major role in the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) and the Korean War (1950-1953), where they were often deployed into combat zones to boost morale even as bombs were falling.

In a 1951 document, the new communist government reiterated the importance of its military propaganda wing, asserting that “art performance is a vital part of modern national defense.” Today, China’s military art troupe system has developed into a three-plane structure which mirrors that of the rest of the military, with the uppermost divisions serving directly under the General Political Department of the PLA.


However, barring a few missions against Somali pirates and the occasional standoff in the South China Sea, China’s military has not seen active combat in decades. Meanwhile, Reform and Opening-up and the information era have broadened the entertainment options of Chinese people to previously unimaginable levels. The appeal of red songs and revolutionary operas, secure when those were the only options most people had, has rapidly faded in competition with a growing domestic movie industry, hit TV shows, a bevy of successful pop acts and the mass import, both legally and illegally, of international entertainment options ranging from Friends to Avatar. Today, younger people sneer at China’s art performers, singling out female officers in particular as “a group of pretty girls who have easy access to senior officials.”

Even in the early days of the CPC, the Party’s top leaders, Mao Zedong in particular, were notorious for throwing dance parties to which the most attractive and accomplished PLA performers were invited. Some Chinese leaders married these performers, including Mao himself, whose fourth wife Jiang Qing was a former actress.

Initially, these “revolutionary couples” had their images carefully exploited by propagandists to serve the needs of the Party, becoming a major theme of pro-military dramas. For example, The Times of Passion, a hit TV series tells the fictional story of an army Chief of Staff who falls in love with a performer. He is rejected, but finally persuades the girl to marry him in order to “serve the revolution,” a denouement which led to a cascade of scorn from online critics.

The controversy peaked in 2006 when Wang Shouye, a Chinese major general, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for embezzling over 160 million yuan (US$25.4m). According to the domestic media, Wang’s wrongdoing was reported by three of his mistresses, all of whom were art soldiers. In 2011, Bai Ling, a controversial Chinese-American actress working in Hollywood, revealed to the Associated Press that she provided sexual services to high-ranking military officers during her three-year service in Tibet as an art soldier, which began when she was 14 years old.

Despite China’s Foreign Ministry refusing to comment, and although no evidence was presented to support Bai Ling’s claim, the revelations became a sensation online again after South Korea disbanded its art division.

“[Chinese] art soldiers have been demonized and even arbitrarily associated with the corruption of the military, which has, to a large extent, distorted their [real] image,” Han Xudong, a professor from the National Defense University of the PLA, remarked in the nationalist periodical Global Times.

“A majority of art soldiers actually have no opportunities to meet senior officials. It is quite ridiculous that some are trying to smear the whole group by citing extreme examples,” an anonymous art soldier wrote on the website of the Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.

Image Problem

China’s authorities are particularly cautious about the image of art soldiers, given their close connection to the military as a whole. According to a report in Culture and History magazine, Grand Marshal Peng Dehuai, who fought the US Army in the Korean War and served as China’s defense minister in the mid- to late 1950s, was a major critic of the continued penchant among top leaders for inviting young and attractive female performers to dance parties at Zhongnanhai, the central government compound in Beijing.

According to inside sources, China’s art soldiers are actually obligated to complete the same three-month basic training as all new recruits, including formation drills, long-distance steeplechase and weapons training.

“We are no different from combat soldiers,” claimed the anonymous art soldier. Combat troops might well disagree, but the PLA has gone to significant efforts to emphasize the combat prowess of its song-and-dance troupes.

Regardless of their relative combat-readiness, however, one area in which art soldiers seem to have equality with their armed counterparts is their seeming immunity from prosecution even for the most severe crimes, at least in the eyes of the public.

A national scandal implicating Li Tianyi, the son of China’s so-called “singer general” Li Shuangjiang, in the gang-rape of a young woman has led to one of the most sensational trials in Chinese history. The junior Li is now standing trial almost exactly one year after he was detained by police for attacking a man whose car had boxed in the then 15-year-old Li’s BMW.

Li’s father’s name, which once called to mind his greatest 1970s hits such as Ode to Beijing and The Red Star Leads Me to Fight, now evokes howls of criticism for his spoiled son’s misdeeds.

Another prominent art soldier, Pan Changjiang, was reportedly photographed driving a vehicle with military plates up to his private villa. More recently, military singer Han Hong, who sang one of China’s Paralympic anthems, was spotted driving an unlicensed Ferrari while taking a cell phone call. In the age of social media, slip-ups like these serve to discredit entire institutions, and even China’s powerful military has failed to protect its talented but feckless protégés.   

Privileged Class

When such figures are called to account, they rarely help their cases. For example, on his way to hospital to visit the victim attacked by his son, Li Shuangjiang responded to public criticism of his military escort by claiming: “I deserved an escort because of my position, and they were also sent to protect the injured from being disturbed by the media.”

Although the PLA has never given actual military ranks to art soldiers, honorary titles in a graded 10-tier structure give the appearance of their holding rank, though they are officially referred to as “non-ranking officers,” or “army civilian officers.”

However, according to the PLA’s temporary regulations on the art soldier system, “non-ranking” art officers enjoy equality with their military-ranked equivalents in terms of entitlements and welfare. For example, Li Shuangjiang, despite having never seen combat nor been given a command, enjoys the salary, housing options and special treatment of a PLA lieutenant general. “Folk song queen” Song Zuying was promoted to tier two in 2008, making her eligible for all the perks enjoyed by a serving major general. 

In 2001, the PLA revised parts of the uniform of non-ranking officers, adding a pine branch, a decoration previously limited to the epaulettes of combat generals, to the shoulders of art soldiers holding level-two status or above, leading many to mistakenly refer to the highest-level art officers “singing generals.” According to incomplete statistics by Chinese domestic media, China now has more than 30 such “non-ranking generals” in the PLA.

The honors and benefits afforded to the members of military art troupes have even lured in civilian performers. After shooting to fame, the 42-year-old singer Han Hong was recruited into the Art Troupe of the PLA Air Force in 2012 and was swiftly made vice-director, giving her a level-five post equivalent to a lieutenant colonel. More controversially, reality TV show star Ji Minjia who was absorbed into the PLA’s art troupe in 2008 was instantly granted a rank equivalent to a battalion commander.

“It is really odd that art soldiers earn promotions more easily than combat soliders. Why are those shedding blood on the battleground inferior to those who just sing songs? Why are those sacrificing their lives inferior to those who just dance on a stage?” asked a commentary in the Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily News, which circulated widely on the mainland.

Military insiders, too, have been scandalized by the red carpet treatment offered to those who are simply charged with keeping real troops entertained. “It is unfair that some art troupe members enjoy the special treatment otherwise afforded to a battalion commander, while an ordinary soldier couldn’t even become a platoon leader without years of hard work,” complained Major General Luo Yuan.

Even Han Xudong, the national defense university professor who has defended the art soldier system, is calling for reforms to outlaw those members of military art troupes who cannot serve as “qualified soldiers.”

Which Way Now?

Yet, despite the controversy, military experts have rejected calls to scrap the system, a response which typifies the sensitivity surrounding any aspect of China’s military. “Military art performance still plays a big role in helping publicize government policies and enriching the lives of soldiers, especially those stationed in remote areas,” said Professor Han Xudong.

“Besides, art soldiers are of value to national defense,” he continued. “We are still threatened by boundary conflicts with neighboring countries.”

Chinese taxpayers, however, might prefer the millions spent on keeping these singing-and-dancing soldiers in comfort to be spent on actual defensive capabilities. Some argue that most of China’s famous art soldiers also pursue lucrative civilian singing careers, and few need any State support whatsoever.

“The Chinese people now judge a professional according to their function. Thus the Chinese public judge art soldiers by the same criteria they would judge combat soldiers,” Gong Fangbin, another professor from the University of National Defense of the PLA, told NewsChina.

According to Gong, the Chinese military has already cut its art troupes since Reform and Opening-up kicked off in the late 1970s. On August 26, the PLA issued a new regulation on the management of art soldiers, forbidding media or officials to refer to art soldiers of any tier as “generals” and tightening controls on art soldiers’ participation in commercial performances.

However, the document did not mention any actual potential for reform. Although many other countries and regions like the US and Chinese Taiwan have tried to cut expenditures by outsourcing artistic or ceremonial aspects of the military, on the Chinese mainland, where the reputation of the Party and the military are two sides of the same coin, such steps are almost impossible for leaders to take.


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