Orestes in Beijing, by Way of Philadelphia, 2003




Let me wind my way back to Beijing via Hong Kong via a new play I’ve just seen in Philadelphia: Red, by Chay Yew.  Wonderful play; wonderful production. It’s a three character piece about the Cultural Revolution. One of the sweet qualities of the play is that it’s so very likely to please the Bill Bennetts of the world because, when it reveals Madame Mao’s madness (she forbade the performance of any Chinese opera except for the five she approved of), such neocons can happily sneer at the Chinese for their assaults on cultural freedoms. Chay wrote the play, however, as a response to the right wing efforts to close down the NEA.


                  [The Necessary Costume Shop: Hong Kong]

The play is set in a disused opera house in Shanghai. A Chinese American writer called Sonja Wong Pickford is visiting the land of her birth for the first time in more than 25 years. Lost, she wanders into the theatre where she finds Hua Wai Mun, star Beijing Opera performer, in his beautiful costume, rehearsing. She confides that she’s come to China because, after many years of writing romance novels (and having cornered the market on Asian romances), she wants to write something serious. After some sparring, she and Hua agree that she should write his story. The rest of the play reveals how this story plays out.

Enter the third character: Ling. She’s a 16 year old, haughtily attached to the youthful thugs of the Revolution. We see her browbeat Hua for performing decadent operas, playing the role of a woman, refusing to perform in the new works the revolution has spawned. She treats him horridly, abusing him both verbally and physically.

Before too much time elapses, the play takes a turn, revolving to a time five or six years before we first meet the revolutionary Ling. Now, at about ten, she follows Hua to the theatre, wants nothing more than to be an actress though the Beijing Opera is open only to men, pesters Hua until he takes her on as a pupil, suffers mightily under his tough regimen. (Much later, we learn that he became an actor as a 6 year old when his poor father sold him to the theatre. He hated his father, hated the theatre, hated acting, but became proficient, and then a star—he could do nothing else.)

The play takes another turn once Ling’s theatre work has been established. She is, it turns out, his daughter who, in an act of love, will endure anything to become an actor like her daddy.

And now the political and domestic plots become so intermixed that nothing good can come of it. As a revolutionary, she is required to persecute her father. To refuse to do so would be to risk her life. To complicate her position, she has gripes enough against her father, she’s frightened that she must make a good show how she questions and assaults him, and, finally, she has more than a little sympathy for the revolution itself.

She has, however, made a strategic mistake. In her attempt to combine her revolutionary fervor with her underlying love for the theatre, she’s written an opera—based on Uncle Vanya.

For Hua’s part, he is a star, vain, self-adoring, used to being pampered. All this is, it turns out, a cover for his lifelong suffering over being sold into the theatre in the first place. Not surprisingly, then, he didn’t want his daughter in the theatre, but once she inveigled herself into his training, he did his best to make her do her best. When the revolution breaks out, then, her theatre life is a danger. So when the time comes, and that’s when she’s interrogating him before an unseen revolutionary council, he confesses to having written the opera. When she beats him with a bamboo staff—the necessary punishment—the contradictions, the lies within lies are unbearable. He looks merely recalcitrant since one part of her wants credit for being an artist. In any case, the beating gets out of hand, and he dies.

He does not, however, disappear from the play. It is, after all, a memory play. Ling now tells Sonja how, after her father died under her hands, she became disillusioned and fled—walking to Hong Kong. Part way through this narrative, Sonja begins pre-empting her, telling the temperature of the water, the thickness of the jungle, just before Ling tells the same thing. One more twist, therefore: Ling is Sonja. She escaped to Hong Kong, made her way to America, became a writer of romances, and now has had to return to China.

The end of the play reunites father and daughter. She is consumed by guilt, of course, for having killed him. He makes it plain he offered himself, sacrificed himself, insisted on being beaten to death so that she would be safe. It was the only way she could evade being betrayed by the revolution.

A splendid show.


All night, of course, I was pursued by my own Beijing and Hong Kong memories. Most prominent was my Visiting Expert stay at Peking University in March 1989. I precipitated a kind of mini-riot in the lecture hall when I passed out Xerox copies of Adrienne Rich poems. I’d been told maybe 35 people would attend, so I brought 35 copies of each poem from Hong Kong. Seventy-five attended. And because I hadn’t collated and stapled the pages into 35 sets, I passed out individual pages. When it became clear I didn’t have enough, folk began pushing past each other the way they do in the Beijing subway. Finally, I just stopped passing out pages. But the angry resentments against the lucky ones seemed apparent for the rest of the afternoon.

I had wanted to talk about poetry and human rights, most certainly a forbidden topic. So I snuck up on it by talking about Rich and the woman’s movement. It wouldn’t take long, I thought, for people to make the connection. I am sure they made the connection because, in fact, there was no discussion. Some faces got sterner; some looked as if they were preoccupied by reading the text; others busied themselves taking notes. I took this to be a sign that we were in that realm where shared awareness was testified to by silence. Such a strange backwards way to understanding. But one catches on quickly enough. If I had had that response in the States, or even in Hong Kong, I would have pressed, questioned, challenged, until I was sure that everyone knew what I was on about. To do so in Beijing would have got the English Department in trouble, would have ended my likelihood of more visits to China, might have put students in danger.  The oddest thing about the experience was that I intuited all this in a most un-me sort of way.

Later, a few teachers, a few students and I made our way across campus towards the canteen where a banquet was to greet us. I walked among four Flying Pigeons, the amazingly heavy bicycles favored at Peking U. “What do you think is the most important quality in a poet today,” a student asked. I hesitated. We weren’t in the classroom anymore; I could speak my mind if I wanted. But the freedom to speak was no longer my problem. What is the most important quality? I had no clue. Still have no clue. “It depends,” I said. “Depends on where the poet is, depends on the poet’s voice. . .” dribble, dribble, dribble. “Ah, I think it’s courage,” he said. Three months later the tanks invaded Tiananmen Square.

Two years after that I led the first contingent of HK Baptist students to our sister institution, Tsing Hua University, just across the street from Peking U. It was on the front steps of this school that the Cultural Revolution was born. When we were negotiating the summer school program where our students would study with TSU teachers, a very old man sat in the seat of honor across from me; as chair of Humanities, I also got the seat of honor on our side of the table. He had no English; I had no Mandarin. Our juniors did all the work and we gazed at each other, feeling foolish until someone would translate a tittle here and there. The bright-eyed junior next to the white-haired ancient did most of the talking.Image

                       [The Goose is Cooked]

The ancient turns out to be a most famous scholar; it was he who, in the 30s, had brought Western philosophy to China via his own translations. He had built a famous philosophy department at Tsing Hua precisely because of his commentaries on Western thought. Once the Cultural Revolution began, of course, he was denounced in the same way that my pianist friend from the Shanghai Conservatory was denounced and rusticated for playing a decadent western instrument. The old philosopher, prefiguring the story in Chay Yew’s play, was denounced (and probably arranged for himself to be denounced) by his leading graduate student, a young man who, because he was studying Western philosophy with the master, was certain to be condemned unless he broke with his mentor and led his persecution. And so he did, in 1965-66. And now, in 1991, he sat next to his teacher and led the Chinese side of the negotiations.


Beijing, by way of Philadelphia

May 2003



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s