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The follies of Chinese dissident politics: theatre is one bastion China's Communist guardians are unwilling to relinquish.

ONE OF THE BASIC CONTRADICTIONS OF MY LIFE IS THAT AS my theatre struggles with the fast, changing realities of China, my plays have to be produced in an environment that is closely guarded by my government. That is the source of my life's frustrations. I am considered a political playwright because so many of my works have been turned down for production or performance. Because I never cared whether or not my plays would see the light of production, I call them "closet plays," and I am, to some extent, an underground writer.

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Because of the theatre's power and appeal, traditional Chinese audiences have a tendency to blur the distinctions between what is staged and what is real. Audiences often think that the stage--which is tightly and severely controlled by the Communist Party--exists in the same continuum as reality, and that a play that has been given the green light must also have been true to life. Indeed, the lives of the laobaixing (common people) have changed drastically in the past 20 years. (Today, with the popularity of illegal DVD copies of American television dramas like "Sex and the City," Chinese audiences like to say, "These kinds of stories are also taking place in our own lives.") But the magnitude of those transformations has not been fully and accurately reflected on stage--except on occasion, when, for brief spurts of time, the Chinese authorities relax their repressive hold and the theatre's post-revolutionary avant-garde seems to display greater degrees of boldness, unconventionality and sexual frankness.

The avant-garde's reaction against the institutional role of Chinese theatre, however, is frequently less daring and less frankly sexual than contemporary Chinese literature, and it takes place in an environment of confusion, quick changes, subterfuge and illusory surfaces. Such was the case last January when an alumnus of Shanghai Theatre Academy returned from the U.S. to visit her parents in China and called me up to ask in amazement, "What is happening in Shanghai?" Her voice a mixture of excitement and bewilderment, my friend declared, "Shanghai stages seem so open now--much more so than American stages."

Her shock was understandable. At the time, several Chinese plays that were given the green light teemed with graphic details and sexual indulgences--stories that in an earlier time would have been deemed polluted and corrupt. In October 2003, for example, Li Rong's Please Forget Me Immediately at Night told the story of a wife who discovers her husband has had an affair, and in retaliation finds herself looking for affairs of her own. (Her husband eventually has a nervous breakdown.) That November, Let Us Live a Night Life by Zhou Xiaoli concerned a woman novelist who, following the instruction of her publisher, fakes experience as a prostitute in her resume to sell her books. After landing on the best-seller lists, she actually becomes a hooker. Xiu Guochun's Break Up When It Is Dawn, in December 2003, offered a comic moral lesson about sex: If you think one-night stands are foolish, not breaking up after a one-night stand is even more foolish. January 2004 saw the debut of Life Should Be in Bed by Yu Rongjun, in which a woman throws herself into serial sex after the breakdown of her marriage.

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My alumna-friend was most surprised to find out that several Chinese female actors actually were rehearsing The Vagina Monologues for a Shanghai-style performance. A huge rose opened up on stage; a giant uterus was revealed in the center of the petals; and three actresses voiced the Eve Ensler play, which incorporated the stories and thoughts of several Shanghai women about their own vaginas.

In disbelief she asked, "Has wenyi finally thawed out in China?"

"Yes--and no," I replied. Wenyi is the Chinese word for "arts and literature." The early 1980s was hailed by the Chinese as "the spring of art and literature," meaning a cultural awakening after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, or a thawing-out from the freeze of Maoism. But in China, wenyi's true meaning encompasses not just the arts (theatre, movies, fine arts, literature) but also the entire media culture--all publications, news-papers, television stations, entertainment places, propaganda agencies and cultural administrative departments. Wenyi, moreover, is supposed to bear a direct relationship to our social culture, morals and customs: Real cultural workers must shoulder a social responsibility. Addressing a Beijing gathering of 2,000 artists and writers in December 2001, President Jiang Zemin stated: "Literary and art workers should adhere to the truth, oppose false-hood, glorify beauty and goodness, advocate science and combat foolishness."

A spring of wenyi suggests, in other words, that the Chinese people are experiencing greater freedoms in our social life. But since the theatre challenges reality and often dares to go against official rules and controls, how could it be possible for the party cadres and Chinese authorities to now suddenly tolerate free expression in the theatre?

Looks can be deceiving. The Chinese dramas mentioned above--commercial vehicles with hackneyed plots--do challenge the severe moral limits of society far more openly than before, but they do not sharply criticize the system itself. Unlike my plays, they do not reject the authoritarianism of cultural institutions, and they have not infuriated government officials. On the plus side, these popular plays do reflect something of the real lives of Chinese citizens, daily existences that were once held in a kind of semi-secrecy, witnessed by Chinese writers but never actually told on Chinese stages. In China, where theatre is a state institution, like the church or the court systems, theatrical affairs are always carefully reviewed and inspected. [Editor's note: Most dramas in Shanghai are produced by two state-owned theatres, the Shanghai Drama Arts Center and the Shanghai Theatre Academy. Since independent theatre, where it does exist, falls way below the radar, many directors have to turn to these institutions for cooperation to get their productions off the ground.]

In the 1980s, after Mao, reforms, economic liberalization and personal freedoms emerged, and those exciting years broke down the limits of fundamentalist Confucian morality, leading to a situation where legal penalties, like reeducation, didn't befall a majority of the people. However, alternative lifestyles and illegal existences continued to raise political flak if realistically shown or depicted on stage.

The battle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese people is not over. It has intensified in other, often covert, ways, since all public-security bureaus have never truly given up the privilege of keeping a close watch on people's affairs. At any time, according to certain needlessly high moral positions or ambiguous criminal codes, Chinese women who, in real life, might behave like Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda in "Sex and the City" can be arrested and labeled "criminals" and "gangsters."

Beyond reflecting high rules of conduct, artists are supposed to act as agents who contribute to expanding China's advanced productive forces and raising the people's ideological and moral standards. Moral lessons, the Chinese government believes, should be contained in any theatrical production: If something is deemed illegal in social life, it is frequently deemed illegal on stage. Chinese officials constantly worry that a subculture of disaffected communists might arise from the underground and enter the mainstream, so the Communist Party's exertions of its political power and control always reflect its fear that any audacious production or any freedom shown on stage might bear some political risk.

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You might even say that during the past 20 years of "reform and openness" since the death of Mao Zedong, China has undergone several springs of wenyi, each one having briefly come and gone, always discontinued by orders "from the top." Sometimes the government's Ministry of Culture issues these orders; most of the time "from the top" refers to the party's Department of Propaganda. You are not allowed, for example, to mention the Cultural Revolution, or talk about layoffs, relocations and Chinese migrations. Punishment for violation of any ban ranges from writing self-critiques, receiving wage deductions or being demoted or discharged to being charged with a crime. Instead of nakedly forcing policies upon the masses, the party has taken closer cover; in recent years, bans have become more obscure and less unbridled.

In 1993, Deng Xiaoping urged the whole nation to concentrate on making money in earnest under a socialist-capitalist economic structure. But the nature of totalitarianism in China today is such that even if a degree of economic liberalization is allowed, such liberalization is frequently not allowed in the realm of wenyi. And it is certainly not allowed in the realm of politics.

The results are entirely predictable: Performances of the Shanghai-style Vagina Monologues that was rehearsed last February were ultimately prohibited. A few days later, a musical version of Ensler's script that had just completed rehearsals was also prohibited from being performed. Rehearsals for two of the more salacious plays mentioned above--Xiu Guochun's Break Up When It is Dawn and Yu Rongjun's Life Should Be in Bed--were promptly shut down. A ban against one play gives a strong hint, for institutions like the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, to steer clear of similar plays that might also be deemed unsuitable.

I BEGAN MY STRUGGLE AS AN INDIVIDUAL playwright upon learning the tragedy of my situation some 20 years ago: Politically, I was being buried alive. To be told to say nothing, I felt, was the same as dying. [Editor's note: At the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Zhang's family became a Red Guard target and was ostracized. Zhang was exiled to remote Yun'an in southwest China until 1978, when college entrance exams were reinstated and he entered Shanghai's drama academy. After a couple of years, he was sent back to Yun'an, where he was assigned to work in a sweater factory. He continued to write stories, poetry and plays, until he drifted back to Shanghai in 1986.]

In the 1980s a lot of theatrical productions went on to condemn, rather than extol, the Cultural Revolution that had just ended. Musical revues that sang the praises of the Communist Party claimed that the party is always right, that the Revolution was caused by a few bad eggs, and that the Chinese people will love the party forever. When these criticisms reached their limit, soon plays about the Cultural Revolution became prohibited.

Retreating to a distant and lonely place, I began creating several fable plays. A House-bound Owl, written in 1986 and produced in Shanghai in 1989, is about a woman living in the seclusion of her apartment who becomes so immersed in her dreams and recollections that she loses all sense of reality. Her husband, whom she discovers is impotent, uses hypnosis to give her an orgasm. A 1987 play, Fashion Street, produced two years later, centers on the exploits of a fashion designer aspiring to be on the cutting edge and to become a darling of the elite. Ironically, his unconventional concepts are quickly picked up and copied among the masses. Later he ceases designing trendy outfits altogether and decides to show only his naked body. But then the fashion district becomes ridden with naked people. Furious and unable to set himself apart, he tears away his skin.

Just three years prior to the recent "spring of wenyi," I wrote Calling Life, which depicts the inconstancies of life through the story of a Chinese man who orders all his services by phone, everything from laundry and cooking to a weekend-wife. A disguised form of prostitute, weekend-wives offer their special services for some male customers who are tired of ordinary prostitutes. My protagonist finds a qualified "wife" who doesn't offer him sex at first and simply keeps him company. He falls in love, and they sign a one-year contract agreeing to make love every weekend. Eventually the man discovers that it is he that is being used by the uncaring woman as her sex partner--and he feels as though he has become her prostitute.

Calling Life, which takes the form of a "daily drama," is representative of a number of my new plays, including Backroom, in which a middle-aged single man taken by a friend to an illegal nightclub in search of sex suddenly suspects he has fallen into a trap set up by the secret police; and Join the Party, about a philosophy student who informs his professor of his interest in joining "the Party," but whose motivation is finally revealed as increasing his chances of being hired as a university professor after graduation.

Unsatisfied in the 1990s with writing fable plays, I wrote new works that run the gamut of styles: verse plays like Insomnia Makes Me So Happy and Remember the Woman Who Fell; installation and game plays, like Chinese Dog, Salty Fish; parade plays like Long Live the People; musical plays like What We Like Eating and The Cover on the Sewer; and so forth. None of them have ever been produced in China.

Are these political plays? They are, in the special environment of Chinese culture. Because my plays often show lives that exist outside the accepted moral limits, they look like political provocations in the eyes of the Chinese government. I think of them as consciousness-raising plays, reflecting a social ideology. If they were to be actually mounted, managers of the state-owned theatres or the producers themselves would be in greater trouble than I would as the author. Some of my friends in the theatre have suggested that these plays should remain hidden in the closet until the policy of wenyi is looser. Because I have been considered a "dangerous figure" by the government, everything I write is thought to challenge the political system, even though sometimes the plays themselves don't involve political matters.

THE COMMUNIST PARTY'S CONTROL of Chinese culture began in 1949, after the People's Liberation Army (made up mostly of poor young peasants) came to Shanghai and quickly established the committees on military and cultural control. The latter committee's job was to root out the urban culture of Shanghai and assist the government in completely transforming a very modern and cosmopolitan place (the fourth largest city in the world) into a huge collective. All entertainment places, including ballrooms and skating-rinks, were shut down. All theatrical troupes were folded into the system of state ownership and were turned into propaganda entities. Appointed by the party, their leaders selected the playwrights and directors, who were required to report their subject matter and stories before they created plays and productions. No work was to begin without the leaders' approval. The average personnel of each troupe participated in the dissection of plays under review. Plays were checked again and again until they were confirmed to have no political problem--only then could rehearsals begin. Officials of the Culture Ministry and Propaganda Department attended dress rehearsals.

Worried that they would lose their political power after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Communist Party officials have since adjusted their tactics and started to carry out a policy of internal control. On the outside they seem lax, but on the inside they have remained rigid, underhanded and austere. Outside China, authorities foster an image that favors an open-door policy for the purpose of attracting international investment. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, these same officials have strengthened their ideological control and concealed their methods.

Chinese officials today still issue documents about their new policy to manage wenyi, but more often orders are given through a simple phone call, asking for changes in everything down to the smallest details, like the title of an article or some questionable word.

In the summer of 1994, an officer of the Shanghai Propaganda Department found many political problems in my play Margin Calls when she attended the dress rehearsals. At midnight the Propaganda Department held an urgent meeting and decided to send orders by calling different media outlets before 5 a.m. the next morning: All reports, articles and production photos of Margin Calls were to be prohibited. My name was disallowed to see print in the next two years, although, as a matter of fact, no media reported on any theatrical activity of mine even after the two years expired. "The ban was never withdrawn," one reporter told me.

The following morning, radio and television stations and newspapers withdrew their articles and reviews about Margin Calls; that afternoon my producer called different media representatives and got the same reply: "We got a call from the Propaganda Department. We have been notified to stop reporting on Margin Calls. You should know, it came 'from the top.'"

As he put down the receiver, my producer remarked, "The Communist Party is the party in power, but its style looks more like an underground mafia."

In China, all political persecutions are justified for reasons of national security. Apparently, China is always at risk, and a theatrical production or a movie may subvert government policies. Individual rights have to be sacrificed. We must keep our silence.

WHEN I WAS ARRESTED 20 YEARS ago in the library of Shanghai Theatre Academy, I suddenly understood that everyone in China is living a "National Drama." While in jail I realized that, ever since we were children, we have been actors playing our parts in this super-theatre; we have all been cast in faceless roles, the action has to follow the director, and everyone speaks and moves in accord. I didn't understand at first the reasons for my arrest, although I did know that I had written some articles for an underground publication and made contact with several foreign students. I was sentenced, in the end, to one year in jail on a charge of malfeasance, which meant that I leaked out state secrets by giving a foreign student a factory newspaper published during the Cultural Revolution. But the truth is that I was punished for not playing my role well in China's National Drama.

This National Drama is directed by a powerful and mysterious will. We follow it blindly, although we don't truly understand what it wants. But we know it requires us to attend the same national ceremonies and say the unified actors' lines. All of our expressions look alike; we wear face masks. Our bodies operate like wooden figures.

At first I thought of this National Drama as a tragedy, but then later I came to understand that it was a comedy, a kind of farce, and I pledged that I should start writing my own drama when I got out of jail. It was a drama that would belong only to myself. It would be an individual theatre that exists inside and yet is in opposition to the National Drama. Because I want my theatre to be a weapon against the autocracy and injustices of my society, it would be a kind of anti-drama under the National Drama.

The subject matter of China's endless and everlasting National Drama shifts and changes according to the winds of political movements, ranging from Communism and Cultural Revolutions to economic reforms.

Today the subject is money. Because productions of plays are viewed as commercial gambits, some degree of boldness and sexual frankness are allowed--every once in a while--to be shown on stage. State-owned theatres mimic shows that are initiated and produced by small independent groups, belonging to what I call a "civilian theatre," a notion that is deliberately alternative and counterposied to "the people's theatre." For in China, companies that are routinely described as "the people's" are not truly "the people's" at all, and those who are conscious of their "civil rights," "individuality" and "civil society" are derided as xiao shi min, or "little citizens."

Under the auspices of this "civilian theatre," two of my plays have been produced in the tighter post-1989 climate: Margin Calls, about a Chinese overseas broker who tries unsuccessfully to become involved with two women in the futures market of Shanghai in 1990, and His Wife Back from America, about an ambitious Chinese woman who returns to Shanghai from the U.S. to file divorce proceedings against a husband who never left China. Though financed by several business investors, both shows used the production licenses of state theatres, which require that any show be subject to propaganda-department checkups. Performed in Shanghai's "little theatres," both deliver their social messages with greater complexity than the ringing party/state discourse favored on Chinese television and other propagandistic wenyi.

I was very surprised to find that both productions had box-office appeal. It felt strange to suddenly realize that I had become a force in China's new mainstream theatre, so I withdrew immediately and had two other plays produced with a radical posture. Crowd, about the abuse of power by an aggressive man who attacks other people in a congested bus, had strong runs in Guangzhou and Shanghai. However, Tales of a Vat Player, which ridicules Chinese intellectuals who play games with influential government officials, was shut down after the Propaganda Department realized that it was an allegory of the regimes of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zeming.

My theatre today, it seems, has become a new barometer of the wenyi policy in Shanghai. Some people say I am a loser. Others consider me a success. But for me, success and failure are no different from each other. I would rather spend all my life as a kind of "special society performer"--a dissident actor playing his unofficial part in China's National Drama. I write plays with the knowledge that they will be forbidden. I am like a social performer always acting on society's stage and always clinging to my theatrical role in the individual struggle against the National Drama.

At the beginning of 2004, the news from Beijing is that newer reforms will be instituted, and all Chinese theatres, which have been owned by the state for 50 years, will return to private ownership. This year, the central government has cut off all subsidized funding for state-owned troupes. Theatrical workers will be thrown to the mercy of market forces. They are to become self-supporting.

Will the theatres still play their part in the National Drama or become independent players? Who knows what will transpire in the next act? Thousands of Chinese theatre workers, of course, will do anything for their art and their own survival. As they explore the borders of the commercial market, and advance to the last realm--politics--they will come to understand that the political realm is full of commercial potential.

Zhang Xian, a freelance playwright and theatremaker in Shanghai, has written 40 plays, 9 of which have been produced in China. Tang Ying, the translator, is a freelance writer and filmmaker who has written seven works of fiction.

TRANSLATED BY TANG YING
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Title Annotation:THEATRE AND REPRESSION
Author:Xian, Zhang
Publication:American Theatre
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:3781
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