Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dream of a Red Mansion

Beijing Evening Press
Interestingly enough, Beijing has a pretty hot theatre scene, though linguistic and cultural barriers will probably keep it from ever taking a spot on the world stage. Last night I went to the closing performance of Zhang Guangtian's new play, Dream of a Red Mansion, which has generated more than a little controversy in Chinese cyberspace.

A hot topic in Chinese media is the upcoming production of the Chinese classic novel for television. The TV station announced that it would be holding "American Idol" style open auditions for the leading role, and the controversy over that has generated a lot of publicity for the film long before production even began. To add to the mess, the director has adamantly refused to work with any actor selected this way, setting off a big media fight. Most people in the culture scene, though, see this as just another publicity stunt, and they're probably right.

With impeccable timing, Beijing playwrite Zhang Guangtian knocked out a script for a play of the same name. A few months ago, I met him in an incident that almost immediately slipped my mind. A bunch of cultural and media folks were sharing drinks in the courtyard of the Jianghu bar, and we started talking about all of this Red Mansion controversy. He said he was working a script for a contemporary take on the novel, and had come out to smother his writer's block in cheap booze. People started talking about what the book meant to them, mostly talking about the poetry of the writing style and the intricately woven plot lines that play out in the Red Mansion, the ornate home of a large, wealthy Beijing family.

I gave him the western take on the book, which is that the book, as beautiful as it is, is obsessed with the petty intrigues of old China's moneyed elite, and is totally detached from the social reality around it, which, being a folk novel, was probably a deeply veiled social critique. I said that if the political climate were different now, one could make a great play by recasting the characters as the children of high level cadres and well connected captains of industry in latter day China.

Apparently he took my words to heart. I returned to Beijing to find that the play had generated a lot of controversy. The director saved me some tickets to see the play, and even posted a bluntly paraphrased version of our conversation in his blog, quoting me as the "American Imperialist" who had challenged him to take a radical and socially critical approach to the novel. My friends joked that I should go down there and demand my royalty check.

I finally made it to the play last night, and I have to say that it really rocked, though rumors of my influence were widely exaggerated. Of course a lot of it was over my head. Language issues aside (the script was a mix of Beijing slang and classical Chinese), it was a real post-modern work loaded with symbolism and inside jokes. A lot of the symbolism was just way out of my depth. Why was the novel's protagonist, Jia Baoyu cast as a woman, and what's all that stuff about her thrashing around in a fish tank being whipped by goons in raincoats? See what I mean?

Overall the play was excellent, and I wish it was still on so I could try another crack at it. The book's author, Cao Xueqin, is a down on his luck spoiled child of low level officials. It follows him and his wife in a witty dialogue as they hammer out the idea for the book. Between their dialogue are surreal scenes of the book's characters as they take shape. But it goes much further than that. The play is loaded with lampoons of the Chinese media and the state of Chinese society, where fame is shamelessly capitalized and sex is nothing but a cash-only commodity. The play is also a musical, as Zhang Guangtian got his start writing scores for movies, including Zhang Yimou's excellent film, Shanghai Triad.

The play is sexy, hilarious, audacious and confusing. Though I don't think anyone quite understood the whole thing, the audience was repeatedly thrown into fits of hysterics as they watched contemporary society dissected on the stage.

Unfortunately, a lot of the controversy was misplaced. Most of it centered on the director having the gall to reinterpret the Chinese classic tome. It's as if it was a crime to be an artist, or do anything but a verbatim staging of the original. And a quick scan over irate comments on the blogs shows that most of these people didn't even bother to see the play. Though China's cultural gurus are breaking some amazing ground, the general audience seems far behind.

But there are rays of hope. The house was packed and everyone was totally entranced. The cast was extremely talented. I was especially impressed by Guo Xiao, who brought his impressive skills in Beijing-style comedy talk into his rendition of Lin Daiyu.

All in all, I see some amazing potential in the Beijing theatre scene, and I plan to watch it as it comes into its own. And of course, I plan to keep stirring things up with my American imperialism...

戏剧: Xi4Ju4 - Drama
红楼梦: Hong2Lou2Meng4- Dream of a Red Mansion
张广天: Zhang Guangtian
高干子弟: Gao1Gan4Zi3Di4 - children of high-ranking cadres
美帝国主义: Mei3Di4Guo2Zhu3Yi4 - American Imperialism
争论: Zheng1Lun4 - Controversy

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

March On...

I was wandering around the net today and stumbled across a couple of old friends I’d like to tell you about.

Ed Jocelyn and Yang Xiao are living and breathing gods among China’s outdoor adventure community. The two of them have been retracing the steps of China’s famous Long March campaign all across the country, with nothing but what they can fit on their pack mules.

Along the way, they’ve met some amazing people and found some of China’s most stunning natural scenery. Of course, they’ve been taking pictures and writing about it the whole way, and I’ll give you the address in a minute.

They’ve also been working to document the histories of the people involved, and are some of the most informed people I’ve ever met on this subject. In fact, they were doing this long before Cui Yongyuan and CCTV, who did the My Long March event that we sponsored. They were the inspiration for this event, as Cui interviewed them months before he took his own march. To Cui’s credit, he admitted as much to me, if not publicly.

About the guys:

Ed Jocelyn is an Englishman who’s been living in China for years and speaks Chinese quite fluently. We actually often speak to each other in Chinese so as not to leave our Chinese buddies out of the conversation. I dig him, not just because he can get away with something like this adventure, but because I see in him the same interest and involvement in Chinese culture that I have, and he even takes it a bit further (thousands of miles further, to be exact).

Yang Xiao is a native Chinese all-around outdoorsy guy and top-of-the-notch equipment freak. He elevates the science of bag-packing to the level of quantum mechanics, and is far more comfortable in the wilderness than anywhere else. I’ve spotted him several times using his foldable camping cup and re-usable chopsticks even in big Beijing restaurants. This calls to mind the My Long March participants, who found that after marching for nearly a year, they became prone to car-sickness.

I met them in Beijing last year, and we’ve hung out a few times at my favorite Yunnanese restaurant in the city, Emmo’s Place, which is a big hangout for the hiking and jeeping crowd. The owner, Emmo, is a really cool Wa guy hailing from Lincang Prefecture in Southwest Yunnan. I have a post somewhere in the archives from when I went to his hometown to make a film. The restaurant looks just like a lot of backpacker hangouts in Yunnan, and serves up some great homestyle Kunming food. It’s also a great place to check out photos from the long march odyssey. A series I particularly like is photos of propaganda slogans painted all over the walls of the Chinese countryside. There’s really some funny stuff there, such as slogans warning against marriage by closely related mentally challenged people, as well as a lot of graffiti propaganda spoofs.

Anyway, the reason I’m telling you about these guys now is that they’re at it again, this time following the path of the 6th Division which went to some of the remotest parts of China. The two should be somewhere in eastern Tibet right now. Check’em out at


Web Page Counter
XBox Online Game Rentals