A week ago today, as I was flying within China from beautiful Nanjing to big, bustling Beijing while reading my gratis edition of China Daily, a revealing column by Raymond Zhou caught my eye.
In his opinion piece, carried on the English language newspaper's editorial page, Zhou talked about the rise in popularity within northeast China of the two-person show or er ren zhuan, which blends standup comedy, singing and acrobatics. Zhou proclaimed this theatrical art form was becoming "as de rigueur as a Broadway show is to a traveler to New York," even as it was trying to elude the strong arm of the state.
I don't know which surprised me more -- the fact that a popular form of entertainment was flourishing beyond the tentacles of the Chinese government, or that Zhou -- without government censor -- was able to so eloquently pinpoint and cite that as being one of the major contributors to its success.
Just two weeks ago marked the 18th anniversary of the Tianamen Square massacre of several hundred civilians at the hands of their own government, which sought to quell a seven-week old protest by students demanding democratic reform. This certainly was not lost on me as I strolled through the massive square just this past Sunday evening, ironically, just after attending a state-sanctioned run of Beijing Chaoyang Theater's Acrobatics Macrocosm. The show was inescapably entertaining, yet hardly memorable. Or, to quote Zhou, "Truth be told, it is not devoid of artistic merit. It is just detached from the needs of ordinary people, including the high-brow ones."
Today's China is vastly different from the one I first visited back in 1989 -- just a month after the massacre. In Beijing, entire neighborhoods or "hutongs" have given way to bright, shining -- make that gleaming -- architecture containing popular Western hotels, eateries, coffee houses and high-end shopping...just in time for next year's Olympic Games. Save for the Forbidden City and sacred sites like it around China's capital, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in just about any other go-go capitalist Western metropolis.
Yet the ultimate authority of the state is one that remains absolute, and as Zhou's column so concisely reveals, popular entertainment is one facet of daily life the Chinese government still seeks to control:
Some officials have the mistaken notion that arts and entertainment are all about prettily decked-out singers warbling praises of the latest official slogans that are in fad. They present squeaky-clean images and simulated joys. Like postcard sceneries, they are better to be marveled at than embraced with your heart.
If the official entertainment is like the powdered face of an aristocrat, grassroots entertainment is like the sweaty face of a young man toiling in the field. It may be gritty, but full of vitality and closer to life as we know it. The Northeastern comedy draws much of its gags from daily life. Unfortunately, the show I caught has already been "purified" due to censorship pressure.
Contrast that to American theatre. Whether on Broadway or in the far reaches of regional theatre, live theatre has consistently served as an unrelenting bulwark in the defense of free speech, particularly when it freely challenges our government.
I recall seeing Tim Robbins' Embedded at The Public Theater back in 2003 and thinking whether one agreed with its message or not, this is what democracy and freedom of speech are all about. Did that work challenge people to think, or rethink the war in Iraq? Without a doubt. Did it undermine our government? Absolutely not.
While the Chinese have made great strides toward economic freedoms, it's my profound hope that the Chinese will one-day enjoy all the same freedoms of the West, particularly the freedom of speech and expression -- without a doubt, the proliferation of er ren zhuan aspires toward that same dream.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).