Saturday, June 16, 2007

New York Has Broadway, China Has Er Ren Zhuan

New York Has Broadway, China Has Er Ren Zhuan

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).

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At 17 June, 2007, Blogger dan said...

China, tear down this gate!

by Dan Bloom

Longtime observers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have said,
"The China question is open as long as the CCP rules China." And as
long as the gate of freedom in China remains closed, as long as this
scar of a gate is permitted to stand, it is not the China question
alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all
humankind. Yet, today there is a message of hope inside China, a
message of triumph, where slowly people are trying to take matters
into their own hands and set up a democratic movement inside the
country that can finally replace the CCP. It can happen and it will

Leaders of democratic countries around the world understood the
practical importance of liberty -- that just as truth can flourish
only when the journalist is given freedom of speech, so prosperity can
come about only when the farmer and businessman enjoy economic
freedom. China will learn that soon enough.

In fact, even now, in a limited way, the current leaders of China may
be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from
Beijing about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political
prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts and
Internet sites are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises
have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state

Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the CCP? Or are they
token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to
strengthen the Chinese system without changing it? We welcome change
and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together,
that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of
world peace. There is one sign the Chinese communists can make that
would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of
freedom and peace.

President Hu Jintao, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for
China and Hong Kong and Macao and Taiwan, if you seek liberalization:
Come here to this gate of tyranny, and replace it with a gate of
freedom! Mr. Hu, replace this gate! Mr. Hu, let freedom ring!

I understand the fear of war and the pain of division that afflict the
leaders of China today -- and I know that my country will use all its
efforts to help overcome these burdens. When freedom finally comes to
the Chinese people, they and their leaders will be surprised how
wonderful it feels.

Today represents a moment of hope. We in the West stand ready to
cooperate with China to promote true openness, to break down barriers
that separate people, to create a safe, freer world.
The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such
violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to
enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love
and of worship an affront.

As one looks at China today, from across the sea, one can perhaps
catch a glimpse of some words crudely spray-painted upon the gate,
perhaps by a young Bejinger: "This gate will fall. Beliefs become
reality." Yes, across China, this gate will fall. For it cannot
withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The gate cannot withstand

At 17 June, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Post Script:

I'm not sure if it was the Cultural Revolution (apparently they don't use the term "Communist" anymore -- my tour guide nearly blanched when I uttered the word) spooks or censors, but by the time I ended my visit to China, I was unable to access any of my own postings online.

I was also surprised when a message I had sent to a friend --from my Beijing hotel outlining my stroll through Tianamen Square made me reflective of "what had happened there 18 years earlier" -- bounced back to me as undeliverable.

Even Zhou's story highlighted how something so simple as text messaging is stands scrutiny by the government.

Thank you, Dan Bloom, for sharing your story. Mr. Bloom is a freelance writer originally from Boston who now lives in Taiwan. Click here for another item he has written about China's freedom of the press offered to foreign journalists in the run-up to the Olympiad.

At 17 June, 2007, Anonymous Esther said...

Thanks for the insightful post. It's interesting to get your perspective on how China has changed between your two visits.

Like you said, while economic freedom is important, freedom of expression is equally as important. And I agree, art that challenges people to think does not undermine our society - it only makes it stronger.

So, can you say something more about the show? I guess the title is pretty self-explanatory, but I'd like to hear a few details!

At 17 June, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther - I had originally written my review of the actual show en route from Tokyo back to the United States. Quicker than you can say "Otto the cat," I hit the wrong button and lost my notes. But I will be providing my review of the show in the days ahead now that I'm getting over my jetlag.


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