On Tuesday 6th July, I met with my Chinese language partner, Xu Yuang, who has been helping me find articles in Chinese on Lin Zhaohua, as information in English is very limited. In particular, I wanted to know about Lin’s background because, as with anyone of his generation, this is fundamental to understanding his or her work, particularly work of the eighties and early nineties. The word ‘background’ in this context is politically loaded, of course. Somebody’s class background in pre-Deng Communist China defined everything about them. For example, Zhang Yimou, Chinese cinema’s internationally recognised auteur and mastermind of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, had the ‘wrong’ class background. His father had been in the Nationalist army during the civil war before Liberation, making Zhang the son of a counter-revolutionary. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’, which had nothing to do with education in its traditional sense; in fact, it meant the opposite, and thousands of young would-be scholars and artists spent years as farm labourers instead… Chen Kaige, another Fifth Generation film director, became a Red Guard and persecuted his own father. His film Farewell My Concubine was seen by many as his attempt at atonement.
What was Lin’s experience? Now in his 70s, he will have lived through most of the tumultuous events of 20C China: Japanese occupation, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, the Communist Liberation, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Open Door Policy. But how was he positioned within these? Unfortunately, the information is scarce, even in Chinese: ‘It is difficult to find the complete Lin Zhaohua story, because he refuses to speak about it, or to give many interpretations for his work. He often refuses to answer questions,’ said Xu. ‘If you are lucky, he will be dead before you finish your PhD!’
Some of Xu’s investigations matched mine, but her own commentary on the facts gave it extra meaning. She spread out her notes and references before me, indicating the characters, picking out for me key phrases. I felt a little bit like Lin Shu, who translated his works of Shakespeare without reading English…
Lin Zhaohua was born in Tianjin, an important cultural and trade city not far from Beijing. (My family and I visited Tianjin in 2002. It was winter, and it was so cold that the river had frozen solid. Old men sat over little holes they had drilled in the ice, fishing. We ate the famous ‘Dogs Wouldn’t Eat Them’ steamed buns – well, the inauthentic vegetarian version – and wondered through the city’s traditional markets, recalling the short stories of Feng Jicai, one of just many of the Tianjin’s famous writers and artists.)
‘It says here that Lin Zhaohua is working class,’ said Xu. ‘This is important, as it means that he is politically clean in these times [Mao’s era], and here it says that before he studied he worked in a very famous film production company as a recordist.’ The film company was called Ba Yi, literally Eight One. ‘You see, at that time everything has some political meaning. These two numbers reference 1st August, the date of the birthday of the Communist Party.’ Later, Lin passed the examination to enter the Central Drama Academy (zhāng yāng xi ju xue yuan), where he studied directing, and he graduated in 1961. ‘After graduation, he was allocated to Ren Yi, which means ‘People’s Art’ – you weren’t free to choose your own jobs, you were just sent somewhere and told what to do.’ Ren Yi, or the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT), used him initially as a bit-part actor. Again, Xu paused to point out a pair of Chinese characters, long tao. ‘This is the Chinese term for a walk-on part: it means dragon cover, because the actor is just covered by the costume [like the dragon costume in the dragon dance] and has nothing to say! For so many years, Lin Zhaohua is only allowed to be long tao… I think this must be because even when he was young he was too rebellious. You know, he often says in interviews that he wants to be an “agent of change”, but in the Cultural Revolution he could have only been allowed to walk-on in approved political dramas! Can you imagine how he must feel then?’
Like me, Xu had also found an article looking at his role in pioneering the Little Theatre Movement in China in the eighties, after the death of Mao and the fall of the Gang of Four, as the Party began to loosen its grip on society and culture. Lin Zhaohua was finally allowed to begin directing, twenty years after he graduated. His first play was Jue Dui Xing Hao in 1982. I think this is the play I read about and commented on in my conference paper, called Warning Signal in English, about the plight of unemployed youth in the emerging market economy. ‘Warning Signal […] grapples with social problems, but differs sharply from [other contemporary huaju] in that it offers no solutions […] This is a new departure in contemporary Chinese spoken drama […] quite startling for its originality and daring in the Chinese context,’ wrote Mackerras (1984:159). ‘Little Theatre, xiao ju chang in Chinese, are small dramas, with a small audience: these can be against the common people’s taste, and also against the government,’ continued Xu. ‘Lin Zhaohua, even though he admits he makes commercial theatre, it seems he really hates commercialism. Look, here I found some information on his favourite foods, tomato and cucumber. This is the food of a man who lives simply.’
When we moved onto his approach to theatre, he appears not to be so simple, however. ‘This is very difficult to translate!’ laughed Xu. Lin Zhaohua mostly adapts classic, often foreign texts, such as those by Chekov or Shakespeare. ‘Here he says that strictly speaking there is no Chinese drama other than traditional forms such as Beijing Opera, so that is why he uses adapatation: as a framework to express his own ideas. He manipulates the stories and characters in order to create a new Chinese drama.’ In another place he comments that ‘Today I do Shakespeare, but I do not exactly serve him.’ When performing classic dramas, he says you must ‘Indulge in it, but at the same time you are an observer, not totally in it, an outsider.’ He asks his actors ‘do not totally be in the character, but keep their own identity.’ In traditional Chinese drama, actors are trained to play specific roles, ‘but he wants his actors to be like those performers who can change their roles – change their identities.’ However, if people ask him to interpret his plays, ‘he just tells the interviewers to go away and think for themselves. You can tell by reading the articles that he is a difficult man to talk to,’ said Xu. ‘The interviewers must feel very frustrated, but he is also the most important innovator in the theatre in China.’ She paused, screwing her face up at a page of characters. ‘I really feel the interviewers are having a hard time to understand him – he is not intelligible. He doesn’t try to be intelligible,’ said Xu. ‘I think he is a man who enjoys being lonely.’