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Mina Choi Tenison

Shang Yang: A Historical Epic Play Returns to Stage for the Olympic

Yao Yuan's 12-year old play about a 3rd-century BC reformer returns to Beijing and Shanghai to celebrate the Olympic and to mark the 30 years of economic reform

The lights dim and curtains open to reveal a magnificent period set featuring Qin dynasty warriors and cavalry. Recalling the terracotta army of Xian, casual viewers might think the Shanghai Dramatic Art Centre is presenting a production about Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who unified the warring states of China under his rule in 220BC. But this historical play focuses on Shang Yang, the reformist minister who served the Qin state 100 years earlier.


A four-act drama written by veteran playwright Yao Yuan, ‘Shang Yang’ premiered 12 years ago and is being restaged to mark 30 years of economic reform and the year of the Olympics. The revival, which is funded by Central Cultural Bureau and Shanghai Educational Bureau, features two troupes of players: a younger group, which has been touring university campuses in recent months, and the original 1996 cast, which will put on three-day runs at the Majestic Theatre in Shanghai from June 23 and at the Tianqiao Theatre in Beijing from July 1.


It seems an odd choice of theatrical work to celebrate the world’s biggest sporting event, but the mainland has an age-old practice of using historical examples to articulate present-day political sentiments. Shang Yang stands firmly in that tradition: The state of Qin is a metaphor for a China on the rise.

“The play conveys much of the Olympic spirit: that China will become a stronger nation,” says rising actor Wei Chunguang, who plays the titular role in the younger troupe. “Shang Yang also wanted the same for the state of Qin – to transform it into a stronger, more developed nation. And the Olympics is a chance to show the world what China is really like.”

This upbeat, nationalist tone contrasts with the more sombre script written by Yao, a professor of drama at Nanjing University, as a response to changes set off by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in 1982. “I wrote this play not simply out of a creative impulse but because China was moving towards reform. And as a Chinese citizen, I was very concerned about the fate of these reforms,” he said at the time.

Seven years passed before he started writing his script in 1989 and it would be another seven years before the play was finally staged. Recalling the hurdles, Yao said, “Many theater troupes refused to produce the play because they thought the theme was that ‘reformers do not come to a good end’, but those who say that haven’t understood my play.”

The dramatist had chosen a controversial historical figure for his play. Shang Yang is best known as a proponent of the Legalist tradition of strict laws and punishment, who vigorously applied a meritocratic system and eliminated the aristocracy, strengthening the ruler of Qin and laying the groundwork for the unification of China. But the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian portrays Shang’s reforms as harsh and ultimately ineffectual. According to his account, Shang made many enemies during his ruthless rule and met a bloody end when they had him torn apart by five horse-drawn chariots following the death of his protector, Duke Xiao of Qin.

Yao’s script, too, presented a complex picture of Shang’s efforts to bring order to the state of Qin as being bloody though effective. But in taking the play to the stage in 1996, director Chen Xinyi presented Shang Yang more as a heroic reformer, much to the playwright’s dismay.

One of China’s top-tier directors, Chen admitted “Yao Yuan accused me of loving the character of Shang Yang too much” but said her aim was “to generate a contemporary historical spirit, to criticise the old, backward traditions”.

Still, she conceded: “History is always written through the opinion of one historian, to serve the goals of each period.”

Subsequent performances continued to tone down some of the more violent aspects of the play, including the 2002 production, which won the the National Elite Stage Art Award, the Jingpin. Such caution isn’t surprising. After all, it was the 1961 staging of a Ming period drama ‘The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office’ that led Mao Zedong to launch the Cultural Revolution; many read the play as a veiled criticism of Mao’s dismissal of moderate defence minister Peng Dehuai during the Great Leap Forward.

In modern Chinese politics, the key figure linked to ‘Shang Yang’ is forrmer prime minister Zhu Rongji. When the play premiered in 1996, it gained almost instant prominence for reportedly moving him to tears. Then still a vice-premier, Zhu was already gaining reputation as a leader who ruffled many feathers with his bold reforms so his presence at a performance caused quite a stir.

“Unlike the other government officials who didn’t like to be surrounded by audience members, he sat in the middle of the theatre with everyone else,” recalls Chen. “When I saw his reaction, I understood then that he came to watch to watch the play, not to monitor or censor it.”

Now 70, Chen has no difficulty making the link from Shang Yang to Deng’s reforms to the Olympics.“If China didn’t have these reforms, there would be no Olympics. If Shang Yang hadn’t implemented his political reforms, there would have been no unification under Qin,” she says.

“Twelve years ago, we could see the economic reforms on the way in China, but we could also see how the old cultural traditions were hindering the progress. So when I directed the play 12 years ago, the theme was on criticising our people’s bad traits.

“For example, Shang Yang is young and idealistic, so he gallops forward on his horse, hoping that his charge forward will lead others follow. But in reality, he is trampled by those coming up behind him.

“This is the difficulty of reforms in China. Twelve years ago, many people still didn’t understand the nature of the changes. But now, more and more people understand the reforms and your average man in the street can accept them.

“So now, I see this play as my tribute to Deng Xiaoping because it was he who led the way for China’s economic reform. Back then, the economy was stagnating and it was his resolve that brought on China’s prosperity and restored our race.

“My criticism 12 years ago of the Chinese people’s backward ways has changed into a celebration of Deng Xiaoping’s ideals.”

At a performance in Shanghai by the passionate and accomplished younger troupe, director Zhou Xiaoqian delivers a powerful story of heroic ambition, political machination and tragic death. For Zhou, the play carries the message: “To reform is not easy. To reform, one has to make sacrifices.”

Audiences might wonder: Just what will those sacrifices involve and who will have to make them?

SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST June 12, 2008 Print Edition

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