The "pornographic" Chinese opera

In China, despite currents of change, the deep despotism of the centuries is never far below the calm surface waters.

Published June 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

President Clinton and his entourage of a thousand best friends, court officials and attendant journalists descended on China this week, determined to celebrate its emancipation from communism and to encourage its emergence as a superpower of the 21st century the United States can do business with.

Despite bitter sniping about China from Republican critics in Congress, Clinton received a welcome suitable for an emperor as he touched down in Xi'an, once the Rome of the East. It was there, in the second century B.C., that Qin Dynasty Emperor Shi first united the region's then warring states into the vast sprawling nation-empire that is today's China.

Certainly both sides are making every effort to make nice. Clinton, the first U.S. president to visit the Middle Kingdom since the Tiananmen Square horror of 1989, and President Jiang Zemin were eager to proclaim a new era of cooperation and amity that would look to the future, rather than the past.

The future, everyone is told, is all about budding free-enterprise capitalism. Tiananmen Square is but "a fading scar," as a headline in Newsweek put it this week. The images that have captured the imagination of late are miniskirted Chinese women, young lovers embracing in public, chic boutiques and the return of nightclubs and privately owned homes. "Today, this is a country of cell phones and pagers, McDonald's and bowling alleys," is how Newsweek describes China in its cover story this week.

But before getting carried away about the New China of relaxed social and economic mores, it's important to remember that in China's 4,000-year history, change is cyclical and better measured in centuries than in decades. China's future can never be divorced from its past.

That was perhaps the most important lesson I came away with when I first visited China in the early 1970s, at a time when the country was still grappling with the demons Chairman Mao Tse-tung had let loose in 1966 with his Cultural Revolution. I remember visiting Guangdong University, in southern China, at a time when that most venerable and moral of Chinese sages, Confucius, was being branded a "Capitalist Running Dog" by Mao's Red Guard thugs and all Confucian scholars in China were being persecuted; many were killed.

It was, I discovered, an old story. Back in Xi'an 22 centuries earlier, Emperor Shi had also sought to solidify his rule by attacking the traditions and order that preceded him, banishing and executing Confucian scholars and burning their books. A classic Chinese example of how creating a new future gets bogged down in warring with the past.

Confucius is back, of course, in Jiang's New China. But as President Clinton began his nine-day China odyssey in Xi'an, he needed look no further than bustling Shanghai to be reminded of the tenacity of historic traditions of repression and intolerance. For there, in spite of all the new openness and freedom being proclaimed by Jiang and company in Beijing, China's dogmatic, xenophobic reflexes are on display again.

As is so often the case with China's arcane internal politics, the issue was cultural -- an obscure, rarely performed, 400-year-old Ming Dynasty opera called "The Peony Pavilion." The work, an elaborate love story written in 1598 by Tang Xianzu, had been selected by New York's Lincoln Center to anchor a summer cultural festival next month.

Lincoln Center had contracted with Chinese-born American director Chen Shi Zheng to direct this monster work of 55 acts that takes 20 hours to perform. Chen, who grew up in China before moving to the United States in 1987, spent eight months working with the Shanghai Kunqu Opera company to prepare it for its New York debut. But this week, after a dress rehearsal in China that drew praise from the official People's Daily but was attacked in the Shanghai press, the local cultural czars turned thumbs down on the opera's performance abroad.

Ma Bomin, the director of Shanghai's Bureau of Culture, charged that in Chen's creative interpretation of "The Peony Pavilion," the original sense of the opera's central love story was perverted by "feudal superstition, stupidity and pornography." As a result, the containers holding six and a half tons of the opera company's sets and costumes were stopped at Shanghai airport by order of Ma.

That China's minister of culture, Sun Jiazheng, had hailed the Lincoln Center performance of "The Peony Pavilion" as just the sort of cultural exchange that President Clinton's trip to China sought to promote, has cut little ice with Ma or her superiors in China's most dynamic city. And to date, no amount of negotiation by U.S. consular officials, Lincoln Center executives and Chen himself has convinced Ma to let the show go on.

Add that incident to the withdrawal of visas for three U.S. journalists working for Radio Free Asia the day before Clinton's departure for China and the scattered arrest of local dissidents along Clinton's path through the Middle Kingdom, and you have plenty of evidence that eternal China is alive and well. Though China may be flirting with capitalism and democratization, the instinctive despotism of China's historic culture is still a powerful force.

An old Chinese proverb states: "He who carries a boat can also overturn it." That wisdom has been proven time after time by Chinese history; there is no reason to believe the boat floats differently this time around.

By Loren Jenkins

Loren Jenkins is the foreign editor of National Public Radio. He last wrote for Salon on the new relations between the United States and Iran.

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