Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Beijing mists

You can't read this blog in China. It seems strange enough that I can write it, given the vast amount of filters that run all over the internet here. It's proved impossible to access my email tonight - so if you're trying to tell me something urgent, I'm sorry! I don't know why the powers that be have chosen to censor the blog: perhaps it's all online journals from the West; or perhaps it's just those which refer to China. But I can write it.....

Beijing is very different from Shanghai: much more "Chinese", if I can fall into the cliches for a moment. For one thing, the city is bathed in a constant mist from the combination of early autumn and high pollution, so that even without the opium dens one seems to see it through a weird narcotic haze. Wandering through the Forbidden City today, the light seemed filtered and diffuse, with the sun only half visible, recalling Hardy's phrase about "a sun that was white, as though chidden of God". Through the antique magnificence, huge numbers of people from all over China (and all over the world) make their way; many of them dressed in far more traditional clothes than I saw anywhere in Shanghai: men in blue Mao suits with little caps, women in red-brown or grey jackets. There still seems to be a sense of awe in their response to the palace, although it's almost a century since the Emperor of Heaven walked these cobbles and sat on these thrones. But the religion of the Imperial survives: yesterday I even saw a woman praying at the Emperor's shrine in the Temple of Heaven.

Being physically present in the theatrical space of this city, you can see how the cult of Mao is actually a continuation of the Emperor's divine status. His huge portrait hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where he proclaimed the People's Republic, and so is on the exact North-South line on which the Imperial thrones sit within the Forbidden City behind him. Moving on the same line through Tiananmen Square, you come to the vast Mausoleum, where the Chairman's body lies embalmed. This morning, an ordinary Tuesday, there was an enormous queue to file past the corpse of this man who died in 1976. And everywhere in the Square, there are soldiers. Last night I watched the ceremonial lowering of the red flag at sunset, in an extraordinary display of goose-stepping precision. At dawn, it goes up again. China may have embraced economic capitalism, but the political power of the Communist state still appears absolute to me. Indeed, the economic boom may even be the state's way of buying off the dissenting middle-class intellectuals who protested in this square in 1989, with such tragic results. Given the specious freedoms of the market, they seem to crave far less the deeper freedoms of speech, thought and self-determination.

All of this has implications for the project, of course. It's impossible not to take on board the politics in making a piece like we are planning here; but difficult to know how the Chinese performers will respond, how indeed they may be implicated in anything we do. Given the story in yesterday's online Guardian about the beating of a dissident in Southern China, the safety of our artists has to be a priority in whatever we do, particularly since the Yue company were talking about the need for government permissions for collaboration. I wonder about setting up dialogues between English and Chinese characters, in which there is a deliberate ambiguity about the politics on both sides. As with everything, we need to try it.

Mengxuan / Julia introduces me to Zhao Lihua: a young actress who plays male roles in the Beijing opera. She's actually very feminine, dressed in the height of fashion, but there's something boyish in her face which makes sense of the casting. Being young Chinese, these girls want to talk in an incredibly over-priced Starbucks, where Lihua treats me to a display of Kung Fu high kicking over the cappuccinos. I'd like to watch her in performance, though it doesn't seem this will be possible in the next couple of days. In any case, I'm far less drawn to the use of Beijing opera than I am to Yueju: the latter has an established tradition of the cross-dressed woman, whereas Beijing opera only brought in actresses quite recently: until the Cultural Revolution dan actors like the great Mei Lanfang played the female roles.

I walk through the concubines' quarters in the Forbidden City; thinking about Mei Lanfang's famous performances as Imperial concubines. There's an exhibition about their lives which is fascinating. At one point, it suggests that all their leisure time, spent reading, writing, painting and embroidering, was "a boring life". This reminds me of something Meijing said in Shanghai one day: that she thought Chinese women were more liberated than Western women, because in China all the women worked, even after they had children (who are looked after by the state or by grand-parents). Liberty, it seems, consists in work here. The concubines had their moments of work too, of course: once in a while the Imperial summons would come, and the lucky lady for the night would be stripped naked, wrapped in yellow cloth and carried across the Forbidden City to be dumped at the feet of her lord and master. Concubines could be as young as 13, and the Emperors would follow the Chinese belief that having sex with young women would give an old man longer life. There's another Imperial tradition followed by Chairman Mao; who, if the new revelations are anything to go by, did very little except have sex with young women for the last decade or so of his life, while the Cultural Revolution went on all around.

That's done it: now this blog will never be available to read in China.


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