Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Stars of China

Lunch with Xu Zheng, who coincides with me in Beijing just for today. He's another person Nick Yu recommended as an exciting actor for me to meet - until I tell Mengxuan who we're going to see, I have no idea that he happens to be one of the biggest TV and film stars in China. His wife is also a mega-star: he shows me her picture on his mobile - she's wearing full Beijing Opera (female) costume and make-up for a film she's currently shooting, and looks amazingly beautiful. I worry for a minute or two that I may have stumbled into a Chinese Posh and Becks - but in fact he turns out to be a profoundly thoughtful, spiritual and culturally attuned person. We talk about the durability of Chinese culture in the face of the West, and indeed of Chinese cultures in the face of one another (like me, he's a fan of the Lama temple, and with his shaved head he looks like a Tibetan monk himself). Before long he's telling me that I have to stay in China for at least three months in order to make any sense of the culture at all, and is inviting me to join him for a long drive through the wilds of Southern and Western China. If only: but today is my last day here, with the ENO and Xerxes beckoning me next week (never mind the much-missed family). The sad thing is that he is quite right: I've scratched surfaces here, but only enough to realise that there is a lifetime's work even to begin to see what China might perhaps be. But this, I explain to Zheng, is why the piece must be made by a mixture of Chinese and British artists, and why I must not impose a view of China on it. Only Chinese voices can and should speak for China.

Today, we speak mainly through Mengxuan. His English isn't great (and although I wish that were not an issue, in practical terms, it is). But I don't want to rush decisions on that basis, especially since he's so clearly in tune with what we're planning - and we promise to keep in touch and swap video material. I have his email address and phone number, which would apparently fetch a lot of money on the streets of Shanghai.

Talking to Xu Zheng, I feel very aware of how fundamental performance is in the lives of the Chinese people. Not always overtly so - although it can be, as today when I pay a brief visit to the Taoist Dongyue Temple, and am greeted with the sight of teenage acrobats from the circus school rehearsing in the open air, with a level of skill we can't begin to imagine in the West. But sometimes it is so much more subtle - the ritual of offering and refusing a cigarette, the paying of a restaurant bill, the handing over of business card with two hands, and its careful reading. All this ritual is theatre in a very real sense; the playing of a part in society (which is different from our Western performance of the individual self): and so making theatre about China is making theatre about a life already theatricalised - which is always a very potent thing to do.

Mao understood all this, of course. Early this morning, deprived of the tourist's or journalist's camera and notebook, I stood with what must have been a thousand or more Chinese people to file past his embalmed body in the Mausoleum. In the North Hall, they lay flowers before his marble statue, offering them with the same gestures that I saw in the Lama Temple yesterday. And, in the main space, the body of the Chairman itself lies, with two soldiers on guard. It's an incredibly powerful experience, even though the body looks rather plastic after all these years of treatment. Thirty years dead, and still the object of such veneration. No, Xu Zheng is right: I have not even begun to understand.

A footnote to this journey: the moment I said you couldn't read this blog in China, it suddenly appeared on the web. Another little mystery to fathom.


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