China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

History buffs re­gard Sima Qian as a mas­ter for his records of China’s early history span­ning 3,000 years, de­spite their un­will­ing­ness to face one “em­bar­rass­ing” fact: The writer was cas­trated.

But for vet­eran ac­tor Feng Yuanzheng, the un­for­tu­nate event is wor­thy of ac­knowl­edg­ment.

“Most scriptwrit­ers feel a bit ashamed when deal­ing with the hu­mil­i­at­ing penalty. But I want to let the au­di­ence know why the great his­to­rian would sac­ri­fice his dig­nity as a man,” says Feng, inan­in­ter­viewwith China Daily.

Un­like most works that high­light Sima’s achieve­ments but blur his later life as a palace eu­nuch, Feng’s theater di­rec­to­rial de­but, Sima Qian, starts with the penalty, fol­lowed by scenes rep­re­sent­ing the his­to­rian’s “in­ner strug­gles”.

Doc­u­ments show that the his­to­rian, who lived around 2,000 years ago, chose to atone for his “crimes” by ac­cept­ing cas­tra­tion, seen a huge in­sult in China’s feu­dal so­ci­ety.

While most oth­ers would have cho­sen death rather than suf­fer the tor­ture, Sima chose the lat­ter as he needed time to fin­ish his work, Records of the Grand His­to­rian, one of the coun­try’s most in­flu­en­tial clas­sics.

Feng’s fam­ily comes from the same town as Sima— Hancheng city in North­west China’s Shaanxi prov­ince— and it is this con­nec­tion with the HanDy­nasty (206 BC-AD 220) his­to­rian that tempted the 53-year-old ac­tor to spend 10 years on the project.

The bi­o­graph­i­cal stage play, which fea­tures Feng in the lead role, re­ceived crit­i­cal ac­claim dur­ing the Beijing pre­miere in mid-Septem­ber and at its Shaanxi per­for­mance in early Novem­ber.

More shows will fol­low, and the pro­ducer, the Beijing Peo­ple’s Art Theater, hopes it be­comes a clas­sic play with reg­u­lar, an­nual per­for­mances.

Xiong Zhaozheng, the win­ner of the coun­try’s high­est honor for fic­tion, the Mao Dun Lit­er­a­ture Prize in 2005 for his his­tor­i­cal novel, Zhang Juzheng, wrote the script.

For Feng, who started life as a pro­fes­sional theater ac­tor in 1991, his per­for­mance on­stage is not only con­nected to Chi­nese history, but, sur­pris­ingly, with a lit­tle-known Western tra­di­tion.

Feng says most of China’s ac­tors fol­low the Stanislavsky method, a per­for­mance the­ory de­vel­oped by Rus­sian ac­tor and theater di­rec­tor Kon­stantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938). The sys­tem, based on mul­ti­ple sources and cul­tures, re­quires ac­tors to im­merse them­selves into the world of their roles.

“So does that mean that if I play a doc­tor who abuses his fam­ily I should beatmy wife?” he asks.

In­ter­est­ingly, Feng is re­mem­bered for his im­pres­sive por­trayal of a vi­o­lent sur­geon, who al­most beats his wife to death over doubts about her vir­gin­ity, in the 2002 hit TV se­ries Don’t Re­spond to Strangers.

Now, stills from that TV dra­maare some­times used as ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als by the po­lice, and Feng says that some view­ers have told him that his char­ac­ter haunted them and gave them night­mares.

Feng’s real life, how­ever, bears no re­sem­blance to the char­ac­ter. The ac­tor, in fact, has been mar­ried for 22 years.

As for act­ing, Feng says he be­lieves in the method de­vel­oped by Pol­ish theater di­rec­tor and the­o­rist JerzyMar­ian Gro­towski (1933-99), who en­cour­ages ac­tors to re­lax to “get back to their nat­u­ral self”.

Gro­towski’s train­ing fo­cuses on con­nect­ing au­di­ences and ac­tors to make them tran­scend the stereo­typed vi­sions and con­ven­tional re­sponses.

Quot­ing Shake­speare’s well­known kwell­known line “There are a thou­sand Ham­lets in a thou­sand peo­ple’s eyes”, Feng reck­ons tthe most charm­ing part of per­form­ing is how the role is seen dif­fer­ently by dif­fer­ent au­di­ences.

To most theater sources, the wwell-known for­eign act­ing meth­ods in China are those of Stanislavsky and Ger­man play­wright and theater di­rec­tor Ber­tolt Brecht (1889-1956).

Gro­towski’s method is not well known.

Given his early cam­pus life in Ger­many, Feng says he is “lucky” to be one of the few­fol­low­ers of the sys­tem on the Chi­nese main­land.

Af­ter Feng was re­cruited for a train­ing pro­gram of the Beijing Peo­ple’s Art Theater in 1986, he be­came the fa­vorite stu­dent of vis­it­ing Ger­man pro­fes­sor RuthMellchen from the Berlin Univer­sity of the Arts, a pres­ti­gious art col­lege in Europe.

Mellchen, who was then around 60, is a scholar spe­cial­iz­ing in the Gro­towski sys­tem. She used a lot of phys­i­cal train­ing to boost the stu­dents’ act­ing po­ten­tial, such as rolling on the ground and jump­ing.

“Gro­towski be­lieves ev­ery­one is born to be an ex­cel­lent per­former. But act­ing teach­ers should use ef­fec­tive means to help the stu­dents dis­cover their in­born tal­ent,” says Feng.

While the Gro­towski method has gen­er­ated some con­tro­ver­sya­mongChi­nese teach­ers, it has proved to be very ef­fec­tive for Feng in his ca­reer of more than 20 years.

When China Daily in­ter­viewed him at the Beijing Film Acad­emy, Feng — in­vited by the pho­tog­ra­phy depart­ment chief as a guest pro­fes­sor — was teach­ing around 20 undergraduates to speak fast and loudly, us­ing a tongue twis­ter.

“It’s ba­sic train­ing for theater act­ing. Pho­tog­ra­phy ma­jors can do a bet­ter job of film­ing if they know how ac­tors speak and move,” he says

As a star who is much in de­mand in act­ing cir­cles, Feng has a tight sched­ule.

The 30-day pro­gram for the acad­emy was de­layed for al­most eight months, but Feng in­sists on teach­ing, as a re­mote salute to his beloved Ger­man teacherMellchen.

“In some senses, she treated me like a son.”

The Ger­man pro­fes­sor re­garded Feng as a ge­nius stu­dent. She of­fered him the chance to study in her col­lege and pro­vided free ac­com­mo­da­tion. So while most other Chi­nese stu­dents had to work part-time to make ends meet, Feng had the lux­ury to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on his stud­ies.

But Feng de­cided to quit study­ing there af­ter two years and re­turn to China, as he couldn’t en­dure the feel­ing of alien­ation as a for­eigner in Ger­many.

“I could never beHam­let on a Ger­man theater stage. The au­di­ences would say ‘Hey, look, the Chi­nese doesn’t look like Ham­let’,” he says. The de­ci­sion dis­ap­pointed Mellchen.

But Ger­many mark on Feng.

For the past two decades, Feng has got used to say­ing “thank you” to his wife — not some­thing Chi­nese hus­bands typ­i­cally do — and he has hardly ever been late for an ap­point­ment.



Con­tact the writer at xufan@chi­



Feng Yuanzheng with his Ger­man teacher, Ruth Mellchen, when he re­ceived the­atri­cal train­ing in Berlin from 1989 to 1991.

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