Sav­ing a clas­sic

A re­vived play salutes a Qin Dy­nasty hero who saved Con­fu­cian texts for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Han Bing­bin fol­lows the dra­matic ten­sion.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at hanbingbin@chi­

The Na­tional The­ater wraps up the year with a re­vival about a heroic Con­fu­cian scholar in times of tur­moil.

For its fi­nal show of 2013, the Na­tional The­ater of China has de­cided to put on some cul­tural at­ti­tude. They picked up a script from 10 years ago that pays trib­ute to an al­most for­got­ten his­tor­i­cal hero, FuSheng. The Con­fu­cian scholar saved one of the Five Clas­sics, Shang Shu, while risk­ing his own life, from a burn­ing cam­paign that the first em­peror (Qin Shi­huang) of the Qin Dy­nasty (221-206 BC) launched to elim­i­nate dis­sent.

Dur­ing Qin Shi­huang’s reign, some of­fi­cials ques­tioned his poli­cies and ad­vo­cated sys­tems of pre­vi­ous dy­nas­ties that were recorded in Con­fu­cian clas­sics. As a re­sult, in 213 BC the em­peror or­dered that all his­tor­i­cal records ex­cept theQin records be burned. In the fol­low­ing year, more than 400 Con­fu­cian schol­ars were buried alive for li­bel af­ter they scolded the em­peror.

Prac­ti­cally noth­ing good was re­mem­bered of this time of mis­for­tune ex­cept the heroic spirit of Fu Sheng. A de­scen­dant of two loyal Con­fu­cius dis­ci­ples and once highly val­ued as an of­fi­cial his­to­rian by Qin Shi­huang, Fu hid Shang Shu in a wall, mak­ing it among the rare his­tor­i­cal clas­sics to es­cape the fire. A col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments com­piled by Con­fu­cius him­self, Shang Shu is known as China’s old­est his­tor­i­cal record.

“The play is more than a story and leg­end,” di­rec­tor Wang Xiaoying says. “In­her­it­ing cul­ture is a life ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Wang has di­rected plays about his­tor­i­cal fig­ures like Xiang Yu (232-202 BC), over­lord in the West Chu pe­riod, and Richard III. But the re­think­ing of his­tory or cul­ture is hardly the at­trac­tive part for him. In­stead, he’s re­spected for re­lat­ing the per­sonal strug­gles of in­di­vid­u­als, those who are put in ex­treme sit­u­a­tions and have hard choices to make.

In Fu Sheng, there­fore, his­tory is slightly al­tered to cre­ate such dra­matic ten­sion. In­stead of hiding Shang Shu in the wall, Fu mem­o­rized the whole book with­out telling any­one else, a method highly de­pen­dent on his tal­ent but much safer, he thinks. It is an overly con­fi­dent and seem­ingly thought­less move that later blurred the line be­tween self­less­ness and self­ish­ness. When pro­tect­ing his own life (and the trea­sured text in his head) be­comes the top pri­or­ity, he has to, in an agony of re­morse, ig­nore the lives of his beloved ones.

Fu’s son, also an ad­vo­cate of Con­fu­cian thought, broke with his fa­ther af­ter Fu sur­pris­ingly of­fered to burn down all the fam­ily’s Con­fu­cian col­lec­tions. Later when the son was hunted down by the sol­diers, Fu turned him in be­cause shel­ter­ing a crim­i­nal would cost the whole fam­ily’s lives. Con­fused and ir­ri­tated by her hus­band, Fu’s wife killed her­self by bash­ing her head against the wall. His daugh­ter be­came a stranger.

Wang de­liv­ers the cli­max dur­ing a di­a­logue be­tween Fu and his old ri­val, prime min­is­ter Li Si, when Li was on his way to ex­e­cu­tion upon the col­lapse of the Qin Dy­nasty. Fu re­vealed his se­cret by recit­ing a long ex­cerpt from Shang Shu. With his trem­bling voice, the re­spect for his­tory and the pride of cul­ture be­comes even more touch­ing when they’re mixed with guilt, re­morse or what­ever emo­tions the lis­ten­ers think there may be.

Fu’s feel­ings are fur­ther com­pli­cated by a lit­tle irony in the end. The fol­low­ing Western Han Dy­nasty (206 BC-24 AD) paid supreme trib­ute to Con­fu­cian­ism while ban­ning all other schools of thought.

“Cul­ture is as diver­si­fied as life. It’s not right to re­spect only one school of thought in a spe­cific time. So this is not what Fu Sheng wanted to see in the end,” Wang says.

The whole his­tor­i­cal drama is nar­rated in a very mod­ern spirit. The sense of his­tory is con­veyed by a stage de­signed like an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site with bam­boo slips and frag­ments of bones scat­tered around. In the book-burn­ing scene, the fire is rep­re­sented by a big piece of red cloth that falls from the sky. All the sup­port­ing roles are played by the “singing team” wear­ing dif­fer­ent iden­tity-sug­gest­ing masks. In ad­di­tion to speak­ing lines, they also dance and sing to ex­ter­nal­ize the char­ac­ters’ feel­ings.

For ex­am­ple, af­terFu’s son is taken away by the sol­diers, Fu kneels on the floor and con­stantly shakes his head in agony, sug­gest­ing one of the fortes of di­rec­tor Wang — seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion from Pek­ing Opera.

With th­ese artis­tic ex­per­i­ments, the riv­et­ing story and the cul­tural at­ti­tude, Wang ad­mits that it’s a play of am­bi­tion.

“I want it to be a play of weight, a play that will last through time,” he says.


Per­form­ers re­hearse the Na­tional The­ater of China’s new drama Fu Sheng in Bei­jing.

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