Hear­ing the Awak­en­ing of the Great Re­former

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wang Xiao­hua Edited by Justin Davis Photo cour­tesy of Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre

In 1996, the year af­ter the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre was es­tab­lished, the his­tor­i­cal play Shang Yang was staged. It vividly por­trays the life of Shang Yang (c. 395–338 BC), a great re­former in Chi­nese his­tory.

In 1996, the year af­ter the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre was es­tab­lished, the his­tor­i­cal play Shang Yang was staged. It vividly por­trays the life of Shang Yang (c. 395–338 BC). He was a great re­former in Chi­nese his­tory and many of his re­forms are de­picted in the play. It has amazed nu­mer­ous au­di­ences with its tremen­dous mo­men­tum and pro­found theme. The play is a clas­sic in the reper­toire of the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre and an en­dur­ing mas­ter­work.

“Shang Yang’s re­forms must be en­forced, but Shang Yang must be got­ten rid of.” Af­ter the death of Shang Yang, his re­form mea­sures pre­vailed in the State of Qin, en­abling the state to be­come the great­est power among the Seven Pow­ers of the War­ring States Pe­riod (475–221 BC), hence ush­er­ing in the pow­er­ful Qin Em­pire. It took as long as 15 years for Shang Yang to go from prepara­tory work to pre­mier­ing on the stage. The work even­tu­ally paid off, and it has be­come a clas­sic. To this day, Shang Yang re­mains pop­u­lar on the dra­matic stage.

Leav­ing Wei for Qin for Po­lit­i­cal Re­form

The State of Qin devel­oped slowly dur­ing the early War­ring States Pe­riod and was si­t­u­ated on the western fron­tier. As a re­sult, it was of­ten de­spised by other vas­sal states. In 385 BC, Duke Xian of Qin (reign: 384–362 BC) launched a se­ries of re­forms. He en­acted a house­hold reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem and abol­ished the in­sti­tu­tion of bury­ing the liv­ing with the dead. He also set up four coun­ties, which weak­ened the priv­i­lege of the no­bil­ity. Thanks to his re­form mea­sures, Qin showed signs of re­cov­ery. In 361 BC, Duke Xiao of Qin (reign: 361–338 BC) suc­ceeded to the throne. Dis­tressed by the fact that the vas­sal states treated Qin with con­tempt and feel­ing it was a burn­ing shame, he made up his mind to con­tinue down the path of re­form that his fa­ther em­barked on. Later, he is­sued a tal­ent-seek­ing de­cree. Soon, a man in his 30s came to the State of Qin from the State of Wei. The man was Wei Yang (also known as Shang Yang), who was a de­scen­dant of a lumpen noble fam­ily of Wei. He met with Duke Xiao of Qin and con­trib­uted his ideas to make Qin more pow­er­ful.

Wei Yang’s fam­ily name was Gong­sun. He was keen on study­ing the phi­los­o­phy of the Le­gal­ist school ever since child­hood. He went to Qin to look for a bet­ter po­si­tion and met Duke Xiao of Qin. Duke Xiao ap­proved of Wei’s re­form plan. From 356 BC to 350 BC, Wei launched two rounds of re­form. He per­formed mer­i­to­ri­ous ser­vice so the duke gave him a pro­mo­tion and granted him the ti­tle of Lord Shang. Wei Yang be­came known as Shang Yang his­tor­i­cally. In the course of his po­lit­i­cal re­form, Shang Yang set up a sys­tem of grant­ing ranks of no­bil­ity based on mil­i­tary ex­ploits. The more en­e­mies some­one killed, the greater the re­ward. As a re­sult, the abil­ity of the Qin army was greatly en­hanced. In de­scrib­ing the com­bat of the Qin army, the Records of the Grand His­to­rian states: “The Qin war­riors took off the ar­mour and clothes of their en­e­mies, tak­ing their heads in their left hands and hold­ing the liv­ing cap­tives un­der their right arms.” Shang Yang stressed the im­por­tance of agri­cul­ture and re­strained com­merce, im­ple­mented the county sys­tem, pun­ished those who were re­lated to or friendly with those who had com­mit­ted an of­fence and uni­fied weights and mea­sures. How­ever, his po­lit­i­cal re­form in­fringed upon the in­ter­ests of the old no­bil­ity. At the very be­gin­ning, the re­form was op­posed by old guard forces, such as Gan Long and Du Zhi. Af­ter Duke Xiao died, King Hui­wen of Qin (reign: 338–311 BC) suc­ceeded to the throne. Shang Yang was killed by the king but his re­forms con­tin­ued. They were car­ried out for 18 years and en­joyed pop­u­lar sup­port in the State of Qin. For­merly a back­ward state, it be­came the most pow­er­ful of the Seven Pow­ers dur­ing the War­ring States Pe­riod and laid a solid foun­da­tion for Qin Shi Huang’s uni­fi­ca­tion of the other six states.

The story of Shang Yang car­ry­ing out re­forms has been told for over 2,000 years. Peo­ple have var­i­ous views about him. In 1982, Yao Yuan, a post­grad­u­ate from Nan­jing Univer­sity spe­cial­is­ing in theatre, planned to com­pose a his­tor­i­cal play based on Shang Yang’s re­forms. Af­ter seven years of prepa­ra­tion, he fi­nally com­pleted writ­ing the script in 1988 when he was 38 years old. Yao said he chose this theme be­cause there was some space in which he could use his imag­i­na­tion and he en­joyed the be­gin­ning of re­forms in China. Af­ter the script was com­pleted, it was left un­used for eight years. Yao was try­ing to get

it staged dur­ing this time. He vis­ited al­most all the em­i­nent the­atres in China. Even­tu­ally the play was staged in Shang­hai.

In 1995, the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre was es­tab­lished. When the his­tor­i­cal play Shang Yang pre­miered in Shang­hai the next year, it caused a great flut­ter. It was staged by the cen­tre and di­rected by Chen Xinyi. The play be­came a rep­re­sen­ta­tive work of Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre. It cov­ers Shang Yang en­tire life from his birth to his tragic death, demon­strat­ing the mir­a­cle he cre­ated to make the State of Qin strong and pros­per­ous in 19 years. The play is an epic work. Af­ter the de­but, Yao stated: “I be­lieve that Shang Yang will never be be­hind the times, though it was shelved for many years, be­cause it is about his­tory, life and Chi­nese cul­ture, which has so­lid­i­fied through the cen­turies.”

Yao said that he in­cor­po­rated some of his own ideas when in­ter­pret­ing his­tory and writ­ing the play. “I felt very con­tented when I saw Shang Yang, Jini­ang, Hannü, Jing Jian, Prince Qian and Zhao Liang come to life un­der my pen. This is be­cause every­one has his or her his­tor­i­cal ba­sis. They are ac­tive in ac­cor­dance with their own logic. In a word, his­tor­i­cal facts are ‘lon­gi­tude,’ and char­ac­ter logic is ‘lat­i­tude.’”

The suc­cess of Shang Yang has earned Yao a great rep­u­ta­tion. Through­out his life, he wrote many clas­sic plays, the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive of which in­clude Xial­iba Ren (“Pop­u­lar Lit­er­a­ture or Art”), Li Dazhao, Fa Zidu (“Fall of Gong­sun Zidu”) and Mati Sheng­sui (“Women on the Long March”). In ad­di­tion, he wrote a screen­play en­ti­tled Da Zhuanzhe (“Great Trans­for­ma­tion”) and took part in the ed­i­to­rial work of TV plays such as Guo­jia Shim­ing (“Na­tional Mis­sion”) and Lishi De Tiankong (“The Sky of the His­tory”).

The Un­con­quer­able Mind

In Shang Yang, Jini­ang, a con­cu­bine of the prince of the State of Wei, gave birth to a boy named Wei Yang. The prince asked a seer to prac­tise div­ina­tion for the new-born. The seer as­serted that the child was of demon ori­gin. As a re­sult, Jini­ang and Wei were de­serted in wild­ness. Wei and Jini­ang sur­vived by stick­ing to­gether and help­ing each other from then on­ward. When Wei grew into a sen­si­ble and un­der­stand­ing child, Jini­ang told him that she was his adop­tive mother. She hoped Wei would not be a slave like her but a free man.

Ten years passed. One day, Wei was pas­tur­ing cat­tle when he was seen by Jing Jian from the State of Qin and Gong­shu Cuo from the State of Wei. Jing Jian felt Wei was not a per­son to be tri­fled with and wanted to take him away. How­ever, Gong­shu in­sisted that Wei stay in Wei and work as his re­tainer. To sever the con­nec­tion be­tween Wei and Jini­ang, Gong­shu in­tim­i­dated Jini­ang into scoop­ing out her eyes.

Soon, Wei be­came an adult. Prince Ang of Wei be­came his most in­ti­mate friend. Ang told Wei that their friend­ship was im­mune from con­flicts of in­ter­ests. He gave up his beloved Hannü, who was Wei’s con­fi­dante. Ang told Wei in se­cret that the prime min­is­ter had rec­om­mended Wei to the King of Wei. The prime min­is­ter said to the king that Wei Yang was so tal­ented that he could be a com­pe­tent prime min­is­ter. If the king did not want to put him into an im­por­tant po­si­tion, it would be bet­ter to kill him. In view of this, Prince Ang gave Wei a bag of money and ad­vised him to flee as soon as pos­si­ble. Wei did not leave right away though. He went to the sickbed of the prime min­is­ter and thanked him for his rec­om­men­da­tion. He also bit­terly re­buked the prime min­is­ter for his jeal­ousy and sup­pres­sion against him for years. The prime min­is­ter ad­vised Wei to flee as soon as pos­si­ble. Un­ex­pect­edly, Wei did not fol­low his ad­vice though.

Af­ter the death of the prime min­is­ter, Wei sought pro­tec­tion in the State of Qin. Three years later, with the rec­om­men­da­tion of Jing Jian, Duke Xiao of Qin even­tu­ally called to­gether all his min­is­ters to de­bate with Wei. Wei ar­gued heat­edly with them and fi­nally gained the up­per hand in the de­bate. The duke res­o­lutely de­cided to in­vite him to for­mu­late strate­gies to make Qin more pow­er­ful. Af­ter the de­bate, some min­is­ters in­clud­ing Zhao Liang, Shi Jiao and Meng Lan­gao vol­un­teered to as­sist Wei. Re­form mea­sures in­fu­ri­ated no­ble­men like Gan Long, Gong­sun Jia and Zhu Huan though. Zhu judged Wei as a heav­enly hound and Prince Si as a heav­enly horse ac­cord­ing to ce­les­tial phe­nom­ena. Ac­cord­ing to Zhu, Prince Si and Wei would be in­com­pat­i­ble. Later, Duke Xiao of Qin chose an aus­pi­cious day on which Prince Si was to

be des­ig­nated as the crown prince of Qin. When Grand Pre­cep­tor Qian in­vited him to the cer­e­mony, Prince Si, how­ever, re­fused to be the crown prince, say­ing that Duke Xiao of Qin was be­witched by Wei. The duke foamed with anger. Zhu said that this was an ill omen. He pressed Wei for a so­lu­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the new law, Wei cut off the left foot of the Grand Pre­cep­tor for neg­li­gence of duty. His ac­com­plice Gong­sun Jia tried to jus­tify the grand pre­cep­tor. Wei re­moved the lat­ter from of­fice and de­cided that Zhu’s hair be cut as pun­ish­ment.

King Hui of Wei re­gret­ted that he had not fol­lowed Gong­shu Cuo’s ad­vice to kill Wei, as his army was fre­quently de­feated by Qin. In an at­tempt to sow dis­cord be­tween Wei and Duke Xiao of Qin, King Hui of Wei de­cided to ne­go­ti­ate peace with Qin and present Hannü, a beau­ti­ful woman, to Duke Xiao of Qin. Later, when he saw Jini­ang, who ap­peared sud­denly, Wei bent down on his knees to ask for pun­ish­ment. Wei wanted to ask the Duke to set Jini­ang free. Jini­ang im­me­di­ately men­tioned that she was not Wei’s bi­o­log­i­cal mother. She did not want Wei to re­deem her at the cost of his peer­age. Wei de­cided to re­pay Jini­ang in the fu­ture. Hannü, who had be­come the wife of the king of Qin, learned from Jing Jian that all the min­is­ters in the Qin court knew she was a con­fi­dante of Wei. She be­came laden with anx­i­ety. Wei im­ple­mented the law very harshly. He once be­headed 700 crim­i­nals at once. Zhao Liang could hardly put up with this, so he de­cided to re­sign from of­fice and go back to his home­town.

Hannü asked Jing Jian to per­suade Wei. Jing Jian said that he could do noth­ing. It hap­pened that Wei passed by. Jing Jian re­layed a mes­sage for Hannü. At the same time, Zhu came over to prac­tise div­ina­tion on Hannü. Wei soon hur­ried over, and Zhu Huan cursed him. In a vi­o­lent rage, Wei killed Zhu. Hannü sank into Wei’s arms. Duke Xiao of Qin hap­pened to ar­rive at that mo­ment and saw what hap­pened. He did not blame Wei though. In­stead, he said that he could not set aside state af­fairs just for the sake of a beau­ti­ful woman. The duke aban­doned Hannü, who threw her­self into the river and died. Wei screamed and be­came de­ter­mined to make the State of Qin reign over the whole Cen­tral Plains.

Later, the states of Qin and Wei were at war once again. Wei Yang took part in bat­tle. Prince Ang was the com­man­der in chief of the state of Wei. As Wei’s army men out­num­bered Qin’s war­riors, Wei Yang knew that he could only win vic­tory by com­ing up with an art­ful scheme. He de­cided to in­vite Prince Ang to the camp of Qin’s army and take Meng Lan­gao as a hostage. If the ne­go­ti­a­tion with Ang was un­sat­is­fac­tory, Wei Yang would kill Meng. Luck­ily, Meng was ready to sac­ri­fice him­self for Wei Yang. Later, Prince Ang ar­rived at Qin’s camp. Wei Yang de­manded Wei sub­mit it­self to the rule of Qin. Prince Ang, bit­terly re­buk­ing Wei Yang for break­ing faith, was shot dead. Meng was be­headed in Wei’s camp. In face of the deaths of Prince Ang, his old ac­quain­tance, and Meng Lan­gao, his best friend, Wei Yang shouted, “I have no way of re­treat ahead. I can suc­ceed only if I win vic­tory.”

Wei Yang launched an at­tack against states in the Cen­tral Plains and won a great vic­tory. The monarch of Qin granted him a fief­dom of 15 cities and made him a mar­quis. From then on, Wei Yang be­came known as Shang Yang. Zhao Liang braved death to ad­mon­ish Shang Yang to re­tire at the height of his of­fi­cial ca­reer. Shang Yang re­fused though. Zhao Liang be­came dis­ap­pointed and left. Af­ter the death of Duke Xiao of Qin, Prince Si suc­ceeded to the throne. Prince Qian, Jing Jian, Gong­sun Jia and oth­ers be­gan to work on state af­fairs to­gether. They pro­posed “car­ry­ing on Shang Yang’s re­forms and get­ting rid of him.” Prince Si agreed and is­sued an edict that Shang Yang be killed. Later, Jini­ang told Shang Yang that she was proud of giv­ing birth to him. He thought she was a worth­less crea­ture who fanned the flames of dis­or­der. Shang Yang re­alised that Jini­ang re­ally was his bi­o­log­i­cal mother though. Shang Shang and Jini­ang got into a car­riage and the horses that were at­tached to it gal­loped on the open coun­try. Jini­ang shouted loudly that Shang Yang was not only his son but also the son of com­mon peo­ple and slaves. Even­tu­ally, the mother and son were shot dead by a vol­ley of ar­rows.

A Rep­re­sen­ta­tive His­tor­i­cal Play

Shang Yang de­picts the sac­ri­fices Shang Yang made re­gard­ing fam­ily, love, friend­ship and his ideals. It nar­rates the vi­cis­si­tudes of the great re­former from birth to his death over 2,000 years ago.

Shang Yang has been staged more than 100 times through­out China from its de­but in 1996 to 2003, in­clud­ing in Shang­hai, Bei­jing, Nan­jing, Shen­zhen, Hong Kong and Tai­wan as well as in Sin­ga­pore. It has been well re­ceived. In 2003, the play was se­lected as one of the Ten Qual­ity Plays of the Na­tional Stage Art Clas­sics Project and has be­come a first­class, his­tor­i­cal play of Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre. Yin Zhusheng be­came very well-known for his por­trayal of played Shang Yang also.

In 2007, to rein­vig­o­rate this his­tor­i­cal play, Yang Shaolin, Gen­eral Man­ager of Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre, de­cided to use new ac­tors to re­hearse the play once again. The av­er­age age of these cast mem­bers was un­der 26. Af­ter a com­pet­i­tive process, ac­tors and ac­tresses in­clud­ing Wei Chun­guang, Sun Ning­fang and Sun Yizhou were se­lected for the youth ver­sion of Shang Yang.

In 2015, the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre re­hearsed Shang Yang with a gal­axy of fa­mous stars, in­clud­ing Yin Zhusheng and Liu Peng, a young ac­tor who played Shang Yang, to cel­e­brate its 20th an­niver­sary. Chen Xinyi was the chief di­rec­tor. Di­rec­tor Zhao Xiao­qian was in charge of re­hearsals. The staff mem­bers, ac­tors and ac­tresses prac­tised in­dus­tri­ously and con­stantly strove for per­fec­tion, hop­ing to re­pro­duce the leg­end of Shang Yang. The play was staged on Fe­bru­ary 24, 2017. Af­ter nine per­for­mances in Shang­hai, it was staged at the Na­tional Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts in Bei­jing on the evening of March 15, 2017.

Shang Yang has ex­pe­ri­enced a splen­did tra­jec­tory of over 20 years from its de­but in 1996 to the birth of the youth ver­sion in 2007 and later the birth of the clas­sic ver­sion in 2017. It is a leg­endary, his­tor­i­cal play that has been passed down through the gen­er­a­tions.

A scene from Shang Yang, staged by the Shang­hai Dra­matic Arts Cen­tre

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