Mao debunked: Revolution is a tea party

Timeless/timely parable from Beijing People's Art Theatre

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In Act I we meet a ruffian gangland “enforcer;” a vainglorious landlord (Yang Lixin, another TV star) who dreams of industrializing China to fend off foreign colonization; and a down-at-the-heels Manchu pensioner (RenYi stalwart Pu Cunxin) with a patriotically generous heart-of-gold.

A fortune teller cadges the credulous, while a pimp brokers the handover of a desperate peasant’s daughter (Gong Lijun), sold as a child bride to an elderly palace eunuch. 

Amidst this anarchic churn, only one rule applies, conspicuously posted on every pillar of the latticed stage set: “Don’t discuss affairs of state.” To enforce it, a shadowy pair of grey-gowned spies lurk, eavesdropping. The act ends with them arresting the stiff-necked Manchu patriot, while the peasant child bride swoons dead away at the first sight of her creaky husband-to-be.

Act II picks up the same stories two decades later. After a prison stint, the Manchu – now middle aged and stripped of his pension – returns to the same teahouse as a vegetable pedlar.

And the child bride, now widowed, drifts back to the teahouse seeking any kind of unpaid scutwork. The Qing dynasty has long since collapsed. But the ensuing Republic has devolved into warlordism.

The “Don’t talk politics” signs are now bigger than ever, and still enforced by the same venally high-handed spies and thugs, except now they work for “Republican” generals rather than the Qing Son of Heaven.

The city is awash in refugees, but the pimp can hardly make ends meet anymore, as the market now favours upscale call girls over scrawny peasants. On the other hand, the fortune teller, thriving on a climate of chaotic uncertainty, is now doing so well he can afford to upgrade from opium addiction to heroin.

The act ends with a couple of AWOL conscripts bribing their way out of arrest. Instead of delivering these two deserters to the warlord’s execution squad, the shadowy teahouse spies hand over the hapless fortune teller for peremptory beheading.

Yutai in its Qing Dynasty prime. Photo: 北京人艺

But not to worry; his lineage rebounds in Act III, set nearly 30 years later. Same goes for the descendants of the pimp, the spies and the thugs. Each of these is now represented by their eponymous offspring (played by the same actors as their forebears from the previous acts).

The pimp’s zoot-suited scion now envisions himself as General Manager of a full-service, multi-departmental “Trust” that will manage the nationwide traffic in vice girls to service the post-World War II occupying legions of American G.I.’s.

Board chairman and “protector” of the new trust will be the local Military Police Division Chief in the Kuomintang (KMT) regime of U.S. ally Chiang Kai-shek.

This functionary, not coincidentally, happens to be a nephew-in-law of the deceased palace eunuch and “sworn brother” of the “high priest” of the “Tri-Emperor” Society, a secretive underworld cabal – much like Chiang’s historic “Green Gang” – at the nexus of politics, business and crime.

The fortune teller’s son styles himself the “Heavenly Teacher” of the same triad. Together with the reincarnated pimp, he plots to take over the down-at-the-heels teahouse as a Kuomintang listening post and to kidnap the erstwhile child bride (now Yutai’s crusty old class-conscious “granny”) so as to blackmail her Communist guerrilla son into selling out his comrades.

But the old lady escapes to the Red base in the hills. And before the KMT goons can return to claim “their” teahouse, the Yutai boss, joined by the Manchu pedlar and the would-be industrialist, share a last pot of tea and a good laugh over their thwarted dreams. They stage a mock funeral for themselves, complete with paper “spirit” money.

Then, to the brisk strains of a martial chorale, the Yutai boss measures out a sash to hang himself from the rafters of his own establishment.

No telling, though, just where the rousing march music is coming from. Is it the incoming Communist Eighth Route Army? Or a last-gasp anthem of the KMT? Or maybe even triumphal G.I.’s, heady from their Pacific War victory, on their way to “make America great again?”

Not that it really matters much, anyway, Lao She seems to be telling us. In any age or locale, it all comes down to the same sorry prospect in the end.





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