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Peking theater takes aim at socialist 'connections'

''Capitalist society relies on money. Socialist society relies on connections ,'' says the villain in Peking's latest theater hit. A standing-room-only audience at the Capital Theater bursts into laughter. ''Whether you like it or not,'' confides one member of the audience,''that is the fact in China today.''

The play, entitled ''Who's the Strong One?'' details the trials and tribulations of Comrade Yuan, director of a textile factory, who is struggling to complete a 9,000-spindle spinning mill. The mill is nearly finished, except for the air-conditioning unit.

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But the construction company building the mill will not complete its work unless Comrade Yuan offers them two apartments in housing belonging to the textile factory. A textile machinery company is delaying the installation of machinery until Comrade Yuan agrees to buy 10,000 yuan ($6,666) worth of parts he doesn't need.

Most worrisome of all, the electric power company refuses to guarantee a stable supply of electricity, without which Comrade Yuan will be unable to meet production targets and pay his workers the bonuses they all expect.

It transpires that Comrade Ni, a department head at the electric company, is actually seeking enrollment in a textile workers' university for the son of his company's president, Liu. Comrade Yuan's factory has a quota of two for the university, and Liu is brazenly demanding one of these places for his unemployed son.

A further twist discloses that the unemployed youth is really the fiance of the daughter of the textile machinery company president.

The president of the electric company and the president of the textile machinery company come from the same town. The president of the electric company has two nephews for whom he wants to secure jobs at the textile machinery factory. In that case, says the president of the latter, help me to get my prospective son-in-law into the textile workers' university.

None of this sounds at all incredible to a Chinese audience. But plays that so openly satirize one of China's most endemic problems are rare. Also unusual is the ambiguous ending. Comrade Yuan wins the battle, but it is uncertain that he has won a permanent victory.

In one scene, the factory's chief engineer, a woman, recalls to Comrade Yuan the great enthusiasm with which they all participated in two anti-corruption campaigns of the early 1950s, called ''beating of the tigers'' - and how great was the prestige of the Communist Party in those days.

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''Ah, yes,'' muses Comrade Yang quietly, ''those who beat the tigers in those days have become tigers themselves.''

In another scene Comrade Yang's wife talks about a letter from a friend in Xinjiang. This friend, originally a Muslim, turns to communism on seeing the good work done by the party in the early days. Now, she writes, the party workers seem to have lost the spirit of these days, and she herself has returned to believing in Allah.

Comrade Yuan is the factory director who wants to do the right thing but who almost always capitulates to arguments that right connections are the only way to get his new mill working. Comrade Ni is the appropriately smarmy villain. The play was written by Liang Binfang, and directed by Lin Chaohua.

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