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West Meets East - Onstage. INTERVIEW: CHINA CULTURE MINISTER. American, European plays inspire Chinese artists to try riskier productions

THE highest performing arts official in China says that glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) have been going on in China's art realm since well before the neighboring Gorbachev regime made the terms household words. ``We feel we invented these things, so why use Russian words?'' cajoles Ying Ruocheng, vice minister for culture in the performing arts and arts education.

For three years, Mr. Ying has been presiding over a Ronald Reaganlike decentralization that is giving greater artistic and economic freedom to the country's 3,000 performing arts organizations. The process has included a major opening of the country's stages to Western productions, about 100 in the past 10 years - one third of all the theater productions in China.

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``We have been getting back into the mainstream of world theater after decades of self-imposed exile,'' Mr. Ying says. As in the Soviet Union, this kind of creative openness in the arts has heralded a similar openness in politics, science, and economics.

Ying speaks with the same gravelly voice he used in the role that introduced him to many in the West: He played Kublai Khan in the 1982 mini-series, ``Marco Polo.'' A lifelong actor in China, he also played the prison warden in last season's best-picture Oscar-winner, ``The Last Emperor.''

Appointed in mid-1986, Mr. Ying is the most powerful and visible figure in China's arts-restructuring process. As a founding member with the Peking People's Art Theater, he played a variety of roles in theater and screen in the 1950s and 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao Zedong's attempt to purge his country of liberal elements, Ying was sent to be ``re-educated'' in the countryside. Resuming his theatrical career in the mid-'70s, he was responsible for importing British actor Derek Jacobi in a production of ``Hamlet'' in 1979.

Ying made history by translating the Arthur Miller classic, ``Death of a Salesman,'' and playing the lead role of Willy Loman. When the production - directed by playwright Miller himself - played to capacity crowds for three months, it was considered a breakthrough for China. Ying has since translated ``Amadeus'' and ``Equus'' as well as ``The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.''

Chinese audiences were ``fascinated'' by Willy Loman, he says. ``I asked a lot of people, `What did you see in this?' `Do you really understand what a salesman does?' `Do you understand what life insurance is all about?'

``A lot of them didn't understand some things, but they could truly grasp that this was a man, just like them, who had a dream that was shattered, and he couldn't face it.''

Chinese audiences couldn't believe that ``Amadeus,'' Peter Schaffer's play about Mozart and rival composer Antonio Salieri, wasn't written specifically for them, Ying says. ``They would rush up to me and say, `We have a Salieri right here in our office!' They not only understood it, they took it very much to heart.''

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Ying adds that the increased import of Western productions, beyond providing insights into technical areas of lighting and use of computers, is having direct effects on both what the Chinese playwrights write, and how the productions are staged. IN addition to American plays, the Chinese have imported a number of French, German, Japanese, and British plays. Overall, Ying says audiences have a particular affection for Eugene O'Neill and Bertold Brecht. The result of all this stimulation, he says, is far more creativity, wider subject matter, including such topics as morality; and less reticence to tackle controversial subjects.

One such play, ``Uncle Doggy's Nirvana,'' dealt directly with the previously taboo subject of the suffering caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward (1959-61), in which hundreds of thousands of peasants died of starvation. Another, entitled, ``Chronicles of Sang Shu Ping'' dealt with teen-agers who were sent to the countryside for ``re-education'' during the Cultural Revolution.

``The Cultural Revolution tried to tell us our past was not important,'' he says. ``But that was totally contrary to Chinese tradition and mentality. A recent Peking Opera deals with China's `Three Kingdoms' period in the third century, and a monarch that remains controversial to this day.''

Mr. Ying was in the United States to complete plans to bring the Joffrey Ballet to perform in China's fall arts festival. Forty Chinese groups will perform, and eight international groups.

``China has strong ballet, but it is practically a carbon copy of the Russian model of the '60s,'' says Ying. That's when the Soviets sent ballet teachers to China.

In recent years, the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe and the works of George Balanchine have been introduced. ``People are excited that ballet need not be just an antiquated form of art for the palaces of kings,'' says Ying. The Joffrey will be playing in tandem with the Bolshoi to highlight differences between classical and modern forms, he says.

There have been numerous discussions about taking Chinese theater and dance troupes to the US, says Ying. One nearly came to last year's New York International Arts Festival, before being dropped because of money.

``Money ends up being the problem every time,'' he says. ``Those in the US are also very concerned about how a production will be received after translation,'' he adds.

The cultural ministry of China has jurisdiction over libraries, museums, publishers, and tourist sites. In his capacity as vice minister for the performing arts and arts education, Mr. Ying has been trying to end China's long history of state-directed propaganda in art.

``I have to keep convincing my subordinates that the less you interfere, the more you achieve,'' he says of his army of ministers who are used to critiquing and advising performance groups in the provinces.

``I have to tell them to put away their notebooks, and quit playing `wise man from Peking,''' he says, and laughs.

The new openness works both ways, he adds hastily. There are plenty of avant-garde works of questionable taste. A recent non-government sponsored festival featured a man who walked around snapping condoms at the crowd as his affirmative statement on birth control. Another opened the festival by shooting holes in his art with a pistol. A third washed his feet for eight hours a day. A fourth sat on eggs with a sign that read ``Do not disturb me: The next generation is more important.''

``I'm not sure this is good or bad,'' says Ying, ``but it is perhaps necessary for now. The important thing is that the artist must not have constraints and that this couldn't have happened three years ago.''

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