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China on Stage

Back in Beijing, Yan Li’s parents made him start taking piano lessons at the age of three, because, they figured, it would help him cultivate the skills needed to become a doctor—“memory, hand motor coordination, information processing, analysis….,” Li recites. More than a quarter century later and nearly 7,000 miles away, Li is playing keyboards at an Off-Broadway theatre for a song that features a singing toilet plunger. The toilet plunger joins in a chorus with a set of curtains, a cup, lamp, phone, and a gun, singing:

We are made in China
Pleased to serve you
People come and go but we will stay
Adding to your household day by day

Li, who immigrated with his family to Canada when he was six, earned no medical degree, but instead got his MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from NYU in New York, where he moved several years ago. He is the keyboardist, musical director, lyricist, and composer for Made in China, a cheeky puppet musical currently playing at 59E59 Theater. Billed as “an exploration of human rights, consumerism, and morality,” it is a barbed political satire about the People’s Republic of China.

‘Made in China’ is one of three shows about China that I’ve seen recently in New York, each with such a wholly different perspective that together they seem to offer almost a lesson in US-China relations.

Made in China is one of three shows about China that I’ve seen recently in New York, each with such a wholly different perspective that together they seem to offer almost a lesson in US-China relations.

picture on stage
Made in China. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock, the artistic directors of the sixteen-year-old Wakka Wakka Productions, hired Li to collaborate on the company’s first musical, which was inspired by a true story: A shopper at Saks Fifth Avenue found a note with her new boots by the person who had packaged them, seeking help in being released from a Chinese prison factory. From this odd five-year-old news, they fashioned a surreal, often comic tale involving a middle aged suburban American widow and her Chinese-American neighbor who somehow wind up in China, and have many adventures, including as inmates in a Chinese prison factory.

For one of Li’s nine songs, “Innovation,” he mashes up what sounds like a commercial jingle with the actual music of the Chinese national anthem, replacing the revolutionary lyrics (“Arise! All who refuse to be slaves!”) with commercial boasts (“The leader in steel and coal and pork/The leader in dreams and birth control”).

man picture
Made in China composer and lyricist Yan Li. Photo by Jonathan Mandell.

“I am making fun of the paradoxes, the ridiculousness,” Li says. “So much of the population is beneath the poverty line in the provinces, and yet you can build an entire apartment building in the city in four days.” The criticisms of China are leavened by similar criticisms of the United States. In “Work Song,” for example, both Uncle Sam and Mao Tse-tung sing of their indifference to workers’ rights.

“On the one hand, I am so proud of Chinese culture—the art and literature and inventions such as gunpowder and paper,” says Li. “Its theatre traditions and music traditions are very diverse and full. There’s a lot there; my people created a lot for the world.

“On the other hand, it’s hard to reconcile this side of China with the current political system—the censorship, mismanagement of resources, callousness towards human life.”

women dancing
Confucius. Photo by Liu Hadong.

Confucius, an elaborate production featuring some sixty performers from the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theater, was first produced in Beijing and then toured Europe, Asia, and Australia before its recent week-long presentation at Lincoln Center (followed by a week at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC). Kong Dexin, its director and choreographer, is a “77th generation descendant” of Confucius (in Chinese known as Kong Zi, or Master Kong). She conceived the ninety-minute piece as “dance drama” that focuses on the fourteen years that the philosopher journeyed throughout a war-torn China on a mission to introduce his teachings, before returning home to write his six classics.

The dance was exciting and visually stunning, helped by extravagant costumes as luminous and varied in hue as a rainbow. The drama, however, was a disappointment. Something must have been lost in translation—literally, but also culturally. Almost no words were spoken on stage; the action was communicated through movement, although helped by some supertitles: “Food handed out in contempt” accompanied a scene where black-clad soldiers acted with contempt towards men and women wearing peasant garb.

At the end, the LED screens on either side of the stage projected a handful of the aphorisms for which the sage is best known in the West, for example: “When one sees a virtuous man, one should think of exerting oneself to be like him; when one sees someone who is not virtuous, one should examine oneself.”

But there were more unwieldy projections in the middle of the performance to explain the drama and provide historical context:

In the chaotic time, the Lord of the State was muddle-headed and drowning in the company of beautiful women. The Lord asked Confucius how to rule the State but then ignored his suggestions. The officials, crafty and fawning, knew only how to conspire against each other.

I couldn’t help suspecting that the history being awkwardly imparted in Confucius was tethered in some way to some current public campaign of the Chinese government.

I couldn’t help suspecting that the history being awkwardly imparted in ‘Confucius’ was tethered in some way to some current public campaign of the Chinese government.

Caught. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Caught, written by Christopher Chen and produced by The Play Company at La MaMa E.T.C., took knowing advantage of Western attitudes (such as my suspiciousness of Confucius) to play mind games with its downtown audience.

The show began with an art exhibition by a Chinese dissident artist who spent two years in prison in China and, now settled in New York, re-created his jail cell and rented it out on Airbnb for a dollar a day. Forty-two New Yorkers responded, we are told, and the art exhibition on the walls was essentially a group of photographs and a couple of static videos of the guests in the re-created jail cell, who, in an imitation of prison conditions, were forbidden to read, sleep, exercise or—perhaps cruelest of all—use their smart phones.

Then we took our seats in the theatre. In front of the jail cell he had re-created for his exhibition, the dissident, Lin Bo, described the circumstances of his imprisonment. He had decided to create an “imaginary protest,” a piece of conceptual art, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, by distributing a poster calling for a rally, but not saying where the rally would take place. “There was no real protest. There was nothing we could be caught for.” But he was imprisoned nonetheless, and he described in painstaking and painful detail the conditions of his imprisonment.

When he finished his lecture, we in the audience applauded. Then the scene changed to the office of the New Yorker magazine, where the writer of a recent profile of the dissident informed him that a prominent authority on Chinese prisons had questioned some central details in Lin Bo’s account. After the writer and her editor interrogated him, Lin Bo admitted to “embellishing” his experiences.

“I wanted to expose the government's treatment of me, but I felt I could only reach a wide audience if my experience was more sensational.”

But they kept picking apart his story, and finally Lin Bo came clean—he was not in fact imprisoned. But then, after more pressuring, there was more—he was not in fact Lin Bo. Dropping his Chinese-inflected English, he admitted he was a performance artist who grew up in California. “I just wanted to be part of the cultural elite so badly. So I figured the only way I could sneak my way into the club was to use my Chinese-ness to my advantage.” 

The scene ended, the performers took a bow, and then the actress who portrayed the New Yorker writer explained that she had curated the show, collaborating with a Chinese artist named Wang Min, whom she then brought onto the stage to interview. Wang Min explained that the piece was inspired by such scandals as the fabrications uncovered in Mike Daisey’s solo show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he talked about the treacherous working conditions in the Chinese factories. But in the conversation that ensued about differing notions of truth, Wang Min told the curator that when she was born her parents had tried to poison her because they wanted a boy.

Curator: Oh my god! That’s—

Wang Min: You believed that?

Curator: I—wait what??

Wang Min: In one sentence I am able to alter your view of an entire country. I am

Chinese so this so-called fact is not questioned. It adds a nice padding to your preconceptions and that is that.

Christopher Chen, who grew up in San Francisco the son of a Chinese-born father and a Caucasian mother, is too much of a trickster playwright, and an artist, for his play to be summed up as a defense of China. It’s more complicated than that; just to underscore how complicated, the fourth and final scene once again swerves into the unexpected, and upends what we had perceived in the third scene, as the third had done for the second, and the second for the first.  Yet one can walk away from Caught feeling that it exposed its Western audience in an artful way to our unexamined assumptions about China.


Jonathan Mandell’s Newcrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.

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