Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 14 News List

Masculinity goes under the spotlight

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

According to What Is Man?, the average male is far from heroic. Didn't we know this already?

PHOTO COURTESY OF NTCH

A timeless topic for investigation in classical and modern literature of all forms is the question of what man is. Is man a machine, his intellectual, emotional and spiritual components no more than by-products of his material nature? Or is man essentially a spiritual being within a physical shell? Or perhaps it is a combination of both.

What is Man?, a play that begins this weekend at the National Theater by acclaimed Hong Kong theater and film director Edward Lam (林奕華), takes up these questions. In his investigation of masculinity, Lam takes his cue from the Chinese classic The Water Margin (水滸傳). This is nothing new in itself, for the classic novel has been drawn on — directly and indirectly — in hard-hitting Hong Kong action movies where heroism and masculinity are inseparable.

The original Chinese classic is loosely based on the adventures of 37 outlaws during the early part of the 12th century. Seen as heroes because of their battle against the corruption of local officials, the bandits epitomized Chinese ideas of masculinity, and proved a rich source of material for artistic endeavor.

The Water Margin increased the number of bandits from 37 to 108. Though masculinity is never treated directly in the novel, the adventures detailed therein provide enough fodder for later generations of theater troupes and kung fu heroes to incorporate these different character-types into their repertoires.

But rather than dealing with 108 characters, Lam has brought the number down to a reasonable nine. The audience witnesses the different male characters compete for different roles in an audition and though friends on the surface, these nine men do whatever they can do to subvert success in the others, and in the process turning the traditional idea of man's masculinity on its head because these men are anything but heroic. The director manages to evoke sympathy from the audience by portraying the profound shortcomings of men, especially when something important is at stake. The contradictions in their character are meant to cause the audience to sympathize with their shortcomings and make the spectator realize the good and bad aspects to man's nature.

Theater Notes:

What: What is Man? (水滸傳)Where: National Theater, Taipei (國家戲劇院)When: Tomorrow at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:30pm and Thursday at 7:30pmTickets: From NT$400 to NT$2,000 available through NTCH ticketing


One of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, The Water Margin received one of its first translations into English by Nobel Prize-winner author Pearl Buck and though heavily panned by critics it was well-received by the public. In addition to various other translations, it was a popular television series in Hong Kong and was serialized in China in 2004. It has been referenced in many popular novels and video games and has even become a popular program on Japanese television.

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