Twilight of the idols

‘The Scholar and the Executioner’is a black comedy that looks at the lives of two characters whose professions are affected by China’s changing society at the end of the Qing Dynasty

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, May 30, 2008 - Page 13

Ma Kuai-dao often fantasizes about his neighbor, the scholar Xu Shen-yu. Ma imagines that he could do his best work on Xu’s sinewy frame, well-proportioned torso and muscular legs. A series of historic events enables Ma to get closer to the object of his musings.

Ma’s reveries are a central plot device that keeps the action moving along at a rapid pace in The Scholar and the Executioner (秀才與劊子手), a contemporary Chinese play produced by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (上海話劇藝術中心), which makes its Taiwan debut beginning next Thursday at Taipei City’s National Theater. The play, which is part of Taipei Arts International Association’s (TAIA) 2008 World Drama Series, runs until June 8.

Billed as a black comedy, the period piece takes place during the twilight of the Qing Dynasty — a time of considerable social upheaval.

The award-winning script, written by Chinese theater practitioner and theorist Huang Wei-ruo (黃維若), humorously follows the lives of two men who are affected by the government’s attempt to modernize China’s backward society and, in the process, maintain power.

The first is the executioner and torturer “Fast Knife Ma” (Ma Kuai-dao, 馬快刀). Hailed throughout the region as a professional torturer who inflicts the maximum amount of pain on his victims by shearing off their flesh with a variety of knives — a process known as lingchi (“death by a thousand cuts,” 凌遲) — Ma revels in the adulation that crowds of bystanders bestow on him while engaged in this work.

Xu Shen-yu (徐聖喻) is an unaccomplished scholar who has passed the county examination, a minor test that confers a modicum of reputation on the candidate. But Xu has dreams of becoming a famous official in the imperial bureaucracy and spends all his money preparing for and sitting the provincial examinations, which he always fails. Penniless, he takes a job at a private school to prepare students for the examination he himself has passed.

One day, Fast Knife Ma’s fantasies of slicing up his neighbor are interrupted by an imperial edict abolishing the national examination system and death sentence. Fast Knife immediately goes into a depression that is only alleviated when his wife, Zhi Zi-hua (梔子花), convinces him to begin a new, and to Ma, less honorable profession: that of a butcher.

At first, Ma finds his job boring — the squeals of the animals are no substitute for the screams of his former victims — but soon gains a certain degree of satisfaction through the process of removing flesh from bone. As Ma’s skills as a butcher improve, he draws the same crowds he did in his former incarnation as torturer and executioner.

With Ma’s newfound success he convinces Xu to quit his job as private tutor and become a butcher as well — an interesting social reversal because the butcher now becomes teacher to the scholar. Tension is also created because the audience is unsure whether Ma will skin his neighbor.

The play’s comic flavor is enhanced by Huang Hai-wei’s (黃海威) hand-carved wooden masks, which are inspired by the nuo (儺) masks of Sichuan Opera and Italian commmedia. With the exception of the scholar, executioner and his wife, all characters on the stage wear masks — another interesting reversal because in traditional Chinese theater only the lead characters on stage would wear masks.

But does the butcher end up living out his fantasies? You’ll have to watch the show to find out.