China ancient and modern

The transposition of Ray Huang’s novel ‘1587: A Year of No Significance’ to the stage shows that the political ideas expressed therein continue to resonate in contemporary Chinese historical thought

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 - Page 12

The Hong Kong theater group Zuni Icosahedron (進念二十面體) are no strangers to Taiwan, having brought their sophisticated and innovative productions here on many occasions to great critical and popular acclaim. As part of Hong Kong Week 2012 (香港週 2012), the company will bring over to Taiwan their production 1587: A Year of No Significance (萬曆十五年), which is based on a groundbreaking historical novel by Ray Huang (黃仁宇) first published in 1981.

Adapting a densely written historical novel that explores the court politics of the Ming dynasty is no easy task, and director Mathias Woo (胡恩威) said that the play as originally adapted by scriptwriter Zhang Jianwei (張建偉) would have taken between eight and 10 hours to perform. It was subsequently reduced to three hours.

“It is still a demanding play that requires a lot of attention from the audience,” Woo said of a work that takes in bureaucratic minutiae, structural inertia and the personalities of key individuals in exploring the rot that eventually destroyed the Ming dynasty.

Woo said that 30 years after it was published, the ideas expressed in Huang’s book are as pertinent as ever to those interested in the politics of modern China.

“Few books published in recent decades have had such a profound influence in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong,” he said. The fate of an autocratic government in which bureaucratic power games have nationwide consequences is something that the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong are still very much concerned about.

The title of the book, 1587: A Year of No Significance, is a reference to Huang’s ideas about macro history and the huge effects of small events that manifest themselves over long periods of time. It is significant that not much actually happened in 1587, but some relatively minor shifts in power politics and government policy sowed seeds that the book suggests were responsible for the collapse of a dynasty that had ruled China for nearly three centuries.

The play establishes six characters who provide what its effectively a series of monologues about their circumstances and the political gamesmanship in which they are involved.

“Unlike most history books which have a huge cast of characters, Huang takes just six interconnected people, but uses them to create six different perspectives on Ming dynasty politics. These six are all tragic characters, though in very different ways,” Woo said.

The Wanli emperor, who ruled from 1572 to 1620 — the longest reign of any Ming emperor — presided over the dynasty’s steady decline. He came to the throne at the age of nine, and in the year the novel is set, the Ming dynasty suffered from structural problems that these six characters sought to deal with in their own way, sometimes individually, sometimes in cooperation or in conflict with each other.

Although Zuni Icosahedron is modern, creating technologically complex contemporary productions, the style of presentation in this case is that of kun opera, a style performance then at the height of its popularity. The most famous kun opera, The Peony Pavillion was completed during the Wanli period, and expressed ideas about individual liberty that were considered extremely bold for the time. Segments from this opera are interspersed between the monologues, providing some much needed dynamism to the stage, but also underlining the mutual influences between the popular arts and power politics. Both the book and the play are at pains to present the idea of the complex interaction of multiple variables in the development of events.

“When we studied Chinese history, in Hong Kong at least, we often would categorize people and events as either good or bad. It was all black and white. We would rarely consider why something happened or why a certain person acted in the particular way,” Woo said.

The play has already proved popular in Hong Kong, especially among students despite is operatic staging. He said it was ironic, but after the transition to Chinese rule, students rarely have an opportunity to study Chinese history in school, and the insight provided by the play had been affirmed by a solid box office, with many performances packed with younger audiences.

Although 1587: A Year of No Significance is about events long past, the ideas it explores, not least the impact of a government system on individuals and the influence that powerful individuals can have on the system, sometimes unwittingly, is immensely attractive to those who don’t believe in a view of history more complex than the facing off between heroes and villains. Woo said that it reflects the world of modern Chinese politics, so much so that many commentators in Hong Kong sought to see the characters in the play as representations of contemporary political figures.