To write Heavenly Dynasty Upper Nation, Li returned to those lanes and talked with old people living there.
"I read many books about that history and felt unable to release myself from the stories. Therefore I decided to write my own novel about that time."
Born in 1948 in southern Beijing's Luoquan Hutong, Li identifies with ordinary Beijingers living in small lanes. His best-known work, Xiaojing Lane, which was adapted into a five-act play in 1985, portrays people's lives in Xiaojing Lane from 1949 to 1980, offering insight into the changing attitudes and relationships during years of instability and chaos.
"Beijing's history can be touched in the southern lanes. The southern part of the city is a huge museum. Every house tells a story and many details in my novel come from there," Li says.
The sheer scope of Li's novel means that it's a big challenge to adapt for the stage.
Director Yin Li shows the assassination of the German ambassador as the core event leading to the invasion. Two of the leading characters: Qinpu (played by Chen Jianbin) and Enhai (Ni Dahong), both junior officers in the Qing army, initially claim to be the assassin but then deny responsibility when the government pledges to execute the man responsible.
Qinpu and his father (Han Tongsheng) represent the idle Manchus. They enjoy raising birds, watching and singing Peking Opera and smoking opium. Enhai is a nobody who loves pigeons.
Other main characters include Na Laoda (Ma Shuliang) who does everything for money, flatters the foreigners and helps them to suppress the Chinese people; the Manchu noble Master Wen (Niu Piao) who despises the foreigners, telling them China is "the kingdom in the center of the world", declaring that "Chinese were the first people to use paper and invented printing, silk weaving, gunpowder, reading glasses, the magnetic compass and the suspension bridge."
As a veteran movie and TV director, Yin takes an unconventional approach to the 145-minute play. The three-level block-bracket structure divides the stage into more than a dozen spaces where different players perform.