Yang Jiang in the United States: a new stage of Sino-US cultural dialogue
On April 14 to 18, Chinese writer Yang Jiang's novel "Windswept Blossoms" (Fengxu) was staged at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas, to big turnouts and enthusiastic responses.
The play is about the tragic experiences with love, marriage, and idealism for social reform of three young characters.
Written in the 1940's, this seemingly ordinary love story reflects not only the harsh reality but also the spiritual and emotional dilemmas of that historical period.
Played by Anne Marie Carroll, Ben Husmann and Tim Stoppelman respectively, the main characters, Shen Huilian, Fang Jingshan and Tang Shuyuan, all have dreams of social improvement and progress.
Their colourful dreams, however, turn out to be nothing but sheer nightmares. Their admirable efforts only accelerate their tragic confrontation with a relentless reality. The idealistic Fang is jailed for no good reason. Emotionally bankrupted, Shen shoots herself. The honest and good-hearted Tang carries on a routine life that he can never enjoy.
The play was translated by Professor Edward M. Gunn with the English Department of Cornell University.
Except for some child actors, mostly sons and daughters of faculty members selected through open auditions, all the parts were played by students.
The play was staged to celebrate the 10th National Annual Conference of Asian Studies Programmes, a crucial arena for cross-cultural dialogue under the joint stewardship of the East-West Centre of Hawaii and the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
As its major mid-American regional centre, Johnson County Community College hosted the annual national conference this year.
The college is reputed for its devotion to and accomplishments in internationalization of its curriculum with a special focus on Asian studies.
With its first-class theatrical facility, one of the best in the region, the play is part of a regular curriculum for theatrical education and training as well as for general liberal arts education.
The play's director, Sheilah Philip-Bradfield, a student and assistant of Gunn who worked with late Chinese actor, translator and Vice Minister of Culture Ying Ruocheng (1929-2003) at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ying went to Missouri in 1982 to direct his rendering of Cao Yu's work "The Family" (Jia).
Staging "Windswept Blossoms" is Philip-Bradfield's second attempt to bring a Chinese play alive for a US audience. Initially, she wanted to stage Ying's rendition of "The Family."
Dealing with drastic budget cuts, the school decided to stage "Windswept Blossoms" for its relatively smaller cast and lower production cost.
Everyone involved worked hard for seven weeks. The youngest actress was only 5. The oldest was in her 60s.
The cultural differences between China and the United States are huge, but everybody in the production team began to understand the play as well as the cultural and historical context behind the story through the production process.
For Philip-Bradfield, it was hard to find "the balance between what one might call 'truly' Chinese behaviour for the characters and what (she) know(s) would best communicate to Western audiences."
But she ultimately "found a workable balance."
"Getting a quick 'nuts and bolts' of Chinese culture was definitely an enjoyable part of the process," says Stoppelmann, who played Tang Shuyuan. "But as any actor will tell you, getting up and trying to live the role is much more rewarding and exciting."
Even though he is not sure how successful he was because he "never truly felt 'Chinese,'" Stoppelmann hoped that he "brought some kind of honesty and dignity to the role of Tang Shuyuan, an 'honest, thoughtful person.'"
In fact, he did.
As the cultural consultant or "dramaturgical assistant" for the play, I observed firsthand, while lecturing the whole production team on Chinese culture and history, how each individual involved grew steadily more acquainted - and in some cases fascinated - with Chinese culture in general and the play in particular.
From them, I have also learned how mutual understanding and respect between two different cultures, such as those of the United States and China, can be achieved through sincere intentions and hard work.
"There is, indeed, so much that US students can do to promote cultural dialogue and mutual understanding between the United States and China, because they can learn so much, so quick, and in such a short time as seven weeks - from scratch!" commented Li Yunping, an exchange student from Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi'an of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
Li helped cover one session on the contemporary social status of women during a two-week intensive lecture series.
As a student of late professor Qian Yuan (1937-1997, Yang Jiang's daughter) at Beijing Normal University, and a devout reader of Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998) and Yang Jiang (1911-), I was deeply touched to see how "Windswept Blossoms" was staged in America through all these sincere efforts of my colleagues and students.
Written in the 1940's, "Windswept Blossoms" still contributes significantly to the indispensable cultural dialogue between the United States and China.
Dedicated to Doreen Maronde, retiring Assistant Dean of Arts and Humanities, a staunch supporter of internationalization of the curricula for cross-cultural dialogue, and to Ying Ruocheng, the production of "Windswept Blossoms" becomes, for Philip-Bradfield, one of the most significant ways to honour "the memory of (her) former teacher, director, mentor... and his wife, Wu Shiliang, with great respect and fondness."
It is because, as she emphasizes, "the learning experience for our student actors was just the kind of cross-cultural dialogue that Ying would have appreciated."
The author is an associate professor of Humanities with the Department of Humanities at the Johnson County Community College.