LAO SHE — TEAHOUSE — JOHN HOWARD-GIBBON — 1957–2013
One of the strangest plays we can imagine because it deals with China and for us, westerners, China is the other end of the universe. It has three acts, one in 1898. The second ten years later hence in 1908 or so, and the third one after 1945 but under the Kuomintang government. The scene is in the Teahouse in Beijing all the time. At first we are at the end of the Imperial China with the Empire going out, meaning down, and the Emperor being pushed aside out of power. The reformist party takes over and in the second act we have the republican power. This will not change much at the end after the Japanese occupation and defeat when Beijing is under the control of the Kuomintang and the quasi occupation of the country by Americans. The hope everyone is waiting for (either as a frightful future for the Kuomintang officials, or some hope of decency among simple people) is coming from the western provinces and mountains and will take four years to arrive, but they will arrive indeed, the Communists.
As for the historical change from 1898 to 1945 the play is not that original. But it is fascinating because it is tremendously Brechtian in the fact it concentrates on simple people and how they feel, react and simply suffer in front of change. Yet they have to endorse it because life is change. The main character is typical. Hardly 20 in 1898, taking over the Teahouse from his dead father he follows the trend and changes and he will change all along because nothing can be successful if it does not change.
His point of view, his vision of successive periods of change and what they mean, including the shift from the older generation to the younger generation, at times twice removed, is sad, very sad. Change most of the time meant takeover, from the old proprietors, the old people, to the newcomers. In 1898 it meant getting rid of the Empire and its systematic selling and buying of girls and boys as anything at all and a plain banal practice, for the rich and the powerful who could buy a wife, when a eunuch, and even buy a son. Absurd world where a eunuch can buy himself a family, since he can’t make it himself, or shouldn’t I say “it”self. In 1908 it meant industrialization and the enthusiasm it may bring to the younger generation then who are able to sell all their property that brought no real enterprising benefits to open a factory. But that change did not go beyond this limited evolution and it required a lot of corruption and under the table or under the cover dealings.
In 1945 the picture has changed. The Japanese had taken over and occupied the country for many years. They had purely seized all property that could produce anything and had integrated these requisitioned properties into their industrial endeavor whose only objective was the war with the USA. The Japanese were defeated and the Americans took over under the semblance of the Kuomintang. That meant transforming the Teahouse into a brothel more than anything else, with charming names on the ladies and the place, for the sole entertaining of the powerful of the Kuomintang and the occupying Americans and their puppets. All those opposed were either sent to prison or beaten up. A teachers’ strike is declared a rebellion and repressed in blood and violence. The ringleaders, as they are called are simply killed on the spot when captured, in the most effective and rapid way possible.
All those who are against this evolution which is no reform but the continuation of the Japanese endeavor under the star-spangled banner and their local lackeys, their hope is the communists in the western mountains. And to symbolize how dead this old new world is, the younger man who was taking over the Teahouse after the death of his father in 1898 just hang himself before his Teahouse is seized by the Kuomintang and he himself is reduced to being a doorman in his own Teahouse. He can hang himself because all the members of his family have left and are on the way to the Western Mountains, hence to the communists.
That’s probably what people like Trump and his supporters who voted for him, as well as those who voted not for Clinton but against Trump, will never understand. China is not about the first or the second amendment of the US Constitution, but it is about millennia (not centuries) of exploitation in China itself by various political systems and success in global commerce represented by the famous Silk Roads finally discovered by Marco Polo (1271–1368), which meant that the western world limited to Europe at the time finally came to realizing China was the real global power Europe and then the West tried to become after the discovery of the Americas (1492) and the re-invention of slavery by the Portuguese around 1450 in Africa from Western Africa to Congo, Angola, Mozambique and eastern Africa, plus India on the other side of the Indian Ocean. And China was already a very wide empire long before even Homer and Aeschylus were even born, not to mention Plato and Aristotle, the fanatic supporters of slave societies.
Unluckily this play will not be understood by Westerners, especially narrow-minded people like those I have just mentioned, because they think they are hot hamburgers and hotdogs all over and that anyone and everything that is not in their direct mental and geographical territory is nothing but swampy water and rotting mud. Waking up will be difficult and I just hope they do not start throwing their atomic bonbons on us before dying out.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU