New play reveals struggles of ordinary craftsmen during late Qing

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-15 16:53:01

Performers rehearse a scene from The Archway on Monday. Photo: Xu Ming/ GT

Walking into Zhongshan Park near Tiananmen Square, the first thing to enter people's field of view is a tall decorated stone archway. Looking at the words "Protect Peace" near the top, visitors would probably never realize that the gate was created in memory of a dark period in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The gate's story is set to be told in an upcoming play at the Beijing People's Art Theatre: The Archway. Directed by veteran actor and director Yang Lixin, the play will present the tragedy surrounding the construction of a memorial archway that involved the shame of a country and the struggles of ordinary craftsmen with a life-and-death choice of whether they should build a monument meant to memorialize an invader. 

"It is a pity that so many people stand under that archway [taking pictures] without knowing its humiliating history. Our hope is that people will come to remember that period of history through our play," Yang said at a press conference for the play on Monday.

The humiliating history that Yang refers to stretches back to the origins of the "Protect Peace" gate, which actually was built as part of reparations the Qing government had to make to Germany after the former's loss to the Eight-Nation Alliance. Known then as the Ketteler Memorial, the archway memorialized the death of Clemens von Ketteler, a German envoy who was killed after attacking and killing Chinese civilians.

The play starts right after the decision to build the gate is made. The job of building this archway which symbolized the weakness of the Qing government and the humiliation of a nation falls on the Kuai family, who are known as the best builders of traditional architecture in the capital. This responsibility puts the family and its craftsmen in a position where they must make a difficult choice.

Tasked with a deadline, the family faces bankruptcy of their business and criminal punishment for the entire family if they refuse. However, as proud Chinese with a conscience, these ordinary craftsmen find building such a monument too humiliating. The inner struggles of these craftsmen - particularly that of Kuai Henian, the hero of the story - runs through the entire play.

Besides focusing on the inner struggle of individuals, the play also shows the conflict that occurs when external forces from the government meet the resistance from the craftsmen, as well as boasts layers of suspense such as how the craftsmen are eventually tricked to the construction site.

"It is a tragedy. The archway was eventually built, but the craftsmen were unwilling to do so. The struggle inside ordinary people, the feeling of disgrace they felt and their unwillingness, needs to be shown on stage," Yang explained.

By revealing the patriotism of ordinary Chinese, the play is also able to draw a vivid picture of the personal and work lives of traditional craftsmen in Beijing. Liu Jinyuan, the play's author, told media that he has nothing but respect and admiration for this group of people.

For him, the play is also about recording the rapidly disappearing face of old Beijing. Born in 1949 and a Beijing native, Liu has seen the beauty of old Beijing and has also witnessed the demolition of many traditional structures such as the city walls and the Yongding gate tower.

"It is one of the reasons I wrote the play, to memorialize old Beijing," Liu explained.

The archway mentioned in the play that now stands in Zhongshan Park is a marble stone piece of architecture weighing dozens of tons. It took more than a year for craftsmen to finish.

"It's hard to imagine how they could have finished it in that time, without equipment like trucks or cranes like we have today," Yang said.

Since the play focuses on the craftsmen industry, particularly the construction business, those who have seen rehearsals of the play have told Yang that it gave them a chance to learn about ancient architecture, something that Yang didn't expect.

"As Beijing culture fades and more and more ancient buildings disappear from our sight, I'm glad my play can have this effect," noted Yang.

The play is scheduled to open at the Capital Theatre on December 24.
Newspaper headline: Gateway to disgrace

Posted in: Theater

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