- Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage During China’s Revolution and Reform
To his international audience, the Chinese actor Ying Ruocheng (1929–2003) was best known for his [End Page 507] screen roles as Kublai Khan in Marco Polo, governor of the prison in The Last Emperor, and Lama Norbu in Little Buddha. To his Chinese fans, Ying was a renaissance man—actor, director, translator, cultural ambassador, and vice minister of culture. As one of the founding actors of China’s most prominent spoken-drama theatre, the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (established in 1950), Ying created a number of memorable roles. However, Ying’s greater contribution to Chinese art and theatre started in the early 1980s when his acting, language, and diplomatic skills helped reconnect modern Chinese theatre to the West after three decades of isolation. His legendary work includes translating and directing several Western plays, as well as bringing Western productions and directors to China. The most significant was the production in 1983 in Beijing of Death of a Salesman directed by Arthur Miller and translated by Ying, who also played Willy Loman. Additionally, Ying taught and directed several Chinese plays in a number of universities in the United States and served, between 1987 and 1990, as China’s vice minister of culture.
Ying’s remarkable life and career are retold in Voices Carry, a “collaborative autobiography” by Ying and Claire Conceison, who carried the project to fruition after Ying died in 2003. The book has a unique format in which Ying’s story is told in the first person in six chapters, supplemented by Conceison’s introduction, epilogue, and notes. According to the introduction, the chapters are all in Ying’s own words, mostly from their taped conversations in English during his final years. Occasionally, Ying’s words are supplemented—with his approval and clearly noted—with his published writings and interviews. The six chapters are divided into three parts, with two chapters in each. The first part, “The Adventures of Prison Life,” includes “My First Year behind Bars” and “The Prison at Jixian.” In these chapters, Ying details his three years (1968–71) as a prisoner during the Cultural Revolution. We learn from the introduction that it was Ying’s decision to start the book with this most memorable episode of his life, and here we are introduced to an unrelenting creative spirit determined to get the most out of life even when behind bars or inside labor camps. In part 2, “Family History and Early Education,” Ying focuses on his family background and upbringing. In chapter 3, “The Ying Legacy,” he proudly traces the significant roles his grandfather and father played in shaping the modern Chinese cultural and educational landscape. In chapter 4, “A Princely Childhood,” he focuses on his highly colorful childhood up to his graduation from an all-English church school. The final third of the book is devoted to his “Professional Life in Arts and Politics,” including “My Stage Career” in the Beijing People’s Art Theatre and “Cultural Diplomacy” during the 1980s and ’90s. This section is filled with an insider’s knowledge of the modern Chinese theatre since 1950. One such example is the revelation that Ying first read Death of a Salesman and Major Barbara as a student at Qinghua University in 1950, but, given China’s anti-Western policies from 1949 to the late 1970s, could not translate and stage them for more than three decades—a reminder of modern Chinese theatre’s long isolation from the West.
Throughout the chapters, Ying’s vitality, ingenuity, humor, and creativity as an artist and as a larger-than-life character are in full display, making the book a great joy to read. At the same time, I can’t help but wish it contained much more information on the last two decades of his career—the defining moments of his legacy. For me, the final third of the book is the most fascinating as it...