- Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage During China's Revolution and Reform
Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage During China's Revolution and Reform is an entrancing volume on the life of Ying Ruocheng (1929-2003), an actor, director, and translator of major importance in China. Begun as a joint project between Ying and theatre scholar Claire Conceison and completed by Conceison after Ying's death, this "collaborative autobiography" offers a unique format for combining the autobiographical subject's own perspective and personality with that of the scholar-biographer. On the surface, the book's research methodology seems simple: over a period of several years, Conceison recorded Ying speaking about his life in English, and then transcribed and edited the interviews. However, just as a talented performer makes the most complex techniques seem effortless, Conceison has meticulously researched and skillfully co-written a multivocal volume on a great theatre artist of 20th-century China. Voices Carry offers a scholarly account of Ying's life that vividly captures the spontaneous joy of his personality.
Ying's voice forms the core of this volume, while Conceison's writing serves as the frame. Conceison begins with an introduction to Ying's life and to the methodology of collaborative autobiography. She concludes with an epilogue recounting Ying's death, a timeline of key Ying family events, a Ying family tree, 36 pages of endnotes, a multilingual bibliography, and a detailed index. In between are six chapters in Ying's voice, divided into three sections: "Part I: The Adventures of Prison Life," on his arrest and imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution; "Part II: Family History and Early Education," on growing up in a prominent family during China's early modern era; and "Part III: Professional Life in Arts and Politics," recounting his work in theatre and, later, in film, both at home and abroad. For many of the theatre productions, Voices Carry offers the first opportunity for English-language readers to hear an inside perspective. Even for more widely documented events like Arthur Miller's 1983 Beijing production of Death of a Salesman, in which Ying played Willy Loman, Ying's unique [End Page 231] vantage point offers new information and insights. The book also contains 12 pages of personal photographs, including several from Ying's stage and film work.
Conceison's framing elements provide valuable information that will help the reader understand Ying's life in its proper context. A good example is Ying's work as an informant for the Chinese Communist Party, submitting regular reports on his numerous foreign contacts in China. Conceison clearly articulates Ying's rationale for excluding those episodes from his narrative, as well as her own rationale for including them. Besides providing historical background for those unfamiliar with Chinese history, Conceison's extensive endnotes also offer enriching alternative accounts of Ying's stories, as told to her by other members of his family. Since Ying's own account remains uninterrupted, his voice emerges authentically, and one can even sense his declining health as his narrative nears its end. While earlier chapters are more linear, later ones jump from story to story, thus conveying the atmosphere of sitting in Ying's Beijing hospital room as this captivating individual recounts stories from his life in the manner of his own choosing.
Readers from the field of theatre may feel that Ying waits too long to get to his theatre work, but I believe that Ying's prioritization aptly reflects artistic development in 20th-century China. Without an understanding of the political turbulence that repeatedly engulfed Chinese theatre artists during this period, it is impossible to contextualize the achievements and limitations of modern Chinese drama. Ying's life exemplifies this point: although his achievements were tremendous, one cannot help but wonder how many more great performances he might have given had imprisonment and other political misfortunes not repeatedly interrupted his career.
For readers unfamiliar with the history of the...