Sunday, June 17th 2001
Life section

A Lesson learned

SO THERE I was, admiring my boots, when my editor came in and said: ""Goodness, you're working too hard.''

 You aren't young anymore, the wang jin shi dai is behind you (did he mean over-the-hill?) and so don't kill yourself on the job, he said. Go and enjoy Shang Yang, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre's production, he suggested.

The production, first staged in 1996, had won a string of awards in China and performed to packed houses across the country. Chinese economic czar and ardent reformer Zhu Rongji was reportedly moved to tears by the show.

Now, isn't my boss just the best in the world?

To further ""incentivise'' me, he said he would do a wu ma fen shi on me if I did not heed his advice.

Wu ma fen shi was this very ingenious way to get rid of a pest before Baygon came on the market. It was Shang Yang, the Legalist reformer of the state of Qin

during the Warring States period (475 BC-221 BC), who came up with it in his harsh penal code. Basically, you have the transgressor of the law tied to five horses at his limbs and his head, and then spur the horses to gallop in five different directions. Ouch!

My colleague Clarissa Oon had given the drama a less than favourable review, and I had been responsible for that more than insensitive (though, I must say, clever) headline, ""Neigh, a letdown'', so I wasn't expecting an epiphany when I ventured into Kallang Theatre on Wednesday.

But I must report that the two-and-a-half-hour epic engaged me as much as the 1996 Zhou Xiaowen movie, The Emperor's Shadow, which stars Jiang Wen and Ge You, about China's first emperor Ying Cheng, who unified the country's warring states.

For those of you who do not know, Ying Cheng was from the kingdom of Qin, and he could succeed in conquering all the other kingdoms only because Shang Yang, just a generation before him, had introduced a whole slew of reforms which transformed what was really a marginal, half-barbarious state (it had a fair number of Turks and Tibetans) into one that was the most powerful.

As a reviewer, Clarissa must obviously concern herself with the stage craft when she critiqued the production. So, she gave minus points to the didactic script, written 10 years ago by the Nanjing playwright Yao Yu an, the broad brushstrokes with which the story was told, and a declamatory reading by the cast that was far too loud for someone like her who prefers things being more subtle.

Her judgement was that the play didn't deliver more than what one could get from the history books.

Since I was on strict orders to enjoy myself, I had the luxury of being absorbed by the ""state-craft'' that is the heart of the play, as opposed to the stage craft.

As portrayed in the play, Shang Yang is a man who sees himself driven by a sense of destiny, and who will stop at nothing to achieve what the heavens have decreed is his duty.

At a time when the warring states are still very much governed by the Confucianistic li (rites), and people are divided into classes - junzi or noblemen and scholars; xiaoren (lesser folks) and slaves - he introduces fa, or law, from which no class is exempt.

He introduces a system of rewards and harsh punishment, and is not averse to taking away the titles from noblemen if they do not contribute to society, and to reward slaves who do so, whether as farmers or soldiers.

It's not in the play but, by the way, Shang Yang recognises, too, the importance of foreign talent. He encourages talented people from other kingdoms to join his administration, and exempts foreigners from taxes and conscription if they are prepared to work on virgin farm lands in Qin. In that way, he further strengthens Qin, which is ruled by Duke Xiao.

To make sure that the reforms he pushes for work, he has to set examples even among his benefactors and friends, whom he cannot show any mercy or make an exception for.

But Shang Yang is not above applying double standards, when it comes to his boss. When the duke's son creates a hysterical scene at the official ceremony in which his planned reforms are to be announced by the duke, he fails in a test of his integrity when he lets the prince off, although the latter should be punished, and metes out punishment instead to the prince's tutor and the astrologer who, he says, has obviously picked the wrong auspicious date for the ceremony.

This, I'm sure, the Chinese audiences could relate to, for despite the tough measures against corruption ordered by Zhu Rongji, some princelings are still seen getting away with their misdemeanours.

Like any radical reformer, Shang Yang has to fight ceaselessly against the old guard who want to preserve the status quo. This must have been what drove Zhu to tears, I ventured in a heated discussion with my colleagues the next day. Heated, because while I enjoyed the play, they all hated it and made no bones about it. 

A younger colleague suggested wryly instead that Zhu might have cried at the scene towards the end of the play, when he heard the prince's tutor, who earlier had his foot chopped off as punishment, declaiming, ""Shang Yang's reforms must stay, but Shang Yang the man must go!'' 

I enjoyed the play because I'm a sucker for stories about men who are torn between causes larger than themselves and the emotional pulls of their more intimate relationships, whether those of family ties or lovers or friends. 

Zaobao's review on Friday said the play failed because the script lacked the necessary emotional dimension, and although it may not have set out to serve politics, it ended up doing so. Its subtext of the need for reform to be carried out in China is clearly underlined, I must agree. 

The salutary lesson for me is that I shouldn't be holing up in the office admiring my Helmut Lang boots when I'm sending the troops out to the trenches in their Doc Martens. I've got to go down to the trenches myself some of the time, even if the wang jin shi dai (golden era) is behind me, so that I can actually have some real fun.

And for that, I've got my boss to thank. I believe he's going to catch a show or two himself this week.


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