Before I took my seat at the Shanghai Theatre Academy for a performance of The Face of Chiang Kai-shek, I was aware that the play was written by a student of drama and movie arts at Nanjing University and that it had become a phenomenon among the Chinese intelligentsia. But I wanted to reserve judgement and not have my experience coloured by others’ opinions.
After two hours during which I joined the audience in silence, laughter and rounds of applause, I was convinced of the work’s importance.
The key event takes place in 1943 in Chongqing, China’s wartime capital during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937‑45). Three professors have received invitations to attend a New Year’s Eve dinner with Chiang Kai-shek, the generalissimo of the Kuomintang-led Republic of China and president of National Central University (the precursor of Nanjing University, which took its present name in 1950 after the People’s Republic of China was founded).
The scholars engage in a profound debate that is rooted in their different political perspectives and their calculations of what they may gain or lose from accepting or refusing the invitation. Shi Rendao opposes Chiang’s dictatorship and condemns his slaughter of a student in a demonstration, but the liberal-minded academic wants a big favour: for Chiang to ship back a precious collection of books the professor left behind when the university retreated from Nanjing to Chongqing. Much less political is Xia Xiaoshan, the second professor, although he is no fan of Chiang, either. He is, however, a gourmet, and he has learned that a special dish of stewed tofu with ham will be served at the dinner. Bian Congzhou, the third academic, supports Chiang and his rule and intends to accept the invitation, but he is concerned about what his peers will think of him.
The play then jumps forward 23 years to a time when the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) is under way and academics are being criticised and persecuted. In Nanjing, the men look back on their debate and find that each has a different recollection of who wanted to accept the invitation and why.
Wen Fangyi spent eight months writing the play, which began as an assignment set by her tutor. She has explained that her interest was to explore the “permanent spiritual dilemma of intelligentsia” – namely, how a scholar can remain an independent, critical thinker while navigating daily life, shouldering social responsibility and keeping a delicate distance from politics and politicians.
Many people have drawn parallels between the play and China’s contemporary academy. That could explain why Ms Wen’s work became such a huge success after it made its debut in May 2012 to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Nanjing University. After being staged 30 times on campus, it embarked on a national tour this year – the performance I attended last week was its 73rd.
For Ms Wen, the success of the play did not tempt her to leap into a professional writing career. She chose to continue graduate study at Nanjing for three more years. As the representative of undergraduate students, she gave a speech at the graduation ceremony and admitted frankly that she worries if her alma mater will be proud of her in the future. “Will I be famous? Can I make huge money and donate a building to Nanjing University? [Can I] become a prestigious scholar? How many of us can make it?”
It sounds like she is wrestling with dilemmas similar to the ones that the characters in her play have to confront.