< SWITCH ME >
|Written by Ana Cosmina Cretu|
In this new column, we look at places which are "inside out" - where Europe suddenly pops up in a non-European country, or where we find ourselves in a corner of Europe which feels more like China or India. In the second instalment, Ana Cretu tells how she discovered the meaning of a German play when it was performed by Chinese students...
A famous german dramatist takes a trip to china
It's Christmas Eve, and the students of Fudan University are drawing inspiration from the reservoir of German literature. The audience watches as shadows appear on a screen, showing the encounter of two lovers who start dancing to Chopin's Nocturnes. The auditorium finds itself in the darkness, waiting eagerly to discover the mystery unveiling itself in front of them. At last, words are uttered in a strange German, with an unfamiliar Chinese accent. The Chinese subtitles are projected with the help of a screen for the spectators who don't understand German. Written in the 18th century, Schiller's play Kabale und Liebe might seem culturally distant from modern China. However, it actually has a surprising relevance.
Since the renewal politics of "Opening Up," first introduced by the revolutionary Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the political agenda has pursued any strategy to secure financial benefits, and the lives of millions of Chinese people have been affected by economic liberalisation and modernisation. Do love and eroticism become marketised in such an era of liberalisation? It's an issue worth debating. Men's magazines and dancing clubs, Karaoke meeting rooms and brothels and marriage markets are clear examples of such a trend.
From another perspective, more young women dream of marrying wealthy young men, even if they are arrogant and not perfect gentlemen. In the last thirty years, marriage has become a frustrating experience for the majority of Chinese people. This is partly because men are often only entitled to marry their chosen woman only at the point when they can afford a house or flat and a good job - at least equal to that of their partner. Transitory relationships are still banned by the older generations, so that free love is born out of a feeling of promiscuity and discouragement. So then, these tendencies raise the question of whether free love is still free within the incentives of capitalism.
Torn apart by conflicting social principles, young people still have the chance to dream of a happy unobstructed future, in which love will play the major role. Still inexperienced, but growing up with the pressure to acquire the necessary skills for a future competitive "sea of capitalism" in which they will learn to "swim", the Chinese students at Fudan University struggle to learn a foreign language with the perspective of a brighter future. This effort can be seen in their performance of Kabale und Liebe. How does the Chinese readership understand the cultural principles of 18th century Germany in a contemporary context and are there any parallels to the recent rise of capitalism in China? These are questions rising in my mind during the preparations and rehearsals for the play: I am supervising the play as an intern of the German department and giving advice and recommendations to the actors. The main goal is try to convey some current topics which will help the young people identify with the play. And since I find myself in a world city with a multicultural life, there is also the question: how can we achieve the principle of "togetherness", since this play is about coming together, the birth of individual free love. Is "togetherness" equal to free choice?
In the play, the star-crossed lovers Ferdinand and Luise originate from different social strata, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, something similar to - if we were to transpose them in the contemporary China - the poor and the "nouveaux riches" who offer examples of conspicuous consumption and arrogance. Just as the aristocracy used to look down on the bourgeoisie, there are huge discrepancies between today's poor majority in China and the privileged few, who don't bother to obey the same rules. Even if it does end tragically, the love between Luise and Ferdinand is a triumph of individual freedom over social and family restraints and the machinations of those who are in power.
The young Chinese actors seem to like this thought and to be touched by it, identifying with the characters in the play much more easily than I would have thought, and the language borders seem to disappear. Although they initially need my help to understand the emotions implied by the old German language used by Schiller, as soon as I explained to them, they could make connections between their lives and the play and finally convey the right ideas to the public. In this case, individual choice and free love utilise a universal language. Challenging my initial fear of misunderstandings, there emerges an astonishing and surprising similarity of principles between the imaginary realm of the play and the real contemporary world of China. Whether the problems of social differences will disappear in China and whether free love will play a more important role, only time will tell. At the moment, in a time of corruption and social inequality, "Kabale und Liebe" still expresses ideas which are of great importance for the future of Chinese society.
Ana Cosmina Cretu is a student at the University of Constance, Germany. As a part of the Masters programme "Studies in European Culture" she spent a semester in Shanghai, China.
Cover photograph by Kakouris Spyridon