What treasures I’m finding on my TBR shelves! This is a play purchased prior to my trip to China. It never got read and sat on the shelf for about 10 years. I read it now and I read the introduction and checked some info about Lao She on the net (not much there).
The play itself is a statement on the first half of 20th century history and culture of China and it all takes place in a traditional teahouse in Bejing. The first act is set in 1898 when the teahouse’s new owner is in his early 20s. The imperialism of the West is taking its toll and the Qing Emperor is cracking down as a few people are trying for reform. The characters include Wang Lifa (the owner) and a wide variety of other “types” – opium addicts, peasants, gang members, a palace eunuch, a woman trying to sell her small daughter, the daughter, police, etc. a government thug, etc. The point is they are all very poor, except the owner and the eunuch, and trouble is brewing for the whole country.
Act 2 takes place about 20 years later, after the Republic is in place, but a civil war is going on among the war-lords. The various characters in this act show that the population is even poorer and more frightened. Wang Lifa still owns the teahouse but the customers have changed – there is a lot less camaraderie and chit-chat.
Act 3 is right after WWII but before the Communist take-over. Again the country is thrown into Civil War but the people are now even more weakened and destitute – the Communist revolution can be foretold here.
The book is incredible but very difficult because of all the characters – there are over 70, I think. I did well to keep track of Wang Lifa who is in all the Acts, as well as Soothsayer – an opium addict – and Pockface – a flesh peddler who continued in Act 2 and Kang Sunzi – a girl sold to the eunuch – who is in all acts. The police agents were pretty obvious but changed in each act.
It took me awhile to figure it out but the point is not to keep the characters straight, but to show the range of character types and their deepening frustration and poverty as well as the continuing corruption of the changing power-players.
I would love to study this play – see it performed –