Zha Mingzhe in Conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Zha Mingzhe, the Director of China’s National Theatre, conveys warmth and genuineness one rarely finds in individuals who have touched the pinnacle of their profession. Born in 1954 to two medical doctors (“There are no artistic genes in my family”, he asserts), Mr. Zha learned early on to contemplate the complexities of human relationships as the Cultural Revolution churned through his young life. Later his studies in Russia, his exposure to the West, his knowledge of Chinese classics and his yearning for truth combined to produce a most productive and provocative artist working within the national system.

Sipping from the mocha served, he is totally engages in the conversation, looking from time to time at Olive the interpreter, to ensure his replies are accurately conveyed.

We met at a cafe near London Coliseum, where his production of the opera Thunderstorm had been staged.

RJ: Is Thunderstorm the first opera you have directed?

ZM: I’m the director of the Chinese National Theater. I have directed many plays. This opera would be the second one. I directed another opera for Liaoning Opera House in North China, in Liaoning Province. I also direct children’s plays and Chinese musicals.

RJ: How is directing opera different from directing theatrical drama?

ZM: Different genres have different characteristics and advantages. For instance, theatrical drama or stage plays would focus on your script, your text, and your words. And for opera, you would focus on the music and also the voice. For musicals movement and also songs would be their characteristic elements. For me, because I have directed so many different types of plays, I have advantages. On the one hand, I respect the characteristics of the different genres. On the other hand, I can blend some characteristics. For instance, even in opera, I use some of the theory from a play to teach the actor or actress how to express the emotions. And for theatrical drama, I may also borrow some elements from opera to stress some points by adding music to enhance the final result.

RJ: You studied for your Ph. D. in Russia. Is your work guided by Russian take on theatre?

ZM: I studied in Russia for four years. Inevitably I have been influenced by their culture and their theory. My mentor is also a very famous director in Moscow.

RJ: Who is he?

ZM: Mark Zakharov (Марк Захаров). I watched like five hundred plays in Russia. When I came back to China, I only brought back those programs, instructions, and my graduation certificate. That’s all. Five kilograms.

RJ: How much have Western directors influenced your work?

ZM: When I learned directing, it was also the time when China was opening up to learning more about Western culture. I learned Russian directing myself, but at the time the most influential directing thought was coming from the UK, the US, France, and Germany. Chinese audiences could read plays from all sorts of schools, and also all sorts of tapes and recordings of all sorts of books were coming to China. So I would also learn from those materials. I feel grateful for that “nutrition” if you like.

RJ: Am I right to note that in the staging of this production of Thunderstorm* actors are careful to mirror positions on the stage?

ZM: Because this play has a chorus, you need to display the chorus. You have to be balanced. Actually when they perform in Beijing, the stage is revolving. In terms of naturalism, I have a different opinion on that. When you look at the wall on the stage, it doesn’t go straight up.

RJ: It’s like a falling house; it’s symbolic.

ZM: Yes, symbolic, exactly. Especially in Act One, it has a very oppressed environment. You can almost see it in all those stairs, kind of like a circle that’s closing. Also two chairs, one table–in Chinese this expresses home.

RJ: And do the colours have any meaning?

ZM: In the production of this opera in China, the stage—actually the floor—is kind of glowing. There is a reflection of light. But in general the colours are very kind of boring in a way, to reflect the environment.

RJ: There is also a Doric column, more like Greek rather than Chinese architecture..

ZM: Yes, it’s very interesting that you touch upon that. The main character used to study overseas, so his taste needs to be reflected. So his house also needs to reflect his taste.

RJ: You directed Chinese Soldiers, about fighting fascism. Do you think that theatre is an important vehicle to promoting political views and a platform to promote nationalistic feelings?

ZM: I never select my plays based on that. I’m so amazed that you know I directed that play!

The play deals with the victory in the war against Japan. There is emphasis on the great contribution of the National party to the victory and not that of the Communist party. That fact had never been depicted in any form, before. So that’s a different context.

RJ: My question is whether you think, as a director, that National theatre should sometimes be used to promote a political issue?

ZM: Yes, of course.

RJ: Do you think that the theatre in China today is also a voice of criticism of what’s happening in the government and what’s happening in China, or not really?

ZM: You need to give voice; you need to express your voice about current issues, especially pressing social issues. In National Soldiers, there is a historical context here because, previously in terms of the Anti-Japan War, all the textbooks were about the Communist party fight against Japan. But actually in history the truth is that the National party, which is the dominant party in Taiwan in current times, played an important role. But for years people in mainland China wouldn’t talk about it. So again, this is not about nationalism. It’s about respect for the truth, respect for the history. And also it’s about the national spirit, because of this important timing…

RJ: The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war…

ZM: Yes, exactly. Everyone is kind of united. So I thought it would be more about national spirit, not nationalism. It’s about respecting the truth.

RJ: Historical truth?

ZM: Yes.

RJ: Who wrote the play?

ZM: I invited Zhe who currently leads the children’s performing art school. Zhe wrote it.

I think the value of theatre is really to use the artistic way to lead historical truth to reflect the progress of the human being, of society, of the nation, of all sorts of progress, to trace the path if you like. Another function of theatre is really the constant reflection of our life, of our history, of our future. Many Chinese theatrical works actually lacked that spirit for a long time.

RJ: Thunderstorm, the play, is also critical of the society of its time – 1933.

ZM: Yes, indeed.

RJ: During my last visit to China, in 2011, at a fringe theatre I saw a play called Ants. Excellent performance and despite the fact I could understand the words, it was clearly about fighting despotic ruler, against the regime. Among the ants, there were some who refused to work long hours for the Queen Ant. In a discussion with my hosts I was amazed by the blatant criticism of the Chinese government. Am I right to assume that the government permits freedom of speech in theatres?

ZM: Yes, indeed, we really need this critical thinking on humanity, on society, and not only following the policy. You have to have your independent opinion on life.

RJ: And the government is okay with it?

ZM: It has loosened up a little bit now, but there are still some restrictions. You have to figure out your way to express yourself.

RJ: The government would interfere if the play is too critical of the government?

ZM: Yes.

RJ: Is there a government censor who comes to see every play before it opens?

ZM: Yes, but it’s different from media. Organizations like the National Theatre Group, they are sort of like a state-owned theatre group, so obviously they would be censored by the government. But at the same time, there are so many independent artistic groups all over the country. How could you censor them? Because people love it, people will perform it. You cannot control that.

RJ: So you may be censored staging certain plays at the National Theatre but not in a fringe theatre?

ZM: Correct.

RJ: Plays about homosexuals. Are they staged in China?

ZM: Almost none.

RJ: Is it because of censorship, or is it because it’s not a popular subject?

ZM: For the LGBT group, actually it’s not about the policy of the government. It’s because Chinese society, the masses, are not quite ready for this. Although people have become more and more tolerant, compared to the West people impose self-restriction on this subject. For myself, I’d rather choose more powerful, more critical subjects to work on.

RJ: Such as?

ZM: For instance, before National Soldiers, I directed another play called Long Night. The focus is the peasants, the farmers, entering the big cities and the dramatic change in their lives. Because during urbanization, all the construction required those farmers to come to the city to do the work. And they suffered; they experienced a lot in terms of their right to leave, to have education, to have health care. Those are all kinds of physical conditions. But there wasn’t anyone taking care of their psychological or mental health needs. So I directed a play to reflect farmers’ confessions, the inner piece, their inner status. So this is also an important social issue that exists in China.

RJ: Dealing with the individual rather than society at large?

ZM: Yes, yes. Theatre is not only for reflection, for criticism; ultimately it’s toward humanity, towards your inner world, towards one’s soul. I have an interesting anecdote. This story has been spread around Chinese theatrical circles. When I graduated and had a conversation with my mentor, I asked the question “What kind of role or status does theatre play in Russian people’s minds?” My mentor went out of the building with me and pointed out the church not far away from us and said that theatre to Russian people is like church.

RJ: A form of religion?

ZM: Yes. I just felt so moved by my mentor’s words. Like church, theatre has this purifying function that allows you to regain power by leaving life. And in this way theatre is never out of date, because everyone needs that.

RJ: Does it have the same impact on the Chinese? Is theatre popular in China?

ZM: If the perception of theatre among the Russian people is like church culture, the Chinese perception of theatre is a bit more like playground culture. It’s not about purifying. It’s about everyone enjoying, having fun; you can have food…

It’s very down to earth. It’s very not like church feeling. But again, the reflection on the basic values that theatre can bring, also influences me and all these theatre professionals and gradually, by our practice, we are trying to bring out that kind of function.

RJ: To challenge the people?

ZM: Exactly. And in big cities, more and more, people have begun to realize the value.

RJ: Is Thunderstorm popular in China?

ZM: Actually Thunderstorm got a very good reception. Because, firstly, China has a large population, like 1.54 billion. So among this there must be some audience who would appreciate this, for instance, the intellectuals, highly educated people, or art lovers, culture lovers. Secondly, because Thunderstorm is based on a classical novel, the story is well known. This is a very attractive text in itself.

RJ: Did you ever direct Thunderstorm the play?

ZM: I haven’t directed Thunderstorm as a theatrical play, but I was an actor in it! I played the second son… Forty years ago! Because of our good performance–we performed in Anhui Actually our group was the first to perform Thunderstorm after the Cultural Revolution.

RJ: So what year was that?

ZM: 1976.

RJ: Did you always like acting?

ZM: Yes. Because of my experience of being an actor, as a director I know very well how an actor would likely react.

RJ: Which Western plays are popular in China?

ZM: Shakespeare, classics. Every year they perform Shakespeare’s works.

RJ: At the National Theatre?

ZM: Yes. And Ibsen. We performed his plays as well.

RJ: Do you feel more comfortable directing Chinese plays, or Shakespeare?

ZM: After I came back from Russia, I actually directed a lot of foreign plays that I liked because of my study overseas, like Sartre the French existentialist ‘No Exit’ and also some Russian plays. After this five- or six-year practice in foreign play directing, I transferred to directing original plays, not based on classics.

Other members of the cast joined us for coffee, providing a delightful opportunity for me to get to know this talented young troupe.

* Leiyu (雷雨》”Thunderstorm”) is a 2001 Chinese-language western-style opera by Hangzhou-born composer Mo Fan based on a play by Cao Yu. 

Read the Thunderstorm review here.