Arts, Culture & Media

From Mao's Prison to Playing Willy Loman

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The great Chinese actor Ying Ruocheng emerged from Communist imprisonment  to translate Bob Hope’s act in Beijing and to convince Arthur Miller to bring Death of a Salesman to China; he played Willy Loman under the direction of Miller. He is best known to American audiences as the prison guard in "The Last Emperor," and at the Tibeten Monk in "Little Buddha."

He was the descendant of illiterate Manchu warriors and his story is a complicated one.  His father became a national hero for resisting the Japanese, and then an outcast when the Communists took over.  Cheng himself was mysteriously imprisoned by Mao for what he was not sure.  Later, he spied on his American friends at the request of his country.  

Claire Conceison, who collaborated with Ying on his just released autobiography, “Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage During China’s Cultural Revolution and Reform.” Conceison is associate professor of Drama at Tufts University and Research Associate at Harvard’s Fairbanks Center.

Conceison chose to leave some things out of the book, including most of his espionage.  She says that there is a great deal of complexity in that era of Communist-state-sponsored espionage in China.  "You really have to understand the complex political situation in China at the time to know how real love for foreign friends and duty to your government could co-exist in this way."

Ying's imprisonment served to inform his acting, especially in his prison governor role in "The Last Emperor."  Conceison says, "It was really something that he had lived through and understood.

"What is really brilliant about the way Ying Ruocheng decided to structure his autobiography is beginning with this experience of three years in prison, and then flashing back to his grandfather's childhood, his father's life, and his own life.  Because, when you get to know Ying Ruocheng as a child, after you've experienced him as a prisoner, you learn about the things he did as a child: the pranks, the getting kicked out of missionary schools, that led to this kind of joy for life, but also this clever survival instinct that helped him get through the prison experience.

"Ying's famliy was quite exceptional -- they went from being illiterate Manchu warriors to his grandfather becoming a leading Catholic intellectual, founding a Catholic university and a free press, a newspaper in Tianjin.  Ying Ruocheng really felt the responsibility of carrying on this legacy of his father and his gradfather." 

Ying Ruocheng had to convince Arthur Miller, then a tourist in China, to stage "Death of a Salesman."  Conceison says, "Originally Arthur Miller wanted to stage "The Crucible" because he felt it had echoes of the experience of the Cultural Revolution.  But, Ying Ruocheng, for two reasons, wanted to 'Death of a Salesman.'"

The first reason was a college-era reading of the play that started a dream of staging it.  Second, he felt that while "The Crucible" a good choice, the Chinese audience needed , as Conceison says, "A new way of looking at the human experience."

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