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Witness to the times

Posted by pakin On July - 23 - 2015

A new translation of Lao She’s Play “Teahouse” paints a vivid picture of China between 1898 and 1949

AN ACCOMPLISHED SCIENTIST, musician, artist, writer and translator, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is once again demonstrating her linguistic talents with the launch of “Teahouse: A Play in Three Acts”, a translation of the drama penned by the noted Chinese novelist and dramatist Lao She.

At Siam Paragon last week to preside over the opening of exhibitions “HRH Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s Studies of China”, and “The Teahouse and the Chinese Way of Life”, the Princess spoke a little about her latest oeuvre, which is published by Nanmeebooks.

Writing in Chinese and translating it into Thai has long been a passion of the Princess, who currently has 13 books and 12 translations of novels, poems, and documentaries to her credit.

Divided into three acts, “Teahouse” is told through a cast of more than 60 characters who frequent the ancient Beijing teahouse known as Yu Tai from the end of Qing Dynasty to the 1940s. During these 50 years, Chinese society was in turmoil, its people impoverished and threatened by state agencies and corruption was rife. The clients of the Yu Tai teahouse witnessed these social events with despair.

“Cha Guan”, as it is known in Chinese, is also a tragic story: both the novelist and his main character, teashop owner Wang Lifa, ended their lives by their own hand s – Lao She, which was actually the penname of Shu Qingchun, by drowning himself in Beijing’s Taiping Lake in 1966 and his protagonist Wang by hanging.

The Princess had a chance to visit Lao She’s house during her brief studies in Beijing and says she was guided on the tour by the novelist’s daughter as Lao’s wife was more than 100 years old and unable to welcome the Princess. She died not long after the Princess returned to Thailand.

“Lao She was born into a poor family. His father was a guard soldier with the Red Banner and died when he was young. Lao was a good student and graduated as a teacher from Beijing Normal University. He was greatly influenced by the May Fourth Movement and went on to lecture at London University’s School of Oriental Studies, as well as in Singapore and later in China. He was influenced by the works of Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and the great Russian novelists and lived for a while in the US. But his disappointment with the cultural revolution proved too much and so committed suicide,” the Princess says.

“Teahouse” is an important chronicle of Chinese society spanning the five decades from 1898 until the eve of the 1949 revolution and while the physical premises were turned into a clubhouse under authoritarian rule and no longer exist, a new teahouse on Qianmen Street bears the author’s name.

The play itself is noted for its vivid portrayal of characters and lively use of Beijing dialect, but its main thrust lies in Lao She’s vision of history, which is prophetic of later political movements and their disastrous effects on the average Chinese.

The first act is set at the end of the nineteenth century after reforms and the ensuing crackdown have reduced China to a weakened state. The populace is poor and foreign aggression is the rise. Many of the peasants have been forced into bankruptcy and are selling off their own children. Residents in Beijing, as exemplified by the teahouse’s customers, are largely apathetic but a few become involved, advocating political reform and trying to persuade the reigning Emperor to head the movement. Others pin their hopes on industrialisation, seeing it as the only way to bring the nation to prosperity.

“Cha Guan represents all walks of life. It offers a social and cultural commentary on the problems, culture, and changes within China during the early twentieth century and its transformation from tradition to modernity. It’s probably like our Thai ‘Sapa cafae’ (“Thai coffee-shop parliament”) but Wang Lifa is worried about getting into trouble so he puts up a big poster banning talk of politics and this later becomes the centrepiece of the Yu Tai teahouse. Customers tell stories instead and some of them start selling foreign goods like pocket watches, opium or cigarettes, even children. At first I didn’t know how to call these human traffickers because they were more like agents or middlemen,” the Princess adds.

The key words in the story are ‘change’ and ‘reform’, the Princess continues.

“One of the conversations in the play which I find most interesting is when a starving mother and a daughter come into the teahouse begging. A customer takes pity on them and treats them two bowls of noodles. But he is quickly criticised by the landlord, who says this is not the right way to help the poor. He, on the other hand, dreams of building a factory that would provide everybody with job security and money to buy food while producing goods to do away with the need for imports. He says his way would help the nation. When I was young, I used to do the same through my free lunch projects for poor students. Some people say that is not the sustainable way to help people, that you must provide them with education or skills to work,” the Princess says.

The second act takes place 20 years later. The Dynasty has fallen, a Republic has been set up, but the people are worse off than ever. In the same teahouse, Wang tries his best to keep up with the times, with new decorations, posters of beautiful girl and modern seating, and even turns the area at the back into a dormitory. There is the rumble of a revolution: the younger generation, represented by the students, are restive and fomenting protest under the banner of patriotism and democracy.

The third act takes another 30 years down the line. After eight years of bitter war against the Japanese, WWII has ended but the people have hardly had time to celebrate China’s victory before reactionary factions in the Kuomingtang instigate an all-out civil war. The political situation becomes even more oppressive and corrupt, and this is seen and felt in the teahouse. Wang, who is now in his 70s, is reduced to despair and ends his live.

Readers of the translation will enjoy not only the literary quality and the clever conversation, which varies from humorous to sentimental and occasionally satirical, but will also learn about many interesting aspects of Chinese society under the Qing Dynasty and the hopes for a new order.

Appendices at the back of the book provide information about Princess Sirindhorn’s previous works on Chinese tea, the country’s tea culture and its history.

During the launch, Act I was performed for the Princess and she laughingly told the crowd that the character of a young girl whose father wants to sell her off must be very easy to play because when she appears on the set, she faints.

“However, the girl is only 15,” says the princess, “I already 60 so I really can’t portray her.”


-“Teahouse: A Play in Three Acts” is priced at Bt165 and available at Waenkaew Bookshops, Nanmeebooks and other stores.

– For more information, call (02) 662 3000.

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