Text by Ding Ge Photographs courtesy of Lu Xiaoping
In 1943, soon after he became president of National Central University (today’s Nanjing University), Chiang Kai-shek, then leader of the Kuomintang, invited three prestigious professors from the university’s Department of Chinese Language and Literature to a Spring Festival banquet. The invitation embarrassed the professors, who spent an afternoon discussing whether they should accept to save Chiang “face.” Decades later, during the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), the same professors were required to confess whether they accepted Chiang’s invitation. The truth was tough to find after so many years. This is the plot of For the Face of Mr. Chiang, a play produced by teachers and students of Nanjing University. The War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the “cultural revolution” were two of the roughest periods for contemporary Chinese intellectuals. How did the three professors with varying political ideologies treat the invitation from a dictator such as Chiang Kai-shek, and how did they stick to their political ideals and moral principles in the chaotic period of “cultural revolution”?
The drama sparked heated debate among Chinese micro-bloggers about moral integrity and weaknesses of intellectuals. The play’s director, Lu Xiaoping, is vice dean of the School of Humanities and head of the Department of Theater, Movie and Television of Nanjing University. The playwright, Wen Fangyi, is a junior in the university’s School of Humanities. The drama premiered in May of last year, and by mid-December 2012, it had been performed 31 times at the university and seen by more than 20,000. The drama has since moved beyond the campus.
From every perspective, the production is considered miraculous. A college junior born in the 1990s, its playwright deftly depicts the complicated struggles of professors seven decades ago. Director Lu, who has denounced the country’s drama production system, has now received high recognition from the same authorities he criticized. At the end of last year, the Publicity Department of the Provincial Party Committee of Jiangsu booked three days of performances of the drama, and the head of the department even watched it personally.