For months, public structures in Hong Kong have been draped with dreary sepia-coloured banners, some as large as a small building, publicising a new opera about Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese Republic, the architect of the revolution of 1911 that brought down the Manchu dynasty. But the Hong Kong premiere on October 13 of a modern opera about a historical figure had created scarcely a musical ripple in the city, whose attention was turned towards upcoming concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic and a sold-out recital by the pianist Murray Perahia.
Then, on September 30, the Beijing premiere of Dr Sun Yat-sen at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts was abruptly called off for “logistical reasons”, which pitchforked the issue on to the front pages of Hong Kong newspapers amid a plethora of conspiracy theories. The reasons mooted for the cancellation run from reported complaints by the National Council of Performing Arts in Beijing that the music was either not ready or “too modern” to be performed, to speculation that the love story of Sun and his third wife, Soong Ching-ling, who was 26 years his junior, was too racy for Beijing’s censors. Inevitably, there have also been plenty of hypotheses put forward in this technicoloured soap opera that the political content worried the cultural commissars in Beijing. Although Sun is feted in both Communist China and democratic Taiwan, his life is a minefield of sensitivities for Communist Chinese government censors – not least his support for pan-Asian co-operation with Japan, long seen as an enemy of China, his request in 1923 to the US and European governments to take over China’s provincial capitals to modernise them and his attempt towards the end of his life to curry favour with brutal Chinese warlords.
Dr Sun Yat-sen, commissioned by Opera Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government to mark the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai revolution, has music by the Asian-American composer Huang Ruo in two versions: one is scored for western orchestras supported by Chinese instruments, the other uses traditional Chinese instruments only. No one is more bewildered by the cancellation of the opening performance than Candace Chong, the opera’s Hong Kong Chinese librettist, who graduated from Hong Kong’s Academy of Performing Arts in 2001. Chong had been on the verge of buying tickets for her family and herself to fly from New York to the Beijing premiere of the opera when she heard that it had been cancelled.
Speaking from New York, where she is working on a production of Chinglish, the new play by M Butterfly creator David Henry Hwang, Chong was at a loss to explain what might have triggered the cancellation. “For an opera to be cancelled three weeks before is ridiculous,” she said.
Chong explains that her libretto tells the story of the turbulent friendship between the wealthy Shanghainese businessman Charlie Soong and Sun. Indeed, the opera begins with a fundraising party at Soong’s home, where he is ostensibly gathering funds for the building of a new church – but in reality intending to divert the money to support the revolution. It ends, Chong says, with Soong “confessing that he tried to stop the marriage between Sun and his daughter because he didn’t believe the revolution would succeed”.
Soong was right. Despite the reverence in which Sun is held today, few revolutions failed as spectacularly as the revolution of 1911. As Jonathan Fenby, the author of Penguin’s history of modern China, notes in a recent essay, it was the local Chinese military warlords and foreign colonial powers such as Britain, Germany and Japan that “benefited most from the fall of the Manchus. This was a shift of regime, not a social sea change”.
After the revolution Sun took the post of president of the republic, on January 1 1912, but lost power after a couple of months to a military warlord, Yuan Shikai. He fled to Japan and in the 1920s was in and out of power in Guangdong, China’s southernmost province, where he presided over a push for modernity that included the provision of new schools and libraries and a fierce campaign against opium. (This period is the subject of a glowing exhibition at the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum in Hong Kong that opened on September 30.)
But, according to Fenby, in Guangdong Sun actually ran a regime characterised by racketeering. “I know he’s this great haloed figure but I have never fallen for the Sun myth,” says Fenby. Chong, too, says that although the history books she read as a child in Hong Kong also presented Sun as “a hero who feared nothing”, after researching Sun’s life she saw him differently. “His whole life was about facing failure and trying to stick to his principles,” she explains.
Some of the speculation about why the opera was cancelled has centred on the Chinese government’s ultra-sensitivity on the internet and in performances to words like “corrupt government” – and even “jasmine”, in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution that unfolded in the Middle East this year. Such a Kafkaesque reading of the libretto would find plenty to give pause. In the first scene alone Sun sings, “The Qing court is furious, They are turning our country into a prison! But this cage cannot silence oppositional voices … now there are debates with people urging change.”
Nevertheless, recent films such as Beginning of the Great Revival, about the 1911 revolution and the May 4 movement, supported by the Chinese government and released to mark the 100th anniversary, have not been immune to multiple interpretations and their fair share of criticism. A barrage of negative reviews of Beginning of the Great Revival on the internet was subsequently deleted by the Chinese authorities.
Arthur Miller once said a good newspaper was “a nation talking to itself”. The divide between Beijing’s cultural tsars and a young population that posts its true feelings on the internet is so large that censorship in China is increasingly a case of a government deluding itself. The latest rumpus about an opera about a revolutionary leader that might have been cancelled because of the liberal use of the word “revolution” in its script is only the most absurd example.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.