The beginning of Claire Conceison’s introduction:
Occasionally in our lives, we encounter human beings who are so unique and compelling that we wish we could introduce them to everyone we know. We revel in the moments we are blessed to enjoy alone with them, and at the same time are eager to share their presence with others. I am sure there is someone in your life that fits this description.
For me, this person was Ying Ruocheng. It was not only because he was a hugely important figure in twentieth-century Chinese theatre and politics that I wanted others to know him—though he was. In an obituary, Tony Rayns described Ying as “a smart and highly cosmopolitan intellectual and an exceptionally gifted actor-director… the last of the cultural movers and shakers produced by China in the early decades of the twentieth century.” As you will read below, Ying Ruocheng hailed from a significant family and carried on that legacy, making crucial contributions to Chinese society during a turbulent century of political upheaval and social reform. He also made a name for himself on the stage and screen, and as a cultural diplomat. For these reasons, he is certainly someone worth knowing.
At the same time, he was incredibly down to earth and a master of the English language, his adopted second tongue. He was a gifted storyteller with irresistible charm and a brilliant sense of humor. He was warm, unassuming, and slightly—delightfully—mischievous […] Foreigners as well as fellow Chinese recognized upon their first encounters with Ying Ruocheng that they were in the presence of a remarkable man. It was impossible not to fall under the spell of his charisma and authenticity. Professor Felicia Londré said it best when, after a long conversation with Ying about Eastern and Western theatre, she wrote in her diary: “What a wonderful man and brilliant mind he is. Here is a man who hobnobs with royalty, heads of state, and international arts celebrities, yet it was like having a fireside chat with a best friend.”
Ying Ruocheng indeed joined forces with some of the most impressive individuals in his various fields. As an actor, he is best known in the West for his roles in Bernardo Bertolucci’s films The Last Emperor and Little Buddha. He is also widely recognized for his performance as Willy Loman when Arthur Miller directed Death of a Salesman in Beijing in 1983, and he is fondly remembered for his savvy interpreting for Bob Hope at the theatre several years earlier. When Ying himself directed Salesman at The College of William and Mary in 1984, Miller introduced him to Dustin Hoffman at the Broadway performance of the play, and the two actors compared notes about playing Willy on opposite sides of the globe. As vice minister of culture in the central government from 1988-1990, Ying’s various feats included bringing Charlton Heston to Beijing in 1988 to direct Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-martial. Even before his post in the ministry or his collaboration with Miller, Ying was known as “one of China’s most famous actors and a brilliant translator,” and made his mark as a director in projects such as his partnership with England’s Toby Robertson on Measure for Measure in 1982, a production that “achieved a level of excellence worthy of admiration and emulation anywhere in the world.” Salesman, Mutiny, and Measure all reached the Chinese public because Ying translated them…
I met Ying Ruocheng in 1991 when he was directing his translation of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre and I was a graduate student from Harvard University conducting field work for my master’s thesis. I had the good fortune to spend time with him again in 1993 when he appeared as a guest star in Ying Da’s wildly popular sit-com I Love my Family (Wo ai wo jia). After visiting him at his home during his illness in 1996 and 2000, I subsequently enjoyed the unique privilege of sitting by Ying Ruocheng’s bedside during the summers of 2001, 2002, and 2003 as he recounted to me his rich life experiences in order to publish this autobiography in English for Western readers. Each of these conversations over the course of a decade was indeed like having a fireside chat with a best friend.