Ying describes his agreement with Arthur Miller to produce ‘Death of a Salesman’ in Beijing:
Bringing Salesman to Beijing
During the time Arthur [Miller] spent with us in Beijing in 1978, we only vaguely discussed the idea of collaborating on a production one day—we didn’t decide which play to choose or when to produce it and so on. That conversation had to wait until I was in the United States in 1982 for my visiting faculty post at UMKC…
It was [then] that Arthur and I discussed in earnest the possibility of one of his plays being staged at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. He suggested The Crucible because he had heard so much about persecution during his visit in 1978—laments of intellectuals who were wrongly accused during the Cultural Revolution and so forth. I had to convince him to choose another play.
“Actually, that is over,” I said— because by this time in the early 1980s we were already several years past the Cultural Revolution. There had been so many rehabilitations. Thus, if merely for the theme of unjust persecution, I felt The Crucible was an uninteresting choice. Arthur became very serious; he believed he owed the Chinese people something in the choice of the play. I had my own ideas.
Remember, I had been dreaming about the play Death of a Salesman —about putting it on in China—since I first read it in 1950 before I left Qinghua University to join the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. If I could help it, I wouldn’t allow that dream to be shattered, so I tried my best to convince Arthur that a story of persecution wasn’t enough anymore. China’s trauma had gone much deeper than the persecution of intellectuals.
…The Crucible would not have been something new—whereas Death of a Salesman was truly a breath of fresh air, especially because of the way it was staged. Few people realize it now, but at the time that Miller wrote the play he was rather keen on trying out new forms. For instance, the walls didn’t exist for the people in the play anymore, especially for the central character, Willy Loman. Willy could walk through any wall. He could communicate with whoever he was in the mood to. And Arthur created the necessary ambience for such things to be believable, to be credible. People were shocked—especially Chinese audiences, who were not accustomed to this kind of surrealistic style—but after a scene or two, it was absorbed very easily, without any hitches. This was something quite new.
So, when Arthur and I were choosing a play to produce in Beijing in 1983, I still had my eyes on Death of a Salesman, which had impacted me so stongly in my youth, and which was, after all, the beginning of Arthur’s career as one of the great playwrights of the United States. I also felt it was his representative work.
Finally he was convinced. But he said, “I have one condition—you must play Willy Loman.”
Under the circumstances, I of course had to agree.
He had seen my performance as Kublai Khan in the television miniseries Marco Polo, and knew of my stage roles at the People’s Art Theatre.
“And you will also do the translation,” he added.