An excerpt from Claire Conceison’s introduction:
The Ying Century
Ying Ruocheng’s father, Ying Qianli, was born in 1900, at the dawn of a century that his father, Ying Lianzhi, had helped to shape. Born in 1866, Ying Lianzhi had risen from a clan of illiterate Manchu warriors to become a prominent Catholic intellectual. Among his contributions were the founding of both a free newspaper in Tianjin during the twilight years of the Qing dynasty and a Catholic university in Beijing in the midst of turmoil, when the Qing had given way to unequal treaties with Western powers, rule by warlords, and uneasy alliances and civil war between Nationalists and Communists. Amidst this political upheaval, artists and intellectuals were calling for “new culture,” including the use of vernacular language to reach ordinary citizens for whom classical Chinese was inaccessible, and the exploration of pressing social issues of the day through literature and art. As a result, intellectuals influenced by the May Fourth Movement imported Western-style spoken drama to China (via Japan, where it was already being absorbed) and Ying Ruocheng would eventually devote his life to developing modern theatre in China and using it to promote international dialogue and understanding.
If during Ying Lianzhi’s lifetime China’s future was uncertain, during his son’s lifetime it was uneasy. Ying Qianli aligned himself with the Nationalist Party (KMT) and worked underground against the Japanese; he was imprisoned twice during Japan’s occupation of China from 1937-1945; and he was whisked off to Taiwan by the KMT when Chiang Kai-shek retreated there in the wake of the communist victory in 1949. Ying Ruocheng, a freshman in college, would never see his father again. Ying Qianli’s contributions to education in Taiwan continued the legacy Ying Lianzhi had established on the mainland, but Ying Ruocheng would not learn of his father’s accomplishments until more than a decade after his death, when a neighbor’s daughter his father had helped raise in Taiwan tracked Ying Ruocheng down during his first visit to the United States in 1980.
By the time the third generation of educated Yings was coming of age, the nation’s future was not only uncertain and uneasy, but downright unpredictable. As events in China created a political whirlwind around him, a young Ying Ruocheng rotated through a series of Chinese and foreign missionary school environments and survived a series of erratic government campaigns under Mao’s leadership and beyond. In chapters 1 and 2 about his imprisonment from 1968-1971 and in chapter 5 when describing his early theatre career during the 1950s, Ying mentions political movements such as the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Four Cleanups Campaign, and the Cultural Revolution. More important than understanding the policies and processes of each of these events is sensing their effect on the ethos of a people, and on the individual lives of struggling Chinese citizens. That is the view that Ying Ruocheng affords us here. His autobiography is a lens through which to see and understand the unique life of a Manchu Catholic family, circumstances inside a Beijing prison, the first fifty years of China’s premier theatre company, increasing cultural collaboration between China and the West, and tensions inside the upper echelons of the central government during its most critical moment of the late twentieth century.
Ying Ruocheng was vice minister of culture when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Though he did not feel free to discuss the full extent of his experience at that moment or his subsequent disillusionment in his autobiography, he does allow us to stand with him in panicked uncertainty and sense the depth of the danger he was in. Ying Ruocheng lived his entire life knowing that his family background and his personal activities could be praised by the state as priceless contributions at one moment only to be denounced as counterrevolutionary activities the next. In addition to June Fourth and the aforementioned movements, Ying lived through the Four Modernizations, anti-bourgeois liberalization and anti-spiritual pollution campaigns, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of 1992, the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, Beijing’s successful Olympic bid of 2001, the SARS crisis of 2003, and countless other social and political transitions. Throughout it all, he was an influential guide to senior officials, fostering increased awareness and understanding of foreigners through both is recruitment as a secret agent and his public activities as an internationally beloved “cultural ambassador.” Truly, there has never been another Chinese citizen like him.