The art of the impossible
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore in Beijing
Among the topics discussed at the annual Communist Party's Central Committee meeting this month were ways to cultivate 'soft' power and promote Chinese culture abroad.
It is ironic, then, that Beijing's soft power has again been wielded with sledge-hammer subtly. For a country attempting to dictate its cultural might to the masses, the mainland performed a spectacular own goal with the sudden 'postponement' of the opera Dr Sun Yat-sen at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.
The world premiere was held in Hong Kong instead, on October 13. What promised to be a small-scale affair turned into the must-have ticket of the month after international media got wind of the story.
The arts centre cited 'logistical reasons' for the cancellation but 'banned in Beijing' comments abounded. The opera, composed by Chinese-American Huang Ruo, concerns the private life of Sun, regarded as the father of modern China and a character who the party views with mixed feelings, due to his ties with Taiwan.
So what might have been a dime a dozen production became, well, sexy. Even if Dr Sun Yat-sen were the opera equivalent of stinky tofu it would hardly have mattered. Viewing any art that has apparently felt the stinging back-hand of the Chinese state is a tantalising prospect.
Predictably, mainland media has remained quiet on the subject. Despite this, questions about the role of the government in dictating art for the people have flared yet again.
'If a government can't treat an art work in a rational and reasonable way and forbids good works for political reasons, it is sad for art and the citizen,' a young art student at Peking University's School of Arts says. 'It's a great pity I can't watch it.'
Chen Yufan, a contributor to the micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, was more candid: 'The Communist Party has been in office for more than 50 years but there is not one leader who can be compared with Sun Yat-sen. Because they are ashamed of their own inferiority, they censored the performance of this opera. They are afraid an expansion of Sun Yat-sen's commemoration will hurt the prestige of the party.'
In May, the China Daily interviewed Huang for what can only be described as a gushing piece lauding the upcoming opera.
'As a younger generation Chinese composer, it's good to see colleagues and teachers getting acknowledgment [in reference to Zhou Long's Pulitzer Prize for the opera Madam White Snake],' Huang enthused. 'It made me feel that anything is possible in this country.'
It's unlikely he was considering the last-minute cancellation of his own play as a possibility.