Old Version

The Bonds that Bind

A play adapted from a 1987 novel strikes a chord with contemporary audiences with its take on marriage and intellectuals

By Kui Yanzhang Updated Dec.1

A mong the chorus of chatter emerges a folk song. Faint at first, then clearer and louder:  

“The goat poops, we play with boots. I’m your bro, you’re my pal. Grab a bottle, and we’ll drink it down. Drunk we are, and we beat our wives. What if we beat them dead? If you’ve got money, you’ll marry anew. If you’ve got none, you’ll sing the tune.”  

This is the opening scene of The Man with Moveable Parts, a play that debuted on August 20 at Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center. The play was adapted from Wang Meng’s 1987 novel of the same name. He also recorded the song in his heavily northernaccented voice.  

The tune is deeply embedded in the 87-year-old writer’s childhood memories of his hometown in Cangzhou, Hebei Province.  

Wang Meng, a four-time Nobel Prize nominee and former Minister of Culture (1986-1989), is one of China’s most prominent contemporary writers. His magnum opus The Man with Moveable Parts, which tells a story of a problematic arranged marriage between an intellectual man and a less educated rural woman, epitomizes the complex struggle of Chinese intellectuals in the 20th century.  

The novel was adapted by Wen Fangyi, a 31-year-old playwright who made a name a decade prior with her debut The Face of Chiang Kai-shek.  

Though the play deals with arranged marriages and the lives of intellectuals in the 1940s, Wen said the themes resonate with today’s audiences. “Arranged marriages are rarely seen in cities today, but longterm, unsettled domestic feuds resulting from conflicting ideas is still the most commonplace problem in modern marriages,” Wen told NewsChina.  

‘A Father on Trial’ 
On the afternoon of July 22, during a seminar with the production crew for The Man with Moveable Parts, Wang told of his struggles writing the work 40 years ago.  

“What I wrote in the book was a nightmare that haunted me over the years. It never left. I wrote most of my books in a light mood, but writing this one was a soul-crucifying, blood-shedding experience that I never had before in my life,” Wang said.  

The Man with Moveable Parts tells the story of an ordinary family in Beiping (an old name for Beijing) in the 1940s. Protagonist Ni Wucheng, a highly educated man who just finished his studies in Europe, was arranged to marry Jiang Jingyi, a rural woman who strictly obeyed traditional norms and values. Their contrasting ideas and values were so great that their feuds escalated into a protracted war. Their domestic conflicts epitomize the clashes between tradition and modernity in China during the Republican period (1912-1949).  

Wang began writing the novel in early 1984, cloistering himself in a cottage near Xifeng Temple in the suburbs of Beijing. Wang wrote at a feverish pace, roughly 15,000 words a day, and still felt his pen could not keep up with his inspiration. He finished in under three weeks.  

Wang intended to title the book “The Empty House” or “Karma,” but settled on The Man with Moveable Parts, referencing a children’s book that lead character Ni Wucheng gives to his son, Ni Zao. The book is spiral bound and segmented into three sections of interchangeable heads, bodies and legs. Turning the individual sections gives the illustrated figures different combinations of body parts.  

Wang said the book represents the character’s spiritual predicament. “Everyone is made up of three parts: the head is desires, hopes and ideals, the body is capabilities, deeds and achievements, and the legs are environment and personal convictions. If these parts accord with one another, or at least are reconciled, one could live, and perhaps quite happily. Otherwise, there’s only suffering and bitterness,” Wang told NewsChina.  

According to literature scholar Gao Yuanbao, the novel is semiautobiographical. The plot outlines his own life story and those of his parents and relatives. Wang’s father, Wang Jindi, a Peking University graduate and president of a private college, was an alcoholic and a womanizer. He spent money like water and could not hold down a job. His father’s lifestyle reduced the family to extreme poverty. At 17, Wang persuaded his mother to divorce him.  

In the novel, Wang is merciless in his portrayal of protagonist Ni Wucheng. Writer Liu Xinwu described the book as “a father on trial.”  

But Wang distances his family from the characters. “My father was the scholar who first brought Heidegger’s work to China, and my mother wasn’t a woman without any modern ideas,” Wang said.  

A rehearsal for The Man with Moveable Parts

An Eternal Problem
Dramatist Wen Fangyi was born in 1990, half a century after the setting of Wang’s novel. But it resonated with her. “I’ve often seen these characters in real life but rarely in literature,” Wen told NewsChina.  

Wen is from an intellectual family in Nanjing. As a junior studying drama at Nanjing University, Wen wrote The Face of Chiang Kai-shek after extensive historical research. The play, which portrays the lives of intellectuals during the Republican period (1912-1949), was staged in 2012 and became immensely popular. It has since been performed nearly 400 times. In 2018, Wen adapted Jin Yucheng’s award-winning novel Blossoms for the stage.  

For Wen, the family in The Man with Moveable Parts differs greatly from the tropes in most Chinese literary works dealing with marriage between a rural wife and an intellectual husband. 

Wen told NewsChina there are two common tropes: one is usually set in the Republican period, where male intellectuals are portrayed as idealistic, positive and progressive. The other is set during the SentDown Movement (1950s-1970s), when millions of educated urban youth were sent to labor in the countryside and married rural locals. Rural female characters in these novels are often depicted as pure, innocent and kindhearted. In both these versions, the husband enlightens the wife to new ways of thinking.  

But Wen said arranged marriages between traditional rural women with intellectual men during the Republican period were often illfated. “The men usually left, divorced or were aloof and emotionally abusive to wives they saw as intellectually inferior,” Wen told NewsChina. “No matter what the man chose, these marriages were like prison sentences for women.”  

In The Man with Moveable Parts, these roles are blurred. Protagonist Ni Wucheng appreciates modern values and lifestyles, embraces science and democracy, but is very patriarchal. He treats his wife Jiang Jingyi rudely and is violent toward her. Jiang was educated at a Western-style school and has progressive friends, but at home she complies with traditional gender roles. 

The play’s director, Li Bonan, began rehearsals in late July. The 43-year-old is one of China’s most commercially successful theater directors, known for portraying stories about the lives of everyday people.  

While Li has directed plays about historical figures, this is his first work about a fictional one. He said this gave him more space to explore human nature.  

“It is the uncertainty and ambiguity in the nature of Ni Wucheng in which his tragedy lies. Numerous intellectuals sank into the torrents of the times – this was the very reality of intellectuals during that era,” Li told NewsChina.  

A rehearsal for The Man with Moveable Parts

Intellectuals on Stage  
Modern Chinese drama began in the 1910s during the New Culture Movement, which criticized classical Chinese thought and promoted local interpretations of Western ideals.  

Chinese drama flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s. Modern literary masters Lao She and Guo Moruo collaborated with famed theater director Jiao Juyin on classics including Dragon Beard Ditch (1951), Tiger-shaped Tally (1956), Teahouse (1958), Cai Wenji (1959) and Wu Zetian (1960). During this period, intellectuals were often portrayed as pioneers fighting against traditional feudalistic values.  

However, the theater’s spotlight went dim during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Intellectuals were officially condemned as “spiritually corrupt” and labeled “spokespeople for decadent capitalism and bourgeois lifestyles.” Many were persecuted, including Jiao Juyin and Lao She, who was driven to suicide in 1966.  

In the late 1970s and 1980s, after China’s reform and opening-up, intellectuals, once again, were portrayed as idealistic and promising vanguards of a new era.  

In 1978, In the Silence, a play by Zong Fuxian about the lives and minds of intellectuals, became a modern classic. The drama tells about a family involved in an incident in 1976, during which a memorial for the late premier Zhou Enlai in Tiananmen Square turned into a public demonstration against the extreme left and for the liberation of thought.  

In the 1990s, with the rise of the market economy, theater grew more diverse. Experimental arthouse plays, such as I Love XXX (1994) and Rhinoceros in Love (1999) by avant-garde theater director Meng Jinghui, profoundly changed the landscape of Chinese theater.  

However, as social values veered toward materialism, intellectuals were increasingly depicted on stage as lost, upset and self-pitying. They were not changing with the times, struggling between their utopian ideals and a bleaker reality.  

In the past decade, a handful of plays have explored the “scholarofficial,” the highly educated elite class of imperial China. The impact of their cultural legacy and spirit continues to influence intellectuals today. Among them is Wen Fangyi’s The Face of Chiang Kai-shek, a play inspired by an historical anecdote that circulated Nanjing University for years.  

In 1943, Chiang, leader of the Kuomintang and chairman of the Nationalist government, was also president of Nanjing University. Chiang invited three of most respected Chinese literature professors to dine with him. This put the professors in a very difficult position. They discussed whether to go to the banquet. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the three men were investigated about the meeting. Facing persecution, each remembered the incident differently. The play gives a penetrating depiction of the ambivalent, conflicting and complicated inner world of intellectuals when dealing with authority.  

Li Bonan told NewsChina that after reading the script for The Man with Moveable Parts, many performers told him it was “exactly like their life.” He was a bit confused at first – why would actors relate to characters from a different era and profession?  

“Later I realized that perhaps they resonated with the frustrations and conflicts of marriage, the fruitless but ceaseless attempts of one spouse trying to change the other, the struggles of souls torn between dreams and reality – these are all eternal themes,” Li told NewsChina.