HONG KONG—Theater producers in Shanghai are getting ready to cast a new musical based on Karl Marx's seminal work, Das Kapital.
While technically challenging, the project could also prove politically sensitive amid mass layoffs and industrial disputes as the global financial crisis bites deep into China's former economic boomtowns along its eastern seaboard.
I think that this is still very meaningful."
A top Chinese economist advising the production hope it will carry a meaning for today's world, although some critics say its essence will almost certainly be lost, because Marx's interpretation of today's China would be dangerously subversive.
Zhang Jun, a scholarly adviser to the show and professor of economics at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, said the show—a multimedia presentation including animation and music—would sink or swim on its ability to make Marx relevant to today's world.
“Now that we have a global financial crisis, I think Chinese people need once more to take a critical view of the market economy we are building. I think that this is still very meaningful,” Zhang said.
Inspired by cartoons
He said the starting point for the project was the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, although no date for the play's opening in Shanghai had been set.
Inspired by a Japanese cartoon book titled Das Kapital that flew off shelves at the end of last year, the play will be produced by Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center manager Yang Shaolin and directed by He Nian, who directed the stage adaptation of the hit martial arts spoof "My Own Swordsman."
According to Hong Kong's Wen Hui Po newspaper, He Nian will combine elements from animation, Broadway musicals, and Las Vegas stage shows to bring Marx's economic theories to life as an educational play.
While comment in the official Chinese media has so far been full of praise for the idea, some commentators say that current restrictions in China will make it hard for the essence of Marx's work to shine through.
Political hot topic
Former Shanghai People's Art Theatre principal Sha Yexin declined to comment at all on the subject, citing ill health.
“I haven't seen the script of this play,” Sha said.
“I can tell you that this isn't the first time a play has been made from Das Kapital. There was one in the last century too."
Sha was apparently referring to a 1949 Chinese translation of a 1931 Japanese play titled Das Kapital: A Drama by Sakamoto Masaru.
The Chinese translator, Fei Mingjun, then a professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, was hounded and detained as a counterrevolutionary during the anti-rightist campaigns of the 1950s, and then again during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
Fei died in a labor camp in the remote northwestern province of Qinghai in 1973.
Top Chinese market strategist Qin Quanyao said he was concerned to hear that a play called Das Kapital was being planned in Shanghai.
Marx-free play 'likely'
In a blog post he recalled how young German artists had also turned Das Kapital into a theater production, but that it never got off the the ground because it was out of keeping with mainstream German opinion.
The idea of turning it into a film was rejected by Stalin's government in the Soviet Union.
“To tell you the truth it's going to pick away at the original Marx until there's nothing left, because this won't do and that won't do,” Qin said in an interview.
“There won't be anything left at all of Marx in it, of the tone in which Das Kapital is written, that capitalists are the keepers of illegal jails, that workers are oppressed.”
He said the difficult subject matter might remind people of injustices which many have experienced since the beginning of market reforms in today's China, especially since a sharp rise in the number of industrial disputes in the wake of the economic crisis.
“There is no way that anyone would be allowed to write something that is truly Marxist in today's China,” Qin said. “That would mean the government was subverting itself.”
According to Wen Hui Po, the play deals with a group of workers who are divided as to how to deal with the discovery that their boss has been ripping them off.
Some accept it, others riot and lose their jobs, and some get together to negotiate with management.
Zhang Jun cited inherent problems with putting such a political classic onto the stage.
But he said he thought the play would avoid touching on the sensitive issue of relations between labor and capital:
"There are a lot of difficulties, I think, because Das Kapital is aimed at industry, and it is critical of the capitalist system,” he said.
“But there have been huge changes in the past 100 or 200 years ... Personally I think it won't focus too much on the relations between labor and capital.”
“The important thing is that everyone keep a critical stance and bear in mind what would be an ideal society for us, and how we can make our contribution to it,” he said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.