Macbeth and the Good Woman - a Chinese Perspective

Reid Mitchell
Jan 5th, 2015

Sometimes the People's Republic of China makes teaching an old play easier than it might be in the West. Last week, teaching Macbeth, when we had gotten as far as the end of Act II – the day after Duncan's murder – I asked students what the motivation of the thanes was at this point and how the plot might develop. At first they were confused but I finally said, ‘Forget for a moment it's a tragedy, forget it's Shakespeare, forget it's Scotland. Just remember it is politics.’


They nodded.


‘Imagine that a new leader has taken control of the Party. One of his rivals has fled to the former Soviet Union and the other has run away to America. And the new leader has started an anti-corruption campaign. One of you is Banquo, a former close associate of the new Party leader, who knows something about how he came to become party leader. What do you do?’


After a minute, during which they chattered in Chinese, I said, ‘As for the rest of you, whose example would you follow to keep safe? Cadre Ross, who decides to stay as close as he can to the centre of power, or Cadre Macduff, who goes as far away from Beijing as he can?’


Suddenly, in a new way, the Scottish play seemed relevant to them.


At other times, though, the distance between the author and my students seems unbridgeable. Last year, at Tsinghua University, I taught a course called “Introduction to Western Drama.” I felt I had to include at least one example of Brecht's Epic Theatre. Why not pick The Good Woman of Setzuan and see how Chinese students would react?


I did have to explain that for some reason Brecht believed Sichuan was a city, not a province, and that he had no real knowledge or even interest in China; for him Sichuan represented ‘all places where men are exploited by men.’ One is reminded of the joke Poles made: Under capitalism, man exploits man; under Communism, it is the other way around. Not surprisingly, some students were offended and even angry that Brecht regarded China as a Cloud Cuckoo Land in which he could set any fantasy he chose.


I guess most people know the outline of this play. Three gods arrive in Setzuan, seeking good people. If there are enough good people, ‘the world can stay as it is.’ They need to find at least one good person because atheists say, ‘The world must be changed because no one can be good and stay good.’ Wong, the water seller, recognizes the gods by their old-fashioned clothes. How exactly Brecht imagined old-fashioned Chinese gods might dress isn't clear to me – scholar's robes, Manchu queues, elaborate headdresses perhaps? We know from the stage directions that at least one wears a hat. Perhaps they dress the same as Cai Shen, the Chinese prosperity god, whose portrait or statue is displayed frequently in Chinese shops, restaurants, and apartments, often close to a portrait of Chairman Mao.


The good woman, who gives the gods a place to stay the night in an otherwise inhospitable city, is Shen Te, who supports herself by sex work. When the gods leave, they give her enough money to open an honest business – a tobacco shop. But soon her tobacco shop is about to go belly-up: her kind heart won’t let her evict the houseful of spongers who beset it. In desperation, she creates an alter ego, her cousin Shui Ta, a man who transforms the shop into a model of capitalist exploitation. When the gods visit Shen Te, to see how the good person they found is managing, Shui Ta's cruelty and selfishness alarm them, but they have no answer for Shen Te's question, ‘How can a person stay moral and stay alive both?’ As the gods flee, the play ends by questioning the audience:


                        It is for you to find a way, my friends,

                        To help good men arrive at happy ends.

                        You write the happy ending to the play!

                        There must, there must, there's got to be a way.

                                                            (Eric Bentley translation)


This was the question for my students, all of whom professed to be communists and most of whom would soon be members of the CCP, if they weren't already. Brecht himself advocated some form of communism as the way for good men and women to ‘arrive at happy ends.’


The general response of the students was to say the play had demonstrated no problem. Most thought this made it boring, but one of them, Wang, admired Brecht's “trick.” He said that Brecht tricked us at first into thinking Shui Te was a good woman, but that Brecht actually proved that the good person of Setzuan was Shen Ta. A shrewd businessman, he creates jobs and everybody is better off. The problem was not, as the gods saw it, how to get rid of Shen Ta. It was how to get rid of sentimental idiots like Shui Te.


Another student, Heidi, wrote that since the market is rational – she made a reference to Adam Smith – the world should be run by businessmen. It's a long way from agreeing with Adam Smith's idea of the Invisible Hand to admiring businessmen. By his theory, the almighty market would work if businessmen were idiots; and as a general rule he didn't trust them. As to whether Heidi meant business people should run the world, or she really preferred men in positions of authority, I don't know.


Other students were less gung-ho about capitalism but said that whatever reform was necessary must be personal: not structural, not political. Betty wrote that the solution was for people to change as individuals. ‘If we are kinder, we can maintain social harmony.’ Qiu made an argument I am not inclined to dispute. ‘We need heroes but abuse always reappears in any system.’


Only one student, a woman who had chosen “Vermouth” for her English name, looked to Marx to solve problems of poverty, exploitation, and power. ‘I want to achieve justice but I do not want to execute people looking for justice,’ she wrote. She had no ready-made answer, but added, ‘Perhaps if I study Marxism harder and study other theories too I can find the answer.’


Perhaps Marxism offers a structural solution to the problem, but Vermouth is really not sure. In any case, given the history of the PRC, Vermouth's fear that one Communist solution might be public executions is hardly naïve. That Capitalistic Roader Shui Ta would have been lucky if he got off with only a few denunciations, several beatings and a decade in prison. Some Chinese now believe such public humiliations are gone forever; some are not so sure; and some regret their departure. Students tell me that their grandparents say, ‘If Mao came back to life, he'd take care of the workers and farmers.’


Brecht, were he to return like the ancient Chinese gods of his play, could not expect the answers at which he wanted his 20th century audience to arrive from 21st century students who grew up, if not in a communist society, then in a Communist State. Brecht himself, sly dog, when he did live under Communism, was careful to live with one foot out the door. He kept his money in Switzerland and held not East German but Austrian citizenship. With that example, middle-aged American professors should not be surprised when Communists are not communists.


I wonder whether, if The Good Woman of Setzuan were to be staged in China today, the Three Gods, old-fashioned and muddle-headed as they are, would be portrayed not in the vaguely traditional robes in which Brecht garbed them, but in Mao jackets, cloth caps, and red armbands?

REID MITCHELL teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou.


Reid Mitchell
Last blog date: Jan 5th, 2015


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