Ying Ruocheng

Actor and director
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The Independent Online

Ying Ruocheng, actor, director and translator: born Beijing 1929; married Wu Sheliang (deceased; one son); died Beijing 27 December 2003.

A smart and highly cosmopolitan intellectual and an exceptionally gifted actor-director, Ying Ruocheng was the very last of the cultural movers and shakers produced by the modernising May Fourth Movement in China in the early decades of the 20th century.

Twenty-five years ago, in the period following Mao Zedong's death in 1976, Beijing was still a remarkably grey city, trapped in the long hangover from the Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four had been toppled and arrested, and a few brave individuals were posting demands for change on the new Democracy Wall, but Beijing had few other visible signs of life. There were hardly any restaurants, the shops were still state-owned and poorly stocked, and "leisure options" were a far-off dream. Foreign visitors were few and far between.

Those of us invited to China in those years were routinely offered the one cultural treat the city had to boast: a visit to the Capital Theatre on Wangfujing Street, to see the Beijing People's Art Theatre perform Lao She's play Teahouse. Lao She (1899-1966; he drowned himself a few months into the Cultural Revolution) was the Beijing writer par excellence, a novelist turned playwright who wrote in the local slang and specialised in panoramic accounts of social change.

The three-act Teahouse charts the evolution of the eponymous establishment from the late Qing Dynasty to the rumbustious, Americanised years of the Republic, and provides terrific opportunities for its ensemble cast. The production was first mounted around 1960; its revival in 1978 was a deliberately self-assertive gesture from a company forced to suspend operations for the entire decade of the Cultural Revolution.

Backstage after the show, the cast members were desperate for feedback from their foreign visitors; they wanted to know if their work was up to international standards. Our enthusiastic praise was translated and moderated by the troupe's de facto star, the actor playing Pockmark Liu who turned out to be an incredibly fluent English speaker: Ying Ruocheng. At that time Ying had never been outside China, but his talents didn't remain a Chinese secret for much longer.

Teahouse gave Ying and the rest of the troupe their first trip abroad: the production was invited to Germany in 1980, and received with the kind of warmth usually reserved for the Berliner Ensemble. The tour marked the start of a tumultuous period in Ying's life, culminating in his 1986 appointment to the post of Vice-Minister of Culture (his job was essentially to find ways of moving China's countless theatre troupes from the state section into the private sector) and his role as the humane prison governor in Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning film The Last Emperor (1987).

The early 1980s were a whirlwind of activity in China and abroad. Ying translated and starred in productions of Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice and Amadeus and took the Measure for Measure to Hong Kong too. For the money, he accepted the role of Kublai Khan in the 1982 Italian mini-series Marco Polo. (He sent me a photograph of himself in costume and make-up, captioned "Don't I look fierce?") He translated for Bob Hope (and improved some of his less culturally sensitive gags) during the making of a television special in Beijing. He visited the University of Kansas as a guest lecturer in drama (stopping off in New York to see shows on Broadway) and while there worked with the Missouri Repertory Theater on productions of his own translations of Lao She's play Family and the opera Fifteen Strings of Cash.

Arthur Miller first met Ying on a visit to Beijing in 1978; the encounter sowed the seeds for the invitation to Miller to direct his own Death of a Salesman at the People's Art Theatre in 1983 - a production translated by Ying and starring him as Willy Loman. Miller's book Salesman in Beijing (1984) chronicles the six weeks they spent rehearsing the play and contains many vivid pen-portraits of Ying, praising his professionalism, intelligence and fearlessness and comparing him with James Cagney.

Ying Ruocheng came from a family of scholars - his grandfather founded Beijing University in 1890 - and he began acting while studying at Qinghua University just before the Communist victory of 1949. He bought his home, an old house off a shared courtyard in an alleyway not far from Capital Theatre, right after graduating. He and his actress wife Wu Sheliang filled it with books; they managed to reclaim both the house and its contents when they returned to Beijing from the "cadre school" where they were forced by Red Guards to spend three years growing rice during the Cultural Revolution.

His activities slowed in the 1990s, especially after the death of his wife, although he acted for Bertolucci again as a senior monk in Little Buddha (1993).