A musical that just ran in Beijing has taken the rare step of questioning official Chinese history, and criticizing society and the dark side of China's rapid economic growth. The musical, Yuanmingyuan, surprised observers by escaping censorship during a three-week run.
In 1860, invading French and British forces burned China's Yuanmingyuan - the imperial garden and palace in Beijing - to the ground. Chinese officials often point to this act when recounting the country's history of humiliation by foreign nations.
In his musical based on the incident, however, avant garde director Zhang Guangtian shows Chinese citizens helping the invaders loot the palace in order to enrich themselves. And later, the show depicts the Chinese heaping further destruction on the historic ruins, during mass political movements such as the Cultural Revolution.
This unusually critical view of such a sensitive topic had many observers convinced that Chinese censors would stop the show's production in its tracks when it opened in mid-July.
They did not. Zhang says he escaped censorship because he did not dispute the guilt of western countries; he merely emphasized that the Chinese people were at fault as well.
"I think they have to admit everything from my angle," Zhang said. "The imperialist powers' destruction of the Yuanmingyuan is a historical fact, and our own destruction of Yuanmingyuan is a historical fact as well. Some people do not talk about it, but it does not necessarily mean that nobody can talk about it."
Interlaced with original music, the play pokes fun at the mass movements of China's past, at its propaganda, and at today's rampant commercialism.
It also addresses problems resulting from the fast developing economy, such as pollution, corruption, notoriously unsafe coal mines, and a growing gap between the rich and poor.
At one point in the show, mock protesters surround the audience, unfurling banners and shouting out the various problems the nation is facing. Leaflets with startling statistics about pollution then rain down on the crowd.
Zhang says he wanted to shock the Chinese people, who have learned to assign blame instead of taking responsibility, and to hide their feelings instead of speaking out.
The night of the next-to-last show, Zhang told the audience some western news organizations had suggested the production would be censored. Zhang smiled and said he could now reply to those suggestions: the show, he said, would finish as scheduled. The audience erupted into applause.