Note to the caption: Caitrin McKiernan, far right, prepped Wang Hui, who played Martin Luther King in a play at the National Theater in Beijing, before a rehearsal. Credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
By Howard W. French
Published: May 30, 2006
BEIJING For months now, Caitrin McKiernan has gone from place to place in this city to ask Chinese people an unlikely question: What does the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you?
The questions don't end there, either. In most of these gatherings, she gets far more specific, burrowing into the history and tactics of the American civil rights movement.
"Who knows what the Birmingham bus boycott was?" she asked a group of university students in May. "What is a sit-in?" "What's the meaning of separate but equal?" At the level of language, every one of those terms presents a formidable challenge, even to a woman who has spent years in this country and speaks fluent Chinese.
But language is not the half of it. How can one translate Dr. King's actions into the realm of ideas for an audience in a city notably hostile to protests? How does one convey to Chinese people the meaning of the life of a man who died fighting for civil rights nearly 40 years ago?
The answers may have begun to emerge since the production at the National Theater on Sunday of the play "Passages of Martin Luther King Jr." by the noted King scholar Clayborne Carson and based on the life and words of the American civil rights leader. Ms. McKiernan, who studied under Mr. Carson at Stanford and is the play's producer, was prepared for any kind of audience response, from deeply moved to completely stumped and anything in between.
But the responses of Ms. McKiernan's discussion groups and the reactions of her cast suggested that Dr. King's message would hit home here, that Chinese viewers would see parallels to divisions in their own society. That prospect poses a thorny problem for the government, which, on one hand, has endorsed Dr. King's work as a blow for the class struggle and against American imperialism, but on the other insists that racism and discrimination are purely problems of decadent Western societies.
The government, however, gave the production its imprimatur, and permission to play at the prestigious theater.
A distinct possibility was that the universality of Dr. King's message and the causes he fought for would completely escape Chinese viewers.
But the reactions Ms. McKiernan has heard so far suggest otherwise, and give her reason to hope that her dream of building a bridge between the societies by talking about peaceful struggle and universal rights has some hold on reality.
During one recent discussion at a Beijing university, after viewing excerpts from the PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize," students explored their feelings on the discrimination they discern between migrant workers and more affluent residents of the country's eastern cities. Others spoke about the inferior position of women in their society or of being treated badly during visits overseas or the predominance of American power in the world.
"The significance of Martin Luther King for me is that we have to have the courage to stand up for our legitimate benefits," said a Chinese student who identified himself as Paul.
Ms. McKiernan has avoided lecturing her audiences, or even steering the discussions. "I don't want this to be about what happened in the U.S. in some past year," she said. "I want this to be about what discrimination is, and how it relates to your life."
The talks have usually begun with an explanation of how Dr. King's life came to mean so much to her, a Californian who first came to this city at 16 as an exchange student and had to struggle to overcome cultural differences with her host family. Then she studied Dr. King in college, and she has had him on her mind ever since.
"I realized that King was this great bridge between the United States and China," Ms. McKiernan said. "China is an emerging superpower, and the U.S. is the superpower, and King is someone that both sides believe in, and can be the starting point for a dialogue about how we wish the world to be."
Then she sighed, and said, "But it's the hardest thing I've ever done."
The challenges have come from every direction: persuading the National Theater to accept the production, recruiting professional actors and production people, enlisting gospel singers from the United States to join the performance, doing endless and mostly fruitless fund-raising.
The American Embassy provided a modest grant, as did Stanford. But the multinational corporations that abound in Beijing proved skittish, even more than the government.
Beijing's unexpected stake in Dr. King's legacy is twofold, involving both past and present. The country's slogan for the 2008 summer Olympics is "One World, One Dream," which officials say brings to mind Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. That address has been famous here since Mao Zedong hailed it in August 1963, and it is still taught in schools.
In such matters context is everything, and for Mao, Dr. King was first and foremost a symbol of "the sharpening of class struggle and national struggle within the United States." In a speech some people here still recall today, Mao called on "enlightened persons of all colors in the world, white, black, yellow and brown, to unite to oppose the racial discrimination practiced by U.S. imperialism."
Then, as now, Chinese people were ill prepared to discuss their country's internal problems, a subject about which they were not educated, nor did Mao link Dr. King's struggles to the problems of China's ethnic minorities or, for that matter, human rights or inequality.
But to listen to the participants in Ms. McKiernan's discussion groups, or the actors in her production, that is what many people confronted with Dr. King's words today readily do.
"In today's China it would seem that discriminatory actions are not so common," said Yan Shikui, the narrator for the production. "But in fact, it is very serious. We talk about the difference between urban and rural citizens, the gap between the strong and the weak. All of these are very deep notions buried in people's minds, which cannot be solved by using violence. They have to be addressed through ideas."