Can China's leadership take a joke?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Feted by monarchs of the West and praised by presidents of the East, a music impresario in this sleepy city is using his new-found fame to create a platform for risky political humor.

Clad in a century-old Confucian gown and playing his erhu, or two-stringed banjo, Xuan Ke hardly seems the type to joke about China's communist aristocracy and its checkered past.

But in peppering his troupe's otherwise mild-mannered concerts with his refreshing satire, this elderly former political prisoner is drawing SRO audiences.

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His political barbs are mild by US standards, but Mr. Xuan is a trailblazer in a land where, for thousands of years, veiled criticism of the leadership was a capital offense. Today, even Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin isn't immune to Xuan's wit.

After President Jiang visited the Naxi Ancient Music Association last May, the leader's appearance was incorporated into Xuan's act, and became the stuff of laughs for thousands of concertgoers here.

Between his troupe's renditions of classical Chinese palace music, Xuan delivers his routine to 400 or 500 people every night. Audiences are largely made up of Chinese tourists and handfuls of foreigners. Xuan's group recently released its first video compact disc, and one of China's brokerages is urging him to form a cultural corporation and list shares on the freewheeling Chinese stock market.

Xuan kicks off his act by saying "[I] accidentally lost the party-approved speech I was given to welcome Chairman Jiang to the show, and I had to improvise."

The audience begins to giggle: Everyone knows that Mr. Jiang's public appearances are carefully scripted, but making a point of that fact borders on socialist sacrilege.

Xuan says that President Jiang surprised him by saying "he heard I had been jailed as a counterrevolutionary." Xuan's father was an interpreter before he converted to Christianity, and both father and son were jailed for being "spies of foreign organizations."

"Chairman Jiang told me I should thank Deng Xiaoping for my release," Xuan says to laughs and whistles. While Deng approved the release of some political prisoners after succeeding Mao in 1978, he also supervised the 1957 "Anti-Rightist Campaign" that originally landed Xuan in jail. The irony is lost on no one. "Everyone knows China is getting better and freer," Xuan says. "But we still don't have complete freedom to say anything we think or what we want for the country's future."

When Chairman Jiang started to leave the concert hall last spring, Xuan accompanied him to the door. "Outside the hall, the masses - thousands of them - had gathered to greet Chairman Jiang, and he started waving," Xuan says. "Without realizing it, my hand raised itself and also started waving to the masses." Xuan breaks another political taboo by symbolically making himself Jiang's equal before the crowd.

"Throughout Chinese history, you could be executed for merely wearing the same imperial gold color the emperor wore, and most Chinese people are still terrified of placing themselves on the same level as the rulers," explains a member of the troupe.

"It is a measure of our liberalization that I am allowed to speak so freely," Xuan deadpans. "I have already been imprisoned for 21 years, and am 71 years old. Who is going to put me back in jail?"

Xuan initially gained the limelight by trying to help revive the ancient arts in the wake of Mao Zedong's devastating Cultural Revolution. In assembling masters of Taoist- and Confucian-inspired works dating back 13 centuries, Xuan began gaining headlines and attracting provincial television crews.

"There is an ancient saying that the sky is high and the emperor far away," says Xuan of his courage. The proverb refers to how freedom of speech tends to expand the farther the speaker is from Beijing, and thousands of miles separate remote Lijiang from the Chinese capital.

But Xuan has also been adept at recruiting political patrons and potential guardians against fallout from his show. He has inducted the wealthy, famous, and well-connected as "honorary members" of the Naxi Ancient Music Association. One, the king of Norway, invited the troupe to perform at his palace two years ago.

Besides Jiang Zemin, four other members of the party's ruling Politburo have attended the show to signal their approval for its effort to revive ancient music. But most ordinary concertgoers probably pay more attention to how their leaders are portrayed in Xuan's routines.

Xuan's raking of the party, and his act's growing popularity, reflect a sea change in how urban Chinese view their leaders. While Mao imposed a personality cult that dwarfed the emperor worship that preceded him, Jiang Zemin and his fellow rulers are seen as fallible humans. They are judged by how quickly they raise living standards, strengthen the country, and integrate it into the global village, say many young Chinese.

Xuan says he is undaunted by the threat of re-arrest. "Anyone who messes with me," he deadpans, "had better be warned that I know Chairman Jiang Zemin."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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