''The people are precious, the ruler is light.'' This dictum of 4th-century Chinese sage Mencius, meaning that the ruler's role is less important than that of the people, is the moral of a new play by Bai Hua.
Entitled ''The Golden Spear of the King of Wu and the Sword of the King of Yue,'' it is playing every night to packed houses at Peking's Capital Theater. The audiences love the play but critics seem nervous: Although public performances have been going on since March 13, only the English language newspaper China Daily has yet published a review.
Bai Hua is also author of ''Bitter Love'' (also known as ''Unrequited Love'') , a film that caused a controversy two years ago because of its scarcely veiled criticism of Mao Tse-tung and its anguished cry: ''You love your Motherland, does your Motherland love you?'' The Army newspaper Jiefang Junbao roundly attacked the author, intellectuals lined up to support him, and eventually he was let off with mild self-criticism.
Today, in the more relaxed atmosphere following the 12th Communist Party Congress last fall, Bai Hua boldly presents the story of Gou Jian, a feudal ruler of 2,500 years ago, who lived frugally, worked hard, and gained his people's trust while in adversity, only to turn after victory into a despot indulging himself with women and wine and clanging shut the great doors of his magnificent palace to keep out the people.
Historical plays are a popular subject for dramatists these days. Writer after writer is said to be working on such plays because, in time-honored Chinese fashion, they can be used to criticize aspects of contemporary society.
It is potentially a dangerous practice. No writer can forget that Wu Han, dramatist and former vice-mayor of Peking, was ''persecuted to death,'' as the phrase goes, during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 for his play ''Hai Rui Dismissed From Office.''
Many theatergoers who have seen Bai Hua's latest play identify Gou Jian with Mao Tse-tung, whose ''grave errors in the evening of his life'' are now publicly acknowledged by persons such as Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the Communist Party. Some have thought the play was intended as a warning to the Communist Party, or to its senior leader Deng Xiaoping.
The selflessness of party cadres in the days before the communist revolution of 1949 and the feudalistic behavior and luxurious life style of many cadres since then are the subject of frequent media comment these days.
One veteran and respected leader, Chen Yun, has even said that the party's work style after having achieved power is a matter of ''life and death'' for the party.
The cautiousness of the critics toward the play reflects the general uneasiness of the cultural scene today.
On the one hand, it is unimaginable that a play such as this could have been performed during Mao's lifetime. On the other hand, conservative diehards have been silenced, but everyone knows they continue to exist.
There have been enough shifts in the political line to make liberals too openly applaud some of the points made by the play.
In the play's final scene, the loyal minister Wen Zhong, who has shared weal and woe with his ruler, desperately pleads: ''Great king, since ancient times, the people are more important than the ruler. . . . Your palace, your beautiful girls, your music, your banquets, your solemn dignities, your honors, your ceremonies, your self-confidence all come from the fact that you have gained the people's hearts. The people's hearts alone are the foundation of the throne, the people's hearts alone are the guarantee of general morale. To lose the people's hearts is to lose all.''
King Gou Jian's cold response is to give Wen Zhong the privilege of suicide.
Gou Jian's struggle with the King of Wu is a well-known episode in ancient Chinese history. But Bai Hua's interest in what happens to Gou Jian after victory is new.
There is also a love interest in the story of the famous beauty Xi Shi, who is sent as a gift to the King of Wu, but who is in love with Fan Li, another minister of Gou Jian. Fan Li, unlike Wen Zhong, sees through his monarch's fatal flaw long before the moment of victory. Once Xi Shi has accomplished her mission of killing the King of Wu, Fan Li slips away with her to begin a new life far from rulers and princes.
Directed by Lan Tianye and with music by Jin Ziguang, the play uses a multi-level stage, figurative backdrops, and a minimum of stage property, with imaginative use of music and lighting to keep the action flowing throughout its seven scenes. There is no curtain.