Voices Carry: Behind Bars and
Backstage during China’s Revolution and Reform

By Ying Ruocheng and Claire Conceisen

Reviewed by Ross Terrill
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2010)

Ruocheng Ying and Claire Conceison. Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage during China's Revolution and Reform. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefied, 2009. 246 pp. 0-7425-5555-0 / 978-0-7425-5555-6 (paper); 0-7425-5554-2 / 978-0-7425-5554-9 (cloth).

Ruocheng Ying and Claire Conceison. Voices Carry: Behind Bars and Backstage during China’s Revolution and Reform. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefied, 2009. 246 pp. 0-7425-5555-0 / 978-0-7425-5555-6 (paper); 0-7425-5554-2 / 978-0-7425-5554-9 (cloth).

The Chinese actor and director Ying Ruocheng (1929-2003) was a genuine article, funny, honest, self-aware, not a complainer. He stands as one of the beacons of PRC cultural life. A Manchu, a Catholic, with eminent grandparents and a host of Western friends, Ying nevertheless lived on a knife edge of danger from capricious political winds. Voices Carry is a sobering book in that even well-connected Ying, long after Mao was gone, and while vice-minister of culture from 1986 to 1990, had to navigate political currents. As an unabashed pro-Westerner, he was recurrently suspect. But, undaunted, he tells us at the end of his story: “In my mind, the new ideas all came from the West” (p. 186).

Few memoirs by public figures published in China are candid. Voices Carry is an exception.[1] The book is a gem, not to be missed by any student of Chinese culture or politics. It comes to us direct from Beijing thanks to Claire Conceison, who gathered the final fragments from Ying as he lay dying.

In Ying’s story, old China’s privileges collide with Mao’s abortive efforts to socially engineer a new China. The Yings were one of those twentieth-century families that spanned monarchy and communism, Mainland and Taiwan, turmoil and tight order. Voices Carry will certainly be of interest to historians tracing leading Chinese families in the first half of the twentieth century. One of Ying’s grandfathers was knighted by the Vatican for his contributions to the Catholic Church in China (which included founding Furen University). Readers not especially familiar with China will be startled to see how important class remained in China during Ying’s upbringing and even after Mao’s “New China” was founded in 1949.

Raised in a missionary school with many foreigners, he learned English quickly. “In a short time I could speak English,” he writes. “I could even quarrel in English with the Western boys” (p. 108). Extraordinarily for one with such a command of English, he never once left China until at age fifty-one he visited the United Kingdom. Ying was something of a daredevil, but also a consummate professional. He loved the theater but he also knew how to navigate politics. He was an intellectual of high literary and musical tastes, but resourceful also in any realm open to his enthusiasm and talent.

Ying resembled a bird that feels it can fly anywhere despite wind and temperature. To an extent he did. It is not that he had good political judgment, or bad. In this book there are refreshingly few political judgments. Yet it is unavoidable in China to have contact with authority, and Ying did too, from his years as political prisoner to his years as vice-minister. I know a few Chinese who have flown free like Ying. It usually takes luck, innocence, connections, or talent that the government needs. Ying had several of these.

It makes for a readable book, at any rate, that Ying does not attempt one more analysis of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other lurches of the party-state. Yet in a few words here and there, sometimes humorous, he says much about politics. Of the episode in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus fed 50,000 people with two loaves of bread and five fish, he quips: “They could have used him during the Great Leap Forward” (p. 108).

The last time Ying saw his father was in Beijing when the Communists took over. Ying was shown a letter to his father from the CCP, urging him to stay on in Beijing. Father looked worried and felt the Communists might squeeze him over his Catholicism. Ying said to his father: “No one would interfere with that” (p. 64). But the father knew better and fled to Taiwan. Later, relatives of Ying’s struck trouble because of their Catholic faith.

Mostly, the zigs and zags in Ying’s fortunes had less to with his own behavior, whether reporting for the government (more below) or practicing his beloved theater art, than with maneuvers of high politics. His patron Peng Zhen’s fall was enough to put Ying in prison (1968-1971), despite his record of spying for the very authorities who turned the key in his prison door. When Nixon was due in Beijing in 1972, Ying was again carted off, this time to the countryside to keep him from contact with Americans descending on the city.

A play, Taoyuan, which he produced in 1974, led to further trouble and, surprisingly, he decided to leave theater for a job with the boring magazine China Reconstructs. His reasoning was that Jiang Qing, “a kind of superproducer on the Mainland,” was twenty years younger than her husband Mao and could be expected to be around for many years. Ying did not relish the prospect. But happily he returned to the theater in 1979, after Mao’s death and Jiang Qing’s imprisonment, producing many plays and acting also in the films The Last Emperor and Little Buddha. But politics failed to loosen up as economics did. Even in the 1990s the delicacy of Shaw’s Major Barbaraproduction in Chinese was such that four vice-ministers of propaganda fell one after the other.

It is depressing to read Ying relating that he produced the Soviet play The Forty-First in the early 1950s, with no mention of its appalling contents. The heroine is a female soldier in Leninist tunic, her hair short, her lips a thin line of determination. She sets up a rendezvous with her lover, a charming poet who resists all pressures to enter the Communist Party. As during previous encounters, the pair kiss and murmur love-talk. The audience begins to think life in Communist China might retain a human touch. But suddenly the female soldier pulls out of the embrace, steps back, takes out a gun and kills the poet. The curtain falls. Before the onstage story takes place, she has killed forty previous vacillating males who were sentimental enough to put feelings before the imperatives of class struggle. The poet bleeding on the floor was her forty-first triumph offered up to Mao’s revolution. I wish Conceison had given the reader an endnote on this plot.

Voices Carry is essentially the story of an artist and a cosmopolitan, neither of which Beijing has steadily valued. That Ying achieved as much as did was a feat. From an early age he was bold and mischievous. He does not blush to tell of his expulsion from no less than three different schools. It’s a wonder he didn’t break out of prison! But then, extraordinarily enough, he managed to enjoy himself in prison, by filling his days with useful deeds and mind-claiming games. “I watched many prisoners take their own lives or go insane,” he writes, “and I became determined that would not happen to me” (p. 3). The chief guard said to the assembled prisoners: “All we require you to do here is read Mao’s works” (p. 21). Watches were confiscated as dangerous; if prisoners could check the time, that might lead to trouble. In the cell, Ying was counselor to all who asked, never complaining but searching for a strategem to make life more bearable. “By spring of 1971,” Ying notes of the year he was eventually released, “I had managed to put myself in charge of prisoners’ shopping” (p. 46). The shopping gave him a chance–with a guard at his elbow–to see the outside world. “The first thing I bought for all the girls was a little mirror. Oh, they loved it. They hadn’t looked at themselves for ages” (p. 46). Of course, Ying being Ying, he also planned to use the mirrors to flash Morse code for communication among the prisoners. When he was released, relatives said to him one after the other: “You’re still alive!” He remarks, “And that was no joke–not at the time, anyway” (p. 58).

Readers may question the structure of the book, which spends sixty pages on Ying’s imprisonment before starting on his life story. And the last part, as Ying’s health and energy waned, trail off and disregard chronology. But the passages on prison are among the most detailed and vivid we have in the literature. And throughout the volume there is a refreshing bluntness.

Voices Carry has been a major project for Conceison, a labor of love, persistence, and understanding. She has gone to great lengths to offer context in endnotes for readers who may need them. It is hard to think of any US-PRC literary collaboration more complex and valuable than this one, or to think of a personal cultural bridge between the PRC and the West as active and influential as Ying.

Conceison excuses Ying fairly readily for his spying (she seeks to avoid the term) on foreigners for the Public Security Bureau over many years. Conceison calls this unit “a quite visible branch of the government,” for which “there is no direct equivalent of this kind of organization in the US.” But there is: the FBI. It has a huge visible office in Washington and many across the US; you can phone them up. As a graduate student and Harvard faculty member, I was informed upon as an Australian national in the late 1960s and early 1970s by people who were doing for the FBI what Ying did for the PSB. I must say I did not appreciate it (when I found out); and I would definitely call it spying. The best one can say in Ying’s defense is not that many did it, as Conceison clings to, but that a totalitarian system makes victims of its people morally as well as physically. In Conceison’s defense, it is proper to point out that she was Ying’s collaborator and had to put in–and leave out–what he wished. She wisely chose to write of this dark side of Ying in her Introduction.

Arthur Miller and Ying worked together on a famous Beijing production of Death of a Salesman in 1983. Miller was evidently a better collaborator than he was an observer of China. “For me,” Miller wrote of the PRC, “China was primarily a political and social revolution I had followed since the thirties when the names of Mao Zedong and Zhu De were like flares shot into the sky out of a human sea, a hitherto silent mass of people suddenly defying the Japanese fascists and prophesying the dawn of reason and liberty in Asia. . . . It seemed to promise a new stage of human development, a Marxist revolution whose leaders had a sense of humor.” Ying’s China did not quite match Miller’s.

But the Miller play was a triumph for Ying. His comment on the character Willy Loman was true of Ying himself: “He could walk through any wall and could communicate with whomever he was in the mood to” (p. 161). For an actor, Ying was unusually practical, fatalistic, and resourceful. Of course, Voices Carry gives his side of the turmoil that sometimes engulfed him, and it is quite clear Ying had his faults, but I found the book totally engaging.

Ross Terrill‘s last book, The New Chinese Empire (Basic), won the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His earlier works include Madam Mao (Stanford), The Australians (Simon & Schuster), and Mao (Harvard).


[1] Voices Carry was also translated into Chinese and published with additional illustrations, as Shui liu yun zai: Ying Ruocheng zizhuan (Zhongxin chubanshe / CITIC). The Chinese edition was listed as one of the top 10 books of 2009 by the Southern Metropolitan News (Nanfang dushi bao).