17.20.21/05 > 20:00
18/05 > 15:00
Chinese > Subtitles: Fr & Nl

“He who usurps a title will never keep his word”.

(Chinese proverb)

How are moral standards created in History? What model do they serve? And with what aim?

Initially a painter, before moving on to installations and documentaries in 1989, Wang Jianwei took up theatre with Ping Feng, created at the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts in 2000, to tackle the burning issues that he felt could not be addressed anywhere other than the stage. Ceremony draws on the story of Ts’ao Ts’ao, the prime minister who appropriated the imperial throne under the Han dynasty. Over the centuries, three different pieces of writing have related this episode. In the light of today, Ceremony explores the historical fabric of a truth given to be irrefutable, drummed out over a thousand years…


Wang Jian Wei


Zhang Ce, Leong You Lian, Fang Jun Ju, Shao Ze Hui, Yeong Chin Chin, Lin Yeow Haw


Wang Jian Wei, Meng Xiao Guaug


Chen Di Li


Wang Qi


Fu Yu


Festival Temps d'Images, Arte, Ferme du Buisson, Les Spectacles vivants Centre Pompidou, Festival d'Automne à Paris, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts


KVS/de bottelarij, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

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A simple story. A storyteller-drummer at the court of tyrannical emperor Ts’ao Ts’ao summons the public and openly insults their supreme leader. Furious, Ts’ao Ts’ao wants to kill the insolent man but is too cowardly to take charge of it himself. He sends the troubadour to one of his very quick-tempered subordinates and the outcome is as expected: when the drummer criticises the irascible courtier he is sent to be executed. Ceremony, Wang Jianwei’s new theatrical creation, has been inspired by Drum Rolls Criticising Ts’ao. Not without reason.

What is it that initiates a process of creation in you?

I like exploring the flaws in knowledge we have acquired: what they evade, the enigmas of history. I like questioning what we lose sight of in their many interpretations. I like exploring the ‘intermediate zones’. How different interpretations, perceptions and forms of knowledge can relate to one other, how they intersect and overlap, and how new realms of potential emerge which have so far been ignored.

To do this you get your inspiration from texts that already exist. How do you choose them?

I work with plays and fragments of literature. Both Ping Feng (performed at the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts 2000, ed.) and Ceremony come from known gems of Chinese art and literature. Ping Feng was inspired by a scroll of silk painted more than 1,000 years ago by a painter at the imperial court, Gu Hongzhong. He had been appointed by the emperor to spy on a high-ranking civil servant he was suspicious of and to report on him. Gu Hongzhong did this by painting what he had observed. With time the painting Han Xizai gives a Banquet has become one of the undisputed masterpieces in the history of Chinese painting, and today has pride of place in the Museum of the Forbidden City. Ceremony was also inspired by the famous public accusation Drum Rolls Criticising Ts’ao. I’m not interested in reproducing a story from history or bringing a new aesthetic experience to the stage. I want to ‘read’ history and understand the manner and details of how the different interpretations of it influence our experiences of life and our attitude towards it, our individual and collective consciousness.

Who was Ts’ao?

Ts’ao Ts’ao, (155-220 A.D.) is a particularly significant figure in the history of China. Under the Han dynasty, one of the most turbulent periods in Chinese history, several nobles were fighting for power and had sown division in the country. Ts’ao Ts’ao succeeded in dominating and unifying the provinces in the north. To do this he abused his position as prime minister whilst feigning respect for the emperor who was nothing more than a puppet. When Ts’ao Ts’ao died, his son followed in his footsteps and took over the imperial throne. Already at that time Chinese opinion was criticising his character and the way he acted, taking a swipe at him as an example of the ancient proverb: “He who usurps a title will never keep his word.”

Drum Rolls Criticising Ts’ao seizes on Ts’ao Ts’ao as a classic example of a treacherous courtier. The story is based on three different literary texts about the same subject, spread out over 1,000 years: The History of Han, Romance of Three Kingdoms and a traditional text entitled Kuang Gu Shi Yu Yang San Nong. The writers and styles are very varied – the first text is from the annals of a court chronicler, the second text is a story passed down orally from generation to generation and the third is a traditional play. So there are three interpretations.

Where does the title Ceremony come from?

The title of Ceremony has a double meaning. On the one hand all three literary sources I’ve used mention a place where people gathered together: the ceremony of the drum. This unusual place suggests in advance that we’ll be dealing with a character out of the ordinary. On the other hand the story has a ceremonial nature. It is based on historic texts covering over one thousand years of history. During this period the sustained repetition of this story has resulted in a consolidation of an uncontestable historical image. Serving as a norm, this story became embedded in the collective memory. These two types of ceremony merge together and so describe an irrefutable ‘historical event’.

Why have you chosen theatre? In your opinion, what role ideally should theatre have in contemporary society?

Theatre enables me to state the issue, to express myself directly and in the flesh.

In my view that’s what theatre should be: a way of expressing oneself, expressing different points of view against the general and intellectual background of today. And theatre should take its relationship with contemporary society seriously and firmly establish it at the same time.

Does Ceremony take a stand concerning the society you live in?

Like Ping Feng, this play asks questions and challenges things. It is not simply a reflection of reality, any more than it is a symbolic or suggestive evocation of it. Ceremony reflects the way I’m thinking at the moment, starting from the underlying relationships and intermediate zones I’ve already mentioned. When we examine History from a ‘relational’ point of view, it is something quite different from a succession of past events with no link between them. It becomes a recording of the relationship between events, providing a way of understanding and interpreting them.

Ceremony has been inspired by three literary texts and their process of creation. It uses an individual story to analyse an historic event. Each takes part in the ceremony, as an orator and as an actor. The stage is transformed into a place where present and past blend, allowing the audience to play a role reinforcing this link between the drama and history.

What kind of relationship do you want there to be with the audience?

One of dialogue: being able to ask each other questions.

Will an audience in the West have enough knowledge to appreciate the in-depth analysis your plays offer?

I don’t think the audience requires a special education (in Chinese language or in politics) to understand the play. It’s more about your own way of reading things, your own interpretation. I think that through the dialogues, as through acting the questions and answers taking place on stage, I can convey to the audience all the things ‘at stake’ in this play.

Do circumstances in China influence the way you work?

The technological equipment in the venues where I have to work is definitely not suitable for multimedia performances. I also encounter quite a few financial stumbling blocks along the way. It’s not always easy to have to constantly change venue and convey my ideas to the actors despite it. At the moment my rehearsals are taking place in a meeting room about 40 metres square. I have to remind myself and the actors all the time what the venue we’ll be performing in will be like. It’s a very interesting experience.

What do you never want to see on stage?

A fixed framework, a predictable structure, lack of freedom …

And what attracts you?

Neither black nor white, but grey. I want to experience comprehension and incomprehension at the same time, a balance between doubt and conviction, being pulled by two extremes.

How do you see the world?

We seem to be subjected to two forces in the world: the first is difficult to predict, a natural force; the other is best described as an attempt to impose a change on the world through control. I can only oscillate between the two: I can’t submit myself passively to a general and imposed plan, but I feel powerless in the face of forces coming from I don’t know where and that control me. I can only understand the world from a micro point of view.

So from the outset we have to force ourselves to create a visual experience in order to unify the space we’re actually in and the fictitious space where we will perform or want to perform.

What do you hate most in human nature?

Power and indifference.

What do you like most in it?

Heading off in search of new realms of possibility …

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