A German builds cultural bridges between his homeland and China
By Kang Caiqi  ·  2022-11-05  ·   Source: NO.45 NOVEMBER 10, 2022
"When my relatives and friends first learned about my going to China, they joked I was going to a place further than the Moon," Uwe Kräuter laughed. However, this unfamiliarity was shared by the peoples of both sides and when this German first set foot on Chinese soil in 1974, people would often gaze at him with a sense of curiosity.

"Back then, Beijing was still a quiet city—the cars were driving rather slow compared to those in Germany, and bicycles were everywhere. I was prepared for the differences between our countries. I wanted to see what China, a country with a long history and enormous historical achievements, actually looked like," Kräuter told Beijing Review.

After living here for a while, Kräuter found his initial thoughts were changing. He saw people strolling down the street and flying kites at Tiananmen Square, vendors selling sodas by the roadside, children playing football and chasing each other… Life here wasn't all that different from that in other places.

Back then, Kräuter worked as a copyeditor at the Foreign Languages Press (FLP), affiliated with China International Publishing Group (CIPG—today known as China International Communications Group). "I could feel the respect Chinese colleagues had for us foreign experts. They saw us as windows to the world and really wanted to communicate with us. We often received invitations to visit factories, schools, hospitals, etc., as well as to participate in cultural and sporting events to better understand all aspects of society," Kräuter said.

His job also led him to Ying Ruocheng, a friend of his who exposed him to a whole new world. As a translator, Ying was Kräuter's colleague at CIPG, but aside from that, he was also an actor with the Beijing People's Art Theater (BPAT).

Ying introduced Kräuter to the theater and his friends in the artistic and literary circles, including then director of BPAT, and noted Chinese modern dramatist, Cao Yu. And this is how Kräuter first got acquainted with the 1957 stage drama The Teahouse.

Uwe Kräuter revisits the Beijing People's Art Theater on September 29 (ZHANG WEI)

The curtain rises 

"I'd seen The Teahouse several times, because the philosophy of life it embodied made me think of myself. I was facing one of life's tough blows— my mom was seriously ill, and I wasn't even in my homeland," Kräuter said. Playwright Lao She's (1899-1966) clever use of linguistic ingenuity and the Beijing dialect to tie together the fates of several generations all connected with one teahouse in Beijing and half a century of social turmoil starting in 1898, condensed into a few hours of drama, filled him with raw emotion. "Another factor was that I noticed the reactions of the audience, Chinese and foreign alike; all were amazed, overwhelmed by this marvelous play. So I decided to take [the Chinese play and cast] to Germany."

At the mere mention of his idea to his friends at BPAT, Kräuter received some very surprised looks. At that point, no Chinese play had ever trod the boards abroad. To quote Cao: "How can Germans possibly understand Chinese drama? You're dreaming!" But Kräuter didn't budge. In his spare time, he translated The Teahouse's script into German with the help from his colleagues at the FLP. At the same time, he tried to contact the Mannheim National Theater, one of the oldest playhouses in Germany. "I sent a synopsis of The Teahouse, along with its reviews from German critics, to the Mannheim National Theater. These critics had praised this stage drama, some even comparing it with the works of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), a German dramatist and poet of worldwide fame," Kräuter said. 

Mannheim said "yes." After a series of elaborate procedures and preparations, the BPAT cast and The Teahouse finally took to the German stage, which also marked the overseas debut of modern Chinese drama. For German audiences to understand the play, Kräuter's role was that of simultaneous interpreter, for which he had to "play" more than 60 parts. He handled the job tactfully so as to vividly mimic the scenarios without upstaging the onstage actors.

"The play turned out to be a huge success. It was unbelievable how the audiences were completely immersed in the plot and performance. At the curtain call, the theater rang with thunderous applause," Kräuter remembered. In 1980, the physical distance between China and Europe was still difficult to bridge for the peoples of the two places. "Both sides thought of the other as unreachable. So the European audiences were trying to grasp China's social and cultural environment through The Teahouse, and they found so many parallels of life in it," Kräuter said.

The rave reviews weren't limited to ordinary audiences, but also reached media outlets. Badische Zeitung commented "China is within striking distance," while Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung hailed The Teahouse as "a miracle from the Eastern stage."

What's more, courtesy of the efforts of all parties involved, this one-way trip to Germany turned into a 14-city tour across Europe, becoming a significant cultural exchange event between China and Germany.

Full house 

After the BPAT troupe had successfully completed its European tour, the Mannheim National Theater's return visit to China was next on the agenda. And so it happened that two years later, Der Bockerer (The Butcher), one of the representative works of the Mannheim National Theater, took the Beijing and Shanghai stages by storm. "Tickets sold out within hours; and the enthusiasm of the audience was unprecedented, rivaling that of Die Räuber (The Robbers), a masterpiece by [poet and playwright] Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), when it premiered at Mannheim National Theater," Kräuter recalled. As per the audience's request, television stations even replayed the video of the performance many times. "It is estimated that more people have watched this play in China than the total population of the Federal Republic of Germany," he added. "Art has no boundaries."

The triumph of this cultural exchange encouraged Kräuter to continue working in this field and facilitate more cooperation. One example was the collaboration with German television station WDR, co-hosting Heute Abend in Beijing (Tonight in Beijing), a 1987 TV special that featured famous Chinese and European artists, including famous singer Udo Jürgens. "He (Jürgens) couldn't believe he wasn't in Germany, because the applause and joy of the audience was like that in Germany," Kräuter told Beijing Review.

Today, Kräuter still uses his pen to tell his own China story and share his thoughts on trans-cultural experiences. "I have been living in China much longer than in Germany, I'm happy and also proud that I had the courage to come and stay here. Of course, my life in China is not always smooth sailing. But living in this country has given me the chance to get involved in its development and enjoy the opportunities that development has generated, which I have not had or could have imagined anywhere else in the world. The original intention was to stay here for some time. But it has been decade after decade, and I'm still here. Every day, I'm doing what I enjoy doing most—comparing Chinese and German cultures," Kräuter said.

(Print Edition title:Into the Spotlight) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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