“Salesman in Beijing: Intercultural exchange through drama”

“Salesman in Beijing: Intercultural exchange through drama”

(Arthur Miller, top center, with the actors who played the Lowman family in the Chinese premiere of the play ).

“Salesman in Beijing: an intercultural exchange through drama”

China and the United States have had an unquestionably turbulent relationship over their lifetimes, particularly after the communist party took control in China as both countries have passively and aggressively partaken in long-lasting red and and blue feud rooted in fundamental ideological differences regarding economic policies, governmental ethics, and treatment of the most basic human rights. At the time of the red scare judging China, in it’s tumultuous beginnings as a newly communist nation, for its ideology was easy and, to some degree, well justified due the shortcomings their system had brought to those who had followed its promises. But nowadays, where China has risen to become a world power after one of the highest rates of economic growth in modern times, The United States, and the West, are now forced to reassess their approach in dealing with this nation which, although highly modernized, still differs with American at a fundamental level regarding ideological and cultural principles.

However, if there’s one byproduct of each of these nations that has not come under high scrutiny by the opposing country, it would be the arts. Sure, the Chinese government had long filtered and regulated the artistic panorama of theatre and other performing arts during its Cultural Revolution, but since the end of Mao’s era China has opened it’s doors to western art forms, adapted, either directly imported from the United States or from Taiwan, that have influenced national styles of music, theatre, film, etc… In the same vein of the Maoist idea of new wine in an old cup (new content in an old form), these art forms have undergone a process of sino-fication in which Chinese culture has incorporated these new set of ideas and aesthetics. On the other hand, The United States, the indisputable leader of modern and pop culture, has not actively appropriated Chinese art forms into its popular culture, but an increased population of Chinese-Americans and economic trading and China has raised topics in the mainstream culture that have been addressed through art-forms, particularly theatre. Two very different approaches to art these two nations have, from the communal Maoist approach to the individual-oriented American fashion, and as their relationship has and will continue to intensify over the years, so will a mutual involvement in the arts.

Art, or at least good art, has the power to elitist both intellectually and emotionally strong responses from an audience. Both responses have, as Mao Zedong knew well, the ability to move the masses and progressively change a country’s way of thinking. Therefore, it raises a very salient question; how does art from one country fare in the other given the vast cultural and ideological differences, and do people’s reactions to the art, at both individual and societal levels, alter or influence in any way the greater national ideals? What happens when you translate a classic American play with quintessential American ideals for Chinese theatre-goers? Is there anything to be gained through an intercultural exchange of ideas, and if so how successful and is it at changing perspectives on the opposing countries culture and ideology? Through the examination of the 1984 Beijing production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, including it’s dramatic content and the general public’s reaction to his play, we’ll look at the exchange in ideology and performance style between the two nations, its impact on the spectator’s mainstream culture, and its impact on China-US relationships at the macro level.

“Death of a Salesman” Original Chinese Production


Death of a Salesman, written in 1949 by celebrated American playwright Arthur Miller, is one of the greatest pieces of 20th century American theatre and drama, and one of the first plays to capture the life, ideals, and struggles of the middle-class quintessentially American everyday-man through his pursuit and delusions of the American dream. The play, which was originally envisioned by Miller as an objective social commentary on the “corrupt value system gone horribly awry”5 , struck hard into audiences hearts, who left the theatre in tears at the sight of their own  lives, their hopes and dreams, so vividly and strikingly represented on the stage. It has become a classic work of the American theatre cannon, and continues to serve abroad, in both English and in translation, as a representation of the American theatre and life.

With the opportunity to stage Death of a Salesman in China, the natural question to ask was how would Chinese audiences react to a play that was, in all it’s essence, American, and a play that represented represented a set of ideals at a dichotomy with those found in China. Would Chinese audiences be able to respond at the same emotional level as their American counterparts? How relevant could 1950’s middle America be to China given all connotations and references to American culture, some of them vital to the greater understanding of the play and it’s themes, are inextricable to Chinese audiences; for example the idea of the traveling salesman, an essential image to the understanding of the protagonist Willy Loman, which is a trade that was barely to not existent in the Chinese society of the time. Nonetheless, in the spirit of the Nixon administration’s policy for increased aperture and communication with China5, Arthur Miller accepted the invitation by Cao Yu, leader of the Chinese Theatre Association, to not only oversee the production, but to direct it himself.


Miller, who was also skeptical of the degree of understanding and appreciation a Chinese audience would have for his themes and ideas of his work, knew from his previous experiences with foreign production of this work, that the focus should be, not on the ideology, but on the humanity of the play and it’s family of characters. In “Salesman in Beijing”, his published account of his experiences from working on this production, he writes extensively and with specificity about the culture-bending rehearsal process with the actors. Whereas most western productions in China sought to represent white-ness in the actors, often through the employment of blonde or red colored wigs and blanching of make-up of some sorts, Miller insisted that “the way to make this play most American is to make it most Chinese.”, and to not resort to . He believed that the best way deal with the clash of culture is to embrace it, not to domesticate China by resorting to “cultural mimicry”, but to rather let China make Salesman it’s own. “One of my main motives in coming here is to try to show that there is only one humanity. That our cultures and languages set up confusing sets of signals and these prevent us from communicating and sharing one another’s thoughts and sensations. Nothing at all will come of it unless you are emotionally true to your characters and the story. If you are, I am betting that the cultural surface will somehow take care of itself.”

As much truth as there is in that statement it’s important to keep in mind that truth, at least the theatrical kind, is always subjective to performers and spectators alike. In the western, and particularly American, school of drama, this truth is often rooted within the realm of psychological realism, a style in which truth bears a much stronger resemblance to reality. However, that does not discredit truth within styles that don’t follow the conventions of  “psychologically honest and truthful” acting. Although there is a universal nature to acting and performance, the Chinese actors will have a much different interpretation of what is “emotionally true” that that for their american counterparts. Miller, who understood the subjectivity of truth very well, encouraged them to work within their own mode of expression rather letting them concern themselves with appearing to be western. The actors had to perform in which ever mode felt more truthful to Chinese people. Just from watching the video recording of this production, it is not immediately clear whether the performance is so vastly different from American productions because of the actor’s nationality and culture, or because the acting style differs considerably from that common in the States. It is neither, and it is both, for art and culture are tied hand by hand; art is a reflection on culture as much as culture is influence by the art which imitates it. As a foreigner accustomed to American performance aesthetics, it is challenging to engage emotionally in this performance, all linguistic barriers aside, because the life created onstage by these actors is not one that is easily recognizable to a foreigner,

Looking at it from the other side, Chinese audiences are able to invest emotionally in the story not in spite of it’s ideological Americanism but because it is at most basic level a story about a family – a father and his sons. There lay the right chord, clear as water; as one of the young actors said, “One thing about the play that is very Chinese is the way Willy tries to make his sons successful. The Chinese father always wants his sons to be ‘dragons.”. Although the story about family are unanimously universal, what about the ideas rooted in the world of the play that might not be quotidian in the Chinese world.


Miller’s venture in China was seen as a great success in advancing US-China relationships at both a diplomatic and an artistic level, but how much cultural exchange did it actually facilitate between the two nations? We have, in Miller’s Salesman in Beijing, an american account of the occasion, but there are no published accounts written from the Chinese perspective, meaning we only really have a description of the Chinese audiences’ reaction in the form of a reaction to their reaction by Miller, an American who unashamedly prescribed himself as “a deaf man searching their eyes for emotions, which finally [he] cannot read.”. Belinda Kang’s essay “Death of a Salesman and Post-Maoist theory” offers insight on the sociopolitical context and the state of China’s national theatre at the time of the production of Salesman.

Contrary to how it’s usually perceived in the West, Kang argues that this production of Death of a Salesman was first and foremost a Chinese event, not an arbitrary chosen piece of drama to produce but one carefully chosen by the Chinese artist-intellectuals of the Chinese Theatre Association to push the theatre scene out of the Maoist conventions and into a much more artistically free period of the Post-Maoist era. Though this might appear to be a heavily convoluted theory it serves as an effective account to understand the Chinese perspective on this event. According to Kang, Miller’s visit was not actually a pedagogical incursion as he had been led to believe by those who asked him, the playwright, to direct this production, but rather a facade which covered their intention to challenge the status quo surrounding performance culture; where the commune was placed over the individual. Why did the government, who had repressed western plays and theatrical techniques in order to suppress any incentive towards artistic individualism, not oppose the production of the play which spoke of the American Dream. Just a month after the production of Death of a Salesman, the government targeted the absurdist Chinese play The Bus Stop for dealing with topics, among other themes, of individualism in China.

I argue, in parallel line to Kang’s argument, that because the idea of individualism was seen through the lens of a foreign play (Salesman), there was enough detachment between those involved in the project and the dangerous ideas it touched upon for them to cover defiant intent. Also, the fact that the play presents the demise of a man his delusional pursue of the American Dream, not to mention that Miller had an empathic history with communism in America, made for the perfect facade in the form of a criticism to the broken set of American values corrupted by capitalism. However, I do disagree with Ms. Kang’s statement that China were “irresponsibly exposing audiences to the harmful mesmeric effects of foreign hegemonic forces, through this production; ostensibly an act of “self-imperialism”. If anything it opened the doors for not only more plays and art forms, but to new ideals that would help mold and develop a modern China.


One would expect that the acclaim for a production of this play would be even greater nowadays, as China has grown closer to the ideas presented in Death of the Salesman. However, the 2006 Beijing Art Theatre production of Death of a Salesman, only two decades the junior of it’s highly acclaimed predecessor, was meet with perplexing and less than brilliant reviews far from those received by the original incarnation.  The paradox here is that in those twenty years Chinese society has, if anything, appropriated more cultural elements from the United States becoming much more familiar with some of the topics covered in the original.“In a sense, the 1983 production served as a cautionary tale for a country on the verge of economic takeoff”9, whereas, today, China is soaring high, up, and away in an economic prosperity that has created a sizable and substantial middle class. If anything the world of Billy Loman is closer to 2006 than 1983 China. Then why are audiences responding so coldly to this particular staging? Weather the fault lies in the actual production, or in the play, and the relevance of it’s subject matter, itself, it’s impossible to determine. However, reviews for this production note that the characters seem too Chinese for the play, most likely as in “bad soap opera” Chinese; an imitation of American forms, precisely what Miller sought to avoid. It seems that the production focused too much in forcing the ideas of the play onto an audience that was familiar enough with the culture to understand it, instead of focusing on the humanity of the characters. As the most rudimentary lesson in text analysis and interpretation will prove, the best way to bring the ideas and themes of a play to life is not to force them out, but to spark life in those which believe and carry these ideals – the people of the play.

The greatest gift from intercultural experiences such as this one is perhaps not an ideological exchange, but rather a process through which we realize how much we have in common, or as Arthur Miller puts it a “non-national event, that is a human circumstance”. Art, in one of it’s many purposes, can build bridges between people, even when the mode of expressions in used are not natural to one another, as with the American play and the Chinese actors. However, it’s the very process of discovery, dispelling layer by layer all cultural constructions until we find the essential human quality we all share what makes intercultural theatre so striking and so relevant in a world where we often acknowledge each other’s presence, yet often fail to truly connect with one another. Searching for a common humanity will reveal much more than searching for abstract ideas, for ideas are byproducts of human interaction and an idea standing by itself is nothing but an inert. Regardless of the sociopolitical context surrounding the Chinese premiere of Salesman, along with any theories on the reason for such an invitation to Miller, audiences were able to hold off on thinking about the ideas conveyed by the play, contrary to how audiences had ideas shoved down their throats during the Cultural Revolution, and instead were able to give themselves in fully to the story and the characters.

Interculturalism in the arts will only continue to grow as the people and nations of the world become more and more connected and furthermore dependent on one another. I find this story of the Chinese premiere of Salesman as a very fitting example for this class, for we where able to see an American text decontextualized for Chinese audiences without resorting to a heavy adaptation or domestication of the text into Chinese. This was not a process of amalgamation or hybridization between the two cultures, but rather one where respect led to a path of discovery. Neither the story, nor characters, nor the dialogue, basic translation aside, where tampered with, yet the play somehow managed to be both American and Chinese, something which at the time had always been deemed impossible. Nevertheless, it was a piece of both worlds. “I think that by some unplanned magic we may end up creating something not quite American or Chinese but a pure style springing from the heart of the play itself” – Arthur Miller.



1. Chinese Theatre Association, , prod. 《推銷員之死》Death of a Salesman. 1983. Film. 19 Dec 2013. <http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTUwMzM0NDA4.html>.

2. Miller, Arthur. Salesman in Beijing. New York City: The Viking Press, 1984. Print.

3. Houghton, Norris. “Understanding Willy.” New York Times 24 June 1983, n. pag. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/11/12/specials/miller-beijing.html>.

4. Thomas, Gustavo. ““Salesman in Beijing”, a book by Arthur Miller, 24 years later..” Ipernity, 5 Sept. 2008. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <http://www.ipernity.com/blog/gustavothomas/89919>.

5. “Arthur Miller Says Chinese Understand His ‘Salesman.” Washington Post 1 May 1893, n. pag. Print. <http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/147610976>.

6. Spender, Stephen. “Willy Loman Takes On New Territory.” Washington Post 13 May 1893, n. pag. Print. <http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/138367851>.

7. Brater, Enoch. “Cross-cultural Encounters: Arthur Miller and the International Theatre Community .” Arthur Miller’s Global Theatre. 2007: 3-13. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015068806390;view=1up;seq=21>.

8. Kong, Belinda. “Death of a Salesman and Post-Mao Chinese Theatre.” Trans. Array Arthur Miller’s global Theatre. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 2007. 35-53. Print. <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015068806390;view=2up;seq=63>.

9. Zhou, Raymond. “Chinese theatergoers don’t buy Salesman.” China Daily. 06 04 2006: n. page. Web. 19 Dec. 2013. <http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2012-04/06/content_14992314.htm>