Sanding away or genuinely forgetting his rough edges and inconveniences, America each Jan. 17 celebrates the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Beyond some historic sound bites, iconic images and cultural trivia answers (“Montgomery bus boycott,” Selma, Memphis, “Ebenezer Baptist”), it’s a safe bet that few in America — black, white or other — could intelligently discuss the real man for more than a few minutes before entering terra incognita.
With that backdrop, a young American studying in China courtesy of a Fulbright conceived of bringing King to China, first by teaching courses on the U.S. civil rights movement in Beijing and then by shepherding a play on King written by one of her Stanford professors to its Mandarin debut by China’s national theater company.
And now, Cáitrín McKiernan wants to bring King back to America through a documentary on her experience produced by her filmmaking father, Kevin McKiernan, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
The film, Bringing King to China, documents her effort to have the state-sponsored National Theatre Company of China present Clayborne Carson’s Passages of Martin Luther King in Beijing in June 2007. It follows the Chinese cast as they learn the piece, visit modern Atlanta and meet the African-American gospel singers who were part of the production. It showcases China — and to an extent the United States — through that prism, with both Chinese and American scholars adding context throughout.
Video: Bringing King to China trailer
As China and its global diaspora counted down to the Beijing Olympics, Cáitrín and her father were in post-production in their Santa Barbara, Calif., hometown, scurrying to integrate the effects of both the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics into their narrative while still living every documentarian’s purgatory — scouring the bushes for money to complete the project.
But McKiernan can’t help but look beyond today’s needs to tomorrow’s possibilities. She’d like to use the film as a teaching tool in the United States and abroad.
As a Chinese man asks at the end of the rough cut, “Have you thought of using King in the United States?”
The Teddy Bear and the Panda Bear
Martin Luther King and the broader battles to end slavery and then enact civil rights in the United States are known, or at least taught, in China, McKiernan says. The 28-year-old first set foot in Beijing as a 16-year-old exchange student; she later learned Mandarin courtesy of a Rotary Scholarship to Taiwan.
She noted that the Gettysburg Address appears in Chinese textbooks, as do King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the story of Rosa Parks (or “Luo sha Pa ke si” as her name is rendered in pinyin).
Even before the communist era, when the regime found it convenient to point out the West’s failings, China’s popular culture noted the African-American struggle. The first nonclassical drama starring Chinese actors — albeit performed in Japan — was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and since that 1907 production the Chinese have retained warm feelings about the abolitionist saga, feelings that long ago cooled in the U.S.
During the Cold War, Kevin McKiernan says, Mao Zedong made use of the U.S. civil rights struggle even as he sneered at its calls for nonviolence — Mao, after all, wrote “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” — and rejected its religious roots. While agreeing that the color of one’s skin was “totally irrelevant,” Mao saw in King a force for anti-imperialism, a counterweight to African-American entertainers shipped around the world on U.S. State Department goodwill tours.
Still, it’s believed that only upon King’s assassination did the Chinese dictator ever mention the slain pastor by name.
What Mao prized in King has lost prominence in his current U.S. incarnation.
“We’ve come to know the ‘teddy bear’ Martin Luther King — he has a dream and a promise. We wouldn’t have a holiday in the name of someone who thought their country was arrogant,” Kevin McKiernan suggested.
“In the archival material, some of his speeches may remind you of Jeremiah Wright,” he’s observed. The real King spoke of ending the war in Vietnam, of the inequality of the American economic system, of how angry God must be with a country that treats so many of its citizens so badly — statements that at the time turned off huge swaths of the nation, either because they disagreed, sometimes violently, with his goals or because they agreed, sometimes violently, with his goals but rejected his tactics.
Yesterday’s snarling tiger has been rehabilitated into today’s teddy bear.
Parallels and Intersections
Are there parallels between today’s China and King’s America?
While China didn’t have a history of overt slavery, “classless” China does have its own inequality, based less on ethnicity and more on income.
As the communist behemoth rapidly morphs into a capitalist colossus, Cáitrín McKiernan said, “the real marginalized are the poor people of China, who, with or without visas, are building the skyscrapers.” The 2008 Olympics slogan of “One World, One Dream” may ring a little hollow for them.
Skin color also plays a subtle role in discrimination, with paler skin seen as a marker of success and preference; cosmetics to lighten skin sell well. People with darker skin — often from rural areas — do sometimes metaphorically get shunted to the back of the bus, McKiernan said, “because the poor have darker skin because they work outside.”
And while the Han people make up 92 percent of China’s population, that other 8 percent — made up of 55 different ethnic groups — are increasingly restive, as the recent protests over Tibet and the links between Uighurs and al-Qaeda have hinted.
Neither the King play nor the documentary are meant to point fingers at China — a concept both McKiernans deride as rude and pointless.
“I think that’s a mistake the West has been making — in dealing with China, they have been pointing fingers,” Cáitrín McKiernan said. “That’s why showing Martin Luther King works so well over there. It’s a raw struggle here that’s continuing today. So we show that rather than saying, ‘Hey, look at us and how well we’re living.’”
“It’s sensitized us to telling people how to clean up their own houses,” Kevin McKiernan said, recounting words first spoken by his dentist, a native of Taiwan. “It’s saying, ‘This is how we’re cleaning up our house — care to copy us?’” he continued, adding that such indirection might help address issues of Chinese pollution and product liability.
Did the soft lesson, then, of the play take root?
Based on the reactions of some Chinese Cáitrín McKiernan spoke with, it’s a tough call.
Passages’ Chinese director, for example, “was most interested in the issue of who killed King. He was intrigued that violence killed a nonviolent person,” she recalled. (His interest, in fact, created friction as he wanted to exercise editorial license by adding his own conspiratorial bent to Carson’s existing script.)
She recalls hearing more than once, “I think nonviolence is nice and we should use it — until it doesn’t work. Then we should use violent means.” After seeing the play, some American and Chinese students in China thought King’s reliance on nonviolence “was stupid.”
Talking to NPR after Passages debuted, director Wu Xiojiang was quoted, “As China makes gradual progress in politics, I think people will get a clearer understanding of this play’s message. They won’t simply reject it because they think it differs from China’s ideology. We may even find things worth borrowing for our own social advancement.”
But then the director once lashed out at Kevin McKiernan, saying, “Civil disobedience — that’s ridiculous. It will never translate to other behaviors.”
The filmmaker got the last word on this one, Kevin McKiernan said. “In the film, we have (the Hoover Institution’s) Larry Diamond pleased to hear him say that. ‘Let them think that,’ he said. That makes change easier.”
Back in the USA
The play by Carson, who directs the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford, is no stranger to American stages. Based on King’s papers, it has been performed at universities and Baptist churches across the country, with dramatic readings from celebrities ranging from Danny Glover to Condoleezza Rice.
What Cáitrín McKiernan hopes the film brings back is a dialogue, not necessarily about King himself but about human rights in general; specifically, she hopes it will “trigger discussion on who we are as a people and who we are vis-à-vis an emerging superpower.”
When in China, she taught Chinese students about American civil rights. (In fact, Passages was presented, in English, to American students studying abroad and Chinese high school students a month before the National Theatre debut.)
Now, she’d like to see the finished production — assuming some financial angel smiles — be shown in American schools, alongside a lesson plan that puts the story in a broader context. “There’s a great power in it, and I want to see it continue.
“I hope to continue to use the ideas of Martin Luther King, and eventually other leaders, as springboards for dialogue between and among countries.”
Such dialogue has already occurred unexpectedly in the U.S. for the McKiernans. Various Asian Americans who have seen rough cuts of the documentary have talked openly, some for the first time, about the discrimination they’ve experienced. “To think that the racial divide is just black-and-white is woefully insufficient,” Kevin McKiernan said. He expects matters to get worse as China’s star rises and the West focuses more on the panda bear’s claws than its cuteness.
Disclosure: Miller-McCune founder Sara Miller McCune gave seed money to the Bringing King to China project in 2006 — a fact not known to Miller-McCune.com when it committed to doing this story.
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