Friday, 29 July 2011

Qing Ching

Taoism is the ancient Chinese religion that hooked up with Buddhism to make Zen. Beloved of stupid western hippies, who quote the Tao Te Ching before slipping back into a stoned stupor, it is all the more difficult to understand because it refuses to define its central concept.

Qing Ching is “the first ever artistic attempt to showcase the Taoist philosophy on stage," says James Tee Wee. It highlights the particular preoccupations of this rich spiritual tradition. “The story line itself is based upon a very strong Taoist culture. Take for example the duality of soft versus hard, and the ideas of non-doing, immortality, natural balance, and ultimate quietude: one will find the teaching of Lao Tzu presented in abundance. The us of tai chi movement, sword technique, calligraphy, chess games, music instruments, and praying rituals on stage are all very representative of Taoism. Even the scenery wagon on stage resemble a pair of Ying and Yang!” 

Taoism is one of those traditions of thought that confuses simplistic ideas about the difference between religion and philosophy. While it does have a splendid pantheon of gods – and Qing Cheng is a story about lovers who live a thousand plus years, suggesting a magical rather than rational universe – it can be elegantly reduced to a series of epigrams that might not reflect western philosophy – Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, is more mystical than logical – but don’t fall into the category of religion as defined within the Judeo-Christian heritage. This might explain why hippies love it, and why Richard Dawkins hasn’t written a book condemning it as child abuse.

Tai Chi – the elegant martial art that doesn’t involving kicking or punching anyone, and a gentle alternative to the contortions of yoga in gyms across the UK – is another part of Taoism that has made the journey to the West. For RinkyDink, “like calligraphy, meditation, and many others, martial art is part of the total concept of Taoist wellness lifestyle. The musical would not be a complete Taoist presentation without martial art.”

Surprisingly, given theatre’s current obsession with incorporating everything from wrestling to monkey moves into the action, this use of martial arts is not that common in China. “Performing arts like Sichuanese face-change, Beijing opera, and many folk dances around China do not involve martial art. They may have some kind warming up exercise but it's not martial art.”

The Ying and Yang is the central image of Taoism, and symbolises the complex relationship between contrasting elements that makes us Taoism’s most distinctive – and well-known – concept. Given that “the Tao which can be named is not the Tao,” it is perhaps surprising that theatre has not been quicker to play with its precepts, since it contains that ambiguity that is ideal for a challenging performance.  

Christian religious art – from Botticelli’s Annunciation to David Mach’s controversial exhibition down near Waverley Station – takes on all manner of forms, but James Tee Wee observes that Taoism dictates that its art has a particular quality. “The practitioner has to master their heart and soul. It is not just as simple as controlling them but to subdue all impulses and let the being itself blend very harmoniously with universe.”

As the performance reveals, this philosophy can be found in many arts, but the quality of the artist is, in itself, the ideal being expressed. “One can easily spot a uniqueness in all Taoist arts, which is the feel of harmony. The act can be swift and forceful but the results are always graceful and smooth.”

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