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September 30, 2009

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A life-changing year

THE year 1977 is important in Chinese history - that was the year when gaokao, literally "high test," or the national college entrance examination, was resumed after being abolished for 11 years during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

To many, it was a year of deep personal significance, especially to millions of zhiqing (intellectual youth) who were sent by Chairman Mao Zedong from their hometown cities down to the countryside to learn from the peasants.

In 1977, many of them had been working on the farm for nearly a decade, desperate to learn if there were any opportunities for them to go back home. Some took the exam.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, the Shanghai Drama Arts Center will stage "1977," the stories of a group of zhiqing on a remote commune back in 1977, the different life paths they chose, and thus the different lives of their children 30 years later.

Adapted from the box-office hit film "Exam 1977" released in April, the stage play is a real tear-jerker, featuring more than 20 local actors aged between 20 and 60. It includes veteran actors Lu Liang, Zhou Yemang and Wang Heng, and promising young performers Wang Yiran, Liu Peng and Si Yilei.

It has been a long time since Lu, artistic director of Shanghai Drama Arts Center, last performed on the stage.

"I'm very 'picky' in selecting the roles nowadays," he explains. "'1977' appeals to me for its great art value."

Lu plays Lao Chi, a stubborn factory director who manages the zhiqing workers on a farm in northeast China. When he learns about reinstatement of the exam, he feels angry, helpless, and lost. He cannot accept the fact that he's going to lose his power over those educated young people.

"I have never played such a role, not even a similar one," Lu says. "It is a challenge and I'm glad to take it."

Other characters include Chen Qiong, a pretty, hardworking Shanghainese who is looked down upon because of her family background - her father used to be a school teacher, an intellectual, who was considered a "bad influence" during the "cultural revolution."

There's also Chen's lover, Pan Zhiyou, Lao Chi's favorite zhiqing worker, who is indecisive about whether to become a village official or leave the farm; Chen's old-time neighbor, A San, once the "smartest" student in their middle school back in Shanghai, who chooses to marry a local woman and start a family on the farm.

Director Wang Xiaoying, vice principal of the Beijing-based National Theater Company of China, feels a special link to the play. A national first-grade director, Wang himself took the 1977 exam. He was accepted by a technology university the next year, but he gave up the opportunity. In 1979, he was accepted by the Central Academy of Drama.

"The year 1977 was the start of the changes to a whole generation, a time full of dreams and hopes for the future," Wang recalls. "I got the chance to choose my life path and I worked hard to get through it, which was unimaginable before 1977.

"The play tries to showcase the significant changes in the country and its people through individual stories," he says.

Date: through October 11 (closed on Monday), 7:30pm

Address: 288 Anfu Rd

Tickets: 100-280 yuan (half price for students)

Tel: 6473-0123


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