For months now, Caitrin McKiernan has gone from place to place in this city to ask Chinese people an unlikely question: What does the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you?
The questions don’t end there, either. In most of these gatherings, she gets far more specific, burrowing into the history and tactics of the American civil rights movement.
“Who knows what the Birmingham bus boycott was?” she asked a group of university students in May. “What is a sit-in?” “What’s the meaning of separate but equal?” At the level of language, every one of those terms presents a formidable challenge, even to a woman who has spent years in this country and speaks fluent Chinese.
But language is not the half of it. How can one translate Dr. King’s actions into the realm of ideas for an audience in a city notably hostile to protests? How does one convey to Chinese people the meaning of the life of a man who died fighting for civil rights nearly 40 years ago?
The answers may have begun to emerge since the production at the National Theater on Sunday of the play “Passages of Martin Luther King Jr.” by the noted King scholar Clayborne Carson and based on the life and words of the American civil rights leader. Ms. McKiernan, who studied under Mr. Carson at Stanford and is the play’s producer, was prepared for any kind of audience response, from deeply moved to completely stumped and anything in between.
But the responses of Ms. McKiernan’s discussion groups and the reactions of her cast suggested that Dr. King’s message would hit home here, that Chinese viewers would see parallels to divisions in their own society. That prospect poses a thorny problem for the government, which, on one hand, has endorsed Dr. King’s work as a blow for the class struggle and against American imperialism, but on the other insists that racism and discrimination are purely problems of decadent Western societies.
During one recent discussion at a Beijing university, after viewing excerpts from the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” students explored their feelings on the discrimination they discern between migrant workers and more affluent residents of the country’s eastern cities. Others spoke about the inferior position of women in their society or of being treated badly during visits overseas or the predominance of American power in the world.
Ms. McKiernan has avoided lecturing her audiences, or even steering the discussions. “I don’t want this to be about what happened in the U.S. in some past year,” she said. “I want this to be about what discrimination is, and how it relates to your life.”
The talks have usually begun with an explanation of how Dr. King’s life came to mean so much to her, a Californian who first came to this city at 16 as an exchange student and had to struggle to overcome cultural differences with her host family. Then she studied Dr. King in college, and she has had him on her mind ever since.
“I realized that King was this great bridge between the United States and China,” Ms. McKiernan said. “China is an emerging superpower, and the U.S. is the superpower, and King is someone that both sides believe in, and can be the starting point for a dialogue about how we wish the world to be.”