Moral ambiguities in Muumintroll play upset Chinese censors
Finnish director rejects demand
By Petteri Tuohinen
The play Moominpappa and the Sea, which is scheduled to have its premiere in Shanghai in May, has aroused suspicion among local censors. The production, a joint project of Helsinki’s Svenska Teatern (Swedish Theatre) and a group of Chinese actors, which was is being prepared for performance in connection with the Shanghai Expo, appears to have won the approval of officials there, although there have been demands for changes.
“I have not agreed to any changes”, says the play’s director Anneli Mäkelä.
In China, censors must go through all plays and films before they are shown in public.
The producers of Moominpappa and the Sea (based on a novel by the same name by Tove Jansson) have applied for a grant from Shanghai’s Cultural Centre, but nothing has been heard from there yet.
The play is suffering from a shortage of funds, and the number of performances has been cut to half of the original 20. Finnish companies are also involved in the financing of the production.
Official censors have criticised the play for not making a clear distinction between good and evil. For instance, one of the characters, the Groke, is something of a monster, but turns out to be lovable and understandable at some level.
Mäkelä says that making things unambiguously good or evil would have trashed Tove Jansson’s world view.
Mäkelä is amazed at the demands for changes, because the Chinese were sent several different Moomintroll adventures to choose from, and they chose Moominpappa and the Sea, which they are now criticising.
Mäkelä believes that the conflict stems from differences in ways of thinking. In China the individual is expected to sacrifice him, or herself for the good of the community, whereas in the play, the individualistic Moominpappa travels to an island in order to find himself and a meaning for his life.
“I do not doubt for a moment that it is difficult for the Chinese to understand this kind of Swedish-Finnish philosophy.”
Chinese theatre director Xia Xiaoxue understands the censors. Cultural differences between Finland and China are great.
“According to the Chinese tradition of teaching, parents and teachers tell their children what is good and what is bad. In the play, the characters each have their own traits, and they are not all clearly good or evil”, Xia points out.
“Quite a few” tickets have been sold during the week. However, Xia does not expect the performances to sell out.
“In a city like Shanghai, which is open to other cultures, the Moomins might succeed to some extent. The same is true in two other large citeis - Beijing and Guangzhou. In other places it might be different”, Xia says.
“It is hard to imagine that the Moomins would succeed in China. Although it is possible that the children might be excited by it”, she ponders.
Rehearsals for the play are well underway, in spite of the demands for changes.
“Moomiiin!” shouts Little My, or actress Fang Fang at the beginning of rehearsal. Mäkelä watches from behind the table as the Chinese cast work, and interrupts the rehearsal from time to time to explain the world of the Moomintrolls. Mäkelä praises the actors as magnificent.
“Of course this has been terribly difficult, trying to understand the thoughts of the actors. After rehearsals I have been like an empty shel of an egg. I don’t know if I would do it again, but I have rarely had such fun at rehearsal”, Mäkelä says.
Actor Chen Ming, who has the role of Moominpappa, does not expect the chinese to accept the play because of its Western way of thinking. In his view, aspects of the play that the Chinese understand include love, family, triumph over nature, and amiability.
“But why does Moominpappa go to a bleak island? It is impossible for a Chinese to understand. In China adults want a stable and secure life. I would understand myself if Moominpappa would want to save his face and show his skills”, Chen says.
Actress Zhang Jing explains the difficulties that the Chinese have in understanding the play in that Chinese plays are simpler and the stories easier to predict.
“However, it is not such a bad thing even if the Chinese do not understand this. Some questions might arise in their minds after the play, and that is also important.”
The message of the play in the view of Zhang is that of recognising reality.
“It tells about the finding of balance in life in spite of great difficulties. But this play is not especially appropriate for children”, she says.
But what would Moominpappa do if he were to stumble into China?
“I doubt that he would think about great social change. Instead he would try to do a small good thing to ease his conscience. Moominmamma, for her part, would be more likely to establish some aid organisation to help the poor”, Mäkelä says.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Snufkin and the sea: Moomin animator at 60 (13.6.2007)
Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, dies at 86 (28.6.2001)
Finnish pavilion at Shanghai World Expo to be ready in time, despite construction errors (12.3.2010)
PETTERI TUOHINEN / Helsingin Sanomat