Antares reviews The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral
Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002)
I have the greatest admiration for Kuo Pao Kun’s consummate skill and integrity as a playwright. In 1986 Five Arts Centre was refused a police permit for Kuo’s monodrama, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and had to stage it privately for a small audience -which only accentuated the power of his pungently satirical look at bureaucratic inanity and the ethos of conformity.
With The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – what an evocative title! – the eminent Singaporean playwright once again displays a scintillating ability to seize upon a crystalline metaphor and hold it up to the light of intelligent scrutiny so that it reflects on a myriad of complex issues – historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and ontological. The themes Kuo touches upon in this text-driven drama are at once topical and timeless, culture-specific and universal. The saga of the great eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) is undoubtedly a fascinating one, and I am grateful that Five Arts Centre has brought it to my attention by staging it. I’m not entirely pleased about the way it was presented, but that is secondary. More about that later.
Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433)
Zheng He’s name at birth was Ma Sanpao. He belonged to a Central Asian tribe known as the Semur which converted to Islam before migrating to Yunnan Province. When the Chinese army invaded Yunnan in 1382, the 11-year-old Ma Sanpao was taken captive, and given as a slave to Prince Zhu Di who would later seize the Ming throne as the Emperor Yong Le. The megalomaniacal Yong Le was determined to extend the glory of the Ming to the far ends of the earth. Having rebuilt the Great Wall so that China’s rear end was covered, so to speak, he conferred on his brave and trusted eunuch warrior, Ma Sanpo, the new name of “Zheng He” and offered him the title, “Admiral of the Western Seas.”
Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He embarked on seven voyages that established Chinese naval and diplomatic supremacy in 36 countries and took him as far as the African continent. Zheng He’s fleet was truly massive. One biographer writes: “No other nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them.” On certain voyages Zheng He’s Grand Fleet carried as many as 28,000 crew and the decks were lined with huge tubs of earth for planting vegetables and fruit trees. According to some accounts Zheng He died at sea, and we shall never know if he was buried with his “missing parts” as was customary for imperial eunuchs. The Chinese believed that the deceased could otherwise never reincarnate as a man.
Indisputably the dominant global maritime power of the early 15th century
The next Ming Emperor was an isolationist and his scholar-ministers ordered that Zheng He’s maritime logs be destroyed. Around this time the Portuguese seafarers began their exploratory voyages, soon to be followed by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the English. If China had but maintained her mastery of the oceans, we would now be living under the emblem of the Dragon instead of the Eagle, the Tiger, or the Hyena.
Kuo does not dwell on the geopolitical theme in Eunuch Admiral. Instead he muses on the private thoughts and feelings of this great adventurer whose monumental exploits were largely forgotten until the 1930s – when a stone pillar inscribed with a detailed record of Zheng He’s seven voyages was found near a temple dedicated to the Celestial Spouse (a Taoist goddess) in Fujian Province.
Jeff Chen’s restaging of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral in 2015
Alone on deck upon a quiet evening at sea, did Zheng He dream of a world beyond power-seeking and oppressive hierarchies, a world where every man is a king in his own kingdom, free to pursue a life of ease and nobility? A world where espionage, palace intrigue, and torture chambers are unheard of? Kuo speculates on Zheng He’s possible rôle in the establishment of an Imperial lntelligence Agency during the eight-year hiatus in his seafaring. Even though he had no testicles, Zheng He must have been an awesomely charismatic and inspiring leader of men to have successfully commanded – and with such heroic aplomb – the fabulous Imperial Fleet. Ah, but the cruelty of being castrated at puberty so that he could serve his ambitious Prince without a thought for his own posterity…
Cultural emasculation of Zheng He’s descendants (from the 2015 production)
The theme of castration, of course, is central to the play and the text capitalizes on the curious blend of horror, fascination and ticklish humor eunuchry provokes. A graphic account of emasculation through the ages is gleefully enacted, whereby we learn that Zheng He would surely have been buried intact, had he been born a few centuries later, when well-born eunuchs were painlessly rendered infertile through protracted scrotal massage by professional gonad crushers. (We could revive this practice as a voluntary form of male contraception. Why not? It sounds excruciatingly and promiscuously pleasurable, and so much more humane then simply hacking it off.)
As a metaphor, castration can be self-imposed on a cultural, social and political level whereby a minority race – paradoxically as a survival tactic – becomes subservient to the hubristic egocentricity of a would-be Master Race. The irony isn’t lost on us, in view of the primal politics of ethnicity that continues to be used as a weapon against those seeking liberation from ideological injustice and fascism. And what about the self-serving, self-castrating corporate climbers who wear their severed genitals around their necks as a symbol of their unmanhood?
Admiral Zheng He is the ultimate enigma: warrior, seafarer, strategist, diplomat, trader, imperial emissary, chief of the Chinese secret service, and eunuch by circumstance. Muslim by birth, yet a worshiper of the Sea Goddess and the Celestial Spouse. What a rich resource for epic dramatization!
Chee Sek Thim’s directorial vision, unavoidably perhaps, bears the imprint of his youthful stint as a Marion D’Cruz dancer; and the overwhelming influence of theater luminaries like Krishen Jit and Leow Puay Tin (whose 1988 production of 3 Children remains a stylistic milestone in Asian theater). Sek Thim is a gifted and intelligent theater practitioner who will hopefully develop his own dramaturgical perspective, given time. For taking on such a complex work as his directorial debut and bringing to life such a thought-provoking play, I wholeheartedly applaud his courage and gumption.
The enthusiastic and talented cast of three men and two women impressed me with their acrobatic stamina, discipline and total dedication to the performance. Yet I felt they were self-conscious and uncomfortable with the all-too-predictable, overly choreographed movements.
Both the women (Ida Mariana and Zoë Christian) seemed more in command of themselves, while the men (Mark Choo Hoong Leong, Lim How Ngean, and Mark Teh) generally came across as a bit too effeminate. But perhaps I’m being unreasonable in demanding more sinew and virility in a play about a Grand Imperial Eunuch.
11 November 2000