The Chinese Director Who Fell in Love With Israeli Theater

Yu Jingyi, the founder of the China-Israel Culture and Art Foundation, speaks about her father who wanted to give her away, and says that 'there really isn’t equality between men and women, not here and not in China'

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Yu Jinyi. 'People don’t have the passion to understand each other, and art bridges the gaps between people.'
Yu Jinyi. 'People don’t have the passion to understand each other, and art bridges the gaps between people.'

Yu Jingyi has lived in Israel for five years, but she met famed Israeli actor and director Yehezkel Lazarov in China, of all places. At the time, she was commuting between Tel Aviv and Beijing. Even when she landed in her homeland for a brief visit (she calls Israel “home”), she didn’t miss an opportunity to go to the theater.

“It was in 2019, only a few months before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Just around then, a production [by Israel’s Gesher Theater] of ‘Fathers and Sons’ arrived in Beijing, and I immediately went to see it,” she recalls. “I was thoroughly impressed with Yehezkel’s abilities, with his acting. Before I went to see the play, I had read [Ivan Turgenev’s novel] and the play imbued me with the same sensation that I had when I read it. It was a connection to something profound, something sad and beautiful. Once Yehezkel and I were introduced, we stayed in touch, and the better I got to know him, the more I realized that we had to work together.”

The result of this connection between Lazarov and Yu Jingyi’s Yu Productions is Mitcha Figa Productions, a multidisciplinary initiative of which Lazarov is the driving force. Its first project will premiere January 4 at Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium. The apex of the project will be the performance of “The Superfluous Man,” an adaptation by Lazarov of “Oblomov,” the Russian classic by Ivan Goncharov.

Even before the curtain rises that evening, there will be a plethora of performances at the auditorium – by dancer Yael Karavan; “Dance Ball,” video art by Tom Pnini and Ran Slavin; a philosophy lecture by Dr. Jeremy Fogel and a session by DJ Tai Rona. It is a sensory experience that will go on for three hours or so, the objective of which is to offer the audience a glimpse into the process of adapting literary works for the stage.

“[Oblomov] was written about 200 years ago, but the play connects its ideas with present times,” says Yu Jingyi. “Oblomov is a person who wanted to pull out of the rat race – yes to keep on living, but no to being part of the maze.” It is the first production to be mounted through the China-Israel Culture and Art Foundation, which was founded by Yu Jingyi, who is often simply known as Jingyi, or even as Yuji, as she is often called by Mandarin-challenged Israelis. She is in effect the first Chinese citizen to invest in Israeli culture, and she has more grand plans in store for us.

Actor and director Yehezkel Lazarov.

“Artists who live in Israel experience it as a hard place to live, a place that is small and limited, but for me it is like a spring of flowing water,” she says. “I see inspiration and creativity everywhere. Even the tension in the air here is, in my opinion, a source of inspiration. Right now, my objective is to bring in a few writers from China who would live here and write, and I’ve already made contacts with the Chinese government in order to stage a festival, perhaps a film festival, that would blend the two cultures together.”

That connection may sound a bit strange. “But it exists,” she says. “Israelis and Chinese have many points at which they interface with one another, even if, on the face of it, it seems that we come from two different planets. That is the beauty of art; it is capable of bridging gaps in outlook and connecting people. Perhaps that is the only way.”

She has felt a connection with Israeli culture for many years. “When I saw ‘Fathers and Sons,’ I was in shock. It was astounding,” she says. “In my opinion, Yehezkel is a genius. If he lived in another country, he’d be a millionaire. He sees the big picture, he knows how to combine all sorts of performance types.”

An exposed nerve

Yu Jingyi, 45, was born in a small town in the Chinese province of Anhui. Her father was a physician, and her mother a housekeeper who dedicated her life to raising her and her older brother and sister.

“I grew up with the sense that nothing bad could happen to me, as long as my mother was with me. She protected us from the world. In China, it is very customary to put a baby up for adoption if it is the undesirable gender – this was the period in which it was still possible to have more than one child, meaning, for example, that if a daughter was born but the father of the family wanted a boy, and if the neighbors only had boys, then it was very customary to put her up for adoption.

"I was born after there was already a son and a daughter in the house, and my father wanted a son, so he planned to send me off to another family. But my mother would not consent. She fought for me. I feel very fortunate to have had such a mother. My mother had a hard life, her relationship with my father was not good. I think that she loved him and admired him, but it wasn’t easy for her to be with him. We were her entire life. Now she lives with my brother on an island in Japan.”

For a moment, she stops and withdraws inward. “In Chinese culture, it is not customary to talk about one’s parents, and most certainly not when they are still alive,” she continues. “I know that in Israel people say everything, people ask everything. I very much like the directness and the sincerity here – people can walk up to you and ask how much you make, for instance, and it is accepted – but even though I have been here a long time, it is still hard for me. In general, I have not thought about or spoken about my childhood for many years. I assumed that it was all part of the past. Now, when you asked me about it, I understood that there is an exposed nerve here.”

When she was a child, China was beset by great poverty, which also had an effect on her family. “My father’s family was a very well-known family where I grew up, but there was no money. The education was very rigid. I liked art very much and I felt very lonely as a child, but I also enjoyed the loneliness. For me, it is like a warm home. When I was 18, I left home and went to Beijing where I began my studies, even though in China it is customary for the children to continue to live near their parents, even as adults. But I wanted to leave. At that stage, the economy in China was expanding and everyone was drawn into the race for success, wanting to earn money. And I was drawn in along with everyone else.”

Yu Jingyi, the founder of the China-Israel Culture and Art Foundation, in Ramat Aviv in December.

After studying literature at the University of Beijing, she enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, where she met David Galil, an Israeli. They married, and now have a daughter and two sons, aged 19, 16 and 11. When she completed her studies, Jingyi was hired by the state broadcaster, Central China Television. She stayed for a decade, directing and producing many programs, including the successful show “Half the Sky.” The latter takes its name from Mao Zedong’s famous proclamation, as part of the gender equality revolution, that “women hold up half the sky.”

“There really isn’t equality between men and women,” Jingyi now says, “not in China and not in Israel. But yes, when I began to work in television, they gave me an opportunity. I had to work harder than all of the men around me.”

As for the authoritarian regime in China and its intervention in culture, she stresses that she is not a political figure. “I am a liberal individual, I try to avoid any and all organizational or partisan labels. I keep my distance from politics. That is one of the reasons I moved to Israel.” She contends that China is not a dictatorship as the Soviet Union was. “There is individual and economic freedom, and the vast majority of people live as they wish to.”

When asked what it is like to make art under such a regime, she says that “China has a censorship system but the theater censorship is relatively loose.”

Later in her career, Jingyi established a film and television production company of her own, and even published a book of poetry, which introduced her to the local community of artists. “In China, there is no separation between professional life and personal life,“ she explains. “If you are a poet, an author, an actress, a painter or an artist of any sort, you are part of a community. These are connections that it is customary to maintain and to invest in, to appear at every event to which you are invited and to nurture friendships. You work in television, you meet artists, and at the end of the workday you go out with them and then return home at 2 or 3 in the morning. In Israel, I have noticed that there is a divide – theater actors, for example, finish the play and then go home. So in that respect, it’s more fun in China, but also more demanding.”

Once she became part of the artistic community in Beijing, she understood that she wanted to also make her creative contribution to the local theaters as well. “At first, I opened a theater production company with a friend of mine, but it wasn’t too successful. Later on, I set up the Drum Tower West Theatre, which is in the middle of the old city in Beijing.”

This time, it did succeed. The theater had seating for 300, and put on an innovative repertoire. “The theater had an underground mentality. It isn’t exactly what you’d call fringe here, but it was experimental. In China, theater is less for entertainment; it is net arts consumption.”

And did people come to watch? “Oh, sure. Theater is a very popular art form in China, especially among young people. When I went to the theater in Israel, I was so surprised that there were only adults in the audience. I thought that perhaps it was because of a specific play that was meant for older people, because in China it is the opposite – the entire audience is young. In Israel, the theater feels very old-fashioned, like theater in China 50 years ago. The Chinese audience also takes pains to share its opinion about the play on social media, even before the play has ended. Public opinion there is crucial.”

Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.

My romance with Levin

Yu Jingyi’s introduction to Israel’s take on the medium came long before she founded her own theater. In 2004, the Cameri Theater’s production of Hanoch Levin’s play “Requiem” (“Ashkava”) was staged in Beijing. It was staged in Hebrew, with subtitles in Chinese. It was then that Jingyi discovered Levin and then fell in love with him – a love that led her to translate an anthology of his plays, “Requiem and others” into Chinese. She is now planning to translate another anthology of his.

Upon her arrival in Israel, a friend introduced her to the actress Lillian Barto, who had been Levin’s partner in his final years of life. It was Barto who proposed that Yu Jingyi translate his plays into Chinese. “I of course immediately said yes. The Cameri production succeeded in China, but the gap between the languages was too great, such that the audience that was interested in the play was quite limited in size. I had fallen in love with him, and the more I learned about him, the more I felt that there was great potential for success in China. But I knew that it would be worthwhile to first release a book of his plays in Chinese, and only afterward to stage them.”

She did later put on several of his plays in Chinese, including “Winter Funeral” and “The Child Dreams.” “I had a very emotional response to Requiem,” she recalls. “ It is amusing, because when I saw it again in Israel, I was amazed to find that the audience was laughing. In China, everyone was concentrating and was silent and was so engrossed in the play. It seems that that this is precisely the gap between understanding Israeli humor for someone who grew up here, and for someone who is watching the play from the outside.”

What sort of connection did you feel with Levin?

A Chinese poster for Hanoch Levin's 'The Child Dreams'

“In China, we simply saw the deep, wounded part of his plays. In my eyes, he is very universal. Requiem is based on three short stories by Chekhov, and in China people know Chekhov very well and learn about him in school. Certain parts of the play, the sad parts, the torment – we as Chinese very much identify with that.”

Five years ago, she decided to move to Israel for good. Galil, her spouse, remained in Beijing for a few more years with their daughter. She herself arrived here with her two sons and settled down in a beautiful home in Ramat Aviv, in which she welcomes guests with a Chinese tea ceremony. Her drawings grace the walls, and a small, hidden thicket of trees peek from her living room window.

“I feel calm here,” she says. “I have not experienced racism here, aside from one time when someone shouted ‘COVID’ at me after the pandemic began. Life in China is very stressful; you are constantly having to run from one place to another there.”

She still doesn’t speak Hebrew. “I only now began to study in ulpan (an intensive Hebrew course), so it gives me a feeling of distance in certain situations. I like that sensation very much. For me, living here is an adventure. Everything here feels original to me, and is filled with inspiration.”

A book of her poetry, “Monologue of a Poet Who Lacks Words” is to be published soon in Hebrew. “The poems are a very personal thing, it embarrasses me to speak about them,” she says.

Galil, who joined in our conversation in their kitchen, added: “She is being modest, but in China she has quite a few admirers. People wait for her books of poetry.”

“Quite a few people have told me that I had an effect on them,” adds Yu Jingyi.

It sounds like you’ve made it in China. So why invest in culture here?

“I feel like I belong here and that especially here I will be able to make use of art to connect people with one another. People don’t have the passion to understand each other, and art bridges the gaps between people. That is why I set up the foundation. To the Chinese, Israel is Judaism, high tech and money. They don’t know a thing about Israel in terms of its culture, and to my mind that is the most important thing – to want to get to know people who are different from you, and the way to do it is through art.”

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