The new play, Ulysses S. Grant in China, imagines the meeting between Zhang and Ulysses S. Grant on the former president’s worldwide tour in 1879. The story is told not from the great men’s vantage point, but from the perspective of teenaged musicians who play a recital to mark the occasion.
Zhang embodies the complexity of China’s identity in the global community. A recent book, Restless Empire, by award-winning historian Odd Arne Westad delves into this seesaw and, according to a reviewer, traces it back two centuries. “Since the height of the Qing Empire in the eighteenth century, China’s interactions—
A fascinating and controversial figure, Zhang dominated economic, military and political events in the late 19th century. “Two major themes in Chinese history converge in Zhang,” says Durwood, “class struggle and mistrust of the West.” Zhang, who ruthlessly protected his power, was paradoxically open to Westernization, and was convinced that China’s success depended on its adoption of Western methods. After stomping out the peasant Taiping Rebellion with his Huaijun army (1853), Zhang rose to govern China’s most influential provinces -- Jiangsu, Liangjiang, and then Zhili. He understood how much value railroads could bring to the Chinese people, and nurtured their growth. He fell from grace at the turn of the century, after losing a naval war with Japan and signing treaties perceived to be disadvantageous with western powers.
Durwood, who has been named Teacher of the Year twice, hopes that stories like his might help bring young readers into a deeper appreciation of world history, and the interconnectedness of our separate national histories. “My cadets have an endless interest in cultural differences. We just have to give them narratives they can understand. ”
Durwood, who is also guest lecturer for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group at the Dam’s Neck Annex of the Naval War College, was drawn to the subject by a photo. He ran across a sepia photograph of Li Hong Zhang and Ulysses S. Grant sitting side by side when he was researching a lesson plan for his Valley Forge cadets. “I had no idea Grant ever visited China,” reports the teacher and author, “and I immediately wondered what that encounter must have been like.”
The new play comes at a time of reappraisal for the relationship between China and America. “You can see in China today some of those same streaks of admiration and mistrust towards the West that Li Hong Zhang dealt with a century ago,” says the author. “Our students need to understand this.” His play features nine musical passages; composer Huang Ruo has read the play and expressed an interest in collaborating. Durwood hopes that his play might at least lend a little exposure for the complex character of Li Hong Zhang to the current generation of students, even if they come for the music.
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