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Tale of Growing up Takes to the Stage

From puppy-love, rebellion against teachers, co-habitation with campus lovers, anxiety before tests to a zeal for learning English and going abroad, Loafing Around (Huanghuang Youyou) has a little bit of everything you may have encountered in Chinese colleges during the 1980s.

Adapted from a novel of the same name by Shi Kang, a Beijing writer popular among younger generations, the drama, which is currently running at the Capital Theater until July 23, depicts the college days of two couples and their lives after graduation.

Zhou Wen, the protagonist, lives in a perpetual state he calls "loafing around."

Never making plans for the present or future, he skips class, teases teachers, collects books only on the eve of tests, and lives with his girlfriend in their rented apartment.

But his girlfriend A Lai is a girl who takes a very different approach to life. Pretty and vivacious, she maintains a "good student" image among friends, takes clear account of everyday expenses, and never lacks enthusiasm.

The two end up apart, as A Lai finds a job in a foreign business and becomes one of China's first white-collar workers in the early 1990s. She leaves Zhou in despair of his forever-negative attitude towards everything, despite her obvious love for him.

Zhou's buddy, Hua Yang, also breaks up with his girlfriend Xin Xiaoye, an overly robust girl who chooses to become a doctor to fulfil her dream of going abroad.

Simple as the plot is, it is grabbing the attention of audiences, most of which are made up of 20- or 30-somethings.

Some utter Zhou's lines even before he speaks, and laughter is a fixture of the play. One girl even broke out in tears as the couples went their separate ways when this reporter went to see the performance.

Popular novel

Published in 1998, Loafing Around was an instant hit with college students who could see themselves in the characters.

"I read the book overnight in my high school days," recalled Jiang Xiaojing, formerly of Nanjing University and now vice-manager of a foreign trade company in the city.

"After I entered university, I found my life was just like what Shi Kang depicted in the novel. My first relationship even resembled the one between Zhou Wen and A Lai. I lingered in that loafing state some time after graduation.

"All Chinese students share the solitary goal of entering university after high school, but after we work hard to achieve that, we find there are no more goals ahead," she said.

Miao Kai, a senior at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, described his understanding of the protagonist's aimless life, "I see my own youth when reading the story of Zhou Wen and his friends, and it was then I realized that I was not the only one trapped in this state without a way out."

Some have even called the book the Chinese Catcher in the Rye, a novel by JD Salinger that also captures the complicated spirituality of young people.

"Both demonstrate the life of a generation living at a turning point in their country's history," said Liu Wei, a post-graduate at Nanjing University.

"In times like that, young students, standing on edge of pure land and a society experiencing great changes and chaos, tend to lose their direction."

The director, Guo Ran, a 31-year-old graduate from the Shanghai Academy of Drama, is understandably a huge fan of the novel.

Even though his college days were spent in the 1990s, he can still appreciate the book's charm.

"College students in 1980s China might be the last generation with a rich romantic spirit. They were avid readers and thinkers with all the answers, so when they found life was actually much more complex than they imagined, they lost the motivation to strive forward."

His remarks are underlined by the decade's thriving poetry, embryonic rock'n'roll and enthusiasm to see the world.

Inexperienced cast

But with a cast consisting of a graduate from Shanghai Maritime University, two DJs from Beijing Radio, and a sophomore at the Beijing Film Academy, the director's task was not an easy one.

Shao Xiaomeng, the leading man, was a newcomer to the stage when he took on the role of Zhou Wen.

It was therefore quite a challenge for him to represent the idealistic protagonist to audiences so familiar with the character.

This shows in his performance. His research into the leading character's life has not helped him find the deep sensitivity of Zhou, nor convey his in-depth take on life.

But most have still rewarded the play with applause, even if there have been a few indifferent reviews.

Yang Meiping, an intern at China Today magazine, left the theater disappointed.

"I found it hard to relate to the characters," the girl born in 1981 said.

"I knew I would have to compete with fellow students for scholarships, the chance to become a post-graduate, and for that ideal job before I even got to university."

Her friend Wang Lei, 24, who is hunting for a job after failing to pass the post-graduate admission exam at Peking University, considered the attitudes to life taken by the characters in the play as pure "indulgence."

"Loafing around is too luxurious for our generation, which is facing the pressures of the job fair," said the young man.

"I have long known that I would have to strive for my future."

(China Daily July 14, 2005)

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