A Chinese Hitler, dressed like a mall cop, mopes in an underground bunker in 1945 as his empire is collapsing around him. But it’s not all bad news. “My stomach hurts, and it’s bigger. I’m pregnant!” Hitler exclaims, stroking himself mindlessly.
“Hitler’s Belly,” a hit play currently touring China, answers the eternal question of what the world’s most notorious dictator looks like when portrayed by an overweight Chinese man pretending to be pregnant. It mixes snippets from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” old newsreel footage, slapstick with Chinese sensibilities, and an extended fart joke. As Hitler prepares to give birth, Chaplin—also a character in the play—wanders the bunker, impersonating Hitler to his underlings. Chaplin spars with Hitler, and then everyone raps. Genocide is not mentioned.
Chaplin made his famous 1940 satire, in which he plays both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the blabbering dictator of Tomania, in part because of the actor’s similarity to Hitler: They each sported a distinctive mustache, they were born four days apart in April 1889, and they shared a love for Richard Wagner’s music. In his autobiography, Chaplin’s son, Charles Chaplin, recalled his father saying: “He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”
Meng Jinghui, the play’s shaggy-haired director, first saw “The Great Dictator” in 1984, he told me, and he thought it would be fascinating to watch Chaplin interact with Hitler. But he didn’t begin work on his play until he saw a glint of Hitler in his favorite leading man, Liu Xiaoye. “I was wearing a hat and put on a little mustache,” said Liu, who plays Hitler, Chaplin, and Eva Braun, often switching between characters mid-sentence. Meng recalls: “He put black on his finger and put it up here, and said hey, don’t I look like Hitler? And I said, hey, you can be Hitler.”
One of China’s best-known theater personalities, Meng has enjoyed a long string of successes adapting foreign concepts to Chinese audiences. He brought Rent to China as the story of a missing real-estate tycoon. “We don’t have bohemia, we don’t have so many drug users or gay people, and we don’t do threesomes,” he told NPR in 2009. “So, we use your structure, and we put our lives into it.” Unlike “The Great Dictator,” “Hitler’s Belly” declines to tackle questions of Judaism, focusing instead on issues relevant to a Chinese audience: corruption in the Ministry of Railways, lies from the government, and the difficulty of affording a house. Many artists prefer to satirize the present in China by criticizing the past.
“The most difficult part of the acting for me was moving between history and politics,” said Liu. To announce the birth of his son, Hitler holds a press conference. He tells the Chinese journalists in attendance that the pregnancy is a “miracle,” a loaded term because it mocks the government’s response to a recent deadly train crash—after a bullet train derailed last July, killing scores, a Railway Ministry spokesman called the rescue of one child survivor “a miracle,” invoking the ire of many. This draws a healthy laugh from the audience.
The play, which has toured Shanghai, Beijing, and will be in Guangzhou in October, has played almost exclusively to packed houses, Meng said. On the performance’s last night in Beijing in early August, the theater was filled with people in their 20s and 30s, constantly laughing and clapping at the satire and the slapstick, according to the director. Liu portrays a bumbling, melancholic side of the dictator, who shouts “Heil Myself!” whenever anyone salutes him. He does a gentle Chaplin, and his Eva Braun flashes her chest to Hitler whenever she gets excited.
In China, Hitler isn’t known for the Holocaust, but rather for achieving social stability with a very high human cost. “In general, they refer to him as very lihai, very hardcore, someone who is strong, powerful,” said Rabbi Nussin Rodin, a Chabad representative in Beijing. “You can be strong and powerful and good, and strong and powerful and bad. It’s weird. I don’t know what to say.” With China’s regime facing growing internal criticism for mishandling any number of things, from the escalating price of fuel to train safety, Hitler’s perceived image as a strong leader who was able to maintain social stability makes him an attractive figure to many.
Outside the Beijing theater, which is perched above a karaoke parlor in a wealthy part of town, college student Liu Mingyu said that he came because of the director and thought the play was funny. “There’s nothing good about him,” Liu said of the Hitler character, “except that he’s strong-willed, that’s the only advantage he’s got. But in general he’s a bad guy, I suppose.”
Some Chinese sympathy toward Hitler is fueled by a persistent—and false—rumor claiming that when Hitler was an impoverished young student in Vienna, he was taken in by a Chinese family named Zhang. “Looking at Hitler From a Different Angle,” an article published last month on the website of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reported that during Hitler’s youth, a Chinese family gave him “Oriental style selfless help,” and that because of this he had a “warm and close feeling toward China.” Many Chinese believe that Hitler had secretly supported China during World War II, despite Germany’s alignment with China’s wartime oppressor, Japan. Hitler is well-known in China; rural residents especially don’t necessarily see him as a sign of evil. Olivia Kraef, a Beijing-based sinologist from Germany, related a story of a recent trip in China, where someone wanted to drink a toast to Hitler with her. “That was the first thing he came up with when he met me,” she said. “Hitler, soccer.”
Bizarrely, support for Hitler does not in any way suggest disdain for Jews. On the contrary: Chinese people on the whole are very approving of Judaism and Jewish culture, seeing Jews as experts in both moneymaking and child rearing, with a long history and a strong tradition of education. And, unsurprisingly in a country where Mao’s all-seeing portrait still hangs from Tiananmen Square, Chinese tend to shy away from comparisons between their homegrown contender for the title of history’s greatest butcher. “I don’t think there can be any comparison between Hitler and Mao,” said Meng. “Mao’s biggest spirit was to serve the people; Mao loved the people. That’s the biggest difference.”
Isaac Stone Fish is a Beijing-based reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.