Western-style Drama comes to China

19th Century Chinese Opera (Image from Wiki Commons)

The chapter ‘The Appearance of Western-style Drama’ in William Dolby’s 1976 A History of Chinese Drama, starts with what seems like the overstatement of an enthusiast: ‘Developments in twentieth-century Chinese drama have often closely reflected, and strongly influenced, national political and intellectual events’ (p.197).  However, it was the publication of a criticism in a newspaper in 1961 of a play by Wu Han, Dismissal of Hai Rui, which is seen by many as the event that kick-started the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (p.250).  Among its casualties were Lao She, one of China’s greatest novelists and playwrights who, unable to take the public beatings and struggle sessions, drowned himself in a Beijing lake, and Tian Han, China’s first translator of Hamlet, who died in a prison camp. 

Dolby’s chapters on 20th century Chinese drama are particularly pertinent, therefore, because they would have been written during the height of that massive cultural and social upheaval, and published at the moment of its end.   The conclusion of his book could be applied to more than the future of  Chinese theatre: ‘For what lies ahead, the imponderables are legion and prediction is vain…'(p.255).  

I wonder whether Dolby, or any of the playwrights he wrote of who survived, could have imagined what lay ahead only 30 years later: Zhang Yimou, who a decade or so earlier had been the much-banned baddest of bad boys out of the Fifth Generation film directors, stage-managing the breathtaking multi-million extravaganza that was the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, alongside scooping international awards and putting on western opera. All three of those elements would have been beyond imagination – China’s filmmakers dominating global cinema, Beijing HOSTING the Olympics, and  Turandot sung in the Forbidden City! 

Traditionally, Chinese drama has been operatic, with many regional forms, from Beijing’s all male troupes to the female Yue opera of Zhejiang (see Women Playing Men by Jin Jiang). By the beginning of the last century, Beijing Opera (京剧 jingju) began to dominate and be identified as a the main force in the emerging Chinese ‘national’ theatre. Beijing Opera is a highly stylized and visual art form, with elaborate costumes, symbolic make-up, dance and acrobatics.  Like Western opera, its vocal medium is primarily music: choruses, arias, etc. However, unlike Western opera, it is popular rather than elitist (although my students insist that ‘Nowadays it is mostly popular with only with old people and foreigners!’).  

Lao She's spoken drama 'Teahouse' (c) China Daily, 2005









The Early Years (post 1895) 

Dolby’s chapter on huaju (literally ‘speech drama’) explores the introduction into a long-established tradition of musical theatre what was initially a strange, foreign art-form. It was originally, therefore, largely the interest of the educated elite. Although it gradually gained acceptance, even as late as 1963  ‘the problem of adjustment persists’ (Dolby, endnote, p.281).  He cites Jin Jian: ‘Some people say that peasants like xiju and are unwilling to watch huaju […] How to facilitate peasant acceptance of huaju is a vital problem to be solved at the moment’ (endnote, p.281). Dolby suggests that peasants needed to accept huaju partly in order for it to be considered fully Sinicized, and also because of its potential to be used for propoganda purposes (p.213-4). 

Chinese made a conscious decision to ‘appropriate large quantities of Western knowledge’ (197) in the aftermath of their defeat by the Japanese in 1895.  Japan, a traditionally subordinate country, was seen to have risen so rapidly because of its ability to adopt ‘the weapons of Western science, technology and ideas’ (197).  Thus both traditional Chinese forms of theatre and imported Western forms were both utilised as part of a reawakening of a desire for national strength (197). Some playwrights also began to combine elements of both Eastern and Western culture.  In a play called New Rome, Liang Qichao saw ‘parallels between the plight of China  and that of nineteenth century Italy’ (197)  [i.e.  to Metternich and Italy’s highly unstable and fragmented state]. In the Prologue of this incomplete, Sinicized  dramatisation of the Risorgimento, Dante, dressed as a Daoist, sings ‘But the spirit of nationalism and principles of liberty/ blazed all over Europe with their fire,/ the cries sped, the wails spread fast,/ ah, how much blood streamed forth in that sole hour!’ (Liang in Dolby, 198).  Dante then goes off with Shakespeare and Voltaire on a cloud to watch the action!  ‘The psychological link in many minds between national humiliation and the uses of drama is seen in many writings around the turn of the century’ (endnote, 277). 

Dolby argues that huaju was so suited to political subjects because instead of using classical Chinese in intricate song and poetry, like traditional theatre, its playwrights adopted a written form of ‘bald’ contemporary ‘spoken’ Chinese (202).  He also notes that although the impetus for modernisation and Westernisation came from a sense of humiliation at losing a war with Japan, Japan was also seen as a haven for political and cultural change and fostered many early practitioners of huaju (202). In fact, one of the earliest troupes, the Spring Willow Society, was made up of a group of Chinese students studying in Tokyo who were guided by a Japanese actor. 

The Republic (1911) and May Fourth Movement (1919) 

After Sun Yi Xian (Sun Yat-sen)’s revolution, the Spring Willow Society became the Spring Willow Theatre company, putting on over 80 plays in 3 years based on traditional Chinese tales and foreign novels.  Then a Shanghai based literary organisation, the Enlightenment Society, put on kaimingxi  (enlightened plays) or wenming xinxi (civilised new plays), generally referred to as wenmingxi (civilised plays) (203). I go into this detail because I think the terms coined for this new drama form indicates how closely it was linked to ideas of reform and modernisation, and suggests a rejection of the old ways, perhaps. 

Also, Dolby points out, thousands of Chinese students went to Europe during the first world war and some to America. I suppose that they brought back a taste for communism as well as  for Western art forms – I think that Deng Xiaoping studied in Paris as a young man.  The May Fourth Movement, a student led anti-Imperialist protest that started when the Treaty of Versailles handed the German Concession of Shandong to Japan, not back to China, also encouraged cultural and political change.  I remember wanting to buy a pair of black cloth shoes with a strap and white soles when I was first in China.  My Mandarin language partner, Zhou Yan, told me that they were ‘May Fourth’ shoes. Young women had begun to reject foot-binding and other old ways, and politically minded female students wore these black cloth shoes to identify with the peasants, if I remember rightly. Likewise, supporters of huaju became ‘openly and violently scornful’ of traditional drama (205), which Dolby describes as too ‘earthy and sensual […] with the bawdy and homosexual atmospheres of the old theatre world’ (205) for their reforming tastes.  As the manifesto of the Popular Drama Society (founded 1921) put it: 

‘Bernard Shaw once said:”The theatre is a place for propagating ideas” […] The time is past when people took theatre-going as [mere] recreation.  The theatre occupies and important place in modern society.  It is a wheel rolling society forward.  It is an X-ray searching out the root of society’s maladies.  It is also a just and impartial mirror, and the standards of everybody in the nation is stripped stark naked when reflected in this great mirror, that allows no slightest thing to remain invisible […] This kind of theatre is precisely what does not exist in China at present, but it is what we, feeble though we are, want to strive to create’ (in Dolby, 1976: 205).  

One young playwright, Hong Shen, returned from the USA in 1922 and ‘perhaps because I had read too much Freud on sexual abnormality’ found he could not stomach the tradition of men playing women.  To prove a point, his company put on an all male performance, followed by a performance by a mixed gender cast: ‘loading his dice’ as Dolby puts it (209). Early Chinese huaju not only reacted to traditional Chinese forms but also traditional values.  The young students who had received their tertiary education abroad, came back opposing not only acrobatics and singing, but also the old family system (206), a theme often reflected in their drama. 

Huaju gained increasing popularity during the 1920s and 30s, with both Communists and Nationalists. 

Another important feature in the growth and acceptance of huaju during this period was the advent of cinema which ‘helped accustom the public to purely spoken and Western-style performances, and to create a taste for them’ (204). 

The Long March (1935-4) and the war years (from 1937) 

Drama was important to the Communists because it maintained ‘morale and disseminate[d] propoganda’ (213). Throughout the war years, itinerant troupes performed all over China, to all classes.  A Western reporter told of one makeshift performance in a temple court: ‘Under […] crude conditions the two dramatic troupes put on their performances which held their audience spellbound for many hours.  The sun went down and the winter stars shone on the village drama; kerosene lamps were brought to light the stage.  Till after ten on a bitter January night the blue-grey soldiers stood watching, laughing and applauding.  The dramas showed aspects of the war against japan; they were portrayals of life as those soldiers knew it’ (Strong in Dolby, 1976: 214).

(With My) Back to the Wall

To return to my previous entry, ‘Poster Boy Hamlet’: after the poster competition, Jane Moody asked us if we would come early to the Berwick Saul Building opening event, as our posters were going to be displayed in the lobby.  Would we mind standing next to our entries and introducing them to the guests? As a first year PhD student, this was, of course, a little nerve-wracking.  What if somebody asked me a theory-laden question that I only half understood?  What if I was challenged about my methodology? What if my poster sparked interest, but my answer lost it?  Of course, this was doubtless why Jane was offering us this opportunity: to encourage us to think about how we conveyed our research in an attention-grabbing way, and to build our confidence in answering just these sort of questions.  So, to practise, I asked my co-winner to introduce her poster on forensic linguistics.  It was fascinating.  I had never thought about how the police decided whether or not somebody was making a hoax call! I then introduced mine to her, and she expressed equal surprise that Shakespeare was performed in East Asia.  It was all going very well, until a friendly history lecturer came over and began to quiz me on my work.  She initially seemed interested and continued to smile politely, despite the fact that I don’t think she had wanted a ten minute monologue.  I remembered too late Judith Buchanan’s advice: sum up your research in three punchy sentences!  The history lecturer must have been relieved when, suddenly, a young Chinese man was at our side.

‘一千个人眼里有一千个哈姆雷特, yi qian ge ran yanli you yi qian ge hamuleite: Inside one thousand people are one thousand Hamlets… Hahaha! How do you know this saying?’ he said.

‘My Chinese tutor taught me it,’ I began.  He peered more closely at my poster.

‘Ah, this is very interesting, this poster…’

Oh no.

‘Are you from Mainland China, by any chance?’ I asked quickly. I somehow sensed that ‘interesting’ was a euphemism.

‘Yes,’ he said.  Darn it, I knew I shouldn’t have added the reference to Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese boy, a computing major who had come to the opening with his friend, began to read out loud: ‘What was this production saying about Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms or his clampdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement?’

I’m not sure if he then said this, or whether I just saw it written across his face: ‘Why can’t  you foreigners mention China without mentioning the Tiananmen Incident?’  And I knew what he was feeling.  My Chinese students in York had felt under constant pressure during the Olympics.  ‘Why nobody talking about  good things in our country?’ they frequently protested.  ‘You Westerners always talking about China and human rights, China and Tibet.  But Tiananmen was years ago.  We were babies.  What about Guantanamo?’

‘What’s this colour?’ the Chinese student said, jabbing his finger at the text boxes. The history lecturer politely left.

‘It’s red.  It’s influenced by the New Year red paper couplets,’ I began to explain.

‘It’s not red, it’s pink,’ he contradicted.  He was smiling, but he reminded me of one of my students in Jinan many years ago, the ardent young communist Tiger John.  Tiger John had picked up my latest edition Lonely Planet Guide (1993) and shaken it in my face.  ‘Why they put this picture on the cover,’ he demanded, tears pricking his eyes.  It was a photograph of an old man, in neat but patched clothes, guarding a bicycle parking lot.  ‘Always, you Westerners wanting to say we are poor; wanting to say we are bad place.’

‘Have you been in China?’ the Chinese computer major asked, bringing me back to the present, a crowded building in York, where waiters were circulating with wine and canapés.

‘Yes, I lived in your country for several years.  I love it – and respect it.’

‘Maybe if you write this, and you want to come to China again, you won’t get a visa!’ he said.  ‘Only joking! Hahaha!’

‘Ha…’ I said. ‘I think China is a good place.  And I think Deng Xiaoping was a great and an important leader.  I know that many of my Chinese friends say that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms transformed their lives.  He made many people’s lives better.  I know that.’

‘Maybe if you do go back to teach in China again, and you say this,’ he continued to jab my poster, ‘you will be deported!’ he said.  ‘Only joking! Hahaha! Maybe the People’s Daily headline will say, Foreign Expert Sent Home! Only joking!’

I half-wish I hadn’t put the word Tiananmen on that poster.  How, in a couple of hundred words, could I get across the complexity of contemporary Chinese history?  Lin Zhaohua struggled, and he had the vehicle of Hamlet to convey it.  How was I so insensitive not to realise that if I added it, although it might spark the interest of a Western academic, or even a Chinese academic, it was bound to wound a young Chinese boy?

(c) Saffron Walkling

Chinese Shakespeare through Western Eyes

Murray Levith’s 2004 Shakespeare in China is an enjoyable read, giving another general introduction to the Chinese Shakespeare scene.  Unlike Li Ruru and Alex C. T. Huang, he is writing and seeing from a Westerner’s perspective, I presume (although names can be misleading in our increasingly intermixed world), and much of the book contextualizes the Chinese ‘backdrop’ of the texts and performances he focusses on.  I felt an immediate bond with Professor Levith because he, like me, was a sojourner in Shandong Province, a ‘Foreign Expert’ at Qufu Teachers University (I taught at Shandong University in Jinan between 1993-5 and again in 2000-03).   Qufu, he is quick to point out, like a true Shandongren (native of Shandong), is Confucious’ ‘hometown’.  As one of my post-graduate students once put it – because of this heritage, ‘Shandong is to China what Jerusalem is to Christendom,’ and at a number of places in his analysis Levith touches on how Chinese translators and scholars view Shakespeare’s plays through Confucian spectacles.

Like most books on Shakespeare in China, Levith starts out by looking at that first translation of Shakespeare’s works by a named author, Lin Shu(Lin Qinnan)’s The Mystery Fiction of the English Poet.  Lin rewrote Lamb’s Tales  at the beginning of the 20th Century, in classical Chinese.  Levith, along with other scholars, notes how Lin flags up  in his preface that Shakespeare wrote of ‘gods, fairies, ghosts and demons’, continuing that, ‘If westerner’s are so civilized, then maybe these works mentioned [Shakespeare’s] should be banned and burned so as not to interfere with scientific knowledge’ (Lin cited in Fei cited in Levith, 2004: 6).   This same passage is commented on by Li Ruru in her book.   Li places Lin’s ‘Preface’ in the context of his challenge to the Chinese modernizers who wanted to get rid of ‘superstitious’ Chinese culture and replace it with what they saw as ‘rational’ Western culture, whereas Levith reads it quite differently, concluding:  ‘As a good Confucian, and perhaps to anticipate criticism for choosing Shakespeare to translate in the first place, [Lin] also castigates the playwright for his non-scientific ‘superstition’ (5-6).  Personally, I feel that Li Ruru’s argument is strongest, as it makes sense in the historical contexts of the time (see my entry on her book Shashabiya).  It also avoids the anomaly of Lin having dedicated so much energy to translating something that he thought worthy only of burning…   Levith, unlike me, has fluent Mandarin and often uses his own translations, so I am not suggesting that he has misinterpreted the passage.  Nonetheless, this sort of discrepancy in interpretation between equally authoritative scholars highlights to me some of the pitfalls I will face in being fully reliant on other people’s translations.   

Something I really liked about this book is the way that Levith, like Li, is able to conjure up a sense of real people.  It is hard not to be moved by the story of the Keats-like Zhu Shenghao (1911-44).  Determining to translate the Complete Works of Shakespeare, despite war and illness, he set himself a ten-year deadline, but unfortunately, in 1936, shortly after starting, all his books and criticism were destroyed. ‘What I was able to carry away in haste were the one volume Oxford Shakespeare and a few of my draft translations’ (in Levith, 2004:11).  He died at 33 of TB.  ‘Song Qingru, his widow, reported that his deathbed words were: “Had I known I would not rise again after this illness, I would have exerted all my efforts to complete the translation”‘(cited in Meng in Levith, 2004: 11)!  What an image – thousands of miles and hundreds of years distant from Shakespeare and early modern England, the shivering, impoverished Zhu sat hunched over tissue thin pieces of  paper, hands blue with ink and cold, in the Siberian conditions of a Chinese winter, coughing up blood, and knowing that he will die before his task is completed.

However, although extremely knowledgeable, Levith (like many Westerners writing on China) is only able to see Communism as a Bad Thing, both in terms of the country’s social/economic development and its intellectual development. The book gives a sense that contemporary China (and its understanding of Shakespeare, of course) has been held back by the events of the last sixty years: ‘Even today many People’s Republic Shakespeare scholars, translators, and theatre people still begin with ideological assumptions and dated models, and tailor their analyses or productions to these analyses and models’ (xiii). Obviously, I am not about to condone the suffering of millions of people during the various campaigns of the Mao years, from A Hundred Flowers and the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution.  However, it is simplistic and ironic to make ‘an important distinction […] between older generation Shakespeareans, who remember campaigns against intellectuals and the Cultural Revolution and are understandably cautious, and the younger generation with a freer and more global viewpoint’ (xiii), if the distinction is that the first category are somehow less valid than the second.  Simplistic, because it is these ideological contexts, and indeed this very ‘caution’, that makes our study of Shakespeare in post-1949 China so fascinating, and ironic because it seems to me that Levith is unhappy that older Chinese Shakespeare scholars are not adhering to his idea of ‘correct thinking’ (although I am sure he would not think of his intellectual worldview in these terms)…:

‘The paradox of Shakespeare in the New China, however, is that the Chinese have mostly adapted and appropriated the playwright for their own ideological and aesthetic purposes [Well, duh! = inappropriate, non-academic response to the ideas of a very useful-to-my studies scholar!  But I can hear an echo in his tone of the sentiments of the dear, sweet, oh-so-infuriating American missionaries who used to live upstairs from me in Shandong…]. They have dressed the Bard in various Chinese opera styles, forced him to be an apologist for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, celebrated his lesser plays, neglected several of his masterpieces, excised sex, religion, and contrary politics from his texts, added to them, and at times simplified, corrupted, or misunderstood his characters and themes.  Perhaps more than any other nation, China has used a great artist to forward its own ideology rather than meet him on his own ground’ (137).

Well, thank goodness for that, or I’d be up a PhD without a thesis…!

Poster boy Hamlet

(c) SSCAC Pu Cunxin in Lin’s Hamuleite revivival

Somehow, I forgot to mention Jane Moody’s Academic Poster competition, which I managed to win, despite my rudimentary IT skills!

Last October, the University of York

opened its new Berwick Saul Building which houses the Humanities Research Centre and our post-graduate study space.   As part of the opening celebrations, current post-graduates were asked to enter a competition to produce a poster setting out their research in a visually stimulating and easily accessible way.  The posters would be displayed during the opening reception, and, more importantly perhaps, the winners would get a cash prize…

After chatting with some younger, more computer savvy students, I downloaded myself a copy of the Corel Poster making guide, and set to work.  Unfortunately, I could make neither head nor tail of this extremely long document, and as I only had one morning in which I could spare any time  for the visual side of this project, I decided to go back to basics and draft my ideas onto a Word document.  I knew that I wanted to make a link between Lin Zhaohua’s Hamuleite and the Tiananmen Incident – after all, how could any production based on Hamlet that was first put on at the end of 1989 not be making some link?  This led to me coming up with the title ‘Hamlet and the Chinese Democracy Wall.’   Once I had the title, everything else fell into place.  The Democracy Wall was the name given to a wall of posters at Beijing University, put up by students pushing for campus reform.  From this grew the crowds in Tiananmen Square, the Goddess of Democracy statue, the hunger strikes, and the eventual quashing of the demonstration by the government.  Even now, 20 years later, nobody is sure what really happened.  This image of the Democracy Wall would reflect the brief moment that Shakespeare appropriation in the PRC was overtly and domestically political, before it became a product with which to enter the global market (with films such as Feng’s The Banquet).  This is doubly appropriate, as it seems to me that Lin’s production was suggesting that everything in the New China comes second to pragmatism and economic development; many Chinese, including some of the student protestors themselves, would come to conclude that in the long run Deng Xiaoping’s utilitarianism had a more lasting and positive impact than their calls for democracy could have had.  But how was I to reproduce that wall of faded tissue paper ‘posters’ with their bold, hand-inked calligraphy and simple stark messages?  This is where my limited IT skills worked to my advantage.  I started with a long, thin text box down the righthand side of the document, which I blocked in red, then I added in Chinese characters, vertically, the saying I had learnt from my Chinese tutor, that inside one thousand people, there are one thousand different Hamlets.  It looked just like one of the New Year couplets that my Chinese neighbours would hang outside their doors at Spring Festival.  Then I began to add other text boxes: black print on white for my ideas, red text boxes for my quotations.  I added a banner like heading in a script that imitated brushstrokes across the top, and a single image from Lin’s production dominating the top half: Hamlet, in the off-white of his mourning, squatting alongside a Beijing ditch, giving his Yorick speech to a plastic skull.  The effect was almost what I had hoped for, but it seemed slightly too new, too hopeful.  I changed my bright crimson to a faded red, suggesting the passage of time, and suddenly there it was, my campus wall of ideas.  I now simply had to transfer and enlarge my text boxes to an A3 Publisher document (this, of course, took me about another hour…!)  I hadn’t used Corel, but I had solidified my ideas, and managed to convey visually my understanding of complex, contradictory Chinese politics. I attached it to an email to Jane Moody, on the off-chance that it might pick-up a runner-up comment and promptly forgot all about it.

Imagine my surprise just before the Christmas break when I got emails from Bill, my supervisor, and Jane telling me I had jointly won first prize, making me £75 richer…

And I have a very nice new digital camera now, too.

(c) Saffron Walkling