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).

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