Re­mem­ber­ing a Cen­tury on Stage

Memo­rial Ex­hi­bi­tion Hon­or­ing 110th An­niver­sary of Chi­nese Drama

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Song Baozhen Pho­tos cour­tesy of the In­sti­tute of Drama Stud­ies un­der the Chi­nese Na­tional Acad­emy of Arts

The year 2017 marks the 110th an­niver­sary of the in­tro­duc­tion of West­ern drama to China. In the year 1907, the Spring Wil­low So­ci­ety, which con­sisted of a group of Chi­nese stu­dents who had stud­ied in Ja­pan, per­formed frag­ments of La Dame aux Camélias ( The Lady of the Camel­lias) and Un­cle Tom’s Cabin.

To com­mem­o­rate the new era of Chi­nese drama, on July 28, 2017, a 20-day ex­hi­bi­tion was jointly launched by the Chi­nese Na­tional Acad­emy of Arts, Na­tional The­atre Company of China and Bei­jing Peo­ple’s Art The­atre.

The ex­hi­bi­tion re­views Chi­nese drama be­tween 1907 and 2017, fea­tur­ing more than 700 pic­tures, stage stills and stage de­signs con­trib­uted by over 50 art troupes and col­leges. Videos of some im­por­tant plays of the past cen­tury were dis­played on the big screen, bring­ing the au­di­ences back to decades-old stages.

On dis­play is a wide ar­ray of ex­hibits in­clud­ing first-hand doc­u­ments, books, props, and restora­tions of stage cos­tumes and sets as well as items used by fa­mous artists back­stage and at home.

Has Chi­nese drama adopted West­ern fla­vor since the in­tro­duc­tion? Yes, but not ex­actly.

The an­swer is “yes” be­cause to­day, we are still ab­sorb­ing its essence. “Not ex­actly” be­cause af­ter a cen­tury of de­vel­op­ment, in­te­gra­tion, trans­for­ma­tion and in­no­va­tion, the art has been fla­vored with Chi­nese con­no­ta­tions, not only in form but also in con­tent, mak­ing it part of the Chi­nese cul­ture.

Rec­ti­fi­ca­tion vs. Po­etic Rhythm

Chi­nese aca­demics and literati have long ad­hered to the prin­ci­ple of “con­vey­ing truth through writ­ing.” The prin­ci­ple also ap­plies to tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras, which fo­cus on “ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple” via per­for­mance. Theater and drama have never served as prod­ucts of aes­theti­cism be­yond re­al­ity. Es­pe­cially in the mod­ern era when the Chi­nese na­tion ex­pe­ri­enced too many life-and-death crises, some no­ble prac­ti­tion­ers as­pired to help peo­ple who were strug­gling for sur­vival and in­tro­duced

West­ern drama to China in the hopes of rec­ti­fy­ing so­cial evils.

Dur­ing the May 4th Move­ment in 1919, for in­stance, drama was a cen­tral player in spread­ing ideas. At that time, dra­matic cir­cles were heav­ily in­flu­enced by Nor­we­gian drama­tist Hen­rik Ib­sen (1828-1906), who in­spired a pop­ulist fight­ing spirit to “dare at­tack so­ci­ety and fight alone against the ma­jor­ity,” a line from Lu Xun (1881-1936), a lead­ing fig­ure in mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture.

“Mod­ern drama is tremen­dously valu­able be­cause of its ide­o­log­i­cal con­no­ta­tions,” as­serted Hong Shen (1894-1955), a di­rec­tor, play­wright, ed­u­ca­tor, and so­cial­ist dur­ing the Re­pub­lic of China pe­riod (1912-1949).

By the 1930s and 1940s, all kinds of drama were be­ing staged, most with heavy po­lit­i­cal over­tones based on the spe­cific times. West­ern drama would not have gained trac­tion, let alone flour­ished as it did, if the coun­try had not de­manded it prag­mat­i­cally.

In the new his­tor­i­cal pe­riod, the com­bat mis­sion of mod­ern drama has been trans­formed, but it re­mains an im­por­tant art form serv­ing so­ci­ety and val­ues.

China has highly-de­vel­oped po­etry. Dra­matic the­o­rists of­ten look at drama as the evo­lu­tion and di­vi­sion of po­etry. In the long his­tory of West­ern drama, many masters had a deep po­etic qual­ity in their works. Chi­nese drama­tists, both early and re­cent, have shown great in­ter­est in the po­etic rhythm of many time­less West­ern dra­mas as ev­i­denced by the prod­ucts they have staged.

Plays by Chi­nese drama­tists are pre­sented in voices tran­scend­ing po­etic hori­zon through ob­ser­va­tion and per­for­mance about life, with fo­cus on the real world through feel­ings and per­spec­tives of crit­i­cism, so­cial re­al­ity and vi­sion­ary ideals.

Im­ages of po­et­i­cally emo­tional ex­pres­sion live in many char­ac­ters, such as Fan Yi, the lead fe­male char­ac­ter in Thun­der­storm, a mag­num opus of Cao Yu (19101996), and Guan Han­qing, the main char­ac­ter in Guan Han­qing, a mod­ern drama by Tian Han (1898-1968), an­other em­i­nent Chi­nese play­wright. Chi­nese play­wrights pur­sued mind con­nec­tions be­yond the lines, to and from mul­ti­ple points, tran­scend­ing West­ern aes­thet­ics of re­al­ism.

Strong Na­tional Fla­vor

Chi­nese drama is based on his­tory, re­al­ity and Chi­nese life. It ex­presses the qual­ity and cul­tural char­ac­ter of the Chi­nese na­tion by pre­sent­ing the re­sults of long-term in­te­gra­tion and ac­cu­mu­la­tion of mod­ern con­scious­ness and na­tional aes­thetic spirit.

His­tor­i­cally, the most cel­e­brated stand­outs have been mostly writ­ers of ex­cel­lent na­tional cul­tural works re­flect­ing uni­ver­sal Chi­nese ethics and val­ues for so­cial jus­tice.

Dur­ing its long-term de­vel­op­ment, Chi­nese drama has es­tab­lished a style fea­tur­ing a strong re­gional cul­tural fla­vor. Ge­o­graph­i­cally, work from the black soil of north­east­ern China tends to be bold and un­con­strained, plays from the north­west­ern Loess Plateau are loud and strong, sim­ple and des­o­late, pro­duc­tions in Shang­hai are mod­ern and ur­ban, and those in Bei­jing are nat­u­ral, grace­ful and poised, care­free and con­tented.

The na­tional fea­tures of Chi­nese drama are de­picted not only in ex­pres­sion tech­niques, which uti­lize el­e­ments of tra­di­tional op­eras, mak­ing it one of the best ways to adapt West­ern drama to China, but also by meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, na­tional spirit and aes­thetic charm, which have fu­eled Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics and Chi­nese style from the heart.

Tech­ni­cally, Chi­nese drama­tists have com­mu­ni­cated with the aes­thetic spirit of West­ern drama by us­ing re­al­ism, ro­man­ti­cism, and mod­ernism, and at the same time used na­tional artis­tic spirit, po­etic con­no­ta­tions and unique artis­tic method­ol­ogy and means to es­tab­lish na­tional unique­ness in char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, set­ting, dra­matic con­flict and the­atri­cal lan­guage.

The cen­tury of progress has shown that Chi­nese drama can­not move for­ward with­out high­light­ing the cen­tral essence of Chi­nese tra­di­tion as it ab­sorbs ex­pe­ri­ence from other cul­tures.

A still from Re­turn onas­nowy Night at the Chi­nese Youth Art Theater, Au­gust 1982. A still from the de­but of Xiao­jing Al­ley, a Bei­jing-style drama, 1983.

A still from Qu Yuan, a mag­num opus of mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­ary gi­ant Guo Moruo (1892-1978), Jan­uary 1942.

A still from An Un­faith­ful For­mer Courtier, staged by the Spring Wil­low So­ci­ety in 1914.

A still from Fam­ily Feud, staged by the Spring Wil­low So­ci­ety in Jan­uary 1912.

Fe­bru­ary 1907: The Spring Wil­low So­ci­ety, which con­sisted of a group of Chi­nese stu­dents who had stud­ied in Ja­pan, per­forms frag­ments of La Dameaux­camélias ( The Lady of the­camel­lias). It was founded by Li Shu­tong (1880-1942), who played the lead.

A still from Fu Sheng, pro­duced by the Na­tional The­atre Company of China in De­cem­ber 2013.

A still from the pre­miere of The Field of Life and Death at the Cen­tral Ex­per­i­men­tal Drama Theater, June 1999.

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