Tea­house Around the World

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Gong Haiy­ing Pho­to­graphs cour­tesy of the Beijing Peo­ple’s Art The­ater un­less oth­er­wise cred­ited

At 7:30 p.m. on June 12, 2017, the lights went up at Beijing Cap­i­tal The­ater, an ex­clu­sive stage with over 1,000 seats that is home to the Beijing Peo­ple’s Art The­ater (BPAT). The venue was packed for the open­ing night of a re­vival of the clas­sic Tea­house, one of the BPAT’S sig­na­ture pieces.

The show is part of a big cel­e­bra­tion to com­mem­o­rate the 65th an­niver­sary of the BPAT, one of China’s lead­ing the­ater com­pa­nies. Tea­house is con­sid­ered one of the most pro­foundly sig­nif­i­cant plays in the com­pany’s his­tory.

From China to the World

In 1956, Lao She (1899-1966, born Shu Qingchun), a mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­ary fig­ure and artist, pub­lished the re­al­is­tic three-act play Tea­house to wide­spread ac- claim. Since its de­but at the BPAT in 1958, Tea­house has been per­formed 700 times by two gen­er­a­tions of BPAT artists, and it still en­joys pop­u­lar­ity through­out China and me­trop­o­lises around the world.

“Tea­house is an ideal mi­cro­cosm of the times,” as­serted Lao She. All three acts of the play are set in a tea­house called “Yu Tai” in old Beijing. Now hav­ing been per­formed for more than half a cen­tury, it fol­lows 70 char­ac­ters and show­cases the rise and the fall of Yu Tai and the fates of the peo­ple in dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal stages in­clud­ing the late Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), the North­ern War­lords pe­riod (1912-1927) and af­ter the end of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion in 1945. “Their vi­cis­si­tudes in life mir­ror what so­ci­ety was re­ally feel­ing,” re­marked Lao She.

Tea­house could only have been set in China con­sid­er­ing the iconic tea­house, strongly Beijing-fla­vored di­alect, con­cise yet deep-drawn lan­guage and sculpt­ing of dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ters such as Wang Lifa, owner of the tea­house, hon­est and kind Mas­ter Chang and Qin Zhongyi, an en­tre­pre­neur who dreams of sav­ing the coun­try.

The two ear­li­est pro­duc­tions, di­rected by BPAT co-founder Jiao Juyin (19051975) and Xia Chun (1918-2009) re­spec­tively, at­tempted to in­ject the play with even stronger Chi­nese cul­tural fla­vor.

“Jiao Juyin’s pro­duc­tion of Tea­house changed the aes­thetic prin­ci­ples of Chi­nese drama,” com­mented Lin Zhao­hua, a fa­mous Chi­nese di­rec­tor and art di­rec­tor of the re­vised ver­sion of Tea­house. “These prin­ci­ples can be seen every­where from the rhythm to the han­dling of char­ac­ters, nar­ra­tion of time and space and di­verse per­for­mance styles.”

In the year 1980, a pro­duc­tion of Tea­house went abroad for the first time: In 50 days, they per­formed the play 25 times in 15 cities across France, Ger­many and Switzer­land, in­spir­ing lofty ac­claim wher­ever they went. On Septem­ber 30, 1980, a Ger­man news­pa­per called Tea­house a “mir­a­cle of the East­ern stage.” More­over, the play also trig­gered a strong reaction af­ter per­for­mances in China’s Hong Kong and Tai­wan as well as coun­tries such as Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore, Canada and the United States.

A typ­i­cal Chi­nese play in many ways, Tea­house pro­foundly com­ments on the hu­man con­di­tion amidst ex­treme cir­cum­stances. As the Ger­man news­pa­per com­mented, per­form­ers opened a door with the stun­ning drama, show­cas­ing a cul­ture strange yet in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar: Peo­ple of ev­ery kind ex­pe­ri­ence the same bit­ter­ness dur­ing war, chaos, vi­o­lence and times of ig­no­rance and self-de­cep­tion. A great drama can be ap­pre­ci­ated any­where in the world.

Fur­ther­more, the glob­al­iza­tion of Tea­house started a di­a­logue be­tween Chi­nese and Western dra­mas. “The great suc­cess of Tea­house made us proud of Jiao Juyin and the style he es­tab­lished,” as­serted Lin Zhao­hua. “We be­came more con­fi­dent in es­tab­lish­ing a the­atri­cal sys­tem of our own, which made a strong im­pact on the world com­mu­nity.”

In­her­i­tance and In­no­va­tion

The BPAT has con­trib­uted much more than just the play Tea­house.

The year 2017 is a big one for Chi­nese drama. Euro­pean-style drama was in­tro­duced to China via Ja­pan. More than 110 years have passed since Li Shu­tong (18801942), fa­ther of the Chi­nese New Cul­ture Move­ment and an out­stand­ing Chi­nese artist, es­tab­lished a pro­fes­sional the­ater in 1906. The fol­low­ing year, the the­ater staged the fa­mous French play, La Dame aux Camélias, in Ja­pan. Start­ing in 1938, Chi­nese drama was greatly in­flu­enced by the the­atri­cal sys­tem of the for­mer Soviet Union.

In 1952, the BPAT was founded by com­bin­ing the Beijing Peo­ple’s Mod­ern Drama Troupe and the drama troupe of the Cen­tral Drama Acad­emy. Dur­ing its early days, co-founder Jiao Juyin sug­gested Chi­nese drama es­tab­lish its own style by fus­ing Chi­nese the­atri­cal aes­thetic prin­ci­ples with the ten­den­cies of Soviet drama.

Jiao’s pro­posal to es­tab­lish a “Chi­nese style” heav­ily af­fected the progress of the BPAT. Dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, the BPAT en­joyed a run of mod­ern Chi­nese mas­ter­pieces such as Cai Wenji by Guo Moruo, Tea­house by Lao She and Thun­der­storm by Cao Yu, which lo­cal­ized im­ported drama, es­tab­lished a re­al­is­tic the­atri­cal style for the BPAT and be­stowed Chi­nese drama with dis­tinc­tive Chi­nese fla­vor, deeply rooted in tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture.

Gen­er­a­tions of mem­bers of the BPAT have in­her­ited and pro­moted the unique Chi­nese school of drama, in­spir­ing prac­ti­tion­ers across the coun­try. In the 1980s, the BPAT blazed new trails by ab­sorb­ing el­e­ments of Western mod­ernism and post-mod­ernism while per­form­ing sev­eral tra­di­tional plays such as Xiao­jing Hu­tong (dubbed a post-lib­er­a­tion Tea­house) in 1985, The First Restau­rant Un­der Heaven in 1988, which has so far per­formed more than 500 shows, and Ab­so­lute Sig­nal, China’s first small the­ater show, which pre­miered in Novem­ber 1982, di­rected by em­i­nent di­rec­tor Lin Zhao­hua. “It opened a new space for the art of Chi­nese drama by blend­ing el­e­ments of the East and the West,” com­mented Tong Daom­ing, a dis­tin­guished Chi­nese the­ater critic.

“To­day, the BPAT is work­ing on two con­trast­ing fronts: It is pre­serv­ing tra­di­tion while seek­ing in­no­va­tion,” ex­plains Ren Ming, pres­i­dent of the BPAT. “We can start with East­ern drama fea­tur­ing pro­found East­ern cul­tural tra­di­tion and nour­ish it with mod­ern styles. We will also nat­u­rally en­hance the new Beijing fla­vor by fo­cus­ing on pre­sent­ing the Chi­nese cap­i­tal ac­cu­rately, as well as its di­verse pop­u­la­tion of res­i­dents.”

China’s next gen­er­a­tion of young artists should ac­cept the Tea­house ba­ton now that most of the peo­ple per­form­ing it are in their six­ties. At the same time, they should seek new an­gles on the ma­te­rial, like ver­sions such as Jiao Juyin’s pro­duc­tion have done. Artis­tic preser­va­tion re­quires the in­no­va­tion to adapt clas­si­cal con­tent to fit con­tem­po­rary times.

Lao She (2nd right), the au­thor, Jiao Juyin (right), di­rec­tor of the BPAT, and Xia Chun (3rd right), also a BPAT di­rec­tor, work on the plots of Tea­house. In 1956, Lao She (1899-1966, born Shu Qingchun), a mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­ary fig­ure and artist,...

A still from the 1958 edition of Tea­house, which was hailed a “mir­a­cle of the East­ern stage” by a Ger­man news­pa­per.

June 12, 2017: The Beijing Peo­ple's Art The­ater (BPAT), a state-level the­ater in China, cel­e­brates its 65th birth­day with a re­vival of the clas­sic Tea­house, one of its sig­na­ture pieces. by Li Chun­guang

A still from Death of a Sales­man, by Amer­i­can writer Arthur Miller, dur­ing its de­but at the Cap­i­tal The­ater in 1983, which was re-re­hearsed in 2012.

A still from the 2013 ver­sion of Xiao­jing Hu­tong. In the 1980s, the BPAT staged a num­ber of dra­mas, such as Xiao­jing Hu­tong (dubbed a post-lib­er­a­tion Tea­house), fur­ther na­tion­al­iz­ing Chi­nese dra­mas. by Li Chun­guang

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