China’s preeminent playwright, Cao Yu, was a catalyst for introducing spoken theatre to his country and a revolutionary of dreams. Glass discovers more about theatre’s little known star
“The Sun Rises and Darkness is Left Behind” – Cao Yu, Chinese playwright, 1910–1996
Imagine old China: a glamorous city at night, a socialite, a banker and an opulent hotel. Hear the music, jazz, perhaps, the clink of glasses, decadent laughter. The darkness deepens and somewhere, a prostitute is beaten. Somewhere else, a gangster smirks. Rich men complain about meat for their dogs. It’s hard to live in China, they say.
That line, from Cao Yu’s great play Sunrise, which premiered in Shanghai in 1937, is Bonni Chan’s favourite. “The contrast between the very rich and the very poor, right next to each other, is dramatically so interesting,” she says. “A young girl has just been badly hurt and the next thing you see is a playboy chatting about dog food.”
Chan is the artistic director of Theatre du Pif, a well-known bilingual company based in Hong Kong. She has staged Sunrise twice in Macau and Hong Kong, and plans to take her production on tour next year, visiting Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing as well as several Southeast Asian cities.
When we meet, she is holding a translation of the script, its edges curled from years of use. On the front of the book is an image of the author. “Can you believe he looks like this?” Chan asks. She gestures at the black and white portrait of a man in early middle-age. He is wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smiling slightly, with a look of generosity tinged with boredom.
Perhaps Chan was expecting someone more formidable. After all, Cao Yu’s achievements in Chinese drama are so important that, even in his homeland, he is often called the Shakespeare of the Orient. Although Cao Yu’s influence outside Asia is small, his place in the history of modern Chinese theatre is paramount. His debut play, Thunderstorm (1934), a family tragedy about incest which he wrote during his final year at Tsinghua University, ushered in the golden age of Chinese spoken drama (huaju), which first appeared in the early 20th century as an alternative to traditional operatic theatre.
In her critical introduction to the Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama (2010), University of California professor Xiaomei Chen explains that huaju’s evolution began some years earlier and was tied to anti-imperialist stirrings at the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), when eminent scholar Liang Qichao advocated reform to free opera “from its ancient rules”. He wanted it to “play a role in constructing a new nation”.
Previously, spoken theatre was regarded as a distinctly Western art with no tradition in the East. So it was not until republican thinkers sought to use the stage as a political tool that this dramatic form appeared in China.
Liang sought to merge opera with modern ideas of democracy and enlightened citizenship, thereby paving the way for “civilised drama” (wenming xi), an early form of spoken theatre that emerged via Tokyo in 1907 in deliberate imitation of the European stage.
“Playwrights and performers of civilised drama envisioned a new theatre in service to the revolutionary cause of overthrowing the Qing dynasty,” says Chen, “thereby placing new drama squarely in the construction of a new Chinese national identity.”
In February of that year, a group of Chinese students in Japan formed the Spring Willow Society (chenliu she) and performed the third act of Alexandre Dumas fils’ Camille in translation. According to prominent historian Zhang Geng, this was “the first performance of modern spoken drama staged by the Chinese people in the Chinese language”.
In June 1907, the society produced the first complete play written by a Chinese playwright. Black Slave’s Cry to Heaven (heinu yutian lu), by Zeng Xiaogu, was an adaptation in five acts of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ouyang Yuqian was one of the students who led this landmark event and, along with maverick theatre artists Tian Han and Hong Sheng, became instrumental in developing the modern Chinese stage. But spoken drama was not popular. It remained radical, the preserve of a certain intellectual elite, until after the establishment of China’s republican era in 1911.
In 1919, leading liberalist philosopher Hu Shi published The Main Event in Life. Imitative of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) the piece marked the beginning of huaju. But it would take another 15 years, and the rise of a brilliant young playwright from Hubei province, for spoken theatre as we know it to take hold in cities across China.
When Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm was published in the journal Literary Quarterly (wenxue jikan) in 1934, Chen notes that he “enjoyed almost immediate recognition, unlike his predecessors”. Lu Xun, one of modern China’s literary giants and by then near the end of his influential career, is said to have told the American journalist Edgar Snow about a “new star dramatist”.
His next play, Sunrise, helped to strengthen the status Cao Yu had achieved with Thunderstorm. It follows the story of student turned socialite Chen Bailu, who moves from the countryside to live in a luxury hotel as a banker’s escort.
There she befriends a prostitute nicknamed Xiao Dongxi (“little thing”), who reveals to her the harsh reality of a hostile and unjust society. When Bailu’s childhood boyfriend arrives in the city to rescue her from decadence, he sets in motion a chain of events that ends in the heroine’s suicide.
Director Bonni Chan describes the play’s appeal to young actors and audiences today. “For China now, Sunrise is more relevant than Cao Yu’s [other work]. It is set in a rising, cosmopolitan city, where young people can relate to the protagonist’s materialistic pursuit and the way it conflicts with her spirituality.”
On Cao Yu’s role in modern Chinese theatre, Chan explains that since early dramatic literature was derived from the West, it is rare to find plays from the first half of the 20th century that feel appropriate for audiences in China today.
“I can’t name anyone else from that generation who wrote works that are so well-structured and playable. He must have worked really hard to absorb Ibsen, Chekhov and O’Neill, and then come back and write a [piece] that was Chinese in character.”
Cao Yu’s fame was growing and he would go on to become president of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre from its founding in 1952 until his death in 1996.
During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Mao Zedong demanded that all literary creation be in service to the communist cause. Cao Yu’s early works survived because of their bleak portrayal of bourgeois society and morals.
Anthony Chan, artistic director of the noted Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, collaborated in 2010 on a biographical piece about the last days of Cao Yu’s life. Chan explains that he suffered enormous pressure once the Cultural Revolution was underway. “He was the most respected playwright of the time, so the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party asked him to write propaganda plays which supported Communism and avoided politically sensitive issues at the same time. I think this suppressed his free will to write according to his passion. His recognition only added to his stress, as he wanted to present only successful works.”
The violent repression of intellectuals and artists during the Cultural Revolution affected Cao Yu deeply, triggering feelings of alienation and anxiety which he carried for the rest of his life. After Mao’s death he wrote only one more play, Consort of Peace, in 1979. But he continued at the helm of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre under Deng Xiaoping’s regime.
In an important move, in 1983, Cao Yu invited Arthur Miller to direct Death of a Salesman in Beijing, establishing a cultural exchange with international theatres that still exists today. Chen explains, ”Not only did his plays reflect the maturing of Chinese theatre, but also his creative imagination and experimental works opened up infinite possibilities for the development of Chinese drama, in which multiple approaches, styles and ideas could benefit his contemporaries and future generations.”
Yu Rongjun is China’s most produced living playwright and has so far written 34 plays. He says they mostly explore the relationship between people and “the big city” and how, for example, marriages and families survive in metropolitan cultures.
Sunrise is his favourite of Cao Yu’s oeuvre for its dark portrayal of city life. The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, where he is director of programming, staged the play in 1998. He says the story “remains relevant and even offers new meaning to the people from China’s urban centres, especially Shanghai and Beijing.”
As a modern day playwright, however, Yu draws inspiration from contemporary themes. “They wrote about their generation and their society,” he says. “I write about today’s China and today’s society.” He believes that “right now is a big time for theatre in China” and that the next generation of playwrights will have “more space to do new things”. But he admits that censorship has prevented contemporary theatre from becoming as novel as its Western counterpart.
While, as Chan notes, an element of existentialism is present in many recent plays, Yu says that a tangible avant-garde movement is absent. Nonetheless he remains hopeful and speaks of positive change. The Chinese media was banned from reviewing a play that the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre produced in 2001. “It was too critical of society at the time,” Yu explains. However, the company re-staged the piece last year without interference.
Yu claims that of the 200 productions he has overseen since 1995, only five have been blocked (of which three were his). “As an artist in China, if you want to keep putting your work on stage, you have to play the game.”
That game, it seems, involves a bold use of metaphor. Yu’s adaptation of Cry to Heaven, which he wrote for the 100th anniversary of Chinese spoken drama in 2007, presented scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside the history of huaju. He says he used the 19th century novel “as a shadow” for the relationship between politics and the arts in China.
Anthony Chan believes that contemporary Chinese drama is “still in its blossom period.” Since the 1980s, he has witnessed “a mushrooming of new theatres and themes” as intercultural dialogue continues to grow with the West.
“Mainstream spoken drama still relies on rather narrow [material],” he admits. “At the same time, commercial repertories put on comedies and musicals rather than serious drama. Most of these plays are visually attractive but weak in content, using movie or television stars on stage to guarantee box-office success.”
Recently, though, the younger generations in China have embraced black box or ‘small’ theatre (xiao juchang) because of its pop culture relevance. While he recognises a willingness to take on harder-hitting issues, Chan finds that the small theatre movement has ventured more into new forms rather than challenging content.“The plays can be multimedia. The text can be poetic or absurdist, combined with rock music and so on … I wouldn’t say it is a sophisticated art form, but it has provided a platform for younger audiences to experience different performance styles.”
In a country with almost 5000 years of recorded history, the evolution of spoken theatre or huaju is recent. The pioneering efforts of Liang Qichao, the Spring Willow Society and all of those who emerged at the dawn of the 20th century are recognised for a vision that was inspired by a hope for enlightenment, democracy and freedom.
The early dramatists believed that by harnessing popular spectacle, they could reach the people with their dream of a new China. According to Xiaomei Chen, some went so far as to argue that “modern drama in the Western style … more than any other literary form, would become the most effective tool for transforming traditional Chinese society.”
In a fundamental way, Cao Yu’s works popularised and consolidated huaju as a theatrical genre. He provided a way for new generations of playwrights to use the stage to confront questions of life, love and, most of all, liberty. –
by Samantha Kuok Leese
From the Glass Archive – Issue Seven – Power