Yan Zhao*

Abstract: In the past forty years, the development of Chinese scenic design has been influenced by many forms of scenography from around the world. As time has progressed, numerous plays have reflected Chinese scenic designers’ tendency to actively search for visual themes from traditional Chinese culture that suit contemporary aesthetic standards. In the process of this search, Chinese traditional culture has been restructured for application in contemporary scenic design. Questions regarding how scenic designers should, with originality, inherit and transform Chinese traditional culture within a contemporary aesthetic context and, within that process, how they should apply new theatre technologies, have come to the fore.
The most representative works of Chinese scenic designers in the past decade often embody traditional Chinese aesthetics and temperaments in very expressive ways. Transforming the conceptual beauty of traditional Chinese culture into contemporary forms in scenic design, they are clearly influenced by Chinese aesthetics and philosophy.

Keywords: harmony, philosophy, wholeness, tradition, modernity

Traditional Chinese Philosophy and Contemporary Scenic Design

The Harmony between Humanity and Nature

According to the theories established in traditional Chinese aesthetics, aesthetic activity is the construction of a conceptual world that is beyond the physical world. This conceptual world becomes the subject of aesthetics, which is also what we commonly refer to as “beauty.” The world in which we reside is not just the sum of its physical parts, but, more importantly, it nurtures thousands of lives, and it represents an interrelatedness and harmony between humanity and nature. Thereby, the concept of “harmony” is established as one of the core values in traditional aesthetics.

Xinglin Liu was the scenic designer of the production The Peony Pavilion, based on one of the most extraordinary Chinese love stories, by The Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre

As philosophies in art develop and the pursuits of audiences evolve, Chinese scenic designers have gradually shifted the focus of their design from technicalities to manipulations of space and how stage art can compliment the performance. By actively incorporating concepts from traditional philosophy into their works, these designers have begun an exploration of ideas that are uniquely associated with Chinese philosophy: the “air” (“feng”), the “bone” (“gu”), the “energy” (“chi”), the “rhythm” (“yun”), and the “way” (Tao”). Xinglin Liu was the scenic designer of the production The Peony Pavilion by The Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre.

The Peony Pavillion, produced by the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, which was founded in 1957. The Chinese masterpiece has almost become a synonym for Kunqu Opera.

The play begins with Du Liniang dreaming of a rendezvous at a peony pavilion with a young scholar whom she has never met. She cannot forget this dream for a long time after she wakes up. Consumed by lovesickness, she soon passes away. Three years later, a young scholar, Liu Mengmei, travels to Nan An and visits the garden where Du Liniang had her dream. There, he discovers a portrait roll which portrays a beautiful lady who seems familiar to him and, instantly, he falls in love with her. Liu Mengmei calls out to his newly beloved, thereby bringing Du Liniang back to life. Finally, the young couple is united.

The scenography of this production was inspired by the Suzhou Gardens, the design of which especially emphasizes harmony between man and nature as established in traditional architectural aesthetics. By using visual symbols that can represent the Suzhou Gardens, the scenic designer recreated a conceptual garden with minimal elements: one plum branch, one wall with a perforated window, half a pavilion, half a rockery, a few lotuses, railings and one window frame containing the title of the play. An abstract touch was added to the design by splitting the stage with a black and white color scheme. This contrasting color scheme also serves to separate the daily life from the garden, and the dream from the reality. The minimalistic, white scenery not only unveils the cycle of life in nature and human beings, but also conveys what cannot be expressed through the performance. Such use of symbolism breaks through the limitations of realistic sceneries and leads its audience to explore the deeper, subtler emotions in the play. Visual conceptions that convey the connection between man and nature do not necessarily have to focus on particular features or specific aspects. On the contrary, the vagueness and ambiguity gives the audience further freedom for imagination.

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The Concept of Wholeness

“Wholeness” and “integrality” are very important in traditional Chinese philosophy and aesthetics. This wholeness is the sum of its harmonious parts, which is thought to be a law under which everything operates. When viewing the world as a whole through such concepts, the world is one organic system in which every individual part is interrelated and interconnected.

The Handan Dream written by the famous Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu and presented by the Guangzhou Dramatic Arts Centre

Qiao Ji was the scenic designer of the production The Handan Dream by the Guangzhou Dramatic Arts Centre. In this play, the poor scholar Lu Sheng falls into a deep sleep at an inn in Handan. In his dream, he experiences fifty years of vicissitudes, then wakes up only to find that his food is almost ready and everything he has just experienced was a dream. Above the stage, a mechanically controlled veil curtain flows along on a track, thereby creating a circulatory space: the single, winding line of this curtain serves as a symbol of the impermanence of life. Two irregularly shaped holes on the curtain ring form the entrance and exit for the performers, allowing them to perform in front of, within and behind the curtain ring. As the story progresses, the curtain flows accordingly, producing different visual effects as needed. With the dream and the reality being interwoven, the audience is given a pathway to travel between the two worlds, while experiencing the absurdity and starkness of life and waking up to realize the preposterous nature of reality and the nihility of life. How can Lu Sheng’s dream not be a reflection of all our lives?

The lighting designer, Xin Xing, creates a space for mirages, fantasy, dream and reality by layering the lighting effects for the production of The Handan Dream

Inspired by the concept of “wholeness,” the scenic designer weaves all the scenes together intricately, thus bringing about an aesthetic experience that is beyond the capacity of language. No matter how heavily embroidered, this curtain does not set the stage as an exact location, but rather establishes a “void” that could hold and express any part of the plot and represent any location. A simple curtain, without any particular pattern or texture, could be transformed into an infinite number of symbols: the path of Handan, the dealings of officialdom, the obstacles of existence, the journey of life, and the relationship between dream and reality.

Scene from The Handan Dream. The play’s reinterpretation of tradition has been welcomed by Chinese audiences

The lighting designer, Xin Xing, incorporates the same concept of wholeness into his work. He creates a space for mirages, fantasy, dream and reality by layering the lighting effects. Although the overall color tone is mild and elegant, there is a heavy use of side lighting and backlighting that helps scenes to switch between the realm of dreams and that of reality. The brightness of the light is also carefully regulated in order to portray the intricate expressions conveyed through various shades of gray.

The highly symbolic and unique visual universe created by contemporary Chinese scenic and lighting designers has led to the birth of an abstract-yet-animated form of opera production. The designers abandon minor details and invite the audience to navigate through the scene as they wish without being forced to focus on any particular feature. A conversation and an exploration of life and spirituality are thus initiated in an interwoven, interconnected visual setting.

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The Yin and The Yang

The ancient Chinese divination text “I Ching” explores a wide range of subjects and matter. In the text, it is said that everything between Heaven and Earth are in a perpetual state of motion, and that nothing can be static. This stillness and motion is represented by Yin and Yang, two elements that compliment each other and are believed to be at the essence of everything. The combination of these two opposing forces is what drives the world into motion, thus initiating the life cycles of all beings in the world. The philosophy in I Ching has profound impacts on contemporary Chinese scenic designers. Based upon the concept of “harmony,” traditional aesthetics praise the integration of Yin and Yang and life and death, rather than opposition and conflict.

The Rite of Spring, presented by the Beijing Modern and Contemporary Dance Company

Guangjian Gao, the scenic designer of the production The Rite of Spring by the Beijing Modern and Contemporary Dance Company, reverses the concept of “celebrating death with the life of a young maiden” and confronts death with the force of life. A thick rope over 300 meters in length, representing the umbilical cord between a human mother and her child, is hung from above and piled up on the stage. Performers move up and down the rope, dancing and sometimes burying themselves in the coiled up pile. Nine other performers slide down nine ropes to convey the birth of nine lives. A few large pieces of silk are hung in the upstage area and are gently blown into motion by fans. Water ripples and heart beats are projected onto these large silks, creating images reminiscent of life inside the womb. In the final scene, the silks are dropped to the floor, scrunched up into balls and, then, tucked into the costumes of the performers, thereby imitating pregnancy and the initiation of a new cycle of life.

Scene from the Rite of Spring. According to the program of the performance, this dance reflects the development of contemporary dance in China

Gao’s design shows that life and death always unfold in a cycle, and that the death of one being contributes to the birth of another.

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Kedong Liu was the scenic designer of the production Il Trovatore commissioned by the Hadeland Opera. Due to a limited budget he had to give up his ambition of creating large-scale props and returned to the most basic form of stone-constructed, open-air theater. The stage is shaped into the Yin and Yang symbol, with two similarly structured architectures standing at the dot on each side. On one side, the architecture shines with a red luster and is beautifully embellished with fine carvings.

Il Trovatore commissioned by the Hadeland Opera and designed by Kedong Liu

On the other side, however, the architecture is built of plain wood and has a very crude appearance. Under the influence of traditional philosophy and its core concepts, he chose to portray things in their most natural condition. It is conveyed through his design that the noble and the vagrant, the wealthy and the poor, the aggressor and the victim, the avenger and the foe are not that different by nature. From the moment they become what they are, they have begun their gradual conversion to the opposite. All matter and phenomena have their Yin and Yang, and once they reach one extreme, they will inevitably transform until a balance is reached. Despite the difference in works of Eastern and Western artists, there is considerable similarity at the heart of how artists approach and express the themes of love and hate.

Scene from Il Trovatore. The scenic design performance is evidently influenced by traditional philosophy

A Contemporary Transformation of Traditional Aesthetics

The Ethereal Beauty of Conception

“Artistic conception” is an important feature in traditional Chinese aesthetics. This conception refers to understandings of life on a broader scale that are inspired by observations of very specific objects or scenes. Such philosophical understandings of life, the history of man and the universe at large lie at the core of conception and its beauty.

Traditional aesthetics also have a special appreciation for a combination of the virtual and the real which gives birth to conceptual beauty. For example, in traditional Chinese painting is drawn figures and white space complement each other, giving an ethereal quality to the work. The vacant and the occupied space coexist and affect each other mutually. This “negative space,” when applied to stage art by scenic designers, is not confined to what is left blank in space, but also how they choose to make use of the three dimensional “void.”

Ming by the National Centre for the Performing Arts; an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear

Kedong Liu was the scenic designer of the production Ming by the National Centre for the Performing Arts. The play is adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Veil curtains surround the stage on three sides. On the curtains are magnificent illustrations depicting landscapes from the emperor’s vast kingdom. These were produced in collaboration with the scenic designer and artist Xiaowan Xia. Fifteen Ming-style officials’ hat armchairs are distributed evenly, in single-file. Between these chairs fifteen Ming dynasty emperors engage in vulgar conflicts and fights for power. In the background stands a multilayered glass mountain range.

Scene from Ming, designed by Kedong Liu to give the impression that the performers are walking through a painting

Through his design, the scenic designer creates the sense that the performers are walking through a beautifully drawn painting. The three-dimensional mountain range has a contemporary aspect due to its multilayered structure. Yet, despite its beauty, the glass material makes it just as fragile as the conflict-riven kingdom itself. The clouds and landscape may seem beautiful, but it is an illusion that serves to cover up the unseemly reality behind the pursuit of power. By the end, the audience finds out that all these visual effects symbolize the destiny of the emperor and the kingdom he rules.

Xinglin Liu was the scenic designer of the production Tang Wan by the Hangzhou Little Hundred Flower Yue Opera Troupe. This Yue Opera tells the love story of Lu You (a Southern Song poet) and Tang Wan. As the audience follows the track of Tang Wan’s inner emotions, the story of this romance unfolds and reveals the difficulties of love. In several scenes, the scenic design alters its use of positive and negative space. For example, in the second act, in which Tang Wan yearns for the company of Lu You after he left her, the scenic designer presents only black roof tiles, without construct an actual wall; the space where the wall should be is left empty.

Lu You is the designer of Tang Wan, produced by the Hangzhou Little Hundred Flower Yue Opera Troupe

The intricate emotions that are buried deep down in Tang Wan’s heart are expressed through this scenography when Lu You, for whom she is longing, walks out from the “wall.” In the first act, in which Tang Wan parts with Lu You, the floor and the background are all colored white. Across the stage lies a black velvet rope, at the left side of the stage stands a black willow tree, and in the white sky hangs a black crescent. The willow tree branches and the velvet rope abruptly split the stage in two, a poignant, visual metaphor for the agony that the young couple experience in their hearts. In the fourth act, in which Tang Wan and Lu You encounter each other years after their parting, the stage is decorated with gray ink dots and discolored lotuses. The faded color tone of this scene symbolizes the withered hearts of the young couple.

In the fifth and most important act, in which Lu You writes his masterpiece “Phoenix Hairpin,” the words of this poem are hung on wires above the stage, creating the illusion the poet’s words are floating in the air. As the agony of Tang Wan reaches its peak while she hears the poem, these red-colored words descend slowly, like falling leaves, forming what seems like a garden on the stage. As Tang Wan sings and dances, wandering among the words of the poem, these words start to flow gently in the air, as if they are leaves blown away by the wind. Finally, as Tang Wan finishes her dance and drops slowly to the ground, she passes away from her gloom and is buried by the red words that contrast starkly with the vast, white background.

The scenic design of this final act is inspired by the art of calligraphy and the ethereal theme of the poem. By creating the positive space through the words of the poem and the negative through the space in between words and lines, the highly symbolic visual effect conveys the mental state of the female protagonist, a reflection on her life and, furthermore, a lament for her destiny. The artistic conception is not confined to the visible props and installations on the stage. It is further expressed through the aesthetics of the whole scenic design and the imagination that it inspires. Such scenic design is an innovation upon the traditional visual effects applied in Chinese Opera, and has enjoyed considerable popularity among theatre audiences.

Contemporary Application of Traditional Visual Symbols

Chinese scenic designers often use visual symbols from traditional Chinese culture to recreate the drama script. These include symbols represented in calligraphy, seal carving, chinaware, pottery, jade ware, bronzeware, textile art and embroidery. Throughout history, such art forms have evolved their own systems of meaning. The symbolic connotations of these systems are valued deeply within traditional aesthetics. On stage, especially in traditional opera, the value of the scenic design lies precisely in having its own complete, established system of language to comprehend, explain and portray its world of symbols.

Gangjian Gao, the scenic designer of the production You and Me by the National Centre for the Performing Arts

For example, a table and two chairs could be used as they are, or could be rearranged into a mountain, a building, a bed or a door. Other than aiding the performance of the cast, the different arrangements, colors, patterns of the table and chairs could also serve to express or hint at certain things regarding the plot, the location, or the characters and their relationships. Gangjian Gao, the scenic designer of the production You and Me by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, centered his design on the theme of “one table, two chairs.” This theme, while paying homage to tradition, also breaks through the traditional limitations on the function of props. The combination of “one table, two chairs” was modified, as the designer presented the props in various sizes, proportions and textures to represent a wide range of objects. With the use of the positive and negative space of its visual effects and a simple color tone, the theme combines the dazzling visual effects of contemporary art and the most primitive elements of traditional opera.

You and Me won the Prague Quadrennial Award for Performance Design and Space in 2015

This design, having won the Prague Quadrennial Award for Performance Design and Space in 2015, has successfully inspired the imagination of its audience and innovated on the way in which space is used in stage art.

Another example could be the Beijing Opera’s use of the kind of facial painting often found in traditional opera. Illustrated with specific patterns and colors, the facial makeup can reveal the character’s personality, background, identity, and enhance the richness of the opera in general. The scenic design of the 1986 production The Good Person of Szechwan by the Sichuan Opera Theatre of Chengdu was directed by Wenlong Yan.

This play tells the story of how a girl named Shen Teh, being the subject of constant abuse due to her kindness, invents her own alter ego and takes on the role of being both good and bad. In this production, the scenic designer takes a bold step and reinvents the traditional facial painting by adding contemporary elements: numerous masks are hung on the stage, some with a woman’s legs with red high heels replacing the eyebrows, some with a glass of wine replacing the nose, some adorned with disfigured spiders. By ripping apart the false and rigid nature of masks, the designer breaks with the theory behind and the meaning assigned to traditional facial paintings, thus showing the audience that reality itself is neither perfect nor uniform, and, in so doing, encourages the audience’s freedom of imagination.

When handling the texture of these masks, the designer also abandons the pursuit of refinement in traditional opera. In the creation process, hydrochloric acid was purposefully poured onto these fine masks until the colors were faded and the texture seemed rotten. Such disfigured masks serve to represent the absurdity of this society and the ugly nature of humanity. The damaging of the props gave the play more authenticity and livelihood than refinement could have, and unveiled to the audience a broken, decaying world under a mask of perfection.

Chinese calligraphy is a form of art that is unique to the Chinese culture, just as the Chinese characters are exclusive and essential parts of it. Kedong Liu was the scenic designer for the production The Tragedy of King Richard III commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe in London and performed in Mandarin by the National Theatre of China from Beijing. The Globe Theatre is structured in a way that closely resembles that of the traditional Chinese opera theater. By using draperies depicting landscapes combined with dark backgrounds and scenery pieces made of white-colored rice paper, the designer establishes both the form and theme of the stage. As the plot unfolds, ink and fake blood flow out from devices installed on the back of the rice paper props. These symbolic liquids soak and eventually dissolve the paper, the blood representing the fear, viciousness and bloodthirstiness of Richard III. Rather than using conventional works of calligraphy, the scenic designer chooses to print the English calligraphy artwork Book from the Sky by the renowned artist Xu Bing on the rice paper.

With the inspiration coming from themes of the play such as murder, conspiracy and nightmares, the English calligraphy gives the audience a sense of strange familiarity, as if viewing words that they should know but could not recognize. English alphabets are redesigned into components of Chinese characters, giving such rearrangements an experimental nature. In addition, this is a collision and communication between Eastern and Western visual culture, which also happened to be the purpose of this specially commissioned production. The Western audiences were given a chance to interact with Chinese culture; meanwhile, the Chinese audiences were given a chance to discover unfamiliar meanings hidden behind the familiar visual language.

Du Fu, produced by the Chong Qing Song & Dance Ensemble Company and designed by Guangjian Gao, who reconfigured traditional visual symbols for the performance

In a similar way, textiles and costumes are also traditional visual symbols that could be redesigned in a modern way. In the production Du Fu by the Chong Qing Song & Dance Ensemble Company, the scenic designer Guangjian Gao made full use of two distinct elements: namely, coordinates and robes. On one hand, being inspired by textile patterns, he set down lines of latitude and longitude in every scene of the dance drama: scenes which were presented in such contexts as the court, the garden, the imperial harem and the wasteland. Freely arranged to be refined or rough, realistic or abstract, the purpose of laying these lines was to unify the otherwise messy scene. On the other hand, the robe is a symbol for power. The red robes of the Tang Dynasty, the two large sleeve cuffs that symbolize the concubine, and the various robes that stand for power, are all worn and taken off by the performers, and eventually vanish. The scenic designer chose to use the imagery of robes in order to express the spirit and individuality that is stripped from these characters.

Hua Mu Lan by the Ningbo Art Performance Co. Ltd., China Central Opera,
and the People’s Government of Huangpi District, Wuhan

Finally, there is the use of old style utensils focusing upon the common theme of the “mirror” and “mirroring.” Zeen Tan was the scenic designer of the production Hua Mu Lan by the Ningbo Art Performance Co. Ltd., China Central Opera, and the People’s Government of Huangpi District, Wuhan. The scenic design develops from the concept of a “circle” and unifies all scenes: a large bronze mirror, three layers of revolving stages shaped in circle, props, etc.

By deconstructing and rearranging the outline, structure, adornments, cracks and objects reflected in the mirror, the inner power of the “circle” has been heightened to reshape the space it is in. Only when the court eunuchs, who represent royal power, enter does the image of the “square” appear in the visual arrangement of the design. The scenic designer explains the political relationship between the characters and adds depth to the storytelling through his incorporation of the ancient saying “nothing can be accomplished without norms or standards,” or, translated literally, “no square and circle could be formed without rules.”

The customs and conventions established by time and national characteristics in theater arts often have meanings and functions that are rather straightforward, definite and simple. Chinese scenic artists consciously reinterpret these traditional visual symbols that are defined by their national and cultural feature, exploring the uncertainties behind the definite meanings and the multiple possibilities beyond simple forms.

These Chinese scenic artists are continuously exploring traditional aesthetics and recreating them in contemporary ways. While unearthing the charm of ancient culture and redesigning such visual symbols, a communication has been established between diverse cultures. This ongoing process is not simply a trend of reviving traditional visual elements, but also continues the heritage of traditional culture, satisfying the spiritual needs and aesthetic desires of the Chinese audience.


*Zhao Yan obtained her doctorate in stage design from The Central Academy of Drama and is currently the Deputy Chief-editor at the Editorial Department of the China Institute of Stage Design. Zhao was once a professor of stage design at the Vocational College of the Central Academy of Drama and the Beijing Dancing Academy. She also held the position of the lecturer of the 2017 CISD National Higher Level Scenic Designer Training Course. She was chief-editor of several magazines on Chinese stage design. Zhao has also published numerous articles covering stage productions, playwrights and scholarly matters, in various media outlets (e.g. the official wechat platform of the Chinese Institute of Stage Design and their official webpage) and theatre-related academic journals.

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Between Tradition and the Contemporary: An Exploration of Chinese Scenic Designers
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