by Lin Xiyue*, Peng Tao**, Meng Danfeng***

Lin Zhaohua. Photo: Gao Yuan

Lin Zhaohua was born in Tianjin, in 1936. He graduated from the Performance Department of Central Academy of Drama, in 1961, and was assigned to the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, where he experienced the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but had the opportunity to study closely with Jiao Juyin, Diao Guangtan, Yu Shizhi, Ying Ruocheng and other masters of art. After the Cultural Revolution, he finally started his independent director career in 1980. In 1982, he created the first experimental Theater drama in the history of Chinese Theatre Art,Signal Alarm, which was regarded as the beginning of the Chinese little theatre movement. Lin Zhaohua has so far directed nearly a hundred stage plays such as Signal Alarm (绝对信号), Hamlet, Uncle Doggie’s Nirvana (狗儿爷涅槃), Three Sisters, Waiting for Godot, Zhao’s Orphan, Coriolanus, among others. As one of the most prestigious theatre directors in contemporary China, Lin has opened a new era in Chinese Theatre Arts with a new imaginative stage language, as well as rich and varied stage performances. His plays combine the aesthetic principles of traditional Chinese Opera and contemporary social reality.

Guo Shixing. Photo: Gao Yuan

Guo Shixing (b. 1952) is Lin Zhaohua’s close collaborator. He is playwright-resident at the National Theatre of China, and guest professor at the School of Liberal Arts of Nanjing University and at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. He is one of the most important playwrights in contemporary China. His work focuses mainly on the paradoxes of the human condition with a style that fluctuates between serious drama and comedy. His major dramatic works include Birdman, To Be or Not To Be, A Street of Badmouthing, Frog, Toilet, Testament, among others. Some of them were translated into French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean and other languages. Birdman was presented at a reading at Comedie Francaise in 2004—the first Chinese play to appear at the company’s stage since its foundation over three centuries ago. Frog was staged at the New National Theatre, in Tokyo, in 2006. In the same year, Testament was staged in Norway. Toilet was staged in Israel and Germany.

Cooperation with Playwrights

Guo Shixing: When you directed Signal Alarm, in 1982, there was a widespread rumor in Chinese drama circles, saying that there was a group of foreign experts visiting Chin, watching plays from North to South, and whose conclusion, more or less, was that those plays all gave the impression they were directed by the same director. How true was that? Were indeed the Chinese directors back then directing in a consistent way in order to maintain the so-called “Stanislavsky” way? Were they a bit conservative?

Lin Zhaohua: Yes, it was consistent. It was the same when we went to watch plays outside Beijing. I talked about it with Gao Xingjian[1] once. Stanislavsky has his set of theories, but any systemic genre is a product of a particular historical period and thus has its limitations. At that time, all the artists I met believed in Realism, and I shared a desire with Gao Xingjian to break through realism. I just need to be myself, “do my thing.” The theatre circle was not interested in me, nor was I interested in them.

Guo Shixing: Are you interested in Gao Xingjian?

Lin Zhaohua: I was cultivated by Mr. Gao Xingjian and Mr. Guo Shixing. I started with Gao Xingjian.[2]

Guo Shixing: What was your reaction after reading Gao Xingjian’s script? Did you already know that there would be a lot of room for the director to develop when you were reading it?

Lin Zhaohua: His script was quite different from the standard ones.

Guo Shixing: Different how?

Lin Zhaohua: The difference lied in the narrative as well as the structure, leaving space for people’s mind and emotion. His writing could not be called a play at all, but challenge and stimulus, as least to me.

Lin Zhaohua and Gao Xingjian. Photo: Lin Xiyue

Guo Shixing: This is indeed very important for directors. Gao Xingjian’s script provided a sort of stream of consciousness, which raised a quite difficult direction issue for directors over what to achieve on stage. The scenes would be difficult to set if the director was to go for realistic settings as we did before. What really happens on the train when it moves so fast? What would happen if there was a bandit who planned to intercept the train on the way and how would the old captain fight bravely with the bandit and finally rescue himself? This play indicates that life will also encounter Signal Alarm. When it comes to crisis, how will people get through this difficulty? At that time, it was a very inspiring theme, and there was no taboo problem. However, as the topic of “social youth”—which means unemployed young people—appears in the play, it triggers some taboos.

Peng Tao: It’s a great pity that I haven’t seen Signal Alarm, but it is said that it was performed more than one hundred times that year! There are comments saying that trains are also a kind of symbol.

Guo Shixing: Absolutely! The juvenile delinquent, train bandits and others in this play were reflecting a new form of society that emerged in China at that time. Everyone was on the same train and the train decided their fate. The same train that everyone took would surely be in trouble and an old captain was controlling everything. It was rehearsed in the rehearsal hall on the first floor of the Art, and, then, they went to the banquet hall on the third floor to perform a special show. Due to the limited means, I believe one of his methods was to use light. At that time, they didn’t have many lights; the actor carried a big flashlight and sometimes gave himself a close-up. The actors were quite serious and excited as it was the first experimental small theater play in China. Many groups came to Beijing to watch the play. Some paid attention to stage scheduling, some wrote down lines and some recorded the stage design.

Lin Xiyue: Did you have any dispute with Gao Xingjian when you were talking about the play?

Lin Zhaohua: No dispute at all! We just had tea and talked. He wrote a play and we talked about it. Then, he revised accordingly. He could come to the rehearsal place. Both Gao Xingjian and I don’t believe in any doctrine. We do not advocate rehearsal for a certain kind of doctrine and we believe in “no-doctrine” drama. 

Guo Shixing: Did you discuss about singing, reading, performing and playing martial arts in traditional Chinese Opera?

Lin Zhaohua: This is the general principle of art in our mind. He is also fond of traditional Chinese Opera. We often talked about the expression of Chinese Opera and its stage space, as well as the psychological space, which is all quite free. So, I told him, we should use traditional aesthetics to guide the Chinese drama writing.

Peng Tao: It’s an aesthetic pursuit, not a specific method, isn’t it?

Lin Zhaohua: The method depends on the individual.

Peng Tao: What made audience excited when they watched the play?

Guo Shixing: First of all, they had not seen it before. Just like the years that the recorder-machine had just appeared. So new! At that time, we could see many people carrying the recorders to play music on the street. People suddenly saw a fresh form with attractive content. He happened to write about a social crisis of that time: a lot of youth losing jobs, which is called unemployment now. How can these youth go on in their future? They’re very confused, and, at that very moment, a show came out with a so-called tension inside. Signal Alarm means that the train must stop urgently, as the society is about to have a crisis.

Peng Tao: Is this not the same as the previous critical realism?

Guo Shixing: No. He didn’t criticize but actually wrote about people’s choices. So, he was influenced by Existentialism and talked about people’s choices.

Peng Tao: The Art supported Station but when Savage was staged, a lot of criticism had been voiced. Probably, the criticism focused on formalism or other related issues?

Lin Zhaohua and Gao Xingjian. Photo: Lin Xiyue

Guo Shixing: There was also a problem with Station. It was considered a bit absurd at that time. Because the play happened to be in the middle of a campaign—“Clearing the Bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”—followed by a second campaign—“Anti-Liberalization.” So, at that time, Absurdity or Existentialism were not welcome.

Danfeng: Have these successive movements had an impact on your work?

Lin Zhaohua: I didn’t take it seriously. At that time, I was abroad and I received a letter asking me to write a self-review. I didn’t react much to that. And I went on with something else. I just did my job whatever they would ask. I totally disregarded what the commentators said or what the official would criticize.

Peng Tao: At that time (the mid-eighties of the last century), didn’t you go abroad and watch some plays? What inspiration did those plays bring to you? What is the impact on your subsequent creations?

Lin Zhaohua: Mr. Tong interviewed me when I was back. I told him I watched some plays in Germany, France and the U.K. I visited a lot of countries, as it was my first time to Europe, and I needed to take in as much as I could. However, there were no impressive ones, at least for me.

Peng Tao: As far as I remember, you used to mention Pina Bausch whom you admired a lot.

Lin Zhaohua: That’s true. I really admire Pina Bausch for her modern dance and her training methods. And I went to her studio to see her training. She kept smoking all the time.

Peng Tao: How did you begin to cooperate with Mr. Guo Shixing?

Guo Shixing: Gao Xingjian went to Germany and France in the 1980s and stayed there. There were no writers for Director Lin and I happened to have a particular flair for writing then.

Lin Zhaohua: The masters among Chinese dramatists are Gao Xingjian of the 1980s and Guo Shixing of the 1990s. Both of them could become great playwrights. Guo Shixing called me one day, in 1988, and told me he wanted to write a play. He was a reporter back then, so we were interviewer and interviewee. After I set up a drama studio, he often came to visit and we became drama friends and intimate friends.[3]

Peng Tao: What do you find most interesting in his scripts?

Lin Zhaohua: He uses personalized language. He writes about life, the life he is familiar with, like raising birds and fish, instead of writing politics. The sense of humor is much stronger than in any other writer.

Bird Man. Photo: Beijing Peoples Art Theatre

Guo Shixing: The first play I wrote is Fish Man, and it was followed by Bird Man. The third is Chess Man, which was written when I was transferred to State Drama. I made a lot of extra effort on that script.

Peng Tao (to Lin Zhaohua): You once mentioned Guo Shixing would call you to read his script to you once he finished some paragraphs, is that true?

Lin Zhaohua: Yes, and very annoying. My phone line was kept busy all the time just because of him.

Guo Shixing: Usually, the call would last for a couple of hours.

Peng Tao: These are great conditions for creation. Mr. Guo, during the cooperation with Director Lin, did he influence you on your script creation?

Guo Shixing: His greatest influence on me is freedom. Freedom! First, he asked me not to be bound by the writing theories. Then, I should write about what I am familiar with. He asked me not to make stories but write about what I knew. He actually gave me the perception that a dog’s life is also life. A poet’s life is not necessarily great. If a dog’s life is excellently written, people can also be strongly impressed. This inspiration really changed me. I used to believe that the reason I couldn’t write a play was because I didn’t have a life, a life like some playwrights. For example, I couldn’t write as I didn’t have Shakespeare’s life for I have never met Richard III or Coriolanus. Director Lin changed my mind: I could write about people around me. They can be dramatic. And drama is very close to me if only I am perceptive enough.

Video 1

Richard III by Lin Zhaohua. Opening Scene
About the Independence of Artists

Peng Tao: How do you balance the relationships among artistic creation, the system and the market? I think you handled well the relationship with the system when you faced the pressure.

Lin Zhaohua: I don’t think about it at all, I just do what I should do. I also realize the same thing regarding ideology; I don’t have to touch it. The fact that Chinese drama has no development is because of the culture and drama administration. As long as they impose ideological control, there’s no possibility to create real art.

Guo Shixing: As far as I am concerned, I think that once an administrative intervention is issued, limits are imposed. The next move may be against all this. If we don’t stick to our own instinct and follow that, we’ll always be wrong.

Peng Tao: Director Lin’s value lies in his persistence to be himself.

Lin Zhaohua: I just ignore criticism. If someone criticizes me, I will take a notice, but I don’t argue with him. I do what I like without argument. There would be real art, if artists were free to go about their own way. However, this is impossible to realize now. The weaker can’t contend with the stronger. You just need to know the general idea and get around the ban. The “edge ball”!

Lin Xiyue: What kind of theme can be assumed as “edge ball”?

Lin Zhaohua: Any play can be assumed as “edge ball.”

Guo Shixing: All my plays are “edge balls.”

Lin Zhaohua: The plays I choose should all be “edge balls”!

Danfeng: Why did you want to set up Lin Zhaohua’s drama studio? When was it set up?

Lin Zhaohua: It was in 1990, when we rehearsed Hamlet. The studio only had Pu Cunxin at that time.

Guo Shixing: I once said that Meyerhold eventually went out of the Moscow Art Theatre to run his own theater; so, that would also be Lin Zhaohua’s fate eventually.

Peng Tao: Will you consider the market and box office after you set up the studio?

Lin Zhaohua: No, I have no ability to consider the market. Of course, I’ll talk with entrepreneurs when we need raising money.

Guo Shixing: He is still fighting with investors. He took their money but did not follow their interest. The investors could barely control him.

Peng Tao: Commentators say Hamlet is an iconic symbol. It is said that, starting with this play, you have developed a completely distinct style of your own.

Lin Zhaohua: I am a man with no theory, and with even less ability to create one.

Guo Shixing: Let me translate his words, that is: He has no rigid theory or rule as a frame, but he has this strong idea for free creation.

Peng Tao: When you mention Hamlet, which part satisfied you the most?

Lin Zhaohua: Conception. First, I grounded Hamlet into Chinese land. Secondly, the stage was designed very simply, with only several electric fans on it (Watch the full video of Lin Zhaohua’s production in 1995. Venue: Chikyun Za Theatre, Tokyo. Source: Lin Zhaohua Studio).

Danfeng: You have created so many plays. Have you ever considered drawing your attention to the reality of Chinese society?

Guo Shixing: I remember that, at a time when many people were criticizing him directly and strongly, I asked him, wouldn’t you fight back?

Lin Zhaohua: Drama rehearsal is a point of view! We should never rehearse the plays without views on reality.

Peng Tao: For example, when you rehearsed Savage and Station, what was the problem you wanted to reflect at that time?

Lin Zhaohua: Artistic creation should be individual. Station failed the check.

Guo Shixing: Let me explain more. The problem he faced at that time was that government did not allow artists to express themselves freely; it wanted to turn artists into a mouthpiece of official politics. Paradoxically, it was also the time for thought liberation. Thought emancipation was promoted; that practice was the only criterion for testing truth. The economy had begun to develop, but art was stuck in the past. In this case, there were a lot of things that were forbidden. How artists opened their minds and did their own works was the most important issue at that time. Lin Zhaohua, Wang Gui and Hu Weimin from Shanghai, these three directors, were very typical examples. Meanwhile, Xu Xiaozhong and Chen Yong, these two academic directors, also produced bold creations.

Peng Tao: Director Lin has his own principles. He has not many specific political intentions.

Guo Shixing: However, he has his own view, which led him to rehearse Hamlet. There’s one sentence in that script: “Denmark is just like a prison.” He had felt depressed and that inspired the intention to create this play. He had the feeling, but he couldn’t speak out. He needed to make this play, as he had already sensed the thought pressure.

Video 2

Faces of China: Director Lin Zhaohua

Peng Tao: I found that, in your drama, there’s no incendiary scene, no love story. You didn’t expect the audience to be particularly touched?

Lin Zhaohua: The love parts in Chinese drama are all pretended,the incendiary parts even more so. The audience can be moved, but an incendiary scene is not necessary. Love can be considered fake when it is artificially incited.

Peng Tao: Which one or two plays do you think are most import among your plays?

The Master Builder. Photo: Yang Chunyan

Lin Zhaohua: In my heart, they are all important. If I have no feeling for them, I won’t rehearse.

Guo Shixing: Could you give us some examples?

Lin Zhaohua: Hamlet, Signal Alarm, Bird Man, Chess Man series, by Guo Shixing, Uncle Doggie’s Nirvana later, in which I also used opera aesthetics.

Danfeng: Have you cooperated with other young directors?

Guo Shixing: Let me first tell you that the directors that have practiced with Director Lin include Mou Sen, Tian Qinxin and Wang Chong.

Lin Zhaohua: Meng Jinghui and Ostemeier, Director of Schaubuehne Theatre. They’re both among the earliest with me.

Guo Shixing: Exactly. The master class he ran at Beijing University was in about 2005. Meng Jinghui and Ostemeier both went to that class. He himself said he was a student of Lin Zhaohua.

Lin Zhaohua: Ostemeier was teaching and learning at the same time. We learnt from each other.

German director Thomas Ostermeier attended Lin Zhaohua’s master class at Beijing University, in 2005: Web

Lin Xiyue: Among the plays directed by Chinese directors in the last decade, which play is your favorite?

Lin Zhaohua: I have no opinion on that, as I seldom watch plays. When I would go to the theatre and find that the plays remained unchanged, I would leave in ten minutes.

Peng Tao: Director Lin, did you watch the plays Mou Sen directed? Related to Aids and The Other Shore?

Lin Zhaohua: Yes, I did. I went to watch their practice the time Mou Sen began to write the play.

Peng Tao: Do you like Mou Sen’s plays?

Lin Zhaohua: Mou Sen has a good literature background.

Peng Tao: What do you think of “Pioneer Drama”?

Lin Zhaohua: I’ve no idea what it is.

Peng Tao: It is said that dramatic theatre is like Chinese Opera learning. Is it an aesthetic pursuit or skill learning?

Lin Zhaohua: Both. We studied the Stanislavsky system in the 1950s, which is completely different from the Chinese Opera. Mr. Jiao Juyin is great for studying this. The Chinese drama is based on opera aesthetics, which is not the same with Stanislavsky.

Savage. Photo: Lin Xiyue

Lin Xiyue: I think the concept of the so-called opera aesthetics of Chinese drama, similarly to the aesthetics of the opera, is something he developed by himself, after he heard a similar sentence from Mr. Jiao Juyin and after he became a director. He was inspired by Mr. Jiao and, then, he learned slowly how to combine Chinese opera aesthetics with Chinese drama stage. Many of his early works are based on Stanislavsky. For example, in his plays of Weddings and Funerals and Field and Field, we could see sheep walking on stage, donkey shitting and a ladder climbing up a house, which were so realistic and hadn’t appeared on the stage of the Art before.

Guo Shixing: That’s right. In Weddings and Funerals, water can be pressed out from pipes.

Lin Xiyue: The realistic stage he pursues does not only concern the performers. He did the same with the entire theater environment, with the stage environment and in the hypothetical framework. He did what we called a fake-real-play. When he finished testing, he might have to pick all the things out.

Peng Tao: I believe Mr. Lin Zhaohua could make a realistic play and he has no skill shortcoming.

Lin Xiyue: From my point of view, his plays are all realistic. Most importantly, he made actors eliminate the fake things inside them when helping them improve their performances. He asked them not to act but to communicate when necessary. They should avoid letting the audience know they’re doing fake communications. When he was rehearsing Boundless Natural Beauty with Xu Fan, she called him one day. I clearly remember one sentence he told her, “You perform every night but are you the same every night? Can you tell me if it is both your true feeling that you cry tonight and last night? It’s impossible, but only if you don’t let me see it.” What is this? It is the “hiding” ability of the actor. So, it is impossible that there’s no skill in it.

Lin Zhaohua: You should make more calls to Guo Shixing to ask him to write more. If he writes a new play with views on reality, he will have artistic views inside.

Guo Shixing: In 1994, after Bird Man, I decided to become a professional playwright. I didn’t have a house until there was a small and shabby one later. Then it was demolished, I moved from Juer Alley to Huixin-li, and I was given two rooms. So, I asked for the rooms on top floor. Why top floor? Because others can’t disturb me by making noise. My legs were ok at that time, so I took the sixth floor (no elevator). But I didn’t expect the serious leak on the sixth floor with buckets of rain. I had to keep dealing with the buckets. At that time, a person downstairs shouted with other province accent, “Have you run into a ghost?Why don’t you let me die?” Hey, I guess, wasn’t that my line? Because I overturned the first draft of the script at that time as I couldn’t go on. The theater was urging me, the rain leaking, the bucket waiting for me and, at the same time, I was thinking about how to write the next draft. I thought, “Why do I work as a professional writer? Isn’t it good for me to be a journalist while writing? Why don’t you let me die?” I even had a strong wish to jump off the building at that time. The woman downstairs somehow read out my lines.

I was so sad! When the rain stopped, Director Lin showed up. The Sakura West Street where I live now is clean and broad, but it was all muddy at that time, with no street at all. He knocked on the door, stepped in and sat down to talk to me. He asked me what was happening. I said I just couldn’t go on writing. He told me not to worry and it’s no use to be worried. I was at ease, at once. When I saw him off, Oops, I realized he came along by bicycle. He had to push his bike all the way to my house. We both stepped on the mud and he pushed the bicycle to the third ring road. We waved goodbye and I went back to continue with my writing.

Lin Zhaohua: I could do another play and he could write more!


[1] Gao Xingjian: French Chinese writer, Nobel Prize Winner for Literature in 2000. His representative works include Lingshan, One Man’s Bible and Signal Alarm, among others.

[2] “Gao Xingjian always offered me a script that didn’t look like a script. At that time, many people thought he couldn’t write a play. But I didn’t think so. It was exactly his not-look-like-a-play play that forced me to find a new way of expression. I believe Gao Xingjian has established a new belief in contemporary Chinese drama which still has an impact today. This must be acknowledged,” Lin Zhaohua states in Director’s Little Man Book.

[3] “Guo Shixing proposed to write Idle People in the early 1990s, that was really something. At that time writers had no guts or the mind—they all wrote about heroic characters, the masters of the era. He didn’t write the so-called positive current society but the ordinary people instead. He focused on people instead of ideology. This is not easy for writers, especially at that time,” Lin Zhaohua states in Director’s Little Man Book.


*Lin Xiyue. Actor, Drama director, son of Lin Zhaohua. His representative work is Dr. Godot or Six People Looking For the 18th Camel.

**Peng Tao is theatre critic, professor and head of Dramatic Literature Department at the Central Academy of Drama, in Beijing China. He is the president of the Chinese section of IATC. He graduated from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts with a Master`s degree in Fine Arts. His main publications include “A Reading of the Three Sisters” (2005/3), “Notes on the Seagull” ( 2007/1), “A Study of Lin Zhao Hua`s interpretation of Chehov`s works” (2008) , “The Spiritual Awakening of Intellectuals—On Chehov`s Uncle Vanya”( 2017/2), all of which appeared in Drama: The Journal of The Central Academy of Drama.

***Danfeng Meng is an independent theatre critic and writer. She graduated from the Central Academy of Drama, where she majored in Dramatic Literature. She has published many reviews of Chinese plays. For more than 10 years, she worked as an actress in films TV dramas, and stage plays. She also worked as Chief Editor for a number of website and fashion magazines, such as Madame Figaro, Figaro Girl, Go Travel, and SOHU.com.

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Theatre Limits and Possibilities in Contemporary China: Interview with Lin Zhaohua and Guo Shixing