Lin Kehuan*

Abstract: Chinese theatre has gone through a drastic period of free development and exploration since 1980. Many new phenomena and tendencies have occurred during those years. The article is a panoramic summary of this productive and varied trajectory.

Keywords: East, West, modernization, silence, freedom, storytelling, opera

Chinese theatre embraced a brief period of free exploration in the 1980s. When the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 (a decade of turmoil and suffocating suppression, especially for Chinese intellectuals, came to an end) the banners of the New Culture Movement were raised again and the spirit of the May Fourth Movement were resurrected. Chinese theatre artists, who suffered a lot in the Cultural Revolution, but who were now recharged with hope and dreams for the future, threw themselves into a new journey of enlightenment. For them, theatre was no longer a mere instrument to reveal a certain “essence.” They found inspiration in neo-Kantianism, advocated a theatre of “autonomy” (valuing individual lives) and put on stage, with explosive enthusiasm, productions unveiling the dark realities of the previous decade. Among these stage productions were When Maples Turn Red (枫叶红了的时候), by Wang Jingyu and Jin Zhenjia; Why Am I Dead? (我为什么死了), by Xie Min; It’s Warm Outside (屋外有热流), by Ma Zhongjun, Jia Hongyuan and Qu Xinhua; Bloom That Announces the Spring (报春花), by Cui Dezhi; The Future is Calling (未来在召唤), by Zhao Zixiong; and Power and Law (权与法), by Xing Yixun.

Such freedom, however, was brief and fragile. The efforts to restructure the historical narrative were full of contradictions from the very beginning: on the one hand, the need to keep the revolutionary culture alive never gave way, while, on the other hand, experimentalists felt compelled to find new ways of expressing their increasing skepticism about the grand narrative and mainstream ideology.

Renowned playwright Lao She (1899-1966): Web

The revival of Tea House (茶馆) (written by Lao She, one of the most renowned Chinese playwrights, in the mid-1950s) and the premiere of Brecht’s Life of Galileo, in March 1977, became epoch making theatrical events. Tea House was first staged in 1958, at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, by the celebrated Chinese stage director Jiao Juyin and co-director Xia Chun. The three-act play portrayed vividly several dozen characters from various walks of life in Beijing before 1949. It unfolded a picture of a changing society within a time span of half a century. However, it was criticized by the leftists due to its rich local color and nostalgic tone. The author was forced to make revisions, adding to it a “red line of revolution,” but this was to the artistic detriment of the drama. In 1979, the original version of the play was revived, and the audience was overwhelmed by the power of a Chinese realist drama which was free from ideological interference.

Life of Galileo, co-directed by Huang Zuolin and Chen Yong at the China Youth Art Theatre, ran for more than seventy successive nights in Beijing. It was one of the two most important Brechtian productions on Chinese stage at the time— the other being Mother Courage and Her Children by the Shanghai People’s Art Theatre, in 1959. Chinese theatre artists entered the realm of modernist/postmodernist theatre, which for many years had been labeled the “Western capitalist school of thought,” via Brecht’s work.

The Chinese stage witnessed a sudden explosion of experimental works that were loosely structured and carried no obvious conflicts. They often featured frequently changing scenes and did away with curtain falls. Examples include Mayor Chen Yi (陈毅市长), by Sha Yexin; Body and Soul (灵与肉), by Liu Shugang; and Atom and Love (原子与爱情), by Li Weixin. However, when the creators engaged in modernizing the structure and narrative of their productions, they seemed to have overlooked the dialectics and mode of thought embedded within Brecht’s Verfremdungseffect (Distancing effect): there is always another truth behind or beside the Truth.

Several hot topics, such as modernization, uslovnost (假定性/conventionality) and conception of theatre (戏剧观), emerged out of the common efforts of the theatre community to free live drama from political propaganda during the mid-1980s. In September 1982, Signal Alarm (绝对信号), created by Gao Xingjian and Lin Zhaohua, premiered in a small banquet hall of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. The audience was seated on three sides of the performing area.

Mother’s Song (母亲的歌), directed by Hu Weimin for the Shanghai Youth Repertory Theatre, premiered at the end of the same year. The performance was done in a studio of the theatre, surrounded by the audience from all four sides. Such efforts, to push theatre beyond the spatial limits of the proscenium stage and to break through traditional conventions, had not been seen in China for nearly five decades. This challenge to the established aesthetic order prevailed and resulted in China’s First Small Theatre Festival, held in Nanjing in April 1989. Thirteen productions by 10 troupes were shown at the Festival, including The Journey of Desire (欲望的旅程), by Yichun Forestry Troupe of Heilongjiang Province; Ducks in the Sky (天上飞的鸭子), co-produced by Jiangsu Provincial Theatre and Nanjing Municipal Theatre; and The Inequation of Life (人生不等式), by Soldiers’ Theatre Troupe of Guangzhou Military Precinct.

The use of alternative spaces and the unconventional delineation of spaces between performers and spectators led to active discussions throughout China regarding theatre, its particular forms and styles of performance. This national conversation was accompanied by bold artistic experiments. Realism-illusionism ceased to be the sole aesthetics of theatre. In the following years, experimental theatre thrived, providing alternative and vital opportunities for the numerous small troupes which freely combined professionals and amateurs, and most of which appeared briefly, like shooting stars, to counter the influence of commercial show business.

At this time, the state-led economic reform pushed forward fast. Rapid growth helped millions out of poverty, whilst also dramatically increasing the income gap and creating structural corruption. It also gave rise to increased social consciousness. Artists sensitive to such changes turned their eyes to history, trying to find the historical roots of contemporary social, political and economic problems.

Amidst the nationwide trend toward traditional culture, there emerged plays like: A Wedding and a Funeral (红白喜事), written by Wei Min et al., directed by Lin Zhaohua; The Chronicles of Sangshuping (桑树坪纪事), written by Chen Zidu et al., directed by Xu Xiaozhong; The Old Town of Romance (老风流镇), written by Ma Zhongjun, directed by Chen Yong; and Ripples across Stagnant Water (死水微澜), adapted from a novel of the same title by Li Zheren, directed by Zha Lifang.

These dramas drew large audiences from all sections of society. Such works unveiled material and intellectual poverty in feudal and patriarchal rural China. The writers examined the present and the past from a cultural perspective, probing deeply into history and human life. The acute political and cultural criticism and the stage expressions and devices of these productions addressed the cultural dilemma facing the Chinese at the time, pointing to the eternal themes of freedom and equality of mankind and announcing a difficult yet promising cultural turn in China. The most acknowledged of all these productions was Uncle Doggie’s Nirvana (狗儿爷涅槃), written by Liu Jinyun and directed by Lin Zhaohua, at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre.

Scene from Uncle Doggie’s Nirvana. Photo: Li Yan

Uncle Doggie’s Nirvana tells the story of a Chinese farmer who was struck dumb by rapidly changing political situations and the sweeping advance of the market economy over the following half a century. Uncle Doggie, who epitomizes the Chinese peasantry, was a hardworking farmer. What he desperately strove for, all his life, was no more than a small patch of land from which he and his family could subsist. However, he seemed always to be out of luck. He got a few patches during the 1947 Land Reform; lost them in the wake of Agricultural Cooperative Movement (1949-56) and the following People’s Commune Movement (1958-82); and, finally, regained them in the early years of reform and the opening-up policy (beginning in 1978), when collective agriculture came to an end in China. This process of gaining-losing-regaining was filled with the sorrow, happiness, passion and arrogance of a generation of Chinese farmers. Then, the commercialization of agricultural production abruptly descended on an unprepared land and announced the demise of the peasant economy which had existed for thousands of years. Uncle Doggie was totally lost in the new age of commodity. Was he able to find his nirvana/rebirth in the torrent of the market economy? This concern of millions of people in rural China raised a question that required serious consideration.

By the 1990s the marketization process engulfed almost all aspects of the society, including areas of the public sector such as education, scientific research and cultural activities. This made it possible for artists to explore freely outside the existent art institutions. Some theatre workers (all theatres were government run at the time) and some students from art schools and universities organized their own small troupes, pioneering an avant-garde theatre movement in China with their unchained imagination and dazzling experiments. Such troupes included, for example, Lin Zhaohua Drama Studio, Mou Sen’s Garage Theatre, Meng Jinghui’s Goof Theatre Company, Firefox Theatre Society by Wu Yuzhong and Zheng Zheng, Li Liuyi Theatre Studio in Beijing, and The Moderns and Downstream Garage in Shanghai, which was managed by Zhang Xian and Zhao Chuan (among others).

The Orphan of Zhao, directed by LIN Zhaohua, 2003

The boldest experiments in the early stages of this period were carried out by Zhang Xian in Shanghai and Mou Sen in Beijing.

Zhang Xian was a student dismissed from the Drama and Literature Department of Shanghai Theatre Academy due to his imprisonment in the 1980s. Such experience provided him with a marginal perspective, and resulted in works like Fashion Street (时装街, 1989), Owl in the House (屋里的猫头鹰, 1989), The Wife from the U.S. (美国来的妻子, 1993), Margin Upstairs (楼上的玛金, 1994), and some shorter plays such as The Jar Player (玩坛者说, 1994), Crowded (拥挤, 1995) and Mother Tongue (母语, 1998).

Director Mou Sen: Web

In 1989, Owl in the Room was staged by Gu Yi’an and Shanghai Youth Repertory Theatre at the First Small Theatre Festival. The performance showed signs of environmental theatre and stirred up a lot of discussions. The spectators in the fringe seats were asked to put on black cloaks and owl masks in the darkened auditorium, forming a part of the scenery. The production created a weird atmosphere and turned the spectators into participants of the play. The show employed modernist stage devices to externalize mental activities (such as imagining, dreaming and experiencing illusions), and to directly express sexual depression and anxiety (which was totally foreign to the Chinese stage at this time). The theatre-makers used the play to mock their contemporaries whose loyalty to the conventions of the state theatre they considered absurd and futile.

Mou Sen, a bold innovator at the time, organized several student companies and experimental groups, such as Future Generation Troupe, Frog Experimental Theatre and Garage Theatre. He was also the director of Aleksei Arbuzov’s Irkutskaya Istoriya (1985), Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1987), Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’s L’Histoire Du Soldat (1988) and The Other Shore: A Grammatical Discussion on the Language of The Other Shore (彼岸·关于彼岸的汉语语法讨论, text by Gao Xingjian and Yu Jian, directed by Mou Sen in 1993).

Zero File, directed by Mou Sen. Photo: LI Yan, 1994

In early 1994, Mou was invited by the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels to make File Zero; a production which established him in the international arena. The work contains no storylines, fictional characters or pre-determined situations. Instead, it is a theatrical collage which includes a nine-minute video of a heart surgery operation, installations, happenings and moments of performance art. It was crude, grotesque, disordered, yet also original, astounding and exciting, completely abandoning theatre conventions, ignoring audience’s expectations and showing alternative possibilities for theatre as a means of expression. It became internationally acclaimed and toured to art festivals in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Austria and Canada.

In Relation to AIDS, directed by MOU Sen in 1994

After that, Mou staged more plays, including In Relation to AIDS (与艾滋有关, 1994), Yellow Flowers (黄花, 1995), Red Herrings (红鲱鱼, 1995), The Hospital (医院, 1996) and Confession (倾诉, 1997). These dramas were followed by more than two decades of total silence until the director presented Someone to Talk To (一句顶一万句), which premiered in early 2018. Unlike the radical postmodern style that characterized Mou’s previous works, this latest play produced a grand narrative (in a religious sense), through seemingly banal scenes from the everyday lives of the disadvantaged classes.

Wordly Pleasures, idea originated by Qi Li and Guan Shan, directed by Meng Jinghui,1993

Another avant-garde director, who is acclaimed for his individuality, and his skills in parody and satire, is Meng Jinghui. In 1991, Meng, a Master of Fine Arts candidate in the Department of Directing of the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, formed an avant-garde troupe with some like-minded youngsters. They named their troupe Play Play Theatre Studio, and produced trend-setting and widely acknowledged plays, including Waiting for Godot (1991), Worldly Pleasures (思凡, 1993), I Love XXX (我爱×××, 1994), Accidental Death of an Anarchist (adapted by Huang Jisu, 1998) and Bootleg Faust (盗版浮士德, text by Shen Lin, 1999).

Worldly Pleasure, based on a late-Ming Dynasty, play tells the encounter of a monk and a nun (both in their teens and determined to return to the amorous, secular life), who are both fleeing from their respective monasteries. The storytelling was combined with role playing on stage, while the plot of the Ming Dynasty play was mingled with stories of forbidden love from Boccaccio’s Decameron. The playful style, which was full of teasing, mocking and spoofing, made the satire of the hypocritical and ridiculous feudal ethics and punitive morality even more poignant and piercing.

I Love XXX, a typical piece of anti-theatre, contained eight hundred odd declarative lines, each starting with “I love . . . ,” which were recited by eight performers, both men and women, in various combinations of tones, moods and voices. The subjects of the sentences included “Tian’anmen in Beijing,” “Marilyn Monroe and Kennedy brothers” and “your labia and your beautiful uterus.” The emphasis on personal preferences and individual lives over collective events and social trends was more than an exhibition of individualist defiance. The satire and parody seemed to be an especially strong provocation in a context where only narratives about state, nation, class and political party were allowed for several decades.

Waiting for Godot in rehearsal, 1998

A dark horse suddenly plunged onto the Chinese stage in the early 1990s, when efforts to revive traditional culture were eroded by the sweeping pursuit of economic development. Guo Shixing, a journalist turned playwright, overwhelmed his audience with his “loafers trilogy” (闲人三部曲): Bird Men (鸟人), Chess Men (棋人) and Fish Men (鱼人); plays that speculate on the fate of traditional culture in the face of modern China’s historic developments.

Bird Man, written by GUO Shixing, directed by LIN Zhaohua, 1995

Guo’s Chinese “loafers” may well be oriental counterparts to the marginalized outsiders of modern Western society; although they bear unmistakable Chinese characteristics. As survivors or descendants of the Manchurian Empire (the Qing or last feudal dynasty in Chinese history), they were able to neither contribute to nor fight against the new society. Having been totally marginalized, they often appeared aloof and buried their ambitions and arrogance in raising pet birds, playing chess, fishing, and seeing and making theatre.

Chess Men is the most influential of the loafer’s trilogy. Lin Zhaohua adapted the novel for the stage for the Central Experimental Drama Theater, in 1995, which toured to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The hero of the story was a Go master. When he destroyed his board and decided to withdraw from the icy logic world of black and white stones after playing Go for five decades, he met an exceptional young genius who happened to be the son of his former lover. The woman asked the Master to defeat her son so as to prevent the latter from remaining a Go player. The young man, losing the game, gave up his career, as he had promised, and his own life as well. Later, the ghost of the young man visited the Master to review their last game. The Master realized that what ended was only the mortal life, while the game never ends. Guo was born to a family of Go players, both his grandfather and father being national masters. Therefore, he knew their life and their inner world well. But what made Chess Men different is that his concern for folk culture exceeds folk culture per se.

The modern parable was created with the structure of traditional dramaturgy. The loafers’ self-exclusion expresses their loneliness, while descriptions of their leisurely and comfortable lifestyle point to the fragility of life itself. The audience would bump into elusive and sophisticated philosophical contemplations everywhere in the play. Guo’s more recent works (The Street of Nonsense [坏话一条街], The Toilet [厕所], To Be or Not To Be [活着还是死去], Frog [青蛙], The Last Will [遗嘱], The Imperial Train [帝国专列] and The Snowstorm [暴风雪]) are all about the unspeakable things of not-so-noble mortals, told in a casual and digressive manner. Yet, he cunningly fished touchable life experiences out of lifeless historical symbols and the twilight zone of life and death.

Scene from The Toilet, 2004, a play of Guo Shixing

Today, the theatre market is divided between the mainstream, the commercial and the experimental. However, experimental theatre has to face crushing competition from the mainstream and the commercial theatre. Even Meng, the veteran avant-garde theatre-maker, who gained his fame in the 1990s with productions such as Worldly Pleasures (1993), I Love XXX (1994) and Bootleg Faust (1999), joined the commercial trend. His Rhinoceros in Love (恋爱的犀牛) and Two Dogs (两只狗的生活意见) ran nationwide for a number of seasons, with more than a thousand performances by different teams of performers. They achieved great box office success.

Rhinoceros in Love, written by Liao Yimei, directed by Meng Jinghui, 1999

Despite all difficulties and obstacles, there are still a handful of theatre artists who devote themselves to the idea of theatre as a place where people in the community can communicate. Their efforts and ingenuity have resulted in some exceptionally good works, such as The Soul Mates (知己), by Guo Hongqi;  Equus Asinus (驴得水), by Zhou Shen and Liu Lu; Great Master (大先生), by Li Jing; Comedy of the Qin (秦国喜剧), by Li Jing; The Face of Chiang Kai-shek (蒋公的面子), by Wen Fangyi; Tea House 2.0 (茶馆2.0), by Wang Chong; and Samadhi (三昧), by Yichi, among others.

As the Western modern drama (which was introduced to China more than a century ago) has gradually found its way into the life and the mind of ordinary Chinese people, Huaju (spoken drama) has become a widely accepted and fully localized art form. Indeed, it has accumulated an abundant legacy and formed a modern counterpart to traditional operas within Chinese theatre.

Generations of ambitious innovators have created China’s own modern theatre by intertweaving Western forms with the long and rich history of Chinese traditional theatre. Their efforts were particularly articulated in the National Theatre Movement of the 1920s, the New Opera productions in the 1930s and the Xieyi theatre (which emphasizes stage devices beyond realist aesthetics, first advocated by Huang Zuolin, and thrived in the 1980s).

A small theatre production, Samadhi, stood out in the bustling theatre market at the end of 2016. Its creators were workers of radio stations and performers of Chinese Quyi (balladry theatre). They opted for Chinese traditional storytelling as the basic form of their production, and labeled it an “onstage radio drama.” The story is about three childhood friends who imitated the well-known “three brothers” in the Three Kingdoms, who swore an oath of allegiance and vowed to stay together forever. However, people changed in times of hardship. Friendship was too fragile to survive the drastic ups and downs. Average people could not help but be swept away by time and tides. On the stage, the three brilliant performers sat side by side, facing the audience. Narrating and acting intertwined with each other, while timeworn storytelling was revitalized for the modern theatre.

In recent decades, Chinese theatre artists have shown great interest in traditional theatrical forms, particularly storytelling, variety shows and sketch pieces. Li Jiayao, a director of Shanghai Youth Repertory Theatre, introduced Pingtan (ballad singing in Suzhou dialect), in his version of Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, back in the mid-1980s. Lin Zhaohua employed Laoqiang from the traditional popular shadow theatre in Shaanxi, when he directed Saga of Bai and Lu Clans (白鹿原), in 2006. The Laoqiang performers struck the benches with hard wood blocks to accompany their primitive singing. The somehow savage regional flavor of the performance provided a glimpse into the ancient roots of China’s national culture and ethos.

It is not uncommon that Chinese Huaju directors have connections with traditional operas. They were either born to a family of traditional opera performers, or trained for that. Some of them practiced in traditional theatre troupes for many years. Their good understanding of the tradition and aesthetics of Chinese operatic theatre has enabled them to switch freely between Huaju and traditional operas. For example, on the list of Li Liuyi’s productions we see both ingenious works of Huaju, such as Family (家), Peking Man (北京人), Spring in a Small Town (小城之春), and traditional Chinese operatic works, such as The Good Person of Szechwan in Chuanju (Sichuan opera), The Happy Life of Wang Damin the Windbag (贫嘴王大民的幸福生活) in Pingju (a form of opera popular in north and northeast China), and The Golden Cangue (金锁记) in Beijing opera.

Tian Qinxin’s productions include The Field of Life and Death (生死场, Huaju), Red Rose and White Rose (红玫瑰与白玫瑰, Huaju) and Four Generations under One Roof (四世同堂, Huaju), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Prime Minister Liu the Hunchback (宰相刘罗锅, Beijing opera) and 1666/Peach Blossom Fan (1666•桃花扇, Kunqu).


Director Guo Xiaonan

Guo Xiaonan is another director who did well in both Huaju (The Open Couple and The Scholar and the Executioner, 秀才与刽子手), and Chinese operas (Jin Long and Fu You, 金龙与蜉蝣, Huaiju or Anhui opera), A Portrait of Shunkin (Yueju or Zhejiang opera) and The Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯与祝英台, Yueju).

Cultural exchanges have grown deeper and more extensive between China and the West. Chinese theatre artists, having gained a better understanding of the Western modernist/postmodernist theatre, reached a consensus that the impetus for theatre in China rests in the continuance and development of China’s time-honored theatrical arts, including popular performing forms such as storytelling, ballad singing, variety shows and Nuo ritual performances.

*Lin Kehuan is a dramaturg and theatre critic who has also held office as the Director of Literature Department, President and Art Director of the China Youth Arts Theatre. Among Lin’s published works are the plays Turn (Zhuan Zhe), and Newspaper Boy (Bao Tong). He has published extensively in more than 200 media outlets at home and abroad. His writings include literary criticism, creative writing discourse on aesthetics, as well as literary commentaries on drama, dance, film, television, fine arts and performance art.

Translated by Huang Jue

Copyright © 2018 Lin Kehuan
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Chinese Theatre since 1980
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