Lin Chen*

Abstract: Criticizing the “culinary theatre”[1] of his age, Brecht elaborated on the epic theatre and the Verfremdungseffect (V-effect), and constructively interpreted/misinterpreted Mei Lanfang’s jingju performance to back up his idea. Since the 1980s, xiqu[2] performances that interweave different performance cultures have flourished on the Chinese stage. Productions in this vein include: kunqu Macbeth (1984), bangzi Medea (1993), yueju Hedda Gabler (2006) and jingju Metamorphosis (2013). The yueju performance The Good Person of Jiangnan adapts not only the dramatic text of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechwan, but also endeavors to practice the V-effect with the materiality of the performance. This attempt distinctly transgresses the common “western story, eastern body” mode. This paper, firstly, elaborates upon the practice of the V-effect, especially the method based upon the traditional xiqu role system, within The Good Person of Jiangnan. The V-effect requires making the action strange, alien, remote or separate, and, consequently, inspires the audience to think. Yet, The Good Person of Jiangnan’s adaptation of the “story” together with the “body” ensured no critic of the culinary theatre. In the context of modern China, as the “world’s factory,” and the major social issue of migrant workers, it is surprising that this production gave rise to little discussion of this subject. Instead, the hot topics of debate turned out to be its perceived lack of authenticity and its relationship to the global intercultural tendency. This paper endeavors to explore the reason for this debate, based upon critical analysis of the production. Furthermore, the profound reasons for the traditional cultural upsurge and the authentic discourse of xiqu will also be considered.

Keywords: Brecht, V-effect, Chinese theatre, xiqu performance


A video record of the performance
Part I:
Recycling the V-effect with a Cross-role (and Failing)

January 4, 2013. The “new concept Yueju opera,” The Good Person of Jiangnan premiered at the new National Center for the Performing Arts, in Beijing, formerly known as the National Grand Theater, starring the renowned Yueju opera actresses Mao Wei-tao and Chen Hui-ling. In the same year, the production toured in many cities in China, including Chong Qing and Cheng Du, the former and present capital of the Sichuan/ Szechwan province. On February 15, 2014, the production was invited to take part in the 2014 Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts, and was staged in the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, in Singapore. An old friend and fan of Mao Wei-tao, the sixty six-year old Huang Shu-qin, was so excited that he stood up and shouted loudly, “Mao-mao, I love you!” during the curtain calls. This was the first time Huang had seen Mao Wei-tao performing a female role, and in a female dress, on the stage. There is a good reason for this; namely, the director Guo Xiao-nan, who is also husband of Mao Wei-tao, has tried to practice a Verfremdungseffect with a cross-roles skill on the Yueju stage.

Mei Lan-fang (1894-1961). Photo: Public domain (web)

To explain and analyze Guo Xiao-nan’s cross-roles skill we have to refer to a historical event, in 1935. Brecht saw Jingju master Mei Lan-fang’s performance in Moscow. This inspired him to develop the Verfremdungseffect further. According to reliable records, Mei Lan-fang officially performed seven times in Moscow and eight times in Leningrad. Mei Lan-fang was accompanied by celebrities, such as Stanislavski, Eisenstein and Meyerhold, during his visit to Moscow, in the spring of 1935. Brecht was also present on many occasions in which Mei made impromptu performances of different female roles and demonstrated his dance skills. “In a man’s dinner jacket and without special lighting, Mei appeared to show, rather than conceal, his own demonstrational skills, not to ‘become’ his female character, but rather to ‘quote’ her” (Mumford 2009: 61).

Martin argues that Brecht never realized that, in jingju, the actor actually maintains an interior process of empathizing with his character (Martin 2000: 229), because Brecht seemed obsessed by the idea that there is a split between actor and character. Such a split supported Brecht’s vision of the Verfremdungseffect. Brecht constructively misread the performance of Mei Lan-fang, while also getting the point. That is to say, Brecht is correct: a split does exist between the actors and characters in Chinese traditional theater, namely, Chinese xiqu. Between the actor and the character, the role exists.

There are four main roles in jingju[3]: the male role, the female role, the painted role and the clown. Under each main role there are several sub-roles. In the early years of training, the actors and actressesare first trained with basic singing and movement skills, which are shared by the four roles. Gradually, according to the traits of each, the performersare assigned different roles and begin their career on the xiqu stage.

In tradition, it is encouraged to learn more sub-roles, yet to cross the roles is forbidden, no matter whether it is a female role or a male role, because different roles need different systems of singing skills, body gestures, facial expressions, articulation place, articulation method, and so on. To achieve the virtuosity of each role is a lifelong vocation. To learn a role is to master the systems of skills and hard training, and it is not necessarily linked with natural gender at all. Therefore, the disturbance and pain caused by the chaos in gender identification of oneself, as shown in the internationally acclaimed, multiple award-winning film, Farewell My Concubine (starring Leslie Cheung and directed by Chen Kai-ge), hardly happened in the reality. Before a Xiqu performer empathizes with the characters, there is the systematic training that goes into a role. Examples are everywhere. Male jingju masters Mei Lan-fang, Cheng Yan-qiu, Shang Xiao-yun, Xun Hui-sheng are most beloved and renowned female role category performers, and they lived a normal life with their own wives and children.

Another example is the yueju opera. Since 1930, the yueju opera has featured actresses in all roles. However, we can see in the history that, before the 1930s, when yueju came to Shanghai and gained an audience there, all the roles were played by male performers. It is the role training system, between the performer and the character, what guarantees the art’s lineage.

Mao Wei-tao trained as a male role performer for more than thirty years and her playing Shen Te was her first time playing a female character on the stage. The same is true of Chen Hui-ling, the actress who played Yang Sun. Apparently, this cross-role skill not only works on the audience, who are eager to see the cross-role actresses, but also on the performers themselves. In an interview, Mao Wei-tao said that, to play Shen Te, she had to learn how to walk on the stage again, like a beginner. It seems that this cross-role skillmight even help the actors to obtain the type of questioning attitude (towards the actions and remarks of characters) that brings about a “not-but” moment (Mumford 2009: 67). Along with this cross-role skill, the production also appropriated several other techniques to achieve the V-effect.

The director named The Good Person of Jiangnan as new concept yueju, which indicates a challenge for the audience who ardently love the traditional forms. The actresses no longer wear the traditional yueju costumes, wearing suits and the cheongsam instead. Many spoken parts are no longer lyrics with rhythm, but everyday vernacular. In several episodes, the body gestures on the stage are also modernized, including the actresses performing modern dance and jazz routines. The changes outlined above are partly due to the desire to innovate, be intercultural and attract more young people into the traditional Xiqu theatre. Partly, they also served the V-effect. Elements employed to create the V-effect included: two stagehands coming on-stage with searchlights occasionally, and performers addressing the audience directly several times.

The production toured in big cities in China, achieved huge commercial success, many local media wrote reports and interviews about the production, andabout the reactions of the audience, and several research articles were composed emphasizing the link between Brecht and the production. Yet, to my surprise, despite all the V-effect endeavors, in the “World Factory” China, against the context of the flourishing NGO and workers’ movements in the dramatically changing and developing China, the reports, interviews and research articles paid no attention to the reality at all, included no discussion about the dilemma of trying to be a good person, and ignored all of Brecht’s philosophical reflections on the human condition. The audience either devoted themselves to criticizing the performance as non-authentic Yueju opera or defended it as following the intercultural, modernizing tendency. The recycling of the V-effect failed entirely, although I would not go as far as to say, “(u)nfortunately, many of these devices have become hollow clichés in commercial theatres, where they are invariably disconnected from Brecht’s socialist project and reduced to a marketable style” (Mumford 2009: 66). What on earth was wrong with the performance? The failure of recycling the V-effects must have profound reasons.

Part II:
The Tension between Brecht and Xiqu

From my perspective, the performance The Good Person of Jiangnan is “culinary theatre,” entertaining and commercially successful, but nothing more than this. If one pays attention to the text of The Good Person of Jiangnan, as delivered in the feminine style of singing and performing, you would find it almost dialectical, even interrogative, prompting such questions as: “is there any other way to help the poor?”; “the indolent poor are working hard now in the factories, isn’t that strange?”; “why is it so hard to be a good man?”; “is it good to insist on justice in the daily life, or maybe it is better to be unjust?”; and “if we do not change the world, how can all mortal beings be saved?” But, in the performance, the text is presented in a manner that is powerless and pale. According to a report, the sentence, “if we do not change the world, how could all mortal beings be saved?” was added by the academic adviser Ding Yang-zhong, the Germanic scholar.

Ding is a renowned expert of Brecht in China. In 1979, the staging of The Life of Galileo achieved huge success in encouraging the audience to reflect on the theme of the true hero. The thematic tension between pursuing truth and being a mortal human led to extensive discussions among the audience. Nevertheless, Ding still suggested that the production could have been more dialectical. Yet, almost forty years later, as the academic adviser, Ding was silent. According to the report, Ding explained to the director and the actresses that Brecht would go straight to the heart of the matter. Sill, it is obvious that he could do nothing more to change the style of the production than merely add the sentence above. Why? Why do such powerful interrogations lead to no reflection of the reality? Why did audience members, such as Huang Shu-qin, perceive the production as merely beautiful and charming? These questions are closely related to the failure of the recycling the V-effect in the production.

In the production, Mao Wei-tao performs Shen Te as a singer, instead of a prostitute. Dressed in beautiful silk costumes, calmly smoking, confident, bright, she transcends her character’s socio-economic archetype. She is not the prostitute Shen Te, who struggles to make ends meet, and who has nothing else to sell but her own body. Not to mention Shi Fu, the unsympathetic barber, who is represented, in this production, as a nice-looking lover, always ready to sacrifice himself for Shen Te. Brecht’s tale is transformed into a common love story with no connection to class struggle. All these beautiful changes weaken the power of the interrogation that is addressed to the audience.

This production of The Good Person of Jiangnan does not reflect Brecht’s concept of Gestus; it does no present artistically the socio-economic and ideological construction of human behavior and relations. It is neither historical nor dialectical, the performance ismerely “beautiful.” Yueju must be beautiful, the actresses must be beautiful, and this is precisely what seems to be practiced in this production, in line with the prescriptive nature of yueju—even though the show is declared to be “new concept yueju.” The tension between the dramatic text and the form of this production is obvious. Performance is the art of body, space, energy and so on; text is only one of the elements that create an effect. As the text is suppressed by the dominating materiality, the interrogative aspect of the play is naturally neglected by the audience. Is yueju’s adherence to the aesthetic form the only reason for this? I would argue that there are profound reasons for the production’s neglect of Brecht’s dramatic intentions, one of which is the hidden, intense tension between Chinese xiqu and Brecht’s political aesthetics.

In 1989, at an international Brecht symposium held by the Goethe Institute in Singapore, Yu Qiu-yu pointed out that Brecht’s approval of Chinese xiqu is basically the approval of xiqu’s fictitiousness in performance; of its form, not of the main spirit of Chinese xiqu. In other words, xiqu is a precious and complicated performance art, but its inner ethical structure is clear and simple. The painted face is the first recognizable signal of the character. It enables the audience to tell at first glance whether the character is good or bad, kind or evil, loyal or treacherous. This relates not only to the form of Chinese xiqu; rather, it marks its spirit. Chinese xiqu is against uncertainty. It is not dialectal, nor does it reflect Gestus in the Brechtian sense. To appropriate the entire form of traditional xiqu means to accept the inner ethical structure. In this sense, xiqu is not open to a “western spirit, eastern body” dialectic.

The tension between traditional xiqu and Brecht is one of the profound reasons why The Good Person of Jiangnan failed to practice the V-effect. The Life of Galileo is an experimental spoken drama, with some short xiqu episodes to achieve the V-effect, and this is different from the appropriation of a traditional xiqu form. The Good Person of Jiangnan’s recycling of Brecht is merely “culinary theatre” and entertaining.

Part III: Epilogue

Brecht’s approach to theory, such as the V-effect, was guided by one of Marx’s early theses from 1845: ”The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it” (Marx 1977: 158). “The material practice of observing and contemplating should be integrated with the practice of revolutionary political action,” Mumford explains while discussing Brecht. “Through that integration, theory itself will be transformed by social reality” (2009: 51). V-effect is more than a technique. Verfremdung is a political intervention into the (blindingly) familiar, and seeks to urge people to think and to change the world. From my point of view, this is the true recycling of Brecht.

Since the 1980s, Chinese Xiqu performances that interweave with different performance cultures have flourished on the stage, in such productions as the kunqu opera Macbeth (1984), the bangzi opera Medea (1993), and the yueju opera Hedda Gabler (2011). As Fischer-Lichte demonstrated, since ancient times, theatre has borrowed different elements from other performance cultures to revitalize itself (2014: 1-17).

To sum up, only pursuing the V-effect on the level of technique s problematic. If we use Brecht’s metaphor to examine the yueju opera The Good Person of Jiangnan, we would ask: did the spectator have a revolutionary, life-altering meal? Could a different mixture of ingredients change the culinary habits of a lifetime? In 2016, four years after her monograph The Thirty Years of Chinese Small-scale Theatre Movement, Tao Qing-mei lamented that, whereas there is more and more financial support from the government, more and more international as well as domestic theatre festivals, the theatre itself seems to be in a dormant state. One example is the The Good Person of Jiangnan. And this is not only because of the tension demonstrated above, but also due to political and institutional reasons in a country lacking judicial independence and freedom of speech.

However, as a researcher, as well as a non-commercial director, performer and kunqu singer, I still hold the view that there are many possibilities and huge space to recycle Brecht together with yueju and, indeed, other Chinese xiqu forms that are also waiting to be recycled. As I explained above, the materiality of performance is not the text, but the form: the body, the energy and the space. Only in practice might we find a solution to the tension between Brecht and traditional xiqu. When and how the Yueju opera might transgress the “brilliant scholar, beautiful lady” mode and take its place in the social transformation, as Brecht expected of the V-effect, remains a big question.


[1] “The artist, like the worker, must consider his position in the production process. If he simply unthinkingly accepts the production methods of the past (such as early nineteenth-century realism), even his most ‘proletarian’ creations will tend to be assimilated on traditional terms, simply as entertainment—what Brecht called ‘culinary’ theatre,” Carlson writes (1993: 391).
[2] Balme notes that the European theatre tradition is characterized by a high degree of differentiation and specialization (2014, 4). In contrast, xiqu, that is, Chinese traditional theatre, is characterized by its high level of synthesis. Therefore, it would be improper to translate Chinese xiqu as opera. But, in order to make it more accessible to international readers, this article sometimes follows the popular translation, for instance, translating jingju as Peiking opera, yueju as Shaoxing opera.
[3]The four role categories are shared by other mature forms of Chinese xiqu. In undeveloped forms of xiqu, there might be only two main role categories, namely the male role and the female role.

Works Cited

Balme, Christopher. Einführung in die Theaterwissenschaft. Erich Schmidt Verlag GmbH & Co, 2014.

Carlson, Marvin A. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present. Cornell University Press, 1993.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Introduction: Interweaving Performance Cultures— Rethinking ‘Intercultural Theatre’: Toward an Experience and Theory of Performance beyond Postcolonialism.” The Politics of Interweaving Performance Cultures: Beyond Postcolonialism. Ed. Erika Fischer-Licht et al. Routledge, 2014.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vintage Books, 1977.

Mumford, Meg. Bertolt Brecht (Routledge Performance Practitioners), London: Routledge, 2009.


This article is a phased achievement of the 2018 National Social Science Fund Art Major Project “Research on the Frontier Issues of Contemporary European and American Theatre Theory” 18ZD06.

*Chen Lin has a PhD from the International Research Centre “Interweaving Performance Cultures,” Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests include the aesthetics of the performative, experimental xiqu performances that interweave different performance cultures, educational theatre and cultural studies, most of which are involved in the investigation of the intricate relationship between contemporary European and Chinese performative arts. She has published many articles and presented her research results at several significant national and international conferences.

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

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The Interpretation and Misinterpretation of the Verfremdungs effect on the Modern Xiqu Stage
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