In the 1930s, when The Drunken Concubine, played by Mei Lanfang, was a hit on the American stage, and when Mr. Mei received public praise from the Western world for his craft, no one ever asked if women themselves could act in China and what their real life was like. Actually, in Mei Lanfang’s time, Chinese women were just then being allowed to come back to the stage. But most of them were still tottering with difficulty on their bound feet. The right to act on the stage, the right to education and the equality of men and women were still far beyond most of them.
Until the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Chinese women lived in a rigid patriarchal society. Women lacked self-determination. They were required to obey their fathers or brothers before marriage. In their marriages, they had to obey their husbands. Except for a few high-born women in well-to-do families, most women were illiterate. Foot-binding was not only a fetish that caused physical deformity in women, but also a de facto method of confining them indoors. All stage images of women that were created by men were elegant, humble, obedient and self-controlled, even when they were drunk.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at the height of revolutionary fervor, Western ideas of feminism and women’s liberation started to have an impact in China on the newly emerged, modern literati. After the May 4th Movement of 1919, feminism was even taken as the measure of a civilized society, and was a major theme of the democratic movement. Modern spoken drama as a new genre of theatre was established. At the time, most plays related to women were called “problem dramas,” reflecting and revealing the patriarchal oppression of women. Women were treated as the subordinate and inferior sex, living on the lowest rung of the social ladder and deprived of all rights. Upper class women were hardly exceptions. Fan Yi, in the play Thunder Storm is an example. Although she is the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur, she has no freedom at all, even losing the right to express how she feels physically, forced to take herbal medicine every day just because her husband claims she is ill. Fan Yi is driven mad. Real life was just as bad for women offstage. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ruan Linyu, for example, the first star of China’s “civilized” drama (the embryonic form of spoken drama) could not bear her ex-husband’s slander and the public pressure after their divorce, and committed suicide.
Because spoken drama was considered to be “exotic,” it became fashionable in the big cities. It mainly reflected city life, being written by playwrights and seen by audiences living in the cities. Without a doubt, spoken drama played an important role in awakening the urban woman’s consciousness. Nevertheless, its impact could not reach China’s countryside, where even today the majority of women live, and where women of the past suffered most, from the oppression of both the patriarchal order and foreign powers.
China’s Communist Party was based in the countryside, and began a series of thriving women’s liberation movements. Yang Ge Opera, a popular folk musical dance was widely used by the Communist government to publicize the Movement in the border regions. New Yang Ge Opera stories were created to propagate new policies such as gender equality, marriage freedom and literacy for all, in a way recalling how medieval morality and mystery plays inculcated religious ideas in the populace. Meanwhile, the unprecedented introduction of public ownership shook the male’s dominant role in the economy in patriarchal families, providing the political rationale for the equality of men and women. From then on, women’s liberation embarked on a new era. Women began to actively take jobs and take part in the revolutionary movement. They did not stay “liberated” but became real fighters for the nation’s salvation.
After 1949, New China’s theatre development followed the tenet of the socialism of the Yan An period. Many stage works, such as The Red Detachment of Women (premiered in 1964) and The Story of the Red Lantern (premiered in 1968), testified to the change in women’s social position. They were hailed as a force able to shoulder “half of the sky.” They were even beginning to take leading roles at work as well as in the family.
Since the second half of the last decade of 20th Century, China’s theatre has come into an era of “entertainment.” The stage has been occupied with entertaining spoofs and commercially-oriented parodies. Chinese society has metamorphosed into an environment celebrating women-centered consumerism. Women are encouraged to consume, while they are being consumed at the same time. We can no longer ignore the fact that, by and large, women’s social position is declining; their opportunities in society are becoming fewer, and blatant employment discrimination and sexual harassment against female employees are escalating. In such a consumerist society, women’s desire for success by means of personal struggle and quest for gender equality are giving way to their sexual attractions. More and more young girls have accepted the idea of that the way to change their fates is through marriage, just as it says in Chinese: “Better to marry well than work fair.”
No matter whether in real life or on the stage, it is accepted and even admired for the young female white collar workers to get promoted by using their sexual attractiveness tactfully.The Promotion Story of Du Lala, an internet novel, has become a real hit in China. It has been published and re-edited into a stage production, a film and then a TV series.
Du Lala, a lowly sales assistant from an unimpressive social background, working in a top-500 company, succeeds in “being dated” by the Sales Supervisor, and then being promoted to HR manager by her tactful handling of various situations and personal relationships. Du Lala, as well as Wendi Deng Murdoch, becomes the new model in the hearts of young Chinese women.
On the stage, the embarrassment of young Chinese women in the cities is revealed: you cannot have both promotions and children; sexual harassment from bosses or clients have to be treated carefully—remember that a slap to his face might lose you your job; hide the fact that you are married, otherwise it will be difficult to get the same attention as your single female colleagues. In order to develop yourself at work, you have to take your “feminine glamour” into account, in addition to your professional capabilities. In fact, comparatively speaking, your glamour might be even more relevant than your work-related abilities. Society’s ways of functioning are still designed by and for the male. But the problem is that nowadays, even young women accept the rules, and they are playing by those rules willingly.
Of course, there are some who continue to maintain their clear-eyed perspective and dispassionate self-reflection. Women directors Tian Qinxing and Ding Naizheng are just two of them.
Tian’s first directing works, Cutof 1997, tells the story of Queen Xu Lvping. By cutting off her left hand, she forced her son to withdraw from the throne, because he was weak, irresolute, and incapable of reigning over a kingdom. After 20 years of her reign, she handed over the throne to her grandson, for she believed in his courage and wit. Director Tian invited Jin Xing, the famous transsexual modern dancer, to play the Queen—ironic and broad-minded, full of passion, but not obsessed with it. She looked beyond all the existing rules made by men regarding the problem of the heir. She based her entire consideration of the problem on who had the ability to govern a kingdom. On the stage, Jin Xing played the role with an interesting combination of femininity and masculinity, due to her own extraordinary personal experience.
In Tian’s directing works, women have independent wills, and they are capable of making clear judgements and taking action accordingly. They are usually decisive and firm. Her most famous play, A Circle of the Living and the Dead (premiered in 1999 in Beijing)), is based on the novel of the same name from the 1930s, written by the woman writer, Xiao Hong. The novel describes the miserable life of the Chinese peasants in the northeast. In Tian’s stage work, she highlights a female character, Wang Po (the role originally had no name, only a family name, which was common for women of that time). Wang Po is a strong-minded woman. She never cries. In order to avoid the heavy taxes of their overlord, she encourages her husband, Zhao San, to kill him. But Zhao San kills the wrong person by mistake and is caught by the overlord. Zhao San is so frightened of death that he asks the overlord for forgiveness. At the same time, Wang Po’s daughter is pregnant and her lover, the young boy of their neighbor, has just disappeared to avoid responsibility. Wang Po drinks poison, murmuring, “I have thought he was iron; how has he turned out to be mud?” It is a woman’s complete disappointment in, and disillusionment with, the cowardice and irresponsibility of male society. She showed her last act of contempt for them by giving up her own life. In the play, poses and blocking form profound images: for example, when Zhao San and Wang Po are dreaming of the good days to come after killing the overlord, Wang Po carries her husband on her back. The blocking breaks through the stereotypical images in the public imagination, making its own code.
He and His Two Wives(premiered in 2002 in Taiwan) by Taiwanese woman director, Ding Naizheng, is a city comedy, which is inspired by the British farce, Run For You Life. Yun Jiang, a taxi driver, secretly marries two wives who don’t know of each other’s existence. For years he manages the situation quite well with an elaborate schedule. One day, he happens to get a secretly-shot DVD that reveals the sexual activities of some high-ranking men, among them both criminals and celebrities. He unavoidably becomes the hunted target of the media, police and even the mafia. Upon the investigation, he has no way but to keep inventing new lies to hide the truth that he has two wives.
Plural marriage, which has been forbidden in most countries, is not necessarily losing its fertile ground with the development of the social economy. In fact, as women’s consciousness and self-definition are slipping down in such a consumption-oriented society, polygamy will continue to prosper in some way. This well-knit melodrama is more to make people aware of the revival of polygamy in our so-called modern society, than only to mock Yun Jiang, the husband who handled his two wives in a great bustle.
Nowadays, Chinese scholars of feminism have this tendency: they always take the theories of Western feminism as a standard by which to judge and comment on the women’s situation in today’s China. Shouldn’t we consider all the connotations of “feminism”? Who and which class of people should represent Chinese women nowadays, and hence look after their interest? When those scholars of feminism use Western theories of feminism to analyze the present problems of Chinese women from their privileged position, do they realize that their lofty views cannot represent those young women factory workers who need to work 18 hours a day? Nor can they represent those young white collar women who dare not say no to their bosses’ unreasonable requirements, under great pressures of the high rate of unemployment. Nor can they represent those old women in the countryside, who have to take care for their small grandchildren into their 70s and even 80s, because their parents are away toiling in the big cities. In the case of these women of the lower strata, does their living situation allow them the leisure to talk about the so-called third women’s liberation? After the transformation of the economy, many social problems have arisen in China. We can only obtain a good understanding and analysis of the true problems of today’s Chinese women off the university campuses, if we face their situations honestly and take their real problems into consideration.
 Zhu Ning works in the department of international exchange in the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, China, where she prepares for her Ph. D. under the supervision of Prof. Zhang Xian, president of the Chinese IATC section.
Copyright © 2010 Zhu Ning
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