Liu Minghou[1]



Théâtres-Publics-Critiques : Garder l’œil sur chacun

Quelle est la relation entre théâtres, publics et critique dans la Chine d’aujourd’hui ? Dans cet exposé, Liu Minghou traite cette question importante à partir de productions récentes, surtout celles provenant du secteur « réaliste » du « théâtre des collets blancs », indépendant, en développement et souvent commercial. Où se situe ce phénomène eu égard au théâtre subventionné, au répertoire classique en évolution et à l’influence croissante des mass-media dans la société chinoise ? Quel est le rôle – en fait, quelles sont les obligations – du critique de théâtre dans un paysage culturel en évolution rapide ?

As a culture introduced from the western world, the dramatic art has been mingled and integrated with the development of China’s cities and has become an important part of China’s history of new cultural growth and development. Shanghai, in particular, as the birthplace of Chinese drama, has seen theater developing over one hundred years or so. Today, with the rapid economic development, what role should drama play in the urban development pattern of cultural pluralism? How should the standard of drama be defined? How will it survive? The topic we are discussing is about “theaters, audiences and critics,” which is relevant to the contemporary social reality of today’s China.

As a matter of fact, due to the challenges from the mass media and television-led pan-entertainment, the performance market has encountered embarrassment in a number of cities and regions of China. The dramatic performance market of Shanghai has been very active. Other than the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (a national professional theater group), there are more than 20 private theater companies staging various kinds of drama, such as Chinese classical drama, foreign plays, experimental theater and musicals. Among these, there is one type of drama which is designed for a special group of people; the critics call it, “White-collar Drama.” The audiences for “White-collar Drama” come mainly from white collar workers and the students from university campuses.

The themes of these dramas are concerned with contemporary young people and are closely related to various problems in their lives, such as housing, employment, marriage and salaries, which we call “City Syndrome”. “White-collar Drama” is the representation of the current state of life for urban youth, revealing the pressures and confusion faced by young people and seeking solutions to the problems. At the end of 2001, the first White-collar Drama Single Apartment was performed by the private theater group Modern People to reveal the living conditions and emotional confusion of the young people in the single apartments. The performance was presented in an innovative form, involving some white-collar performers; it immediately attracted attention within the white-collar audience, who saw themselves reflected in the play. Thus, White-collar Drama quickly occupied the Shanghai dramatic market. Such drama shows that concern about the livelihood of young people and investment in their standard of living is relatively small.

White-collar dramas have been active on stage in Shanghai for 10 years. Of course, not all the plays were successful. The audience despised the dramas with false situations and artificial acting, while those sought after by the audience have been the ones which have offered a form and content which have impressed the white-collar theater-goers.

Let us take the drama Dwell Like a Snail (2009, script written by LiuLiu and directed by Lei Guohua) as an example. Currently, the housing price in the majority of Chinese cities is rocketing and most young people cannot afford to buy their own houses. The university graduates or the young people who are prepared to get married have become “housing slaves”. And the monthly mortgage makes them live frugally.

Dwell Like a Snail tells us such a story: The heroine Hai Ping and her husband lived in a hut with several pieces of furniture. They had to leave their son with his grandmother in the countryside. In order to buy a house, the couple raised money from their extensive family, but they still could not afford the down payment. They borrowed 40,000 Yuan from the mother and 20,000 Yuan from their sister, Hai Zao, who worked in a real estate company and met an official, Secretary Song, by chance. Secretary Song fell in love with the beautiful, young girl and bought her a suite within a luxurious house. It seemed that Hai Zao solved her sister’s financial trouble by becoming Song’s lover. However, Secretary Song’s wife discovered the love affair and Hai Zao paid a high price, being forced to have an abortion.

Dwell Like a Snail exposes the cruel reality. If the housing price is so high, then why did Hai Ping persist in trying to buy a small property? The answer is in Hai Zao’s line, “my sister wanted that house, not for living decorations, but for a necessity of life.” So, it can reflect the consideration of most Chinese young people. For the majority of Chinese people, “home” is the core traditional concept which represents Chinese culture with a sense of security, while renting lacks stability. This drama discusses the housing problem and involves issues about marriage, love, extramarital affairs, changes in ethical values, and the struggle for survival of urban young people. Therefore, the performances of Dwell Like a Snail in Shanghai and, later, in Hangzhou, Ningbo, Hefei, Shenzhen and other Chinese cities had the immediate effect of catching the attention of the audience and critics. It was generally welcomed by the audience and was later made into a TV series.

The Story of Du Lala (2009, script written by Shi Jun and directed by He Nian) is a dramatic description of a white-collar worker. The heroine in The Story of Du Lala is a highly educated girl. She had been working hard and moved from a small, private company to a multinational company. Finally, she made a career success through personal struggle. With eight years work experience in a foreign company, Du Lala grew from a sales assistant into a capable HR professional manager, experiencing a variety of workplace changes and having also gone through a variety of sour tests in her work.

She correctly accused her boss of sexual harassment, but also recklessly rescued him from the safe. She seized the chance to argue about the salary and position and faced severe competition within the office. From a small straightforward staff to a wise, strict manager, Du Lala finally strived to win a place for herself in the foreign company.

This female version of the white-collar story has great appeal within the female audience. The young director adopted a lot of humorous means to display the performance. For example, in the plot of the competition between Du Lala and a female boss named Rose, director He introduced song , dance and body language to express the conflict. When Du Lala and her colleagues discussed “how can’t they be laid off”, the scene was placed in a gym. The tedious career philosophy was reflected in their playing Brazilian Judo and talking together. As a result, Dwell Like a Snail and The Story of Du Lala were so successful in Shanghai that the tickets were hard to get. When the plays were performed in many cities during the tour of the whole country, they achieved high popularity among the young people, with the box office revenue 13 million yuan and the attendance up to 124,000. Dwell Like a Snail and The Story of Du Lala are the dramatic performances which have built the brand for Shanghai drama, and later were made into TV series and movies.

In Shanghai, Beijing and other major cities of China, facing the stresses of career and life, many young women with higher education, good income and an enviable job miss the chance to get married at the best age for various reasons. These women are entitled “leftover women”. Thus, an urban comedyLeftover Women Biography (2009, script written by Zhou Yi and directed by Guo Hua) came into being on the Shanghai stage. The play describes the story of three women seeking love.

Fang Fang is an excellent example of a female white-collar worker and she wants to marry a strong and excellent man, but she has not met such a man. In fact, she did not realize that, to some extent, a good husband is made by a good wife. The girl named Mei Li wants to marry a rich man, but she has unwittingly neglected the love that is by her side. She did not understand that a woman’s beauty is like depreciating capital and will not work permanently. The girl called Shu Jia, a doctoral student, had been missing the best time to find a boyfriend because of long time academic study. Although she has been longing for love and marriage, she could not find the right person.

One day, when the three “leftover women” were depressed by their latest failures in blind dating once, their friend Mark changed into Jupiter and used magic to send them to another time and space, ancient China. The dream through time and space made the three “leftover women” change the outlook to love and finally find the love around them. The young director Guo Hua’s absurd, romantic comedy made the audience laugh, and achieved particular popularity among white-collar workers and university students alike.

Chinese drama draws its vitality from the fact that it actively and profoundly involves social change and development. The dramas which can obtain recognition and popularity with the contemporary Chinese audience are close to life and the times, and are related to the modern social forms, modern thought and the state of human existence. They reflect the critical spirit of realism and the artistic personality on the stage. It is the above mentioned three dramas, which reflect Chinese characteristics, which made the audiences, especially the young audiences, show affections towards them.

In addition, drama has become fashionable with young people because they have found that it can become a new way to alleviate stress and be shared as a “cultural feast” with other people. Therefore, in the context of modern consumerism, the young people, who were chasing idols – stars, often singers in the past – have begun to enter the theater to fall in love with drama.

Accordingly, in 2009, white-collar drama festivals were held in Beijing and Shanghai. Jing’an District government of Shanghai is also building a high-end business district to promote a “white-collar theater dinner program”, and aims at attracting 100,000 senior white-collar workers and 300,000 business tourists to form a combined business district and cultural zone. Therefore, some white collar workers began to love the theater, joining the drama salons, drama educational training, or amateur theater. Rushing to rehearsals after work has become a part of their life. For the majority of amateurs, the acting should be a fun thing, because this is a state beyond everyday life. Shanghai urban drama can make every ordinary person find their potential to act and the young people’s theatrical concepts can be realized and enriched on the small or large stage. In this way, the value of their lives has been recognized and enhanced.

The theater has enriched the city and it has become a popular culture in Shanghai. Although the ticket price of some plays is relatively high, cultural consumption is still engaged in by much of Shanghai’s growing population. The dramatists in Shanghai are often sensitive to the audience’s interests, especially in the cases of self-financed private theater companies. Therefore, when the “white-collar drama” is tired aesthetically and seems to go to decline into decadence, theater producers immediately launch the “Suspense Drama”, “Reasoning Drama” to attract the audience. Such theater includes original plays and also famous, foreign ones, such as the British reasoning plays of Agatha Christie, which have been popular on the latest stage of Shanghai. They also stage other original realistic drama, historical drama, theater of the absurd, and famous, foreign dramas, such as the recent performances of Faust by Goethe,Maid by Jean Genet, and the American contemporary Broadway play Suspect. These meet the diverse needs of different audiences.

It is worth mentioning that Capital is currently being performed in Shanghai (2010, script written by Yu Rongjun and directed by He Nian, performing in Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre). A group of young theater-goers interpret the incomprehensible Capital by Marx, the interpretations of which are beyond our normal expectations. It is true that, through artistic interpretation, this great man’s philosophy seems interesting. The play is not serious but relaxing and fun. For instance, in the performance of the concept of surplus value, which is the core of Marx’s political economy, the director adopted a special disposition. In order to reduce the cost of performance, a group of actors are required to revolve doors, playing different roles in the 10 dramas. And the actors are constantly exhausted because of running and changing their clothes. The more mistakes they made when telling the lines, the more humorous was the stage effect for the audience.

Certainly, the plays selected are famous Chinese and foreign ones, the figures and classic lines of which are very familiar to the theater audience; plays such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Thunderstorm, Teahouse. And the audiences think, the plays create thinking space with laughing. Capital shows the sharp awareness of money and capital of young people in the eighties, but also shows that they still keep faith.

This year (2010), it is unusually hot in Shanghai. However, this could not prevent the Shanghai people with passion from entering the Majestic Theater to watch Capital. After all, the drama is there for the audience and the value of it depends on the audience’s participation, recognition and acceptance. Therefore, drama is full of universal value because it is loved by the mass.

In China, the national awards for theater include the Chinese Drama Culture Award, Chinese Theater Theory Review Award, Plum Blossom Award for Chinese Theater and the National Quality Award. The majority of the audience is not involved in selecting the winners. This is governmental action, and the judging panel members are chosen by the specialized agencies of the government. They are well-known directors, screenwriters, actors, critics, stage designers and theater professors, etc., who are the professional experts in the field of theater.

Professional troupes supported by the government and provincial-level cultural offices value these awards. They consider the awards an important indication of their political performance. So, on the one hand, they often invest a lot of capital in building the so-called “competitive products”. On the other hand, they try to seek out the experts, and struggle to get the awards. Certainly, in order to show justice, the experts are not allowed to have any contact with them. However, the inputs and outputs of the theater sometimes are not directly proportional. The audience may not like the award-winning, which would be forgotten by them after the performances. The general audience does not care who gets the awards, as long as the actors’ performance is excellent. On the contrary, the private theater companies have box office, so they do not care about these awards.

This also brings about some problems. Although Shanghai’s drama has become a strong cultural industry, the questions remain as to how to ensure the quality of the performing arts and to enhance the audience’s aesthetic taste? This is the issue which theater critics have been thinking about. It is undeniable that the above-mentioned white-collar dramas, due to the improving performance market, have led to new companies which merely imitate existing ones. As a result, much theater is concerned with this the single subject and the related issues – the pressure of city life, business, love, friendship and the personal confusion. Some of the work looks especially bad as a result of reductions in production costs.

Some dramas also make “public entertainment” the main objective. Meeting the audience’s expectations of enjoying the drama is pursued by the excessive pursuit of gimmicks and fun, abandoning the pursuit of the higher artistic realm. Such work looks a little vulgar.

The adaptation of the classics is also too arbitrary, and seems superficial and hypocritical. The theater critics have made sharp criticism and raised doubts on all these points, and some theater-goers also make the comments on their own blogs about dramas. In order to improve the quality of dramatic criticism, the Drama & Literature Department of Shanghai Theater Academy has resumed the major in Theater Theory & Criticism as a rigorous professional training for the students.

However, the reality is that, in the process of the theater, audiences and dramatic critics watch over each other while the voice of theater critics is relatively weak. Some critics pose their criticism superficially out of the close relationship with the producer. Theater critics don’t affect the performance market, and by the lure of the market of cultural industries, theater producers are more willing to pursue box office revenue to satisfy the audience’s aesthetic psychology.

We are in an open world with rapid development of modern information technology and the impact of diverse cultural influences. Although there are negative effects of convergence of cultures, that does not prevent us protecting and paying attention to our own cultural foundation, the exploration and performance of traditional Chinese theater, traditional Chinese morality and the promotion of truth, kindness and beauty. We have always emphasized the ability of creating the original drama to enhance the new audience’s aesthetic taste and values, helping the young people in Shanghai to build up a wide range of interests in the dramatic arts. For the positive influence of society and future life, we should advocate a healthy, tolerant, kind, honest and harmonious concept of society, which are the social responsibility of drama critics and theater experts, and this will not underestimate the audience in a conceited way.

To advance with the world dramatic art at the same pace, the National Theater and Theater Academies of Beijing, Shanghai and other outstanding ones are leading the Chinese art of acting and directing. During the last 20 years, there have been artistic breakthroughs, which have taken the forms of realism and absurdism, impressionistic style and performance, modernism and post-modernism. However, these developments have come from outside of China. In fact, we need to rebuild the traditional values on the ideological content of the theater, reconstructing the ideal, nobleness and justice. In front of the rough material culture and the consumerist trend in the world, the establishment of spiritual values is particularly important for China’s audience today.


[1] Prof. Liu Minghou is a professor at Shanghai Theater Academy.

Copyright © 2011 Liu Minghou
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Theatres-Audiences-Critics: Keeping Watch over Each Other