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1— The Rise of Modern Popular Culture
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A New Drama in Urban China

Chinese spoken drama (huaju, lit. "speaking play," a name used to distinguish it from traditional operas), a genre born out of the influence of Western drama, began as a marginal cultural activity in the opening years of the century. Because of its simplicity and flexibility, however, it grew quickly in popularity, ultimately occupying the center stage in China's cultural defense against the aggressors during the war.

In 1907 in Tokyo, the Spring Willow Society (Chunliu she), formed by the young Chinese theater enthusiasts Zeng Xiaogu, Li Shutong (1880–1942), and Ouyang Yuqian (1889–1962), staged Chahua nü, an adaption of La dame aux camélias by Dumas fils, and Black Slave's Cry to Heaven (Heinu yutian lu), based on the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.[18] These two plays, despite their performance by an all-male group of amateurs in a foreign land, marked the inception of Western-style drama by the Chinese.

The choice of La dame aux camélias and Uncle Tom's Cabin for the basis of these productions was not entirely accidental, for both had already gained enormous popularity in China through the elegant


translations of Lin Shu (1852–1924).[19] The denunciation of racial prejudice in Stowe's novel found particularly strong resonance among young nationalistic Chinese. To the group of Chinese student dramatists who came to a more modernized Japan to acquire new knowledge that would strengthen their own country, the mistreatment of blacks in America aroused memory of the recent violence and discrimination Chinese laborers had experienced in the same country from the 1880s to the early 1900s. The anti-Chinese movement in America reminded them of the evils of racism and the impotence of the Qing government to protect its citizens abroad.[20]

The novelty of the new art form generated curiosity and drew many admirers. Nevertheless, the introduction of spoken drama into China must be understood within a larger context of rapid social and political change during the waning years of the Qing dynasty. This was an era when the old political hierarchy was crumbling and Confucian tradition eroding. The Manchu government's weakness and its inability to fend off any advances from the West aroused increasing criticism of traditional norms and caused youths to embrace new ways of thinking. Under the sway of nationalism, young Chinese dramatists yearned for their country to gain the strength to withstand oppression both at home (by the Manchus) and abroad (by the imperialist powers).

Ironically, the West also became a source of inspiration for Chinese youth. In the two decades after 1907, the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, Chekhov, Ibsen, and other Western masters were introduced,[21] joined by such native pieces as Hu Shi's (1891–1962) The Greatest Event in Life (Zhongshen dashi, 1919).[22] In the end, however, the new stage was used more as a pulpit to express radical social views and iconoclastic ideas than as a forum for artistic, theatrical experimentation. "In China," the writer Xiao Qian (1910-) observed, "Ibsen is looked upon as a social surgeon rather than as a playwright."[23] Indeed, young Chinese dramatists felt obliged with their art to reach a large audience and to shape social values. This sentiment was particularly evident in the manifesto of the People's Drama Society (Minzhong xijushe), founded in May 1921. It reads in part:

The theatre occupies an important place in modern society. It is a wheel rolling society forward. It is an X-ray searching out the root of society's maladies. It is also a just and impartial mirror, and the standards of everybody in the nation are stripped stark naked when reflected in this great mirror…. This kind of theatre is precisely what does not exist in China at present, but it is what we, feeble though we are, want to strive to create.[24]


Such a commitment proved useful later, during the war, when dramatists turned their plays into political and educational vehicles for defending their nation against outside aggression.

The use of drama to educate an audience was, of course, not unique to China. The Greeks had a long history of using the theater to instruct citizens about communal values: Athenians went to the theater of Dionysus several times a year, to enjoy a popular traditional story and, in the process, receive reinforcement in an accepted ethic. In more recent times, Schiller expressed his view of the stage as a moral institution, an attitude echoed by Diderot; and playwrights from Ibsen to Shaw and Brecht all used the stage as a pulpit.[25] In Southeast Asia, too, the theater has long been used as an educational and political device. Wayang drama, for example, was the main vehicle by which Javanese and Balinese religion and philosophy were transmitted to the people.[26] What is notable about Chinese spoken drama, though, was the scope of its subsequent influence, the variety of its forms, and the energy that creators of spoken drama put into communicating with the masses during the war.

Young dramatists believed that the spoken drama heralded the dawning of a new age in Chinese art. They were drawn together by a common enthusiasm for something new and exciting. Yet their goal was not to mount an artistic endeavor per se; for them, rather, embracing something new was a way of breaking with the past. Unlike in the West, where the rise of realist dramas in the mid-nineteenth century was a conscious revolt against romanticism, Chinese spoken dramas targeted the spiritual ailments of the Confucian past. What appealed to young playwrights most about this new-style dramatic form was its ability to speak directly to the present—a far cry from its traditional counterpart. In their eyes, not only was the traditional theater hostile to new ideas, but its archaic language, techniques, and plots also bore little relevance to contemporary social and political issues. The old-style theater was a highly elegant art locked in time; embodying nothing more than a concoction of Confucian paragons and trite events, it had lost its ability to change. As one critic categorically stated, "It is a poison."[27] Many iconoclastic intellectuals echoed this opinion in the May Fourth era when they challenged traditional norms and sought to free the people's will from the confinement of the past. Hu Shi and Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967) both deemed old-style opera obsolete and called for its complete abandonment. This radical stand, in contrast to the more moderate view of Ouyang Yuqian and the drama critic Song Chufang (1892–1938), who instead suggested


far-reaching reform, gained the upper hand during the May Fourth drama debate.[28] During the war, however, even the radical view was tempered as the resistors embraced every possible means to combat the Japanese, including the previously condemned traditional operas.

Clearly, the revolt against tradition called for a different kind of art. It is true that in the early years of Chinese spoken drama, actors such as Ouyang Yuqian still relied heavily on the techniques of traditional opera for their interpretation; but the fact that this new performing art was Western-inspired gave it a novel look as well as a cosmopolitan flavor. In contrast to old-style opera with its standard repertoire of music and singing, formal character types, and established story lines, the spoken drama introduced naturalistic dialogue, curtains, and original plots. And more important, spoken drama allowed actors to portray realistic situations and enabled them to deliver their messages with unprecedented directness. Traditional opera's avoidance of tragedy was now corrected. For the first time in the history of Chinese theater, the stage was peopled with authentic characters reflecting life's contradictions and complexity: a mixture of good and evil, joy and sorrow, prosperity and privation. The new dialogue used in the plays was more down-to-earth and flexible, better equipped to mirror contemporary social problems and more open to artistic experimentation.

With the spoken drama came other innovations. More attention was paid to the details of setting and characterization, with the distinctiveness of individual characters being particularly emphasized. These innovations were exactly what Hu Shi had in mind when he wrote The Greatest Event in Life, a one-act play dealing with antitraditionalism, in 1919. The work ridiculed the old ways—embodied here in the twin evils of astrology and antiquated Confucian norms—that led the parents of a young woman to forbid her marriage to a well-educated young man she had met in Japan. The influence of Ibsen was readily apparent in Hu's play. Like the Norwegian master, whose influential play A Doll's House (1879) he translated into Chinese in 1918, Hu championed the ideals of individualism and a woman's right to arrange her own marriage. Moreover, both laid as much stress on the individual qualities of their characters as on the cause for which they argued.

Despite a promising start, Chinese spoken dramas in their first two decades remained amateurish, with few dramatic organizations to support production and limited audiences. Initial efforts to popularize the


spoken drama thus proved difficult and frustrating. In this early period. Western-style theater fare was referred to as "new plays"(xinju) or "civilized plays" (wenmingxi) —so named because the term wenming, as Ouyang Yuqian noted, implied "progress."[29] Indeed, initially the new"civilized plays" strongly decried social ills, openly seeking to foster political reforms. Western drama "created a sensation when it reached Hankou," drama critic Xiong Foxi (1900–1965) wrote, recalling the early 1910s when he was a middle school student in this inland Yangzi River treaty port.[30] By the end of the next decade, however, "civilized plays" had degenerated into low-quality productions, filled with vulgar details, occasionally "to the extent of pandering to prurient interest."[31] Such plays, often lacking a unified plot, hastily composed, and performed on an impromptu basis, brought a negative notoriety to the new art. Even for those who were committed to mounting a respectable show, things were no easier: the majority of players were amateurs and their troupes poorly funded, if not already deep in debt.[32]

Worse still, the new art faced a formidable challenge from the traditional theater. Although many young dramatists ridiculed the usefulness and some even predicted the quick demise of old-style opera, it remained the favorite of most Chinese theatergoers, especially with the towering presence of such renowned actors as Mei Lanfang (1894–1961) and Cheng Yanqiu (1904–1958). To be sure, the new-style theater lacked actors of such elevated status. More important, however, was the fact that young dramatists were novices in a field long dominated by the Beijing opera and numerous other regional theaters. A new-style play could not be more alien to audiences accustomed to the traditional drama's familiar delivery and production—bare stage, structured rhythmic movements, standardized roles, magnificent acrobatics, and the unbridled noise in the theater.[33] Old-style theater devotees found the spoken drama's original plots, dialogue, absence of singing roles, and division into acts, with the accompanying curtains and intervals, unpalatable. They shunned the new theater. The debut of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession in Shanghai in the spring of 1921, for example, proved a dismal failure despite heavy publicity. Audience reactions, which ranged from "totally incomprehensible" to "too many superfluous words," were a big disappointment to the sponsors.[34]

Despite the uncertain start of the new drama, young dramatists continued to fight for recognition in the mainstream theatrical world. Finally in the late 1920s spoken drama began to gain acceptance in


urban areas, especially in cities like Shanghai, thanks largely to the efforts of a number of drama associations, particularly the People's Drama Society and the South China Society (Nanguo she).

The People's Drama Society was formed in 1921 in Shanghai by a heterogeneous group of thirteen people, including the actor Wang Youyou, the novelist Mao Dun (1896–1981), the literary historian Zheng Zhenduo (1898–1958), the drama critic Xiong Foxi, and Ouyang Yuqian. The name, inspired by Romain Rolland's People's Theater,[35] indicated the members' desire to bring the new art to the populace. Artistically, the society proposed creating all new sets and costumes—in short, rejecting the trappings of traditional opera. Intellectually, it advocated originality in production: rather than relying on translations of European works, the creation of native works was encouraged. "Only when we can produce a few plays that are comparable or even superior to their Western counterparts can we claim that they are genuine 'new plays," wrote Wang Youyou.[36] While the society's aim was to search out "the root of society's maladies," it never belittled the value of spoken drama as an entertainment medium. Indeed, the subtle blending of education with entertainment, they insisted, was required if spoken dramas were to gain wide acceptance. The society also issued a journal entitled Drama (Xiju), the first Chinese magazine devoted exclusively to the discussion and propagation of the new genre. Its brief existence notwithstanding (ten issues were printed from May 1921 to April 1922), the journal provided a much-needed theoretical justification for spoken drama.[37]

The South China Society was another major force in the early history of this new art form. Unlike the People's Drama Society, it had a charismatic leader: Tian Han (1898–1968), a gifted writer and also an erstwhile member of the renowned Creation Society. An early devotee of spoken dramas, Tian called himself "a budding Chinese Ibsen" when he was a student in Japan in 1920.[38] He was the first to coin the term huaju (spoken drama) in 1927, rechristening xinju (new plays) in order to emphasize the medium's use of dialogue and its nonmusical nature.[39]

Tian Han launched a new magazine South China Fortnightly (Nanguo banyuekan), in January 1924 in Shanghai "to breathe a little bit of artistic fresh air into the depressed Chinese literary scene."[40] The journal became the first of many endeavors by Tian to promote spoken drama in China. In the summer of 1926, for instance, he established the South China Film and Drama Society (Nanguo dianying jushe; later renamed the South China Society). And in January 1928


he founded the South China Art Institute (Nanguo yishu xueyuan), artistic home to a score of future celebrated playwrights, including Chen Baichen (1908-).[41]

Tian Han's genius lay not so much in his role as an enthusiastic educator as in his determined spirit and his talent as a playwright. Within the eight-year period 1922–1930, he published sixteen spoken dramas, setting a high standard and giving the budding spoken drama movement an eloquent boost. Plays such as Night Talk in Suzhou (Suzhou yehua, 1927) and Return to the South (Nan gui, 1929), tinged with the familiar melancholy and sentimentalism of his earlier works, won high acclaim and brought the new-style drama wide recognition. Tian's productions suggested the influence of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, but they were not without contemporary themes specific to China: the desire, however futile it might be, to reform the nation through art (as in Night Talk in Suzhou) and the longing for a bright new world (as in Return to the South).[ 42]

Inadequately funded, Tian struggled to secure enough financial resources to keep his organization afloat. But adversity only seemed to solidify his young followers' resolve. They were captivated by Tian Han's charm, his willingness to take risks in uncharted dramatic waters, and, above all, his single-minded devotion to art. Such devotion became the very model of artistic dedication, instilling a spirit of harmony in this group of idealistic youths.[43] Tian, a man sensitive to social ills and who gradually subscribed to the leftist ideology of his day (he helped found the League of Left-Wing Dramatists in 1930 and joined the CCP in 1932), encouraged his fledgling dramatists to embrace life with art. To bring his students into closer contact with the public Tian arranged a performing tour in 1929, which featured new plays and included such cities as Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Wuxi. The tour proved a great success, and the warm reception that the group received was gratifying. As one female student put it after their performance in Nanjing, "Although we are still poor, nevertheless we have left a good impression in the minds of the Nanjing viewers."[44] The self-supporting principles preached by the society also helped to bond the group together. Chen Baichen summed it up thus in his recent memoirs: "We worked closely as a team."[45]

Spoken drama finally came of age in the 1930s when the Western devices that so marked the genre, such as realistic sets, stage curtains, the division of a production into acts, and the employment of both men and women actors (an idea first suggested by Hong Shen [1894–1955], a noted playwright and drama critic who was trained in the


United States),[46] finally gained acceptance among Chinese audiences. In that decade, sensational plays such as Cao Yu's (1910-) Thunderstorm (Leiyu, 1934) reaped instant success both in intellectual circles and at the box office. Professional drama troupes also emerged, such as Tang Huaiqiu's (1898–1954) China Traveling Drama Troupe (Zhongguo lüxing jutuan)—the first professional traveling group in China, established in 1933 in Shanghai.[47] Nevertheless, despite the genre's increasing status, spoken drama remained very much an urban phenomenon.

Even in the cities, the plots of the new drama were familiar only to the sophisticated few. Its artistic form simply did not fit well with traditional aesthetics. The fact that many companies continued to rely heavily on translations of foreign plays (such as Hong Shen's 1924 adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan) was alienating to the general public. Ticket prices were also formidable. An average theater seat generally cost from 20 to 40 fen, a better one from 60 fen to 1 yuan —the equivalent of almost a day's wages for a skilled worker.[48] Moreover, the cinema was growing in popularity during this time and competed with spoken drama in the cities as well.[49] As a consequence of these factors, the new drama attracted largely the elite, especially those who had come under the influence of the West. It was therefore the educated who nurtured the new drama with financial and moral support.

Limited audiences notwithstanding, spoken drama companies proliferated in major cities: in Beijing, there was the Venus Drama Society (Weina jushe); in Xi'an, the Chang'an Popular Drama Troupe (Chang'an minzhong jutuan); and in Tianjin, the famous Nankai School Drama Club, in which the future Communist leader Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) participated.[50] But it was in Shanghai that the new drama received the greatest attention. As the veteran playwright Xia Yan (1900-) recalled, that city in the 1930s was the indisputable capital of the new drama movement, becoming home to numerous professional and semiprofessional clubs and attracting flocks of young hopefuls.[51]

Before the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, numerous drama clubs sprouted in Shanghai, including the Great Way Drama Club (Dadao jushe, 1931) and the Virgin Land Drama Club (Xindi jushe, 1933).[52] Yet the formation in August 1930 of the League of Left-Wing Dramatists (Zuoyi jutuan lianmeng), which brought together a number of drama associations such as the Art Drama Association (Yishu jushe) and Modern Society (Modeng she), signaled a new twist: the growing radicalization of the art. The new drama now began to assume a


more overtly political look, becoming a battleground on which the Communist and the Nationalists endeavored to settle their ideological differences.

The profusion of published articles on the spoken drama was another sign of the growing maturity of the art. New plays, essays, and debates about the genre appeared regularly in noted newspapers and journals, including "Unfettered Talk" ("Ziyou tan"), the literary supplement of the Shanghai News (Shen bao), as well as literary magazines such as Modern Times (Xiandai) and Literature Monthly (Wenxue yuebao). Scholars also proposed to establish spoken drama as a serious professional discipline by subjecting it to a judicious and timely review process.[53]

Nor was the new drama confined to professional or semiprofessional drama troupes, for it quickly took hold on school and university campuses—the locus of revolutionary ideas ever since the May Fourth era.[54] The spoken drama was looked upon by student activists as an ideal means for igniting social and political change. In June 1931 in Shanghai alone, a local magazine reported, there were over twenty university and middle school drama clubs. In that same year, the Ji'nan Drama Club (Ji'nan jushe) of Ji'nan University put on nineteen different plays, a mixture of translated works and originals that included Tian Han's Seven Women in the Tempest (Baofengyu zhong deqige nüxing), in which the growing nationalism following the Manchurian Incident of 18 September 1931 was a strong element.[55]

Sensing the increasing popularity of the new drama, more and more Shanghai theater owners—including the proprietors of the popular Gold (Huangjin daxiyuan) and Carlton (Kaerdeng xiyuan) theaters[56] —agreed to stage such productions, a decision deemed a financial risk but a short while before. The 1937 conversion of the Carlton from a cinema into a drama theater was, as A. C. Scott correctly notes, "a significant indication of the way the wind was blowing."[57] Prewar drama in Shanghai reached its zenith when a number of drama clubs jointly staged an unprecedented series of performances that spring at the Carlton Theater.[58]

As we have seen, before the war the emerging popularity of modern drama was confined to urban centers and the educated minority of the Chinese people. Even Tang Huaiqiu's China Traveling Drama Troupe performed almost exclusively in large cities.[59] All that changed when war broke out. Most significantly, the film industry in Shanghai collapsed, a circumstance that presented a unique opportunity for spoken drama. Not only did numerous screen actors join the traveling drama


propaganda troupes in the interior, but in the absence of cinema, spoken drama became recognized as a particularly suitable vehicle for communicating with the people in a time of national crisis.

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