- Reading the Right Text: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama
Reading the Right Text: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama is the companion volume to Xiaomei Chen's Acting the Right Part: Political Theater and Popular Drama in Contemporary China (1992), her groundbreaking study of Cultural Revolution and post-Mao Chinese theater. The book includes a detailed introduction as well as six plays with helpful notes dealing with terms and issues that might not be obvious to the nonspecialist Western reader. One of the most attractive aspects of this new volume is the introduction, where she attempts to contextualize the plays in terms of Chinese dramatic and political culture during the time period concerned (the plays included here were all published between 1985 and 1992, although they deal with issues prominent in the period that spans roughly the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to the early 1990s).
If there is one fault in this otherwise helpful introduction it is perhaps that Chen gives the lay reader unfamiliar with Chinese drama just a bit too much information [End Page 47] regarding the rather complex history of Chinese theater and its relationship to political and historical developments in twentieth-century China, with the effect that one may find it hard to connect to the narrative at points because of a lack of background knowledge of a subject (modern Chinese history) that is admittedly difficult to grasp. This said, however, Chen otherwise does a good job of preparing the reader for making sense of the six plays (five newly translated) presented here. What I found most helpful, in fact, was rereading the introduction after having read through the plays; in this way I was better able to grasp Chen's detailed discussion of the relevance and place of the plays in the history of modern Chinese drama.
The basic difficulty Chen faces is how to make these plays accessible to a general nonspecialist who knows very little (if anything) about contemporary Chinese drama, a literary genre inseparable from the political and economic developments of the past forty years. To her credit, Chen frames her understanding of the six plays in terms of categories that are familiar to both Chinese and Westerners (race, nation, gender, class), although she is careful to state that these concerns are at times seen in very different ways by Chinese. And while she elaborates the ways in which modern Chinese dramatists took inspiration from Western drama, she stresses the fact that Chinese drama at all stages has been uniquely adapted to the needs and concerns of Chinese society, something especially true during the revolutionary period beginning in 1949. For Chen's purposes the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), with its intense focus on "'revolutionary-model plays' (geming yangbanxi) as the exemplary art of the proletariat" (p. 4), ushered in an equally significant reaction during the post-Mao era (1976 to the present), when "theater launched a popular political agenda against Maoist ideology and initiated artistic experiments in the production of Western and Chinese plays" (p. 5 ).
After her initial remarks situating modern Chinese theater in its social and historical contexts, Chen moves on to the discussion of the six plays, which are drawn, Chen tells us, from Chinese indigenous theater, proletarian theater, women's theater, history plays, and experimental theater. Once again, while Chen's discussion of these plays seems mildly arcane at points, she is nevertheless dealing with a subject that is so little known by Western readers that this is perhaps unavoidable. Some of the plays she includes in this anthology seem more accessible than others to a Western audience, although certainly her discussion of each play in the introduction will help readers. It is likely, however, that for plays dealing with subjects such as Mao's third wife Jiang Qing (Jiang Qing and Her Husbands ), the plight of China's oil-field workers (Black Stones), migrant peasant workers...