Asian Theatre Journal 17.1 (2000) 135-138
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Anthologies are sorely lacking in the field of Chinese spoken drama, so their publication is cause for celebration. Yan Haiping's collection of play translations, Theater and Society, took nearly eight years to go to press. It joins Shiao-ling Yu's Chinese Drama After the Cultural Revolution (1996, reviewed in ATJ 15/2) as the only anthologies since Edward Gunn's Twentieth Century Chinese Drama (1983) to make modern Chinese scripts available in English, constituting a significant contribution to Asian theatre scholarship. With such a dearth of published material, it is unfortunate that these two recent anthologies overlap so considerably (both include Yu's translation of Wei Minglun's experimental Sichuan opera Pan Jinlian, Gao Xingjian's Bus Stop, and Wang Peigong's WM) rather than making a greater number of the many neglected contemporary Chinese plays available to international readers. The fact that each editor was aware of the other's project makes the situation even more regrettable. Yan acknowledges that two script translations originally intended to be included in her anthology were omitted due to space limitations (p. vii); her discussion of the two plays in the Introduction leaves the reader eager to read them, but without recourse to do so, since they remain unpublished in English. Yan's own play Li Shimin, Prince of Qin would have been particularly valuable, as it belongs to the underrecognized subgenre of historical plays.
The inclusion of a filmscript (Zheng Yi and Wu Tianming's Old Well) [End Page 135] among the dramatic texts is thus a questionable decision. Explained by the fact that film and television became influential in the mid-1980s (to the point of contributing to China's much-debated "theatre crisis") and that its content conveniently echoes that of another of the anthology's selections (Chen Zidu, Yang Jian, and Zhu Xiaoping's Sanshuping Chronicles), it still seems oddly out of place in this collection. Certainly it deserves publication, but more appropriately alongside other heralded contemporary films of China, such as those of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who followed in Wu's footsteps.
Yan's selections share the common thread of having been "controversial": many ventured onto thin ideological ice during the political vacillations of the open atmosphere of reform during the mid-1980s. Her critical introduction to the volume is an excellent overview of these shifting political tensions and also offers rare insight into the intellectual debates of the period, though it is considerably dense reading for the nonspecialist (and plays in the anthology are not mentioned until the eighth page). Yan adeptly explains the evolution and aesthetic nuances of the distinct yet intersecting artistic approaches of Chinese playwrights that she terms "critical realism" and "experimental modernism." Her detailed discussion is especially useful for readers who have some knowledge of modern Chinese history but do not possess the language skills to access her primary source material. For those who do, however, some of her translations in the text and endnotes can be puzzling--or even misleading, as in the case of her use of alternatives to common English translations of prominent theatre companies, important periodicals ("On Theater" for Theatre News [Xijubao] and "Drama" for Playscripts [Juben], when other journals such as Huaju or Xiju would more likely be translated as "Drama"), and even one play title (Sanshuping Chronicles, which was translated and critically assessed under the more accessible title Stories of Mulberry Village in a special Asian Performance Issue of TDR in 1994; for more on this play, see Ping Pan in ATJ 16/1). Furthermore, the frequency of typographical errors in the book--from the table of contents and acknowledgments onward --is quite distracting...