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Asian Theatre Journal 17.2 (2000) 285-289

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Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present edited and translated by Faye Chunfang Fei. Foreword by Richard Schechner. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. 213 pp. Cloth $44.50

Unlike India's Natyasastra or the Japanese treatises of Zeami, the majority of classical theories of xiqu, Chinese traditional theatre, have never before been translated into English. Faye Fei's Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance makes a significant improvement in this situation. The first half of her book (Parts 1-3) covers a lengthy period from antiquity to the nineteenth century. Part 1 (400 B.C.-A.D. 1279) considers ancient performance theories and entertainment records. The doctrines of Confucian scholars insist that dynasty hymns harmonize relations between heaven and human beings and regulate social behavior whereas popular amusements corrupt the people and society. Literary sources, on the other hand, testify to the sophistication of miscellaneous shows in ancient times. Parts 2 and 3 cover the three dynasties of Yuan, Ming, and Qing (1279-1911) when theatre flourished throughout the country. Fei's selection includes drama reviews, theatre memoirs, acting manuals, and theoretical writings. Maturity and specialization in theatre arts mark the writings of this period. The second half of the book (Part 4) selects articles from the twentieth century, when two trends appear in Chinese theatre. The first, the impact of the West, is manifested in multifaceted ways: the use of European literary theories as a benchmark for Chinese plays; the influence of realism on the birth of huaju or "spoken drama"; the positivist engendering of new research disciplines; the inspiration given by Western avant-gardism to [End Page 285] Chinese absurdist productions; and the numerous innovations introduced by xiqu practitioners in response to Western influences. The second trend stems from the ideology of Mao Zedong, which dominated Mainland Chinese literature and the arts for a quarter century. By including articles by leading xiqu figures and Mao, Fei reveals the cultural and political currents beneath what appears on the stage.

Fei's selections, from antiquity to the early twentieth century, follow those of Zhongguo Lidai Julun Xuanzhu (Annotated Writings on Theatre in Chinese Dynasties) by Chen Duo and Ye Changhai (1987). Of her 43 entries from this period, 41 overlap Chen's 138 entries, all of which are in classical Chinese. Fei's translation also appears to follow Chen's annotations. This is suggested by her constant agreement with Chen's explanations and is confirmed when she chooses inappropriate definitions for Chen's indeterminate footnotes. For instance, a line in Shangshu (The Book of Documents) reads: "Chenxia bu kuang, qi xing mo." Chen annotates: "Bu kuang, do not correct; do not remonstrate. Mo, an ancient penalty for minor offenders, that is, to tattoo their foreheads in black ink." Chen does not annotate "chenxia" but gives two possible explanations for "kuang." In her translation, Fei omits "chenxia" and chooses the wrong definition for "kuang": "If a ruler is afflicted by one of these ten evils, the country is doomed. Those who do not mend their ways shall have their foreheads tattooed in black ink." (p. 5) "Chenxia" means "subordinates" and cannot be left out in the context. And "kuang" means "to remonstrate against one's superior's mistakes." I suggest that a more accurate translation is: "Subordinates who do not remonstrate against their lords' misdeeds shall have their foreheads tattooed in black ink."

Shangshu goes on: "Ju xun yu mengshi." Chen annotates: "Ju, thoroughly, completely. Mengshi, those who start to open their minds (fameng) to learn." Chen does not explain "xun," nor does he define what these "mengshi" learn. Fei probably uses her knowledge of modern Chinese to bridge the gaps: "All this is to be thoroughly drilled into the minds of those beginning to learn the ways of the world" (p. 5). "Xun" means "to instruct" or "to teach." Its definition of "drill" or "train" evolves much later in history. "Open one's mind," or "fameng" in classical Chinese, means to start learning...