TDR: The Drama Review 44.1 (2000) 187-192
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Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present
Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present. Edited and translated by Faye Chunfang Fei. Foreword by Richard Schechner. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999; 213 pp. $44.50 cloth.
The Lincoln Center Festival's presentation of Peony Pavilion in the summer of 1999 in New York brought unprecedented national attention to the traditional Chinese theatre form of kunqu and introduced theatregoers in the West to the mastery of its writer, Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), regarded by some as [End Page 187] the Chinese Shakespeare. The much-anticipated production, which Chinese officials had prevented from participating in the festival the previous summer, was presented in its entirety, consisting of 55 scenes in six consecutive performances. Chen Shizheng's direction of the project generated passionate discussion among Asian theatre specialists who, through organized public symposia and an internet listserv, debated issues ranging from the competence of the performers to Chen's vision and interpretation of the classical masterpiece. An utterly distinct version by Peter Sellars was staged in 1998 in Vienna and Paris before its March 1999 American premiere in Berkeley, California, where a complete academic conference was organized around it and was attended by an impressive array of international theatre and Asian studies scholars.1
My experiences of these productions and the subsequent dialogues continually surfaced as I read through the diverse and well-chosen selections in Faye Fei's edited anthology of Chinese theories of theatre. That hundreds of years of theatre discussion in China can resonate so vibrantly in contemporary productions in New York and California epitomizes the universal value and relevance of the seemingly culturally specific excerpts from primary texts chosen by Fei for her collection. Indeed, many of the themes that Fei condenses for her reader are identical to those passionately debated by participants and observers of the Peony Pavilion saga in 1998/1999. These include the social and political function of theatre, the primacy of the audience and its reception of theatre practice, the tension between the sanctity of tradition and the impulse to experiment, the role of language vis-à-vis production elements such as music and stagecraft, refinement of technique and convention in playwriting and performing, and the exciting yet tumultuous consequences of Western influence on Chinese culture.
The importance of Fei's contribution to the still-fledgling but ever-growing body of English-language scholarship about Chinese theatre cannot be overstated. She has examined the rich repository of classical and modern writings about theatre and performance from throughout Chinese history and selected a "greatest hits" collection of 54 excerpts by writers from all walks of life, from antiquity to the present. Her compilation provides a primer for readers who wish to gain an overview of dramatic critical theory in China but lack the language skills to personally examine primary texts. As Richard Schechner points out in his foreword, this is a significant step in providing a Chinese critical perspective of Asian theatre comparable to theoretical contributions from other countries such as Zeami's treatises (Japan) and Bharatamuni's Natyasastra (India).
Although both Fei and Schechner assert that China has no singular thinker comparable to Zeami or Aristotle, Fei's biographical introductions before each selection do nominate several distinguished theatre theorists and practitioners for consideration--most notably Wang Guowei, Wu Mei, A Jia, and Huang Zuolin. The lengthiest introduction is devoted to Wang Guowei (1877-1927), whom Fei describes as "the modern pioneer of thoroughgoing research on ancient Chinese theater and drama [whose studies] in many ways have yet to be superseded" (104). She also acknowledges the importance of Huang Zuolin (1906-1994) as a figure who was engaged in theatre primarily as a practitioner and teacher, but whose theoretical concepts of xieyi and xijuguan, along with his dissemination of the theories of both Stanislavsky and Brecht in China, established a critical and creative foundation for "new generations of Chinese theater artists" (154...