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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 277-290

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International Casting in Chinese Plays:
A Tale of Two Cities

Claire Conceison



China's two primary urban centers for training and performance of huaju (spoken drama) are Beijing and Shanghai, with the phrases "jingpai" and "haipai" (translated loosely as "Beijing School" and "Shanghai School") often used to distinguish their unique qualities and aesthetic differences. This essay examines how the conventional categories of jingpai and haipai are reflected in recent efforts by directors in both cities to introduce the practice of casting foreigners alongside local actors in Chinese plays.

Huaju (as opposed to indigenous xiqu, or classical opera) refers to Western-style drama imported to China in the early twentieth century by Chinese intellectuals who encountered the newly adopted form in Japan (where it was called shingeki). The earliest huaju troupes were formed in Shanghai and featured Chinese adaptations of foreign plays. In fact, the first Chinese spoken drama was a version of Uncle Tom's Cabin presented in Tokyo by Chinese foreign students in 1907. The production was halted by Manchu officials who caught on to the play's political message (resistance to the oppressive Qing government), but was later successfully revived in Shanghai. Spoken drama in China has always been primarily an urban phenomenon targeting an educated audience, with the exception of the 1930s when theatre troupes were also mobilized to spread nationalist propaganda to rural peasants as part of the war effort against Japan. Huaju has gone in and out of favor with the government--and in and out of fashion with the masses--at different periods during its development in China. Prohibited during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), spoken drama became both popular and controversial by the mid-1980s when artists began to experiment with absurdism decades after its impact in the West. 1 Its popularity and range of expression [End Page 277] were threatened in the late 1980s and early 1990s as television, film, and karaoke became appealing alternatives and the central government increased censorship in the wake of June Fourth (otherwise known as the Tian'an men Square Massacre). In recent years, spoken drama has made a comeback with larger and younger audiences flocking to theatres in China's major cities. 2 Some of the successful strategies employed by artists and theatre companies to attract these audiences involve new venues (like the spectacular Shanghai Grand, as well as little theatres and café theatres offering more intimate, entertaining, and interactive environments that rival karaoke bars, pubs, and coffee houses), new marketing strategies (such as websites), and better publicity (via corporate sponsorship). In some cases, another innovation drawing young people to the theatre is the presence of real, live, Chinese-speaking foreigners on stage for the first time. The differing approaches of directors in Shanghai and Beijing to incorporating international casting can in part be traced to the conventional contrasts between the two cities expressed in the labels "jingpai" and "haipai."

Shanghai's reputation as China's most Western, modern, and commercial city dates back to the era of its earliest spoken dramas, especially the 1920s and 1930s, when foreign influence peaked as Euro-American presence in Shanghai's many "concessions" reached its apex. Shanghai during this period is distinguished both as China's largest treaty port with thriving commerce and as a culturally decadent and forward-thinking urban metropolis. Shaped by forces of Western imperial victimization (if not colonization), the city in turn adeptly constructed its own identity as cosmopolitan and modern, evidenced linguistically by its transliteration of the latter term into Chinese as "modeng." The city still holds this reputation to the extent that, according to Leo Lee, "in the Chinese popular imagination Shanghai and 'modern' are natural equivalents." 3 Lee elaborates:

What made Shanghai into a cosmopolitan metropolis in cultural terms is difficult to define, for it has to do with both substance and appearance. . . . While obviously determined by economic forces, urban culture is itself the result of a process of both production and consumption. In the case of Shanghai, the process involved the growth...


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