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  • Modern Chinese Drama in English:A Selective Bibliography
  • Siyuan Liu (bio) and Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. (bio)

Introduction: A Brief History of Modern Chinese Drama

Modern Chinese theatre started at the turn of the twentieth century, in part in response to calls by reform-minded intellectuals unsatisfied with traditional theatre's inability to depict social reality and thus serve political and educational functions. Although missionary schools had staged spoken drama performances in cities such as Shanghai as early as the late 1800s, scholars agree that modern Chinese theatre began in 1907 when the Chinese student group the Spring Willow Society staged in Tokyo an adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin titled Black Slave's Cry to Heaven (Heinu yu tian lu). After the fall of the Qing dynasty during the 1911 revolution, new drama moved from Tokyo to Shanghai, where it flourished in a hybrid form known as wenmingxi (civilized drama), which relied heavily on scenarios and improvisation. As a result, few scripts from the era survived. [End Page 320]

In the late 1910s, the New Culture Movement, known for its attack on traditional culture and aspiration for Western science, democracy, and culture, inspired a new direction in modern Chinese theatre known as huaju (spoken drama). A special issue of the movement's leading magazine New Youth (Xin qingnian) was dedicated to Ibsen and another to dramatic reform. Hu Shi's one-act "The Greatest Event in Life" (Zhongshen dashi, 1919), about the importance of love in marriage, marks the beginning of this huaju dramaturgy.

Influenced by modern theatrical movements in Europe, the United States, and Japan, huaju playwrights who had returned from those regions produced plays in a wide variety of styles during the 1920s. Prominent playwrights returning from the United States include Hong Shen, whose Yama Chao (Zhao Yanwang, 1922) used expressionistic techniques; Xiong Foxi (The Artist [Yishujia, 1928] and The Drunkard [Zuile, 1928]); and Yu Shangyuan (Mutiny [Bingbian, 1925]). Returning from Japan in 1922 with a clear understanding of modern Western drama and its Japanese incarnation shingeki (new drama), Tian Han wrote such successful pieces as The Night a Tiger Was Captured (Huohu zhi yiye, 1921), Tragedy on the Lake (Hushang de beiju, 1928), and One Evening in Suzhou (Suzhou yehua, 1929). Ouyang Yuqian, the only original member of the Spring Willow Society still active in theatre, wrote the subversive P'an Jinlian (1928). The English-educated Ding Xilin wrote one-act satires such as Flushed with Wine (Jiuhou, 1925) and Oppression (Yapo, 1926).1

This diversity of styles took a dramatic turn toward realism and political engagement in the 1930s, first because of Communist-led leftist dramatic movement and then during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). The 1930s also marked huaju's maturity, as best evinced by such classics as Cao Yu's Thunderstorm (Leiyu, 1933) and Xia Yan's Under Shanghai Eaves (Shanghai wuyan xia, 1937). During the war, theatrical activities flourished in three regions: southwestern China, where most theatre artists retreated with the nationalist government; the concession areas of Shanghai; and the Communist-controlled region of Yan'an. One of the better-known styles that flourished in the southwest was the historical play (lishiju), which used allegorical historical figures as oblique criticism of the present situation. The representative playwright in this style was Guo Moruo, who wrote Twin Flowers (Nie Ying, 1920–1941), Qu Yuan (1942), and The Tiger Tally (Hufu, 1942). In the Communist region of Yan'an, Mao Zedong, in his 1942 "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art" (Zai Yan'an wenyi zuotanhui shang de jianghua), urged artists to produce works that directly serve the needs of workers, peasants, and soldiers. This resulted in experiments in new theatrical forms more accessible to the masses, including [End Page 321] reformed jingju (Beijing opera) plays such as Driven to Revolt (Bishang Liangshan, 1942) and xin geju (new opera) such as The White-Haired Girl (Baimao nü, 1945), which is included in the list.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the urgency to use theatre to serve party policies heightened, as can be seen in a number of plays on this list from...