- Turning Points:Women Playwrights in Contemporary China
In my introduction to Theatre and Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama (1998), I wrote: "The . . . texts presented in this anthology are selected from the hundreds of plays and film scripts written and produced each year in China since 1979."1 A decade later, I find myself rereading this volume and asking why women playwrights are absent from it. As an editor working through an immense range of dramatic texts, I predicated my selection upon the level of influence and scope of impact that the chosen works had asserted in China and beyond, as generally perceived both by the Chinese public and scholars of Chinese theatre and drama. I have since learned that categories such as influence and impact are never value-free; important works by Chinese women produced since the late 1970s come to my mind, along with memories of encounters with their authors.
The earliest of these encounters occurred at the national ceremony in Beijing in 1981 for dramatic artists whose works received prizes for excellence awarded by the All China Dramatists Association and the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China, the first such ceremony since the Cultural Revolution had ended. As a college student among awardees who were professional playwrights, I found myself particularly praised, but also busy receiving instructions from all. There were exceptions: two women playwrights with whom I spent much time over the course of the ceremony neither praised nor instructed me.
One was Li Bozhao, an artistic veteran who had been working in the form of spoken drama since the 1930s and was a political veteran of the Chinese revolution that led to the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Li had survived political hardships [End Page 515] during the Cultural Revolution and was present to receive an award for her play Beishang (Towards the north) (1980), which retells stories of the Long March with a distinct sensitivity informed by her own journey in the march and those of her "revolutionary sisters."2 Li did not speak in the various meetings where she was obviously respected, nor to me privately when I was placed next to her during these sessions. She just looked at me with a warm smile. She had turned 70 and seemed to be in fine health; no one could know then that she only had four more years to live.
The other woman playwright was Tian Fen. Honored that year for her spoken drama Jinzi (The gold),3 Tian is primarily known as the first woman to write Chuanju since the 1960s.4 She spoke often at the sessions, and she also spoke to me a great deal about her relationship with her husband, the controversies that she had caused in the art world, and challenges to women "in all sorts of contexts." The way she mixed her private life and public issues felt unsettling to me.
Then, in a low voice from across the meeting table, came a comment from a famous playwright that was aimed at Li Bozhao: "So old and yet still covets fame." The combination of resentment and contempt in his tone was inexplicable to me. Tian Fen spoke in my ear, also in a low key though with clarity: "He thinks that she is just like him, being here for fame, and coveting." I turned and looked at Li, who did not seem to pay much attention to what was mumbled across the table and was still smiling at me, entirely at peace, unbearably tender. "Coveting," along with its sexual overtones, jarred violently with Li's smile and Tian's voice, and was alien to me in terms of my relation to playwriting. When I was appointed to speak at the concluding plenary, I had these two women in mind when I quoted a line by Qu Yuan, a revered poet who lived during the period of the Warring States (ca. 475-221 BCE): "The journey is long and winding, yet I will endeavor to search, in heaven and across the earth."5
The decade following that ceremony in Beijing was a turning point in Chinese women...