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Dances with Brecht: Huang Zuolin and His Xieyi Theater Ronnie Bai On the subject ofBrecht's effect upon Chinese theater practitioners , Huang Zuolin, the late director of the Shanghai People's Arts Theater, probably commands most of our attention, not only because he was one of the most eminent and persistent Brecht pioneers, but, more importantly, because his creative response to Brechtian dramaturgy led to the establishment of a new theater style of modern Chinese spoken drama, called Xieyi theater. Though mainly a technical integration of Brecht, Stanislavsky and Mei Lanfang, Huang's Xieyi theater, nevertheless, represented a return to Chinese culture. The couple of decades immediately following the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966— 1976), when the country opened up to the outside world, saw modern Chinese theater bursting with new forms and styles with the compelling demands of a changing epoch. At the same time there was also a revival of interest in Western modernist drama. It was against this background that Huang was finally able to test the possibility of combining disparate theater traditions into a new form of drama. He did this by reviewing China's native theater tradition from a new theoretic angle and through a long process of experimentation. Like many other Chinese aesthetic terminologies, Xieyi is also particularly difficult to translate. (The opposite is Xieshi, literally write-object, meaning "graphical," which is sometimes used as a substitute for realism in Chinese.) Michael Gissenwehrer simply translates it literally as "write-meaning."1 Adrian Hsia coins the word "imagistic" for it,2 recalling Ezra Pound. Huang himself tried to put the term into English in 1979 when he described to Arthur Miller his idea ofXieyi theater by comparing it with traditional Chinese drama. However, Arthur Miller could only understand, perhaps still vaguely, what Huang's coinage of an "intrinsicalistic theater" meant after he went together with Huang to watch the production of the Suzhou opera The Tale of the White Snake (Bai She Zhuari). One year later, Huang came up 339 340Comparative Drama with an English word which seemed literarily close to the meaning of the Chinese term: "Essentialism" or "Essentialistic Theater ." It was towards the end of the 1980s that Huang hit upon the term "idéographies" as opposed to photographies to describe his particular style of theater which integrates elements of both Western and Chinese theater traditions. Huang's idea ??Xieyi or "ideographical" theater is based on the four major features of the traditional Chinese theater which he summarizes as fluidity, flexibility, sculpturality, and conventionality . By fluidity Huang means that the scenes on the Chinese stage run consecutively one after the other without any lowering or raising of the curtain, or change of scenery. Flexibility is closely related to fluidity because there is no change of scene. The staging of dramatic events becomes highly flexible, with no limitation of space and time. Any particular action can be reproduced in any part of the stage at any time. Sculpturality chiefly refers to the dramatization of characters. "While the characters on the Western stage are two dimensional, being enclosed in a box set, in the traditional Chinese theatre, they stand out three dimensionally."3 Conventionality is explained as the "adherence to an elaborate system of commonly recognized conventions" of performance techniques.4 Openly acknowledging the fictionality of drama, admitting that a play is always a play, and is thus persistently theatrical, traditional Chinese theater practitioners have created a set of conventionalized actions or movements to present a view of life that is basically symbolic. Huang's Xieyi or "ideographical" theory of drama has caused dissent among Chinese critics who, targeting Huang's key words such as "dramatic conceptions" and "idéographies," try to define it in various ways. Tong Daoming, for example, interprets Huang 's dramatic conceptions as "conceptions regarding stage performance and stage reality."5 Ding Yangzhong holds a different opinion. He argues that dramatic conceptions comprise more complicated issues of drama. "Dramatic conceptions," he argues, "are overall viewpoints which a dramatist maintains about drama as a form of art, including his philosophical, aesthetic concepts, understanding of the social function of the theater, adoption of stage techniques and the related principles, etc."6 Hu...


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