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Modem Chinese Drama and Its Western Models: A Critical Reconstruction of Chinese Subjectivity HAIPING YAN The formation and development of modem Chinese spoken drama in the first half of the twentieth century has been intrinsically connected with the profound social and historical transformation of China through traumatic contact with the West. The Opium War in [840, waged by the British government upon the Chinese Qing dynasty ([644- [9[2) with the purpose of making China into a market for British capitalists, led to the Treaty of Nanjing, signed by defeated China in [842, which legitimized British encroachment upon the Chinese economy and its political sovereignty. Other imperialist powers, such as France and Germany, followed this example; and by [900, western industrial countries had established claims in 13 out of the 18 provinces of China.' Confronted with this situation, some of China's educated elite became acutely aware of the immediate dangers to the nation's survival; leading Chinese writers were forced to recognize first, the necessity to appropriate significant aspects of western science, technology, and ideas, and second, the urgent need to reform China's dynastic political system to meet the demands of self-defense. For the purpose of promoting such a national reawakening, Kunqu (a type of Chinese opera from the South), Peking Opera, and various other Chinese traditional dramatic and ballad forms were used, among other types of media, to convey a sense of crisis and .embody the message of refol1TI. One of the first attempts to employ traditional drama to address ·the contemporary socio-political issues about China in relation to the West was made by Liang Qichao, one of the leading figures in the Reform Movement of 1898. This was dedicated toward its establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and marked the beginning of the socio-political and cultural transformation into modem China. Liang's play, entitled New Rome, was intended as a Kunqu in forty acts with a prologue. Seeing parallels between the plight of China and that of nineteenth-century Italy, Liang recommended Modern Drama, 35 (1992) 54 Chinese Drama and Western Models 55 solutions similar to those of the Risorgimento, of which his play was to be a Sinicized dramatization. The prologue is sung by Dante; Shakespeare and Voltaire appear at the end of the prologue, riding on a cloud. The poem spoken by Dante at the end of the prologue sums up the story: "Metternich wildly wields despotic power, I Mazzini organizes the Party of Youth; I General Garibaldi thrice leads forth his citizen army, I Cavour brings unity to the whole of Italy.'" As an attempt to wed western themes to traditional Chinese forms of drama, the play indicated the author's reading of the crisis in China as much as his comprehension of the situation in nineteenth-century Italy. The message delivered was quite clear: in order to reunify the country in the face of attacks by foreign powers, China must rouse the national spirit of its people and fight for its paJilicai sovereignty and cultural rejuvenation. Yet it is not clear from the play what kind of political entity Liang favored in order to achieve such sovereignty. On the one hand, the process of national unification was illustrated through the metaphor of Italian unification, and the figures who witnessed and articulated such a process, anachronistically, were Dante, Shakespeare and Voltaire - figures who were vital components of the nationalism, humanism, and rationalism which formed the cultural legitimacy of the modem West. The model that Liang held for Chinese national unification and its cultural reconstruction, one may argue, was that of the European nationstates . On the other hand, it is noticeable that Dante appears in the playas a bearded Chinese Taoist immortal with a crane for his steed, that the glory of the "Roman Empire" regained is suggestive of China's former glory, and that the language of the play is that of the Chinese classical style, a form of traditionalliterary writing interwoven with the values of dynastic China. All these underline an implicit desire to establish an equivalence between China and the modem West, rather than to tum the fonner into a mere imitation of the latter. Yet the subjects and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 54-64
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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