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Reviewed by:
  • Staging China: New Theatres in the Twenty-First Century ed. by Li Ruru
  • Allison Bernard
STAGING CHINA: NEW THEATRES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. Edited by Li Ruru. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. x + 282 pp. E-book, $89.00; Hardcover, $119.99.

In their contribution to Staging China: New Theatres in the Twenty-First Century, joint authors Pu Bo and Yang Zi describe a 2011 performance of The Little Society, a stage production by the Shanghai-based alternative theatre group Grass Stage. The production "attempted to directly impress upon the audience that the theatrical space we were in was a genuine social space. … '[T]he little society' created by the performance is connected to a larger social domain" (p. 204). As a non-state organization of "amateurs" that produces low-budget works about the lives of everyday Chinese, Grass Stage is the exception, not the rule, for Chinese theatre in the twenty-first century. Yet the production encapsulates Staging China's overarching argument, as outlined by Li Ruru in her editor's introduction, that "stage work, as a mode of [End Page 505] cultural action, provides a vital arena for practitioners to interact with audiences, the market, the government, and cultural establishments" (p. 3). The twenty-first century Chinese theatre, writes Li, is "a microcosm of the real word, but also an active interpretation of it" (p. 233).

Staging China is the fourth title in the Palgrave Macmillan series Chinese Literature and Culture in the World and is a ground-breaking volume that positions 21st century Chinese theatre as a globallysignificant field. The volume includes work by junior and senior scholars from across the United Kingdom, United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, mainland China, and Australia. All have written attentive case studies on the individuals, works, and institutions that shape the contemporary Chinese theatre world, broadly conceived to include mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The volume's eleven chapters are divided into four sections, each focusing on a different trend in twenty-first century Chinese huaju, or spoken drama: (I) Revitalizing the Theatre: New Approaches to Classical Plays; (II) "Main Melody:" A New Image of Propaganda Theatre; (III) Contemporary Consumerism: A New Relationship between Theatre, Market, and Society; and (IV) Independent Theatre: Alternative Space. Each section is preceded by a short editor's introduction, which includes a selection of further readings.

Each chapter focuses on a stage production from the last two decades and together attempt to represent the full spectrum of mainstream and independent Chinese drama in the twenty-first century. In choosing the production, not the play text, as the primary material for analysis the volume foregrounds its interest in the relationship between stage and society. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's theories of practice, Staging China asks the reader to consider how the process of staging contemporary huaju is situated within the social and cultural fields of "Greater China."

Essays engage with the framing concept of "process" at different levels. Some focus on the creative process of one practitioner, such as Lin Weiyu's essay on the "narrative acting" style developed by mainland director Lin Zhaohua; others, such as Katherine Hui-ling Chou, take a wider view by surveying how policy changes that made huaju part of the cultural industry influenced the artistic and marketing environments for producing theatre. Siyuan Liu's chapter on a 2006 staging of The Savage Land in Tianjin analyzes how playwright Cao Yu's cumbersome text is adapted for the stage, and includes a highly satisfying closereading of the production's symbolic blocking, which uses two benches to emphasize characters' power dynamics. Tarryn Li-Min Chun's study considers how the independent Penghao Theatre has situated itself within its eastern Beijing neighborhood; a story she weaves beautifully [End Page 506] into her analysis of the company's self-reflexive play, The Story of Gong and Drum Lane.

Staging China tells us about the state of the contemporary Chinese theatre as first, a world shaped by a range of aesthetic, cultural, and technological influences. Huaju, as several contributors point out, was originally an imported form, and the volume even includes an analysis of a foreign play, Henrik Ibsen's The...


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