- The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China: Tian Han and the Intersection of Performance and Politics by Liang Luo
Liang Luo's book, The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China is the pre-eminent resource for information on the Chinese dramatist Tian Han, whose significance to theatre history far exceeds the breadth of previously available English-language material. For this alone, it merits a refresher of the content, particularly as an informal poll of the field suggests more books on socialist theatre history are forthcoming, which will invariably confront the problem of situating Tian Han the politician. Luo's work looks to remain an essential preface to any study of the socialist era, as she covers the genesis and development of Tian Han's artistic and political awakenings from the 1920s to the early 1950s. By interweaving a nuanced analysis of artistic proclivities with political self-positioning, Luo reveals a depth and complexity to Tian's character that reminds the reader of the need to assess his work with a significantly critical eye.
More broadly, Luo argues the avant-garde in China historically is located in the political and the popular. The Chinese avant-garde is situated not only in terms of its historical native origins in a Utopian spirit of collective social responsibility but also in the threads of an international zeitgeist, loosely unified by its entanglement with leftist politics and by its common consumption of proletarian artistic fare. Luo suggests the avant-garde spirit pervades popular culture and the modern mediasphere far beyond the production of individual films or plays (p. 8). In delimiting the scope of her study, she raises important questions about defining the actual boundaries of the Chinese avantgarde, but her greater goal is primarily to craft a picture of the experimental in China in contradistinction to its traditional European interpretation, as a natural outgrowth of a native political sensibility in dialogue with international movements in art and articulated in popular media. This notion of locating the experimental in mainstream, popular culture is seen in similar arguments for other periods of the modern era, (such as Jiang Jin's 2009 study of mid-century yueju 越劇 and in Chen Xiaomei's 2016 study of "main melody" political art), so it is particularly worthwhile, moving forward, to address the questions Luo raises about the limits of the avant-garde when it succeeds in popularizing its message and ceases to be the art of the vanguard (p. 9). [End Page 509]
Focusing on Tian's early work, Luo explores many plays that have seen limited or no analysis. The second chapter explores the understudied work, Spiritual Light, produced in Tokyo in 1920. This node ties Tian's experimentation with religious beliefs to political mobilization, particularly in his self-positioning with the political left in a confessional self-criticism in 1930. This document is inextricable from his early exposure to experimental art and artists in Japan, which influenced his aesthetics for years after his return to China; on his return visit in 1927, his professed ignorance of Japanese artistic politics led him to fall afoul of leftists advocating 'proletarian art' rather than the more aesthetically oriented 'art for art's sake' (pp. 72–73). Luo structures his 1930 self-criticism as performative in a myriad of ways: Tian positions himself within the intellectual field of 1930s China, promotes the work of his own established theatre society, re-tells the history of his proletarian work prior to his alliance with Marxism and disguises the aesthetic pursuits he would undertake in years to come (including a translation of Tanizaki Jun'ichirō under a pseudonym). This nuanced view of Tian as skilled in both political performance and artistic expression opens the door to readings of his plays purely on aesthetic grounds, even after this political statement. The third chapter develops this view of Tian's aestheticism further by revealing the interconnections of romance with revolution in all of Tian's wartime...