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Reviewed by:
  • Theater and Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama
  • Colin Mackerras (bio)
Haiping Yan , editor. Theater and Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama. Asia and the Pacific series. Armonk and London: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. xlvi, 328 pp. Hardcover $62.95, ISBN 0-7656-0307-1. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 0-7656-0308-x.

The 1980s were a period of great innovation and promise for the Chinese arts in general and for the Chinese theater in particular. The period of reform that Deng Xiaoping introduced at the end of 1978 resulted in a breakdown of the artistic stereotypes promoted by the Cultural Revolution. For the first time in many years playwrights were able to express through their plays the realities they saw around them without having to put on rose-colored propaganda glasses imposed on them by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The 1980s were a highly innovative and creative period for the Chinese theater in which authors took up themes criticizing the ills of contemporary society in ways that had not been possible in the earlier years of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Themes like status, gender, and sexuality, and even the political failure or at least the irrelevance of the CCP became common in Chinese plays and films, with new ideas, new language, and new theatrical conventions being attempted.

This book is an anthology of plays by Chinese authors of the "new period." It consists of a long, explanatory introduction and the translations of five plays—three of them spoken dramas (huaju), one item in the style of Sichuan drama (chuanju), and the film script Old Well (Laojing). In general, the standard of this book is very high indeed, with the introduction displaying both enormous knowledge [End Page 564] and perception, the plays well chosen to illustrate the innovations and creativity of the post-Cultural Revolution period, and the translations beautifully done.

The editor, Haiping Yan, is an academician who studies and teaches Chinese and comparative literature at the University of Colorado. She is also a contributor to the art form that is the focus of this book, having written a distinguished play called Li Shimin, about the great emperor of the Tang dynasty of that name who ruled from 627 to 650. She is obviously well qualified for the task she has undertaken in this book.

What she has produced in the introduction is a masterly statement of the relationship of theater to society in China in the 1980s and 1990s. She comments on how the contents of the plays that she has selected bear on and reflect the society and politics of the time when each was premiered. Part of this commentarial process is explicating the debates aroused by the individual plays, in social as well as political terms. These debates are important, because the plays have been chosen to be controversial and to illustrate the various points of view of opponents and supporters of the new ideas that they represent. In general there is consonance between the plays explained in the introduction and those selected for translation, but the introduction is somewhat broader in scope, including quite a few plays not included in the translations in order to give a more generalized view of the theater of the 1980s and 1990s. There is, for instance, some discussion of the generally destructive impact of the crisis of 1989 on the Chinese theater and on the creativity and enthusiasm of playwrights and audiences.

Yan also analyzes the very significant impact of the growth of television and film on theater audiences. This is a major issue for theater specialists all over the world, for the fact is that live theater must have something outstanding to offer to bring people out of their homes to view an entertainment that is certain to be more expensive, and that may not be any better, than an evening of television. There has been extensive debate over the loss of popularity of the classical theatrical forms such as jingju (Beijing opera) in the 1980s, with solutions in the 1990s tending to focus extensively on opera as a tourist attraction. There remain great attractions in the live theater, but...


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