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  • Chinese Adaptations of Brecht: Appropriation and Intertextuality by Wei Zhang
  • Janne Risum
Chinese Adaptations of Brecht: Appropriation and Intertextuality. By Wei Zhang. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. xv + 200 pp. Softcover $84.99. Hardcover $84.99. Electronic $64.99.

Wei Zhang has written a most welcome study of selected Chinese adaptations of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) plays since the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). It is based on her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. Her criteria for selection are significance and representativity, but also such pragmatic issues as the availability of primary sources, including Chinese adaptation scripts and performance videos whenever available. She has made a laudable effort to collect as much relevant historical source material as possible and has, moreover, complemented the available sources with many personal interviews with directors, actors, and other artists involved in the studied productions. Her chosen objects of study represent different genres, huaju 話劇 (modern drama) and xiqu 戲曲 (so-called traditional opera, here represented by Chuanju 川劇 [Sichuan opera] and Yueju 越劇 [Shaoxing opera]). She studies each production in relation to its immediate sociopolitical, ideological, and cultural context, as well as to the specific Chinese theater tradition involved and its special aesthetics and market dynamics.

The Chinese Brecht pioneer, the stage director Huang Zuolin 黃佐臨, staged Mother Courage and Her Children 膽大媽媽和她的孩子們 (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) at the Shanghai People’s Art Theatre 上海人民藝術劇院 in 1959, but due to a lack of experience, Huang far from succeeded in matching Brecht’s ideas for a socially critical epic theater. However, the first foreign play to be staged after the tragic turmoil of the Cultural Revolution was Brecht’s Life of Galileo (Leben des Galilei), which Huang Zuolin and the female stage director Chen Yong 陳顒 codirected at the China Youth Art Theatre in Beijing 中國青年藝術劇院 in 1979. Chen Yong had been trained in Moscow to use the style of socialist realism and the so-called Stanislavsky system of acting. However, Wei Zhang documents that Chen and Huang used a hybrid approach combining those of Stanislavsky and Brecht, and that Chen Yong did so as well on her own in her later productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle 高加索灰欄記 (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis) in 1985 and The Threepenny Opera 三毛錢歌劇 (Dreigroschenoper) in 1998, both combining techniques from Stanislavsky and Brecht and from her native xiqu.

With its theme and plot set in China, The Good Person of Szechwan (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan) is the most often performed Brecht play on Chinese stages. Wei Zhang thoroughly examines two adaptations and their respective historical contexts: the Chuanju adaptation in 2002 by the dramaturge Wei Minglun 魏明倫 and directed by Xie Ping’an 謝平安, titled Good Woman/Bad Woman 好女人與壞女人; and the Yueju adaptation in 2013 by the dramaturge Cao Lusheng 曹路生and directed by Guo Xiaonan 郭小男, titled The Good Person of Jiangnan [End Page 215] 江南好人. To put them more into perspective, she further compares their respective choices and historical contexts with those behind two other notable Chinese adaptations of this play: the Chuanju version of The Good Person of Szechwan 四川好人, staged in Chengdu and directed by Li Liuyi 李六乙 in 1987, and the more modern interpretation of The Good Person of Beijing 北京好人, adapted by Shen Lin 沈林 and produced by Night Owl Studio 夜貓子工作室 in 2010.

The Yuan drama by Li Qianfu 李潛夫, The Chalk Circle (Huilan ji 灰闌記), in Klabund’s sometime quite free and “creative” German version of 1924 as Der Kreidekreis, served as a starting point for Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. As her objects of a comparative intertextual study, Wei Zhang has selected two notable Chuanju adaptations of Brecht’s play, one by Hu Chengde 胡成德 in 1992 and the other by Yangxiao 陽曉 in 2011. They both retain the Yuan-Dynasty play’s title of The Chalk Circle but are in fact rewrites or adaptations of Brecht’s modern play. Thus, both ignore Brecht’s setting of his play in the Soviet region of the Caucasus at the end of the Second World War and instead create a completely Chinese story set in the “feudal” past.

The Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806) took the plot for his play Turandot (1762) from an old Persian story but set it in an...

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