Cry to Heaven: A Play to Celebrate One Hundred Years of Chinese Spoken Drama by Nick Rongjun Yu

By Yu, Shiao-ling | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Cry to Heaven: A Play to Celebrate One Hundred Years of Chinese Spoken Drama by Nick Rongjun Yu


Yu, Shiao-ling, Asian Theatre Journal


Yutian (Cry to Heaven) is the third Chinese stage adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin between 1907 and 2007. The first, Heinu yutian lu (Black Slave's Cry to Heaven) by Zeng Xiaogu, was staged by Chinese students in Tokyo in 1907; the second, Heinu hen (Regret of the Black Slaves) by Ouyang Yuqian, was mounted as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the first production; and the third, Yutian (Cry to Heaven), commemorated the hundredth anniversary of Chinese spoken drama (huaju) in 2007. Each adaptation has a different focus that reflects the social, political, and cultural conditions of its time, and together the works provide a historical view of the development of Chinese spoken drama. The most recent production, by Nick Rongjun Yu, juxtaposes one hundred years of dramatic history with scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin, making the American slaves' struggle to gain freedom a metaphor for Chinese dramatists' efforts to achieve their own.

Yu Rongjun, also known as Nick Rongjun Yu, is the author of more than twenty plays, including Renmo gouyang (Dogs Face), VAM.COM, and Tiantang gebi shi fengrenyuan (The Asylum Next to Heaven). His plays have won many Pizes in China and have been performed in Hong Kong, Taipei, the United States, and other countries. Besides being a playwright, he is director of programming and marketing for the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.

Shiao-ling Yu is an associate professor of Chinese at Oregon State University. Her research interests are Chinese drama (both classical and modern), modern Chinese literature, and Chinese women writers. She is the translator and editor of the anthology Chinese Drama after the Cultural Revolution, 1979-1989 (1996), which was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship. Her other publications have appeared in various book anthologies and scholarly journals such as Asian Theatre journal, TDR: The Drama Review, CHINOPERL Papers, journal of Chinese Philosophy, The China Quarterly, Concerning Poetry, Renditions, Tamkang Review, Honglou meng yanjiu jikan (Studies of the Dream of the Red Chamber), and Dushu (Reading).

Three different Chinese plays have been based on the story about slavery that Harriet Beecher Stowe devised in 1852. The three works-by Zeng Xiaogu (1907), by Ouyang Quyian (1957), and by Nick Rongju Yu (2007, translated here)--are each representative of important issues in Chinese culture at the time the scripts were created. By considering these works we can understand the struggles of the dramatists of each period and their cries for freedom.

Black Slave's Cry to Heaven and the Birth of Spoken Drama

The first version of the story was used to reflect the abjection of China in her anticolonial struggle at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1907 in Tokyo, members of the Chinese student organization the Spring Willow Society (Chunliu She) staged a play called Heinu yutian In (Black Slave's Cry to Heaven) by Zeng Xiaogu based on a 1901 Chinese translation of Uncle Toms Cabin by Lin Shu and Wei Yu.

This production is generally regarded as the beginning of the Chinese spoken drama (huaju). It was not the first Western-style play performed in China: as early as the 1860s, amateur dramatic clubs organized by the expatriate communities in Shanghai were staging Western plays, but these performances had little impact on the local community or development of modern Chinese drama. By the 1890s Chinese students at Shanghai's missionary schools began to put on modern-style plays without the songs and dances of traditional xiqu, including ones that they wrote themselves (see Ge 1997: 2-10). Chinese reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also advocated the introduction of Western fiction and drama along with Western science and technology to China as a part of their reform program. Liang Qichao (1873-1929), scholar, journalist, philosopher, and visionary, in his famous essay "On the Relationship between Fiction and the Government of the People" (1902), calls for the reform of fiction: "If we want to improve our governance, we must start with the reform of fiction. …

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