Rethinking Theatrical Images of the New Woman in China's Republican Era

By Guo, Li | CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Theatrical Images of the New Woman in China's Republican Era


Guo, Li, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture


The conflictive image of the woman in Republican China's theater represents the shifting gendered viewpoints of early reformists, the May Fourth male pioneers and, later revolutionary women writers and performers. If the pre-revolutionist authors and actors of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (new plays) envisioned a progressive feminine subjectivity by reconfiguring Western women characters through translation, theatrical adaption, and male impersonation of Western women, such often male-centered gender constructions positioned the feminine as the colonized within the theatricality of modern China's multiethnic situation. During the May Fourth period, the New Woman on and off stage was identified by her interest in social reform, education for women, nation building, and politics (see, e.g., Edwards; Feng). For male intellectuals such as Shi Hu and Xun Lu, the transformation of the feminine on stage expressed their anxieties about their own social and political marginalization developed from a complex matrix of colonial and imperialist discourse (see Barlow). Theatrical delineations of the New Woman by female writers such as Wei Bai, Changying Yuan, and Xuelin Su, however, portray republican women's predicament and the melee between personal ambition and collective pursuit, between self-depreciation and revolutionary aspiration. Republican women authors' endeavors to carve out a wider space of individual and social performance redrew the discursive boundaries of gender, race, and class, and projected women's agency in a broad context of global feminist activism in the early twentieth century.

The May Fourth period witnessed the rise of "Ibsen fever" when Henrik Ibsen's plays were adapted for a Chinese audience. Ibsen's advocacy for women's independence and freedom in marriage impacted a generation of playwrights who composed works to depict women characters much akin to Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Some of the most well-known examples of Chinese adaptation of Ibsen's Nora are Shi Hu's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1919) (The Main Event in Life) (), Han Tian's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1920) (One Night in a Cafe), Yuqian Ouyang's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1922) (After Returning Home), and Xilin Ding's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1923) (A Wasp). However, in my opinion these authors' works did not offer women's inner thoughts sufficiently or probed into the social and economic reasons which contributed to the evolution of women's gender roles. In "After Nora Walks Out, What Then?" Xun Lu argues that while Ibsen's play gives people new insights into issues such as female self-consciousness and women's social emancipation, they do so without giving resolute answers to many social problems for women of the time in China. Identifying economic oppression as the major challenge for women who leave home, Lu suggests that it is only through profound struggle and drastic measures that men and women could enjoy equality. In the above mentioned play A Wasp by male playwright Ding, the heroine Miss Yu, a young nurse, in order to live a single life, must rely on her cleverness and even a small lie to her pressing patron to avoid an arranged marriage. The play, although ending in a moment of comic relief, does not portray Miss Yu as a liberated woman, for she is still dependent financially on her parents and would have to submit to an arranged marriage. Likewise, in Tian's One Night in a Cafe, the waitress Qiuying Bai embodies an example of modern women's tragic encounters after leaving home. At the beginning of the play, Bai flees from her family in the country, finds a small job in the city, and saves her hard-earned income in order to gain an education and then marry her lover Qianqing Li, a young man from an affluent family in her hometown. Coincidentally, one night, Li and his newly engaged fiancee visit the cafe where Bai works. The differences between their economic circumstances prevent Li from acknowledging his relationship with Bai. …

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