East, West, and in Between: Theatre in China since the Early 20th Century Has Blended Chinese, Japanese, and Western Traditions

By Lueger, Michael; Liu, Siyuan | American Theatre, May-June 2017 | Go to article overview

East, West, and in Between: Theatre in China since the Early 20th Century Has Blended Chinese, Japanese, and Western Traditions


Lueger, Michael, Liu, Siyuan, American Theatre


The following is an edited transcript of a Theatre History podcast on HowlRound.com, in which Michael Lueger, who teaches world drama at Emerson College in Boston, conversed with Siyuan Liu, associate professor in theatre studies at the University of British Columbia and editor of Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre.

MICHAEL LUEGER: For many of us who perform in or teach theatre, myself included, non-Western theatrical cultures are something of a blind spot. And that's especially true when it comes to the more recent history of theatre in China. In your book Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China, you examine the first form of modern Chinese theatre, wenmingxi. Also in the 20th century, a form known as huaju emerged. What do these terms mean?

SIYUAN LIU: They are both forms of modern Chinese theatre, basically Western-oriented spoken theatre. The difference between the two is that wenmingxi is the first form. Wenmingxi literally translates as "civilized drama." It reached its height at about the 1910s. It's a hybrid form, a combination of Western spoken drama, traditional Chinese song-and-dance drama, and some forms of Japanese theatre. It's based on the first form of Japanese modern theatre called shinpa, which is "new school drama," and that itself is a combination of Western theatre and kabuki. It had kabuki forms of, for example, female impersonation, using male actors--and sometimes actresses--to perform female roles. There was some singing and kabuki-style dancing, and some very stylized speech and movement patterns.

So with the Chinese form, they inherited it. Some students were in Japan and then brought it back to China. Then in the 1910s, they got a really big commercial boom in Shanghai, with thousands of practitioners for a little bit of time. There was a tendency to be reliant on scenarios versus complete scripts. There was singing and dancing. The structure tended to be the traditional Chinese narrative form of telling a story from beginning to the end, versus the Western late point of attack, five- or seven-act structure, and of course female impersonation together with the emerging actresses.

That style kind of died down--although it lingered on for a long time--by the 1920s, when after what we call the New Cultural Movement in China started: the idea that traditional culture was bad for China and that was why China was in trouble, being defeated by Western powers. They wanted to introduce something completely Western, instead of Chinese theatre. That is where the huaju idea came from. Huaju literally means "spoken drama"--the idea of totally rejecting traditional singing and dancing forms. Huaju from the beginning followed a very Western model: the idea of a script-centric theatre, director-centered rehearsal process, introduction of the design element, the whole mise en scene. That's basically the way modern Chinese theatre has been; it's still called huaju.

There's sort of an awkward relationship between traditional Chinese performance--what I think many of us who don't know much about it refer to as "Chinese opera"--and then this relationship between Western and Japanese influences. Did these two influences bring up tensions in huaju and in other modern forms of Chinese drama?

This is one very interesting way to look at modern Chinese theatre, actually--not just modern Chinese, but modern Asian theatre as a whole. Kevin J. Wetmore and I actually did a couple of volumes of Modern Asian Theatre and Performance, and what we found is an interesting pattern--say, three or four quite distinct periods. The first one is what we call the hybrid period, like the Japanese shinpa, where modern Western and traditional theatre were kind of put together. The second period is what some scholars would call the canonical period--basically going totally Western and saying everything indigenous is bad, and totally rejecting traditional performance forms.

Then by the 1960s, 70s, '80s, there was a period of going back to traditional theatre, saying, "Well, this total Western style just doesn't work for us. …

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