Twenty-First-Century Chinese Drama

Four Plays by Wan Fang

by Valerie Pellatt (Volume editor)
©2019 Others VIII, 436 Pages


This anthology is a collection of four contemporary Chinese plays by the playwright Wan Fang, presented in the original Chinese and in English translation. Since the 1990s, modern Chinese drama has experienced a revival, and these plays are representative of the kind of theatre which audiences in China now enjoy. The time is ripe for them to be staged internationally through the medium of translation. This book provides Chinese and English versions consecutively, to enable the plays to be used for study or performance. The volume also offers an introduction to the development of modern Chinese drama over the twentieth century, as a background to the plays included here. In addition, Wan Fang’s own introduction to the writing of plays, and these plays in particular, gives us insights into the mechanisms of writing and staging in a twenty-first-century Chinese context.

Table Of Contents

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Many people have been involved directly or indirectly in the production of this volume, not least the many Newcastle University students who, over the course of four years, have contributed to the translation and performance of the four plays. All of them deserve thanks for their energy, creativity, enthusiasm and sensitive crafting of Wan Fang’s work. In addition to translating and acting, they have played crucial roles as directors, producers, light and sound technicians, make-up and costume artists, publicity designers, prompters, and of course as critical audience. We are enormously grateful to Wan Fang for allowing us to translate and stage the four plays. We are also grateful to her for permission to publish our English translation of her work alongside the original Chinese. As can be seen from the two pieces she has contributed to the volume, she has provided key guidance and inspiration to us all, including working with us on a translation workshop. We are also deeply indebted to Professor Li Ruru of Leeds University, who introduced me to Wan Fang. She has been instrumental in bringing Wan Fang to the UK, and has encouraged and supported us in many ways throughout the project. We are grateful to Steve Ansell of Stage@leeds who has provided us with new perspectives on our translations by producing some of the work with English-speaking drama students. The School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, has enabled the project by funding the module and the stage productions. Thanks, also, to Richard and Jonathan, who have patiently guided us through use of Stage 3 at Northern Stage.

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Introduction: The twentieth-century context of Wan Fang’s twenty-first-century plays

The context of Wan Fang’s plays

The four plays by Wan Fang presented in this anthology exemplify modern Chinese spoken drama of the twenty-first century. While the content of some of the plays is historical, going back to the 1950s, much of the dialogue and action is couched in the distinct idiom of the twenty-first century. The plays explore topical and historical matters in a way that has only become possible once more since liberalization in 1979, and particularly since the reintroduction of Confucianism in the early years of the twenty-first century. Drama and its staging in China has often been problematic: writing and staging have, during long periods of the twentieth century, been high risk. Theatre is public and inevitably political in some measure; it can rarely be dissociated from geographical and temporal location, and it reflects personalities and ideology. It has been a deliberate tool both of dissent and of loyalty, used by its sponsors and bruised by critical audiences.

Coming at the end of a hundred years of constantly changing attitudes and practice in modern Chinese theatre, the four plays in this anthology encapsulate the art of modern drama and the essence of contemporary Chinese life. This introduction provides a brief overview of the development of modern drama in China in the twentieth century, providing the historical, political and dramatic context of Wan Fang’s work. She is most directly heir to the work of her father, Cao Yu, and indirectly heir to a vast body of both traditional and innovative Chinese theatre. ← 1 | 2 →

Early twentieth century: The advent of spoken drama to China

Until the early years of the twentieth century, dramatic art and performance in China consisted mainly of a variety of traditional musical forms. Plays were often of the xiqu (戏曲) type, now known around the world as ‘Chinese opera’, and included instrumental music, song and recitative, enlivened by skilful acrobatics. These highly stylized traditional operas, based on regional forms, include the well-known types such as kunqu (昆曲) (originally from Jiangsu Province and dating from the sixteenth century) and jingju (京剧) or Peking opera (developed in the late eighteenth century) (Chang and Owen 2010: 299). The stories came from Chinese history and legend, and often carried a moral or allegorical message. The form developed over the centuries, and though practised on a bare stage, often outdoors, was characterized by elaborate, opulent costumes and complex, symbolic make-up. Instrumental music, song and symbolic gesture or dance were integral part of the performance. From informal beginnings on the street, the drama gradually became highly prescribed in content and technique. Wealthy connoisseurs had their own theatres and troupes. By the 1920s it had become the sophisticated artefact now regarded as the epitome of Chinese culture. The poetic, formal lyrics, though known by heart by all aficionados, were often in a courtly language far removed from that of daily life. Yet the spectacle was popular among all social classes. Yu Shiao-ling notes that traditional drama was not just entertainment for less well-educated Chinese, but a way of learning about their history and culture (1996: 1). Its theatricality and almost ritualized conventions led reformers in the early years of the twentieth century to believe that it was symbolic of China’s weakness (Gunn 1983: viii). Gunn notes that as a literary form, its stylized spectacle and music reduced its narrative capacity (ibid.: vii). It was, however, greatly loved, and remained more popular than the new ‘spoken drama’, or huaju, introduced in the twentieth century. It is unsurprising that elements of this xiqu (戏曲) style of drama were often carried over into modern drama, as seen in Wan Fang’s Murder. ← 2 | 3 →

With the 1915 New Culture Movement and 1919 May Fourth Movement came a campaign to introduce vernacular Chinese (baihua 白话) as the written language of education and literature.1 A revolutionized drama was a part of this movement towards the vernacular, and writers and students began to look for a popular drama that would take the place of the traditional operas. Their aim was to introduce the kind of plain, spoken drama enjoyed in European and English-speaking countries which told transparent stories of modern life. The new spoken drama was part of the general desire to modernize China; it was inspired partly by Japanese shinpa spoken drama, and substantially informed by European playwrights such as Ibsen. The first performances were by Chinese students studying in Japan: in 1907 a drama group called the Spring Willow Society (chunliu she 春柳社) was set up and produced Chinese language adaptations of La Dame aux Camelias and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Chang and Owen 2010: 484). The adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a nationalist thrust which marked this as the beginning of modern, Chinese, spoken theatre. After the 1911 revolution, the literary exiles involved in the Spring Willow Society returned to Shanghai and there developed the form (Wetmore et al. 2014: 77). The plays which followed often tackled political and topical subjects and have since become known as ‘civilized drama’ (wenmingxi 文明戏). These plays were still ‘characterized by posturing and declamation’ (Gunn 1983: viii) and it was mainly due to young writers like Hu Shi (1891–1962), inspired by the realism of the modern European dramatists, that a truly modernized Chinese drama took shape. In this realism Hu and his contemporaries saw possibilities for a new literature, and for new models of behaviour (Chang and Owen 2010: 485). Hu Shi set a trend that was to become known as the ‘problem play’ with his 1919 baihua play The Greatest Event in Life (zhongshen dashi 终身大事) inspired by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (ibid.: 486). The new form of spoken drama, emphasizing realistic dialogue ← 3 | 4 → and action, and mainly abandoning the musical and acrobatic features of the traditional drama, was, and still is, known as huaju, or ‘spoken drama’ (话剧). The new vernacular literature, of which the spoken drama was a part, was to become the core of universal education in China.

Meanwhile, traditional theatre continued to be popular, in spite of strenuous efforts to encourage Chinese audiences to embrace the serious huaju. As in other countries, the modern drama intended to embrace all social classes and drive modernization was, and remains, a middle class, intellectual interest (Wetmore et al. 2014: 10).

Development of huaju through the 1930s and 1940s

During the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945), Chongqing, the city in which many intellectuals and artists sought refuge, was a focus for the development of modern drama. Themes covered a variety of topics, both historical and contemporary, for example, Xia Yan’s Fascist Germs (1944). Among the playwrights working in Chongqing was Cao Yu (曹禺pseudonym of Wan Jiabao 万家宝 1910–1996), attached to the National Drama Academy (ibid.: 569). He was among those writing ‘well-made plays’ involving not only logical ideas, but complex plots designed to excite the audience and create suspense. His searing family drama Thunderstorm (Leiyu 雷雨 1934) and Sunrise (Richu 日出 1936) were performed to great critical acclaim in Shanghai and Nanjing. During his years in Chongqing, Cao Yu wrote Wilderness (Yuanye 原野 1937) Metamorphosis (Ruibian 蜕变 1939), Peking Man (Beijing ren 北京人 1940), and an adaptation of Ba Jin’s Family (Jia 家 1941). Less dark than the incest- and death-laden Thunderstorm, Peking Man exposes the weaknesses of the extended Chinese family in the modern era, but also tackles the ideal of modernization, with subtle studies of psychological and social situations. Cao Yu continued to write during the 1940s and 1950s. The plays of the 1930s and 1940s are rightly appreciated for their perceptive, critical revelations of the state of Chinese society at the time. While focused on China in this period, his ← 4 | 5 → plays are universal and eternal in their themes, revealing intergenerational friction and the issues of traditional family values in a changing modern world. Cao Yu was attacked during the Cultural Revolution, but in the 1980s his work was revived and his reputation restored, and his plays continue to be popular today. The themes of Cao’s pre-1949 plays – criticism of traditional family structures and attitudes, and an implicit disapproval of the old society – allowed a Marxist interpretation of his works. Wan Fang’s work continues the legacy of her father, in that she reveals the cutting edge issues confronting all ordinary Chinese people in a cultural and economic environment that is changing as radically as it did in her father’s time.

Other playwrights also contributed to developing what was now becoming acceptable and conventional spoken drama. A modern Chinese theatre was growing, which would exploit ideas absorbed from Europe and America, but retain some of the practice of Chinese traditional theatre. It included such widely differing approaches as Brecht’s alienation or distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt) and the Stanislavski method in which an actor has a perfect understanding of the motivations, obstacles, and objectives of a character. Today, this discussion is still a central concern of Chinese dramatists, as can be seen in Gao Xingjian’s interviews with Fang Zixun (Gilbert Fong) (Gao and Fang 2010).

The effect on drama of the Talks at the Yan’an Forum

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, all arts – including literature, visual art and performing arts – were subject to the restrictions and prescription of the principles laid down in Mao Zedong’s ‘Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art’ in 1942. Art was to be for and by the people, and was to serve the Party and the state, and was embodied in the familiar triumvirate of workers, peasants and soldiers. The socialist-realist approach was taken to extremes during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution and its after-effects robbed creative artists and writers of any creative freedom. The approach of the Chinese ← 5 | 6 → version of socialist realism, shored up by Mao’s pronouncements in the Yan’an Forum talks, was to force a black-and-white distinction between positive characters and negative characters. Positive characters were workers, peasants and soldiers, and negative characters were class enemies such as landlords or international enemies such as Japanese or Americans. No subtlety in character was permitted. Gunn notes, ‘the purer forms of satire have never been appreciated by the Chinese Communist Party or middle brow critics’ (1983: xv). The old society, pre-1949, was always shown in a bad light, and liberated China, post-1949, was always shown in a good light. Even in the twenty-first century, this attitude has not entirely vanished and is seen in what is now known as ‘main melody’, described below. Liu makes the point (Wetmore et al. 2014: 106) that the plays of the 1950s and 1960s ‘almost always end with a bright ending.’

A small number of plays of the late 1950s and early 1960s drew on historical themes to imply criticism of the current regime. It was one of these, Wu Han’s (吴晗) Hai Rui Dismissed from Office (Hai Rui ba guan 海瑞罢官), which helped to spark the Cultural Revolution. Another landmark play of the 1950s was Teahouse (Cha Guan 茶馆 1957) by Lao She (老舍), a play documenting the lives of ordinary Beijing residents. Like various works of Cao Yu, Teahouse was criticized and banned during the Cultural Revolution, but has enjoyed a revival in recent years. Cheung and Lai make the point that the very public nature of theatre makes it vulnerable to greater scrutiny by the Party (1997: xv).

The Cultural Revolution and Yangbanxi

During the Cultural Revolution, the ‘model works’, particularly the model operas or yangbanxi (样板戏) came to dominate cultural life and exclude most other forms. The yangbanxi combined the traditional instrumental and singing style of the jingju with modernized, but prescribed costume, and western-style orchestral background music. Movements and gestures were tightly controlled, and characters were all negative or positive, focusing ← 6 | 7 → on the ‘three prominences’ (san tuchu 三突出). This notion of three prominences was central to Cultural Revolution literary and performance practice, requiring works to give prominence to positive characters, particularly the heroic characters, and special prominence to the central heroic characters (Roberts 2006). The denouement was always the triumph of good (the Communist Party or the proletariat) over evil (the wicked landlords and capitalist running dogs). The dogma of class struggle overrode more nuanced issues, ‘ignoring family life and personal relations that are separate from class’ (Wetmore et al. 2014: 110). Chen aptly describes the Chinese theatrical discourse of the 1960s as denying ‘any need for scripting tragedy’ (2003: 34). Although innovative in the blend of traditional and modern, the yangbanxi were limited in number and in scope and became clichéd and stale. The repetitive nature of performance of yangbanxi is well documented, for example, in Anchee Min’s Red Azalea. It was understandable that playwrights, actors and directors would react against this sterility of creative expression as soon as they were able.

Huaju spoken drama had never become popular among the rural population, who preferred the music and spectacle of xiqu (Gunn 1983: x; xxi–xxii). Yangbanxi brought back not only the spectacle of drama, but also predictability in entertainment for workers and peasants. They saw their counterparts in the plays, but in idealized versions. Yangbanxi also offered an opportunity for traditional techniques to air topical ideological themes. To some extent yangbanxi kept alive the techniques of traditional drama, and the importance of the inclusion of music in drama. During the years of the Cultural Revolution, huaju productions were ‘limited and reduced to … propaganda’ (Wetmore et al. 2014: 110).

Post-Cultural Revolution re-awakening

When the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976 and a commodified economy began to take shape in China in 1978, a degree of cultural and creative freedom was permitted, though various forms of censorship ← 7 | 8 → continued (ibid.: 112). ‘A gloomy view of reality’ (ibid.) was not encouraged by the authorities. The ten years of chaos, as the Cultural Revolution later became known, had left an artistic and literary community, which, at best not permitted to write, at worst slaughtered or driven to suicide for daring to do so, was frustrated and angry. Among the arts, drama is well known as a medium for the political, personal and social expression of a society that nurses this kind of frustration. The strength of the reaction can be seen in numbers: Cheung and Lai cite performance of over two hundred new plays between 1976 and 1979 (1997: xiv), and Wetmore et al. regards this period as a re-awakening (2014: 10). Yan points out that from 1979, hundreds of plays were written and produced annually in China (1998: ix). She describes the initial revitalization of theatre as of two types:

While the reprised old plays served as implicit criticism of the Cultural Revolution and its leaders, the new plays directly and fiercely condemned the Gang of Four,2 and openly reinstated the reputations of those who had been persecuted between 1966 and 1976 (Yan 1998: x). The emotional offering of the new plays was received with equal emotion on the part of the audience. The new plays were often either ‘scar’ literature, dealing with the personal suffering of the Cultural Revolution, or ‘exposé’ plays, revealing the depth of corruption among officials: both served to break some taboos and permit broader portrayal on stage (Yu 1996: 4). ← 8 | 9 →

Late twentieth-century critical realism

As the initial wave of reaction to the Cultural Revolution evolved into a more measured, rational discussion, plays of a more complex nature were written and staged, exploring and exploiting a number of different approaches which had been current before 1966. They discussed the nature of Chinese society as it had been, was and would be, sparking off debate among the arts, the general public and the leadership about the state of the nation and its future (Yan 1998: x-xi). Small Well Alley (Xiao Jing Hutong 小井胡同 1979) by Li Longyun, for example, shows how ordinary Chinese people sacrificed all to build a new socialist state, especially in hopeless campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward.3 Their reward turned out to be greater poverty and hardship. Although well supported by the artistic and literary community, the play was closed after three performances, for being ‘lopsided’ about history (Yan 1998: xii). The playwright sought to speak on behalf of the ordinary people of China, believing that their well-being was the ‘ultimate standard for evaluating success or failure’ (ibid.: xii). In this regard, he was one of the playwrights who shaped the principle of critical realism, prevalent in the first half of the 1980s. This commitment of playwrights of the period reflected a return to the basic tenets of socialism as it had been at the foundation of the People’s Republic.

Modern historical plays

A group of playwrights working at around the same time revived the ‘modern historical drama’ initially introduced by Guo Moruo in the 1920s. These plays drew on ancient history for lessons for modern China. Common ← 9 | 10 → people were seen as the bedrock of society on which the emperor and his administration were dependent. The modern historical play continued an important role of traditional opera, telling age-old stories that were rather transparent critical allegories of modern life and leadership. Yan Haiping’s (颜海平) Li Shimin, Prince of Qin (秦王李世民), a ground-breaking first foray into the revived genre, was acclaimed by critics and audiences, but also denounced for ‘deviating from Marxist historical materialism’ (Yan 1998: xiv). The justification for the denunciation was slim, as is often the case, being simply that the playwright had used an emperor and his ruling classes as the main characters in the play.

The critical realists’ and the modern historical dramatists’ shared exploitation of history served to criticize the PRC leadership of the recent past and ground their responsibility towards the common people. Revisiting the past in this way enabled playwrights to confront and question the problems of Chinese society as it moved from a planned to a market economy, and from a command pattern of culture to that of selective judgement. The economic reforms taking place provided fertile soil for a degree of individualism, and a number of playwrights moved away from the principle of the common good. The emphasis was still, however, on a socialist approach to society and the interests of the community, and was overwhelmingly moralistic.

Cheung and Lai maintain that ‘socialist realism, which calls for “the portrayal of the ‘essence’ (benzhi 本质) of an era through ideal types of characters as determined by Party doctrine” still characterizes a considerable portion of mainstream spoken drama on the Mainland’ (1997: xiv). They point out that socialist realism does not exclude social problem plays or ‘well-made plays’ and in the hands of experts can be ‘warm, funny, gripping and moving’ (ibid.: xv).

Absurd, surreal and experimental

Some playwrights, like the early twentieth-century pioneers, took other directions, looking to Europe for models. From 1978 China was more open to foreigners and more receptive to influences that had hitherto ← 10 | 11 → been resisted. One of the first modernist approaches adopted was that of absurdism. Gao Xingjian was a leading proponent of the absurd, his Bus Stop (Che Zhan 车站) for example, being likened to the work of Samuel Beckett. Bus Stop signalled the arrival in China of western-style experimental modernism. The Chinese term for ‘experimental’ is ‘exploratory’ (探索). Not only is this term deemed less provocative to the Party and government than ‘experimental’, but also reflects the notion that, coming to ‘experimental’ drama several decades after their European counterparts, Chinese playwrights could not truly be said to be experimenting (Cheung and Lai 1997: xvi). Like Yan’s historical drama, Bus Stop had a mixed reception, loved and hated in equal measure. Those in favour saw the protagonists as individuals taking charge of their own destiny, while those against claimed that the play was elitist and individualistic (Yan 1998: xvi).

The discussion around Gao Xingjian and his plays embodies the debate on ‘socialist alienation’. The state ideology which had bound the PRC since its inception had become fragile: there was a feeling that socialism had become the opposite of what it was meant to be and class struggle had denied human dignity (Yan 1998: xvii). Conservatives still argued that socialism was valid and vital and that problems could be fixed; adopting ‘western’ ideas would be misleading. Bus Stop only ran for ten performances, but the trend towards absurdism and surrealism had begun and gathered force. In plays that were avidly welcomed by the theatre-going public and banned by cultural administrators, playwrights began to dismantle what they saw as decades of hypocritical ultra-leftism. In a rush of new plays, writers brought the range and variety of humanistic individualism to the stage.

Humanism and individualism

At the heart of the new western-inspired ‘modern subjectivity’ was the notion of individualism. The modernists strove to reject the socialist-realist straitjacket of the previous decades which had strangled creativity. They claimed that art should be apolitical, individual, creative and universal. In wholesale borrowing of post-war western modernism, however, they were ← 11 | 12 → as politically driven as the regime they sought to defy. The modernism of the 1980s was moulded to fit the Chinese situation: Gao Xingjian claims that, in contrast to western modernism, which was underpinned by negation of self, the new Chinese modernism affirmed the self. The humanism lost during the decades of socialism was being rediscovered (Gao 1996: 102) and introduced a degree of nuancing in the depictions of characters and in plot lines.

This new tendency to respond to the individual and political uncertainty of the late twentieth century is exemplified in WM (1995), a play by Wang Peigong. It explores the kind of activity, conversation and tensions that would have taken place among young people who had been ‘sent down to the country’ both in their isolated rural semi-captivity, and in their later, freer lives. Critical realist writers and experimental modernist writers were united in their support of this play, which offered ‘a tender and nearly melancholic portrayal of “educated youth” in their struggle to cope with drastically changing living conditions and to find meaning in their lives’ (Yan 1998: xxi). Like other exciting, innovative dramas and fiction of the period, the production was forced to close, because the characters were seen to be petty and self-serving, and the play was seen as decadent (ibid.: xxii). Nevertheless, it provided a step forward for modern Chinese drama in the debate it provoked. Chinese society was changing: it was being de-collectivized, and very gradually privatized. It was becoming more international and diverse, and the arts would have to change with it. Yan notes:

As the new critical realism and experimental modernism became familiar, it was evident that the techniques employed were not at all unlike those of traditional Chinese drama: episodic structures, parallel lines of development, elasticity of timeframe and complexity of character all provided opportunities for truly dramatic plots and powerful allegory. Modern musical drama had found some voice in Brechtian epic theatre introduced by Huang Zuolin in the 1950s. This led to the rediscovery of traditional ← 12 | 13 → musical drama, which had been banned during the Cultural Revolution, but the techniques of which had been preserved in yangbanxi. It re-emerged as the modern historical drama, of which Wei Minglun’s feminist Pan Jinlian: the History of a Fallen Woman (潘金莲1986) is an outstanding, pioneering example.

Dramatically, these main trends of critical realism, modern historical and musical drama and experimental modernism, continued and modified established practice. Critical realism continued the earnest, serious portrayal of real life and social issues, though from a contrary point of view. The historical dramas allowed the use of music as a key device of the drama. The absurdist and surrealist trends were characterized by implausibility: absurdist plays allowed space for flashback, displacement and parallel monologues or location, while the stream of consciousness approach (later exemplified in Gao’s novels) brought the audience into the mind of the protagonists: in some cases the audience was no longer simply an eavesdropper in a highly structured, stilted dialogue. In others, Brechtian approaches allowed for narration, effectively distancing the audience from the protagonists.

Main Melody

The Tiananmen incident in 1989 led to restrictions on artistic and intellectual creation. A large part of the Chinese government’s efforts at control of theatre was the Main Melody campaign (主旋律) (Conceison 1994: 191). Initially, the term had referred to the politics of the economy, but during the late 1980s came to be applied to the arts, in particular film and drama for stage, radio and television. According to Conceison, the musical metaphor implies that while there are many and varied voices in Chinese society, the prevalent theme should be that of the Chinese Communist Party and socialism (ibid.). Conceison claims that while the government exerted control, room for some experimentation and variation on the Main Melody was officially permitted, and those working in theatre were ostensibly able in turn to manipulate attempts at control (ibid.). ← 13 | 14 →

The existence of an overt policy provided workable guidelines, yet allowed theatre workers a degree of self-expression. The effectiveness or popularity of the concept of Main Melody led to its application in a very broad context, including retrospectively to the plays of the 1940s, 1950s and post-Cultural Revolution work, and geographically to a Taiwan drama (Conceison 1994: 192). The policy was not always welcomed and some playwrights and directors refused to comply with it, though those who were younger and less experienced felt obliged to. For designers and technicians the policy was less of a problem: such factors as lighting can rarely be regarded as ideological. Conceison notes that in her survey of theatre workers encountering the main melody, she never met an actor who whole-heartedly embraced the policy: they seemed to ‘numb themselves’ (ibid.: 196). Main Melody was not an unmixed blessing: it was at the same time a source of anguish, the butt of jokes, and an ‘umbrella’ under which true creativity could shelter in the shade of compliance (ibid.: 197). Main Melody still seems to be subject to post-censorship: endings and wordings may have to be changed in order that the authorities allow the run to continue (ibid.: 200, 207–208). But in the end, Conceison argues, without the policy, these Main Melody plays, or the plays that they ‘shelter’, would never have been staged at all (ibid.: 208). At the time of writing in 2017, Main Melody is still core to Chinese theatrical practice, and over the years, directors and actors have learned to live with it and even embrace it.

Political control of the arts is not unfamiliar to Chinese audiences, and Main Melody works are not only tolerated, but positively enjoyed, for their support for correct behaviour and ideology, and for the opportunity they afford for criticism of what is undesirable, such as corruption. They allow a wide range of themes and styles, and embrace modern technology and effects.

Wan Fang: Pragmatic heir to a century of change

It is against this background of a hundred years of fluctuating convention and innovation, loyalty and subversion that Wan Fang’s plays have been created. Her work has benefited not only from this long tradition and debate, ← 14 | 15 → but also from her own experience in film and television. Born in 1952, she is the daughter of playwright Cao Yu. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) she was sent to the countryside to do manual labour. On her return to Beijing she took up the post of Editor of the Chinese monthly periodical Drama (《剧本》), and then became a playwright for China’s Central Opera Theatre. In the 1980s she took to writing novels and continues to write stage plays, films and television dramas. It was only in 2005 that her first stage play was produced. This ‘late development’ ensured a thoughtful, mature and empathetic approach to writing for the stage. As in other nations, live theatre in China since the 1990s has been eclipsed by digital media, yet stage drama seems to be increasing in popularity, in part due to exposure on social media. Writers like Wan Fang have been able to learn their craft and make their name through television and film, and bring this broad experience to the stage. Wan Fang cannot be pinned down to any of the ‘isms’, but rather, has exploited them all to bring well rounded, yet still provocative plays to theatre in China. Her dramatic structures vary: at times the audience is totally involved with the characters, yet at times, narrative technique produces a Brechtian distancing effect. In all four plays presented here, the denouement is open-ended, leaving the audience fairly certain, but not absolutely certain, of the resolution. Music (Chinese, Latin American and European) plays a part in all the plays presented in this anthology, reflecting both the historical embedding of Wan Fang’s experience and the influence of the screen.

The plays not only span the period of the history of the People’s Republic of China, but also examine the minute facets of ordinary people’s lives played out against the backdrop of political, economic and social change. They provide contrasting explorations of rural, urban and intellectual life and problems, and cover the transition between major periods of the twentieth century, highlighting the frustration of the individual in Chinese society. Wide-ranging dramatic techniques and language are carefully deployed to draw the audience into the varied present, past and imagined future of the protagonists, with the inclusion of an admixture of the historical drama and modernist drama. The plays treat changing mores among peasants in the transition from the ‘old society’ to socialism in the countryside; regrets and frustrations of intellectuals looking back on the persecution they endured during the 1960s and 1970s; the anxieties and social fragmentation brought about largely by involvement in a market ← 15 | 16 → economy in the 1990s-2000s; and personal friction in relationships in which, in a new Confucian society, a man may believe that he can ‘have it all’. Wan Fang cannot be said to be a practitioner of Main Melody: she is careful and sensitive, and her work does not overtly propagate Communist Party or Chinese government values or policies. While the subject matter is centred in the shifting values of modern and contemporary China, the themes are of universal interest. Whatever is there is there as backdrop or as history in the lives of the protagonists. Inevitably, comparisons are made with the work of Cao Yu: while Wan Fang continues her father’s themes, particularly in her exploration of the Chinese family, her techniques differ. Poison (有一种毒药) was staged as a direct tribute to her father on his centenary in 2010. Performances have been well received, in part perhaps because of Wan Fang’s illustrious heritage, but also because the plays have emerged from her mature experience and speak directly to ordinary Chinese people in the twenty-first century.

While there is no great tragedy or pathos in Wan’s work, her depictions of characters and the way they operate within the constraints of society are nuanced. Like other playwrights of the twenty-first century she has rejected the dichotomous ‘good/bad’ character. Her characters are more like the middling characters (zhongjian renwu 中间人物) proscribed in the 1960s, with whom the audience have an affinity and with whom they can identify. They behave selfishly, yet we can understand and reflect upon why they do so.


VIII, 436
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
Chinese drama for performance and study English translation Contemporary Chinese drama
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. VIII, 436 pp

Biographical notes

Valerie Pellatt (Volume editor)

Valerie Pellatt is Reader in Chinese Translation and Interpreting in the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University. A graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, she holds a PhD in Translation Studies from Edinburgh University. She She has practised as a professional translator and interpreter since the 1980s, and since 2001 has taught conference interpreting, public service interpreting and specialised translation at post-graduate level. Her research interests are translation paratext, Chinese children’s rhymes and poems, and contemporary Chinese drama. Since 2012 she has worked with Chinese-speaking postgraduate students on the translation and performance of eight contemporary Chinese plays by well-known playwrights.


Title: Twenty-First-Century Chinese Drama