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Chinese Drama (2)
Learn Chinese - History and Culture
The Origin of Modern Chinese Drama
When talking about modern Chinese drama, many people consider it an "imported product".Then, does this mean that Chinese artists have accepted the western drama passively and implanted arbitrarily an alien Cultural factor in a self-sufficient culture? That is not the case. In the beginning of this century, with the decline of the Great Qing Empire, some persons with lofty ideals turned their eyes to the west in hope of seeking a remedy for Chinese society. It is in that process of exploring revolution that western drama was introduced to China. This should be considered an active cultural option on the part of Chinese artists as well as a historical coincidence.

Western Drama as Viewed by Chinese
It was some Chinese diplomats who made the first contacts with western drama during their visit to western countries. They watched some western plays partly because they attended diplomatic receptions and partly out of pure Curiosity. Evidently, they were fascinated by such fresh and original performances and showed special interest in the following things. First, they took great delight in discussing the grand theaters, saying "they are as grand as an imperial palace". Second, they were surprised at the enviable high social status enjoyed by western playwrights and performers-"in England they are called artists, unlike Chinese actors who are living at the lower social stratum", and "their reputation and social status are comparable to princes or their peers". Third, they were deeply impressed by the true-to-life stage settings of western drama-"the audience feel as if they are personally present on the scene and can hardly believe this is what actually happens in the world." Fourth, they emphasized or overstated the social functions of western drama. Take France for an example. According to them, after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, the French government raised a lot of funds to build theaters "with a view to inspiring the French people to take revenge".

Shortly after that, as some Chinese coastal ports were opened to the outside world, a number of western missionaries and foreigners came to China and resided mainly in Shanghai. There they entertained themselves by performing western plays. In 1866, some foreign residents in Shanghai established the first western-style theater-The Lyceum Grand Theater Operated by foreigners themselves, the theater accommodated the performance on a regular basis of plays written and staged by a troupe called ADC.

Many Chinese people who had pursued studies abroad or who were interested in western drama frequented The Lyceum Grand Theater as they thought it something god-given for them to be able to watch western plays in their own country. As a result, they came to acquire a more detailed understanding of this fresh art form.

It should be pointed out that in the late 19th century and the early 20th century when western drama burst into China, the traditional Chinese drama was also experiencing an impact from innovation and revolution. Dissatisfied with the antiquated dramatic forms that could not fully mirror the then social realities, many persons who engaged in the performance and research of Chinese drama at the time launched a campaign of dramatic reform, and "new drama concerning current affairs" developed as a result of this effort.

The dramatic reform had western realistic plays as its model. Wang Xiaonong (1858-1918), a famous playwright at the time, wrote and adapted quite a lot of dramatic works to satirize the corrupt regime of the Qing dynasty and propagandize "reform" by addressing the then social problems with ancient subject matters. In these new realistic plays, the roles of Sheng (male role), Dan (female role), Jing (painted face male) and Chou (clown) were not so clearly defined as before and the stage settings became closer to reality. So, we saw actors "donning red hats and yellow mandarin jackets" walking on the true-life stage. Even some foreign stories were rewritten as new realistic plays in which "foreigners" in suits behaved as Chinese. For example, in A tragedy of Conquered Poland more dialogues were inserted while the number of arias decreased.

In China, another catalyst for dramatic reform came from new schools. At that time, many schools imitated their western counterparts by encouraging students to perform benefit plays during holidays with the view to praising gods or relieving the people in the disaster-hit areas. Obviously, it was not easy for these young students to master the difficult Chinese dramatic techniques. In contrast, they thought it very easy to imitate the western drama which emphasized dialogue and stage activities in expression. Therefore, it was no wonder that they abandoned traditional Chinese drama for the western one in their performances.

In 1899, a group of Chinese students from St. John's College in Shanghai wrote and staged a play entitled A History of Corrupt Officialdom It described a rich countryman who went to visit an official living in the city. There, perplexed by the surprisingly grand and luxurious scenes, he lost his mind and did many ridiculous things. Back at home, he was determined to secure an official position and he succeeded in becoming a county magistrate. It was true that he had acquired some official formalities, but he could not settle any lawsuit. Finally, he was forced to resign and slip off his official robes. What remained beneath the robes were clothes made of home-spun cloth.

This play featuring "no singing and grand activities" differed widely from the traditional Chinese drama in performance. However, some plots were borrowed from traditional dramatic works. The students' participation in dramatic performances negated the long-held concept that taking part in dramatic performances was an inferior trade and thus laid the foundation for the subsequent dramatic activities by overseas Chinese students and intellectuals. In addition, the actors in these plays were all Chinese and it was also true of the audience. As a result, the western drama enjoyed hitherto by a relatively small number of foreigners had begun to approach the broad Chinese audience. Therefore, those students putting on realistic plays were generally considered as the precursors of modern Chinese drama.


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