Huaju, modern spoken drama;话剧

Modern Chinese Drama (spoken drama or huaju)

Tao Qingmei

Spoken drama or huaju, the Chinese modern drama, which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, is an “imported” theatre style. Even today, staging foreign plays, especially Shakespeare’s works, is an approach that allows practitioners to explore stage expression for huaju. To some extent, huaju was a newly born artistic style along with the New Culture Movement in the mid-1910s and early 1920s, which expressed great disillusionment with traditional Chinese culture and the newly founded Republic of China (1912) since none of China’s problems had been solved. We call huaju a “new birth”, because, at the beginning of the 20th century, for both audiences and performers of the traditional Chinese song-dance theatre (or xiqu in Chinese), which tells “a story through song and dance, huaju was a completely different stage form compared to what they had been used to. In the early 20th century, Chinese students who studied drama abroad came back to China with their experiences of “drama” — a theatre that uses mainly “spoken language” and pursues realistic aesthetics—from foreign countries. At that time, huaju was a new cultural configuration for urban youth and became an art form for enlightening the people. In 1928, Hong Shen named this performing style “huaju (spoken drama)” to distinguish it from xiqu, the traditional song-dance theatre.

However, huaju did not develop smoothly in its early stage. There were two reasons. Firstly, in the period from 1911 (when the Qing Empire was over thrown) to 1949 (when the Nationalists were driven to Taiwan), xiqu was the mainstream commercial performance in both big cities and rural areas. Secondly, the development of huaju was limited by the material conditions at the time. Especially after the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the War of Resistance against Japanese full-scale invasion started and impacted every aspect of Chinese society, and thus it was really hard to offer material support for huaju performances. Hence, in the first half of the 20th century, the development of drama was limited to Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan (Hubei province); and then Chongqing (Sichuan province), Kunming (Yunnan province), Guilin (Guizhou province) and other places in south-western China where the Nationalists had fled in November1 937after the Japanese army had approached Nanjing. (Chongqing was the Nationalists’ provisional capital in 1937-45.)

Yet, in such a difficult environment, both playwriting and performance of huaju significantly improved. In terms of playwriting, important writers included Cao YuTian HanGuo MoruoChen Baichen, Ding Xilin and others, who created a great number of tragedies, comedies, historical and poetic dramas. For the stage presentation, huaju developed its dramatic aesthetics under very difficult material conditions in its different phases of evolution: 1) early “civilized drama[1] (or wenmingxi in Chinese), 2) commercial theatre and 3) performances in the Nationalist-controlled area during 1937-45.

After 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the development of huaju entered a short period of rapid development. New performance venues were built, huaju theatres and companies appeared, and the development of “repertoire” system that drew on the model of the combination of company and venue from Europe also emerged. With an established system and state subsidies, huaju flourished in terms of performance as well as playwriting. In 1958, Jiao Juyin directed Tea House (Chaguan) at Beijing People’s Art Theatre (BPAT). It led huaju to gradually develop its own Chinese style of presentation; it successfully merged Stanislavsky’s system with traditional Chinese xiqu and created a “Chinese manner” of staging style.

However, even though the theatre practitioners, represented by Jiao Juyin, tried more staging methods in Cai Wenji[2] and other productions to Sinicize huaju, an imported theatre, the Proletarian Cultural Revolution started before they could find the most appropriate way to fulfil their aspirations. There were virtually no huaju performances during the early period of the Cultural Revolution. Around 1970, some newly written huaju plays appeared, and they all strictly followed the Three Prominence principles, a rigid writing method decided by the “revolutionary model theatre”. It was not until 1978 that the situation changed, exemplified by the sensational success of Zong Fuxian’s In the Land of Silence (Yu wu sheng chu). This newly written play focused on the days after 5 April (the Sweeping Tomb festival) in 1976 when mass protest in Beijing in the name of memorializing the former Premiere Zhou Enlai was brutally suppressed. Over 2000 theatre companies, professional and amateurish, staged this play virtually everywhere in the country. In the Land of Silence pioneered the “drama of social problems”, a theme mainly referring to a group of works staged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Winter Jasmine (Baochunhua), Power versus Law (Quan yu fa), Blood, It Is Always Hot (Xie, zongshi re de) and others. They were all concerned with the complex social issues after the Cultural Revolution. Apparently, “drama of social problems” continues the “enlightenment” function when spoken drama first emerged.

Similar to the situation when huaju first emerged in the early 20th Century, plays of “drama of social problems” concentrated too much on discussion of social issues without paying sufficient attention to developing a strong style of performance. Consequently, the “drama of social problems” went down soon. Along with the introduction of modernism into literature, huaju staging began to change. In 1982, Gao Xingjian (the 2000 Nobel Prize Literature Laureate)  and Lin Zhaohua, one of the most important contemporary Chinese directors, collaborated together to present Absolute Signal (Juedui xinhao) at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre.[3] The production triggered the trend of Chinese contemporary “Little Theatre” (also called Experimental Theatre); it found an expressive form to represent the “stream of consciousness” on the contemporary Chinese stage. Soon after, a series of productions focusing on reflections about rural China were staged during the 1980s. These productions, exemplified by Uncle Doggy’s Nirvana (Gouerye niepan, BPAT, 1985) [4] and Sangshuping Chronicles (Sangshuping jishi, Central Academy of Drama, 1988),[5] created a new peak of new realism in the Chinese theatre by combining the theatrical expressions of stream-of-consciousness and revolving stage techniques. Meanwhile, different dramatic movements from the West, such as the Theatre of the Absurd, Expressionism in German theatre, and many others were introduced to China through different channels. After 1982’s Absolute Signal, experimental works in huaju appeared one after another, among which Bus Stop (Chezhan, written by Gao Xingjian and directed by Lin Zhaohua, 1983)[6] and A Chinese Grammatical Discussion of “The Other Shore(1993)[7] by Mou Sen were typical representatives. Chinese theatre began to experiment with many different manners and styles from this time.

In 1992, as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s south China tour, the reform of China’s comprehensive marketization started. Since then reforms of company and venue system have sped up. Facing the fact that the government harshly reduced its subsidies to huaju, theatre companies started promoting their own productions in the open market. In 1992, beginning with Divorced, Don't Come to Me again (Lihunle, bie zailai zhao wo), which was co-produced by the Central Experimental Spoken Drama Theatre and a cultural company, the huaju industry started to explore competitive marketing and began to focus on building audiences. Rhinoceros in love (Lian‘ai de xiniu),[8] a Little Theatre production, directed by Meng Jinghui in 1999, successfully realized the transformation of Chinese experimental theatre into commercial theatre.

Following the successful marketing of Rhinoceros in love in 1999, Little Theatre drama, using small venues, became a new force, suddenly rising in the Chinese theatre market. During the process of marketization, the experimental nature of Little Theatre became weaker and weaker. In terms of the content, Little Theatre productions began to focus on contemporary themes relevant to an urban youth audience. Li Bonan Theatre Studio’s trilogy of Mr. and Mrs. Single (Yin hun Nannü), Leftover Girl (Sheng Nülang) and Married to An Appropriate Man for the Finance (Jiagei jingji shiyong nan) were the best examples. As the titles demonstrate, they all concentrate on issues about relationships and urban employment. In the style of the stage presentation, there is little creativity or innovation in these productions. While the theatre market is expanding, experimental theatre which aims to explore more creative and imaginative possibilities of presentation has been marginalised.

At present, young theatrical practitioners have continued their experimental work at various theatre festivals, such as Nanluoguxiang Performing Arts Festival, Beijing Fringe Festival, and Wuzhen Theatre Festival. For example, Nanluoguxiang Performing Arts Festival, which mainly presents stage works produced by the Penghao Theatre, has attracted new productions by youth companies with different performing styles. Among them, productions from Li Jianjun team emphasise the virtual aspect while Sun Xiaoxing’s group more boldly put cyber life on the stage. Penghao’s own work The Story of Gong and Drum Lane (Luoguxiang de gushi) breaks a new path by bringing community life into the theatre.

The Little Theatre initiated the new contemporary huaju market. Mahua Fan Age Production Co. LTD (Kaixin Mahua) – established in Beijing in 2003 – a privately-owned company famous for its low comedy, also opened up its national market through the showcase of the “Spring Festival Gala” (Chunwan). Meanwhile, the Chinese government has increased its financial support for theatre. Consequently, since the millennium, especially from 2010 onwards, Beijing People’s Art Theatre, National Theatre Company of China (NTCC) and Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (SDAC), all using their own venues, have produced a series of new works. These theatres’ own repertoire, for example, Tea House by BPAT, and newly created works, such as The sadness of comedy (Xiju de youshang)[9] by BPAT, Shang Yang by SDAC, Beijing Fayuan Temple (Beijing Fayuansi)[10] by NTCC, etc., have boosted the establishment of Chinese contemporary mainstream theatre.

[1] It was a hybrid theatrical form based on Western spoken-style theatre, Chinese xiqu and Japanese shinpa (a Japanese hybrid theatre of kabuki and Western theatre).

[2] A piece of historical drama. The eponymous heroine was a talented female poet and musician in the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). She was captured by a tribe of nomads of Central Asia and later married to one of the tribe’s noblemen. Cao Cao, the Han Chancellor, paid a heavy ransom in the name of Cai's father for her release because she was the only heir of the family. Cai Wenji was freed, returned to her homeland but left her children behind in the North. A few poems and songs expressing sorrow and anger are traditionally attributed to her.

[3] The play tells a story of thwarting a robbery of a night cargo train. It takes place in the conductor’s car. The playwright Gao Xingjian’s unusual French Literature training background gave him profound insight into the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, and his study of French theatre provided him with a new perspective of narrative on the stage. The first opening of the show took place in a big guest room in the Capital Theatre where the BPAT is located. The five characters in the play (an old conductor, his assistant, an unemployed young man, his girlfriend and his gangster boss) with a few rehearsal platforms, chairs and simple light shocked audiences and broke the rigid concept of huaju and how it should be performed. The immediacy and simple presentation supported a non-linear structure of multiple flashbacks and out of sequence monologues and dialogues.

[4] A controversial play written by Liu Jinyun. It tells of an old peasant who suffers through years of his love for the land. He goes through enforced collectivization, the Cultural Revolution and then the economic reforms. He becomes disillusioned, burns his house and runs off, leaving to his children the task of building a new world.

[5] Written by Chen Zidu, Yang Xian and Zhu Xiaoping, directed by Xu Xiaozhong (1928- ), the play takes place in a very poor village located in the yellow earth plateau of Shaanxi province during the late years of the Cultural Revolution. The traditional patriarchal forces, greed and savage customs ridiculously combine with the “high rhetoric” of ultra-leftism of the Cultural Revolution and lead to the oppression and persecution of outsiders and women. The production kept the literary narrative, ingeniously combined it with modern revolving stage techniques and the stage skills of traditional song-dance theatre.

[6] This was the first play Gao Xingjian had written (1981) but was regarded as “unacceptable” by the BPAT. After the success of Absolute Signal, in 1983 Lin Zhaohua and Gao were given the permission to give it a go. It was opened in a small place in the BPAT and caused great controversy among audiences and critics. It was banned after 13 performances and became a target during the “Anti-Spiritual Pollution” campaign. It was viewed as politically ambiguous with no clear heroes and a questionable presentation of contemporary society. 

[7] It is a deconstructive adaptation of Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore, a banned play written in 1986. Co-devised with poet Yu Jian, Mou Sen used stage techniques of monologue and direct address to the audience that he had learnt from contemporary Western theatre, and presented a group of young people who lost all sense of purpose in life, or the “shore” one would like to reach.[LINK]

[8] Written by Liao Yimei, directed by Meng Jinghui, the play ran over 2,000 performances and seen by over a million people. It is a dark romance about a rhinoceros keeper, Ma Lu, who falls in love with his beautiful but callus neighbour, Mingming. BBC made it into a radio play in 2014.

[9] It is a Chinese adaptation of the Japanese play Warai no Daigaku (English translation University of Laughs) originally by Kōki Mitani.

[10] It is a theatrical adaptation of the novel of the same title. Adapted and directed by Tian Qinxin, the stage work concentrated on the 10 days between 11 and 21 September 1898 when Empress Dowager Cixi launched a coup d’état to end the One Hundred Days’ Reform.



话剧,即,出现于20世纪初的中国现代戏剧,实际上是“舶来品”——即使在今天,排演外国剧目,尤其是莎士比亚剧目,也仍然是中国话剧寻找舞台表达的一种方式。在某种意义上,话剧,是与中国的新文化运动(1910年代中期-1920年代早期)相伴生的一种新生的文艺方式。说它是“新生”,是因为对于20世纪初的中国戏曲观众、演员来说,话剧与中国传统戏曲的“歌舞演故事” 的表演形态非常不一样,是一种完全不同的演出类型。20世纪初,伴随着在国外留学的留学生们将他们在国外不同地方的看到的以“说话”为主体的、以写实为美学追求的“drama”带回到中国,话剧,这样一种新的文艺形态逐渐在城市青年中流传,成为开启民智的艺术形式。1928年,洪深将这一表演形式命名为“话剧”,以此区别与中国传统戏剧——“戏曲”——这样一种表演形式。





与20世纪初期话剧发展的状况相似的是,“社会问题剧”的问题也是在于讨论社会问题的意图太过强烈,而在话剧的舞台表现上思考与积淀很少。这样的“社会问题剧”很快陷入低谷。随着文学领域各种现代主义思潮的引入,话剧舞台也随之出现新的变化。1982年高行健、林兆华合作的《绝对信号》,既是中国当代小剧场的开山之作,也在中国现代戏剧舞台上为“意识流”找到了表演形态。很快,在现代主义思潮的影响下,在1980年代的话剧舞台上出现了一系列的反思乡土中国的作品。这一系列作品,以北京人艺《狗儿爷涅槃》 (1985)、中央戏剧学院《桑树坪纪事》(1987-88) 为代表,融合意识流的表达方式、旋转舞台的技巧,创造了新现实主义的新高峰。与此同时,荒诞派戏剧、德国表现主义等等戏剧流派,从不同渠道进入中国,探索戏剧在这时陆续展露头角:以高行健的《车站》、牟森的《彼岸和关于彼岸的汉语语法讨论》为代表,不同风格、不同类型的戏剧实验开始陆续展开。






Sailing Through The Three Gorges;船过三峡
The Orphan of Zhao (Beijing People's Art Theatre);赵氏孤儿(北京人民艺术剧院)
The Orphan of Zhao (Heibai Drama Society, Zhejiang University);赵氏孤儿(浙江大学黑白剧社)
The Orphan of Zhao (National Theatre Company of China);赵氏孤儿(中国国家话剧院)
The Story of Gong and Drum Lane (Penghao Theatre);锣鼓巷的故事 (蓬蒿剧场)