LI JIANWU, A.K.A. LIU XIWEI (1906—1982)
LI JIANWU, A.K.A. LIU XIWEI (1906—1982). Playwright and fiction writer. A graduate of Qinghua University and a member of the Literary Research Society, Li studied Western literature in college and spent two years in Paris in the early 1930s. A cofounder of the Shanghai Experimental Theater, Li was one of the key figures who promoted the modern speech play. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Li worked for 10 years (1954—1964) at the Literature Research Institute of Beijing University and spent the rest of his career at the Foreign Literature Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
A prolific writer, having published numerous books, both creative and scholarly, Li had a diverse career as a fiction writer, a translator and scholar of French and Russian literature, a playwright, a director, an actor, and theater critic. Many of his fictional works, including novels Tanzi (The Crock and Other Stories) and Xin bing (Worries), are about the urban working class and the 1911 Republican revolution for which his own father gave his life. His translations include works by Gustave Flaubert, Molière, and Maxim Gorky. To this day, his translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary remains the standard Chinese edition. Li was a noted essayist; one of his essays, “Yu zhong deng Taishan” (Climbing Mount Tai in the Rain), is a staple in middle school textbooks. Nowhere, however, is his accomplishment more prominent than in the theater. In his student days, Li had already shown a strong interest in performing arts. While studying at Qinghua University, he served as director of its theater club and performed in many plays. He later wrote and adapted more than 40 plays and is considered one of the founding fathers of modern Chinese theater.
Li was profoundly influenced by French playwrights, especially Molière, many of whose works he translated into Chinese. In the 1920s, Li wrote mostly one-act plays about the urban poor, such as Muqin de meng (A Mother’s Dreams). After his trip to France in the 1930s, Li began to write multiple-act plays that dealt with a wide range of subjects, including important political and historical events past and present. He also paid more attention to the structure of his plays. Zhe bu guo shi chuntian (It’s Only Spring), considered his best work, interweaves a romantic tale with a revolutionary story. The plot revolves around a police chief’s wife who manages to get her former lover a job as a secretary in her husband’s department, hoping to rekindle the old flame. The lover, however, turns out to be an underground revolutionary being pursued by the police. When his cover is blown, she bribes the police to get him out of the city. The power of the play derives from the high drama achieved through a clever manipulation of contradictions and complex relationships among the characters as well as a seamless structure and witty language.
Created in the realist mode, Li’s heroes are multidimensional human beings with flaws as well as virtues. The police chief’s wife, for example, is selfish and delusional but empathetic. The characters’ imperfections not only make them plausible but also give rise to tensions that inevitably lead to dramatic climaxes. Li emphasizes plot development and favors suspense and unexpected outcomes, relying on them to create dramatic moments. Because of the sophisticated artistry, Li’s plays continue to draw attention while the political plays by many of his contemporaries have been more or less forgotten. See also MAY FOURTH MOVEMENT; NEW CULTURE MOVEMENT; SPOKEN DRAMA.