SPOKEN DRAMA. As precursors to spoken drama, xin ju (new play) and wenming xi (civilized drama), which were popular at the beginning of the 20th century, acted as bridges between traditional Chinese opera and the modern spoken genre, containing somes features of the older form such as improvisation and all-male casting but without the singing and music. The collegiate aimei ju (amateur play), which reached its height of popularity in the 1920s, was performed by students in school assembly halls. Fully scripted and often with an all-female cast, it was one step closer to spoken drama. Hong Shen is credited for naming the modern theatrical form hua ju (spoken drama) in 1928, when it began to be performed professionally in public theaters. It is the dramatic form of William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Molière, George Bernard Shaw, and other Western playwrights, which was transplanted to the Chinese stage.
The Chinese spoken drama is generally believed to have started in Japan, where in 1907 a group of Chinese students led by Li Shutong performed Chahua nü (The Lady of the Camellias), an adaptation of the French play by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Later in the same year, another drama society staged Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Shanghai. The early practitioners of the spoken drama were progressive youths inspired by Ibsen, whose plays, conceived to reflect social reality, became models for the Chinese playwrights. A Doll’s House was especially influential in its call for the emancipation of women, a significant component in the New Culture Movement. The popularity of the spoken drama was closely connected to the agenda of national revival and modernization the May Fourth intellectuals put forward to address what they believed to be a critical national crisis. For the survival of the nation, ordinary Chinese had to be enlightened and educated. Theater as a popular form of entertainment was seen by the reform-minded intellectuals as one of the most effective means to get their message to the masses directly and expeditiously. Chen Duxiu, founder of the Chinese Communist Party and the progressive journal New Youth, advocated transforming the traditional theater into a revolutionary venue, “a big classroom” with actors working as “important teachers.”
Changing the traditional Chinese theater, however, proved to be a nearly impossible task. Entrenched in its own conventions and styles, the operative form relied heavily on old tales and historical romances for material. Therefore, what the audience focused on was the art of the performance, not the message of the play, as they were already familiar with the stories and moral lessons. To be able to go on the stage, the actors had to have received rigorous training, often from a young age, in a highly stylized form that involved singing, dancing, acrobatics, and acting. The props and costumes were also specialized. These features intrinsic to the traditional theater posed serious challenges to the reform-minded dramatists, who were faced with an ancient art form loaded with specific stylistics and preconditioned expectations. What the New Culture Movement looked for was a nimble form that required no particular professional training and easily adapted to different stage settings and social issues. The Western play met the needs of the progressive intellectuals perfectly. It was no accident that most of the early works of the new genre were staged in schools by amateur student actors, before a professional theater emerged in the late 1920s.
From translations or adaptations of Western plays, the Chinese playwrights moved to creating some memorable works of their own. Among the trailblazers were Tian Han, Hong Shen, Guo Moruo, and Cao Yu, and together with the professional troupes led by Ouyang Yuqian, Xia Yan, and others, they successfully transplanted a Western theatrical form and ensured for it a permanent place in the Chinese theater. A century later, the spoken drama still shares the stage with traditional operas. See also CHEN BAICHEN; CHENG FANGWU; DING XILIN; DUANMU HONGLIANG; GAO XINGJIAN; LAI SHENGCHUAN; LAO SHE; LEFT-WING ASSOCIATION OF CHINESE WRITERS; LI JIANWU; LIN JINLAN; LU LING; LU XING’ER; WEI MINGLUN; WOMEN; WU ZUGUANG; XU XU; YANG HANSHENG; YANG JIANG; YE LINGFENG; YU JIAN; YU LING; ZHANG XIAOFENG.