TIAN HAN (1898—1968) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

TIAN HAN (1898—1968)
The Dictionary

TIAN HAN (1898—1968). Playwright, poet, and filmmaker. A pioneer of the modern Chinese play, Tian Han made significant contributions to modern Chinese theater and the impact he left on Chinese cultural life is well documented. The numerous plays and films he wrote and directed should guarantee him a prominent position in the history of modern Chinese theater, not to mention the number of art organizations and societies he cofounded. Tian came from a poor family in Changsha, Hunan Province. While studying in Tokyo, he helped found the Creation Society with Guo Moruo and others. After he returned to China in 1924, Tian, with the help of his wife, founded the literary journal Nan guo banyue kan (South China Biweekly). Later with Xu Beihong, a painter, and Ouyang Yuqian, a playwright and actor, he founded Nan guo she (South China Society), which energized and guided the movement to modernize the Chinese theater. A founding member of the Left-wing Society of Chinese Writers and the Left-wing Association of Chinese Playwrights, Tian was also a political activist. During the Sino-Japanese War, he and his troupe toured cities in the interior to boost national morale, performing Lugou qiao (The Marco Polo Bridge), a play he wrote and directed, and other patriotic plays. After the Communist victory in 1949, Tian was appointed director of arts in the Ministry of Culture, a position he held until the Cultural Revolution abruptly and brutally ended his life.

Tian was a prolific writer, having created some 100 works, including Kafei dian zhi yi ye (One Night at the Café), written in 1920 while he was studying in Japan, Ming you zhi si (The Death of a Famous Actor), based on the real life of a Peking opera actor, and Suzhou ye hua (One Evening in Suzhou). Several of Tian’s early plays feature artists who make the pursuit of artistic perfection the ultimate goal in life. Liu Zhensheng in Ming you zhi si refuses to compromise his art in a society full of people willing to sell their souls in exchange for wealth and influence; the poet in Gu tan de shengyin (The Sound of an Old Pond) jumps into an ancient pond in despair because its malevolent spirit has seduced the dancing girl he saved from materialist corruption; Bai Wei in Hu shang de beiju (A West Lake Tragedy) commits suicide after she finishes reading the tragic story written by her former lover. Through these plays, Tian tells his audience that true art is worth dying for, as, in the words of his character, “life is short but art is timeless.” As his involvement in progressive literature deepened, Tian began to produce plays that dealt less with abstract concepts but more with real sociopolitical issues. Suzhou ye hua, Jiang cun xiao jing (A Vignette of a Village by the River), Nian ye fan (New Year’s Eve Dinner), and other critical realist plays seek to locate the roots of poverty and broken families in the sociopolitical system. Further signs of his political commitment are seen in his “revolutionary” plays such as Gu Zhenghong zhi si (The Death of Gu Zhenghong), Yijiusan’er nian de yueguang qu (The Moonlight Sonata of 1932), Mei yu (The Rainy Season), Wufan zhi qian (Before Lunch), and Baofeng yu zhong de qi ge nüxing (Seven Women in a Thunderstorm), all focusing on the working class and its organized uprisings against exploitation and oppression. Tian also worked with historical materials, turning the lives of memorable characters into plays such as Guan Hanqin (Playwright Guan Hanqin) and Wencheng gongzhu (Princess Wencheng).

Modeled after Western plays such as those by William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw, the modern plays by Tian and his colleagues aspire to reflect real life and address contemporary issues, with actors speaking a language understood by the average person on the streets, in order to inspire the audience into action. The result is a mode that combines realism with romantic zest, a style that dominated Chinese plays and, to a lesser extent, movies until the 1980s and is still evident in Chinese theater today. See also MAY FOURTH MOVEMENT; SOCIALIST REALISM; SPOKEN DRAMA.