XIA YAN, A.K.A. HSIA YEN, PEN NAME OF SHEN NAIXI (1900—1995) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

XIA YAN, A.K.A. HSIA YEN, PEN NAME OF SHEN NAIXI (1900—1995). Playwright and screenplay writer. A key figure in literature and performing arts of China, Xia Yan had a long distinguished career. In 1919, he participated in the May Fourth Movement. In the following year, he went to Japan on a government scholarship to study electrical engineering. While there, he joined the Nationalist Party and was in charge of the personnel department of its branch in Japan. Xia Yan returned to China in 1927 to work in the workers’ movement while pursuing a career in literary translation. Two years later, he became a cofounder of the Left-wing Association of Chinese Writers and joined the Communist Party, eventually rising to become, among his numerous official and professional titles, deputy minister of culture and a member of the Political Consultative Conference in the People’s Republic of China. As the undisputed leader of the left-wing film industry in the 1930s and 1940s, Xia Yan worked with his colleagues to establish a realist tradition that emphasized active engagement with national issues, leaving a strong legacy that continued into the post-Mao era.

Nearly all the screenplays Xia wrote address contemporary problems facing the nation. The central theme of Kuang liu (Violent Currents) is the sufferings of the peasants in the wake of the 1931 flood that ravaged six provinces along the Yangtze River; Chun can (Spring Silkworms) and Lin jia puzi (The Lin Family Shop), which are adapted from Mao Dun’s stories, deal with the hardships of small businesses under the dual oppression of capitalism and bureaucracy; Shanghai ershi si xiaoshi (Twenty-four Hours in Shanghai) puts into sharp contrast the extreme poverty of workers in a textile mill and the extravagant lifestyle of its owners; Ya sui qian (New Year’s Eve Gift) focuses on a coin as it passes from one social scene to another, revealing the lives of different social classes of Shanghai.

Xia Yan’s role in the movement to popularize the modern play is equally significant. From the 1920s through the 1940s, he tirelessly promoted the new play and wrote many scripts with varying degrees of success. Xia Yan’s plays generally fall into two categories: the patriotic plays such as Faxisi xijun (The Fascist Germs) about a young Chinese scientist who throws himself into the resistant war against the Japanese after returning to China from Japan with his Japanese wife, only to find his homeland devastated by war, and Lili cao (The Luxuriant Grass) about the Chinese people’s heroic struggle against the Japanese and plays about the lives of ordinary urbanites, including Duhui de yi jiao (A Corner of a Metropolis), Yi nian jian (In a Year), Cangfu (The Prostitute), and his best-known play, Shanghai wuyan xia (Under the Eaves of Shanghai), which revolves around the struggle for survival of five families living in an apartment building in Shanghai. Like his films, Xia Yan’s plays portray Chinese society, focusing on the theme of patriotism and the conflicts between social and economic classes, with attention to details of daily life and realistic renditions of his characters’ psychological state. Xia Yan died in Beijing at the age of 95, a well-respected and influential cultural icon. See also CIVIL WAR; NEW CULTURE MOVEMENT; SINO-JAPANESE WAR; SOCIALIST REALISM; SPOKEN DRAMA.