CHEN BAICHEN (1908—1994) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

CHEN BAICHEN (1908—1994)
The Dictionary

CHEN BAICHEN (1908—1994). Playwright and fiction writer. Chen Baichen was born into a merchant family in Huanyin, Jiangsu Province. Influenced by the May Fourth Movement, Chen began writing new poetry and fiction in middle school. His first work, a short story, was published in 1925 in Xiaoshuo shijie (Fiction World). Chen attended the Shanghai Institute of Arts and the South China Institute of Arts, working closely with Tian Han and others to promote a new theater and to build the Chinese film industry. A member of the Left-wing Association of Chinese Writers, which he joined in 1930, Chen worked with progressive theater troupes including Minzhong jushe (The Mass Theater), Nanguo (South China), and Modeng jushe (Modern Theater). He joined the Communist Youth League and was arrested in 1932 for his political involvement. While serving his prison sentence, Chen wrote short stories and some one-act plays.

When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Chen moved to Sichuan and continued his work in the theater, leading and performing with troupes such as the Shanghai Film Troupe and the China Dramatic Arts Society. Many of the plays he wrote during this period denounced Japanese atrocities and aimed at boosting national morale. After the war, Chen returned to Shanghai and helped found the Kunlun Film Studio. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1950 and was appointed art director of the Shanghai Film Studio. He moved to Beijing in 1952 to take up the position of director of playwriting under the Ministry of Culture and later he was transferred to the Chinese Writers’ Association. In 1966, Chen moved to Nanjing and worked in the Jiangsu Provincial Association of Culture. He left his government job in 1978 to become a professor of dramatic arts and chairman of the Chinese Language and Literature Department of Nanjing University, a position he held until his retirement.

Chen had a long and productive career. From the 1930s to the 1980s, he wrote more than 50 plays and screenplays. He is best known for his comedies and historical plays. Many of his comedies fall into the category of political satire, poking fun at the absurdities found in society under the Nationalist government. Luan shi nannü (Men and Women in Wild Times) mocks the degeneration of social mores; Jiehun jingxingqu (March to Marriage) disparages the repressive Nationalist regime; Sheng guan tu (Becoming Officials), a three-act play, satirizes the bureaucracy and corruption at the local level; Sui han tu (A Tale of Winter) centers on the futile effort of an idealistic medical doctor determined to eradicate tuberculosis. Chen’s films include Xingfu kuangxiangqu (Rhapsody of Happiness), about the miserable urban life after the Sino-Japanese War, and Wuya yu maque (The Crow and the Sparrow), which presents the total collapse of the economy and social order under Chiang Kai-shek’s government on the eve of the Communist victory. Chen’s historical plays are critiques of some well-known figures in China’s past, focusing on the power struggle at the highest level. Shi Dakai de molu (Shi Dakai at the End of His Life) and Jintian cun (Jintian Village) deal with conflicts within the leadership of the Taiping uprising in the 19th century; Da feng ge (Ode to the Gale), written in 1979, portrays the political struggle within the imperial court in the beginning years of the Western Han (206 B.C.—23 A.D.).

In addition to his plays, Chen also wrote novels and short stories, most of which expose social ills and express sympathy for the working poor. His first novel, Xuanwo (Whirlpool), was published in 1928, followed by three more: Yige kuanglang de nüzi (An Unruly Woman), Zui’e zhi hua (Flowers of Evil), and Guilai (Homecoming), all written under the influence of the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school. All would be later dismissed by him as nothing but “making a fuss about an imaginary illness” with no relevance to reality. See also SPOKEN DRAMA.