[Review] 胡星亮《中国现代戏剧思潮 —— 戏剧现代化与社会现代化》(Hu Xingliang: Trends of Thought in Modern Chinese Theater – The Modernization of Theater and the Modernization of Society)

Hu Xingliang 胡星亮: Zhongguo xiandai xiju sichaoXiju xiandaihua yu shehui xiandaihua 中国现代戏剧思潮 —— 戏剧现代化与社会现代化 (Trends of Thought in Modern Chinese Theater – The Modernization of Theater and the Modernization of Society), Beijing shifan daxue chubanshe 北京师范大学出版社, 2022. ISBN 978-7-303-27803-9; 344 pages; 79 RMB.

Reviewed by Stefan Christ (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)

I am interested in the relationship between theater and society, and so I was excited to read the new book by Hu Xingliang, Trends of Thought in Modern Chinese Theater – The Modernization of Theater and the Modernization of Society (hereafter Trends of Thought). However, I soon realized that it is not a new book at all, but a slightly revised version of Ershi shiji Zhongguo xiju sichao 二十世纪中国戏剧思潮 (Trends of Thought in Chinese Theater in the Twentieth Century), published in 1995 by Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe. Nevertheless, Hu Xingliang is such an important figure in modern Chinese theater studies that his book still deserves a critical review. As a matter of fact, Trends of Thought has been republished along with three other books by Hu to celebrate his scholarly accomplishments and the results of various large research projects conducted over the last several decades.[1]

Hu Xingliang was born in Zhejiang in 1957.[2] After spending some years as a teacher in rural Anhui during the Cultural Revolution, in 1978, he entered Anhui University to study Chinese literature. He obtained his master’s degree in the same subject from Hangzhou University and then transferred to Nanjing University for his Ph.D. studies under the famous dramatist Chen Baichen 陈白尘 (1908-1944) and the theater historian Dong Jian 董健 (1936-2019). Hu became the first student to obtain a Ph.D. in theater history and theory in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with a dissertation on modern Chinese comedy (Zhongguo xiandai xiju lun 中国现代喜剧论, Nanjing daxue chubanshe, 1995). As a Ph.D. student, he contributed to an authoritative volume on modern Chinese theater.[3] Since he became a professor at the Chinese literature department of Nanjing University in 1997, he has edited another standard volume on contemporary Chinese theater[4], and published monographs on the relation between “spoken drama” (huaju 话剧) and “traditional Chinese theater” (xiqu 戏曲) and on the connection between Chinese and foreign theater after 1949.[5]

In Trends of Thought, Hu attempts to identify, describe, and analyze the main currents of thought regarding theater between 1900 and 1992 (the 2022 version does not extend the period covered by the original book from 1995). In practice, he has written something like a history of ideas about the form, content, and function of theater by Chinese theorists and practitioners throughout the twentieth century. The narrative mostly focuses on the debates that occurred in theater journals or other publications, usually supplemented by the naming of some representative pieces and artists. The account is almost exclusively based on primary sources and hardly engages with other scholarship, which surely can be explained by Hu being one of the first to explore this field systematically. Nonetheless, it is regrettable that the author did not at least add a new introduction in which he could have reacted to the developments in the field since the first publication of his book.

The current edition is structured into four chronologically arranged parts. The first part, the shortest, covers the years between 1897 and 1918 and consists of only two chapters. The first chapter discusses the early calls for reforming the traditional theater at the turn of the century, how the reformed theater was supposed to support social and political reforms, and how, in the process, theater’s status was raised to be recognized as a proper literary art form. The second chapter deals with the introduction of new Western theater forms, which happened mainly through Japan. Its most interesting part describes the debate over the necessity of theater texts (juben 剧本). Otherwise, it follows later huaju advocates like Hong Shen in treating the early new theater phenomena as mere precursors to the May Fourth developments. This teleological perspective, however, has been repeatedly questioned, for example by Liu Siyuan´s work on the “civilized plays” (wenmingxi 文明戏).[6]

The second part, which treats the years from 1918 to 1930, is the second longest and one of the core parts of the book. It expounds on the first megatrend Hu Xingliang identifies, the “modernization” (xiandaihua 现代化) of theater that started with the May Fourth Movement. Modernization, according to Hu, came in two main forms. First, in the form of the new spoken drama’s “Realism” (xianshi zhuyi 现实主义), which was pitted against the “old theater,” said to be as corrupt and backward as the old society. At the core of this Realism is depicting problematic social reality in order to elicit reforms. However, Hu notes that while many were convinced by the basic idea of Realism, it did not come with artistic forms one could emulate, except Hu Shi’s paradigm of “Ibsenism,” which established the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s works as a model, propagated in the May Fourth journal New Youth (Xin qingnian 新青年) in 1918. Thus, Hu Xingliang describes the many debates about the depiction of reality that raged throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The second form of modernization, the almost simultaneous introduction of European “Romanticism” (langman zhuyi 浪漫主义) and “Neo-Romanticism” (xin langman zhuyi 新浪漫主义)[7], in contrast, delivered exciting new artistic forms but had a very different intellectual focus. They were not centered on the depiction of reality but rather understood theater as a means for creative self-expression; they were interested in the individual and not in society, and they developed theater as an art in and of itself and not as a political, economic, or social instrument. Hu’s discussion of these latter “waves” sometimes is a bit schematic in its structure and limited to only a handful of individuals (most often, he cites Tian Han 田汉 and Guo Moruo 郭沫若). Nonetheless, his point that the theater’s modernization process not only brought the “society” into view but also the “individual” is important. Even though in Hu’s narrative, Romanticism and Neo-Romanticism could hardly withstand the heated social and political conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s, which led to a mostly “instrumental” understanding of theater, the preoccupation with the individual and artistic self-expression never waned completely afterwards and returned with force in the 1980s.

The third part covers the longest period, namely between 1930 and 1976, and constitutes the longest part of the book. The megatrend Hu posits for the theater development during this period is “nationalization” or “Sinicization” (minzuhua 民族化), with a direct reference to Mao Zedong’s demand for the Sinicization of Marxism (p. 189). Hu´s basic idea is that while the previous period was marked by the introduction of the new forms of theater, the realist huaju being the most important among them, and by translations of foreign pieces, the following decades were spent on popularizing the new forms, on fusing them with indigenous tradition, and on creating contents that were meaningful in the Chinese context. Considering these points, it is somewhat surprising that Hu does not include the “National theater movement” (guoju yundong 国剧运动) of the late 1920s here (it appears in the previous section), which might be due to the movement’s failure in actual theater creation. Instead, Hu begins this part with the rise of the “proletarian theater” in the 1930s and the discussions on how to popularize realist spoken drama among broader segments of the population, so it could better serve the interests of the lower classes. In the subsequent section on the “Sinicization” of spoken drama, he mainly discusses how huaju was to integrate elements of traditional Chinese theater, a point that, in fact, the National theater movement had already raised but which continued to be discussed after 1949.

Hu then returns to the modernization of traditional Chinese theater forms, which demanded renewed attention after the propaganda theater during the War against Japan had shown that it was not enough to simply fill “new wine into the old bottles.” Hu also explores whether xiqu fell into a crisis engendered by the new demands and limitations it confronted after the establishment of the PRC. Here he goes beyond his sources to present what feels like a rather political discussion, defending the need for constant renewal and the preservation of the traditional basis while allowing for some pluralism in reform approaches. Maybe Hu, perhaps through his teacher Chen Baichen, was still too close to the discussions and experiences of the early PRC, for unlike other parts of the book, many pages here do not consist of a carefully weighted reading and evaluation of primary texts, but instead provide (paraphrase?) arguments and thoughts such that one cannot be entirely sure where they come from and what they answer to. As the last two decades have seen plenty of significant scholarship on early PRC theater,[8] this section of the book feels really outdated.

Further chapters explore the emergence and evolution of the “new opera” (xin geju 新歌剧) genre, the introduction of the Stanislavsky system, and the “model plays” (yangbanxi 样板戏) of the Cultural Revolution period. While Hu’s discussion of the first two topics is more scholarly, he is unmistakably clear in his condemnation of political interference in theater during the Cultural Revolution, which he attributes to Jiang Qing 江青 and her followers. He can find some artistic value in the “model plays,” as the best theater artists of the time were brought together in their production, but he denies any genuine intellectual value in the theoretical paradigms articulated around their production.

The last part of the book covers the period from 1976 to 1992, which was also the endpoint in the original 1995 publication. It is not entirely clear why the book set 1992 as the endpoint because the latest texts cited are from 1989, and the Tian’anmen incident and its repercussions are nowhere mentioned. The starting point is clear though: after the end of the Cultural Revolution, theater makers revived the former Realism in order to discuss social and political issues of their recent past as well as of their present in a new generation of “problem pieces” (wenti xi 问题戏). However, the old Realism, which Hu describes as a combination of May Fourth Ibsenism with Stanislavsky, soon ran into problems, as the Chinese people wanted to embrace a new and better future instead of discussing “problems,” and theater, in general, had to compete more and more with film and television. While some perceived the impossibility of returning to old forms as a “theater crisis,” it also opened space for new understandings – hence the debate over “theater conceptions” (xiju guan 戏剧观) – and the introduction of a whole range of new theater forms from the West. Chinese theater makers also resumed exploring and experimenting with traditional Chinese theater forms. Overall, this led to a diversification of both theory and practice of theater with innovation in all areas, from directing over acting to stagecraft.

Hu’s main approach in the book is to ask: what has prompted the emergence of certain “trends of thought” on theater? And what has prompted their demise? Usually, he finds the answer in the “needs of society.” The concept of “trend (or wave) of thought” (sichao) in the title seems to indicate a certain ideological stance, as it is reminiscent of the first literary history following the paradigm of class struggle, Jin ershi nian lai Zhongguo wenyi sichao lun 近二十年來中國文藝思潮論 (Trends of Thought in Chinese Literature and Arts over the Past Twenty Years) by Li Helin 李何林 (1904-1988) published in 1939.[9] But although Hu uses the jargon of official history writing in the PRC – he sometimes speaks of the “feudal society,” the “bourgeois class,” or the like – his narrative is not driven by class struggle. In his introduction, Hu makes clear that Li Helin was not the only one to use the concept of sichao and quotes a definition by Liang Qichao as his main reference instead. He stresses that there are moments in history when certain new ideas respond particularly well to the needs of society and therefore gain broad influence. It is such ideas that “make waves” that Hu is interested in, because they embody the spirit of the time and the general trend of “cultural development” (p. 2).

If this sounds like a somewhat overly linear and normative narrative, such fears are not entirely misplaced. When Hu speaks of the “necessity of reform” (e.g., on p. 224), of some views of theater as being “unscientific” (e.g., on p. 74), or the “healthy” development of a theater that is neither too experimental nor too formalistic (p. 313ff.), it seems that there are strong opinions about what constitutes the one and only correct theater for each period at work in the background. Some parts, however, also give the opposite impression, namely that Hu consciously tries to bring back into view alternative concepts of theater that are in danger of being obliterated by strong political pressures or by too narrow views on the development of modern Chinese theater.

Overall, I think it was a clever choice by the author to put the focus on “society,” as it allows him to avoid too much emphasis on the political context or history of events. Even in more recent accounts, the history of modern Chinese theater is often seen as overly determined by politics and the larger historical context while ignoring many of the internal dynamics in the debates among theater practitioners and theoreticians. Thus, it is one of the strong points of Hu´s book that he follows the emergence, critical discussion, suppression, and reemergence of theater conceptualizations over a long period of time and, in doing so, really focuses on the theater discourse and its artistic, aesthetic, and social contents. He often excels at getting to the core of various intellectual positions and showing both their relevance and limitations. This is especially visible in the author´s discussion of the development of “Realism.” The author´s focus on the logics of the theater discourse itself is also reflected in his chronological divisions, which are not necessarily based on political events. Furthermore, combining the long-term observation of theater debates with the “needs of society” also allows Hu to identify the two overarching trends of “modernization” and “nationalization,” which, even though I would frame them somewhat differently, make a lot of sense from the perspective of Chinese conceptual history.[10]

The author could have gained even more by relating the history of theater thought to the concept of society. For example, how did the increasingly abstract and complex concept of society affect understandings of theater? Do the many “-isms” (zhuyi 主义) that Hu describes in his book not attest to an increasing diversity and differentiation of Chinese society as well as the loss of a unifying perspective? In contrast to the hierarchical social distinctions of imperial times, which were represented through elements of ritual, clothing, and the like on every social occasion, the modernizing Chinese society was increasingly splitting into functional spheres that were not visible in the same way anymore – how were these new divisions shown in theater then? Despite the repeated argument that social needs drove theater development, Hu rarely mentions the profound transformations that Chinese society underwent in the last century. He also writes surprisingly little about the changing social institutions associated with theater and the people who thought about it: the publications from which he takes his texts, the new theater venues founded throughout the century, or the new academic institutions.

Finally, it is problematic that this history of theater thought uses many concepts as if they were self-evident when their analysis and historicization should have been part of the writing of this history. To give just one example, the author refers to the “conventionalized” (chengshihua 程式化, e.g., on p. 62) nature of xiqu but does not make clear that both xiqu and chengshihua are modern terms that emerged only in twentieth-century discourse that reconceptualized traditional theater forms. Despite such weaknesses, Hu Xingliang has provided a balanced and highly readable account of the most important theater debates of the last century, including a great selection of primary citations, and thus can still serve as a basic reference for anyone interested in the history of theater in China.


[1] For the other books in the series, see https://news.nju.edu.cn/kjdt/20220830/i109914.html (last accessed 20 May 2023).

[2] I took the biographical information from Hu´s official university website (https://chin.nju.edu.cn/szdw/xrjs/xjyysx/20230105/i237512.html; last accessed 20 May 2023) and an interview with him conducted by Pengpai reporters Xu Jinjing and Sun Haiyan: https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_2660964 (last accessed 1 May 2023).

[3] Chen Baichen, Dong Jian (eds.), Zhongguo xiandai xiju shigao 中国现代戏剧史稿 [Outline of the History of Modern Chinese Theater] (Zhongguo xiju chubanshe 中国戏剧出版社, 1996).

[4] Hu Xingliang, Dong Jian (eds.), Zhongguo dangdai xiju shigao 中国当代戏剧史稿 [Outline of the History of Contemporary Chinese Theater] (Zhongguo xiju chubanshe, 2008).

[5] Zhongguo huaju yu Zhongguo xiqu 中国话剧与中国戏曲 (Xuelin chubanshe 学林出版社 1999); Dangdai Zhongwai bijiao xiju shilun 当代中外比较戏剧史论 (Renmin chubanshe 人民出版社, 2009).

[6] See Liu, Siyuan: Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[7] The three main strands of Neo-Romanticism in Chinese theater, according to Hu, were Expressionism, Symbolism, and Aestheticism.

[8] See, for example, Brian DeMare´s Mao’s Cultural Army: Drama Tropes in China’s Rural Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), the volume Rethinking Chinese Socialist Theaters of Reform – Performance, Practice, and Debate in the Mao Era edited by Xiaomei Chen, Tarryn Li-Min Chun and Siyuan Liu (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021), Siyuan Liu´s Transforming Tradition: The Reform of Chinese Theater in the 1950s and Early 1960s (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2021), or the nine volumes of Zhongguo huaju yishu shi 中国话剧艺术史 [A History of Chinese Drama] by Tian Benxiang 田本相 (Nanjing: Jiangsu fenghuang jiaoyu chubanshe, 2016).

[9] See Zhang, Yingjin. “The Institutionalization of Modern Literary History in China, 1922-1980.” Modern China, vol. 20, no. 3, 1994, pp. 347–77, for Li Helin especially p. 356f.

[10] See my upcoming article “Temporalization and Differentiation: On the Formation of the Modern Theater Concepts in Twentieth Century China” in Oriens Extremus 60.2023.



Cite this blog post
Stefan Christ (2023, August 1). [Review] 胡星亮《中国现代戏剧思潮 —— 戏剧现代化与社会现代化》(Hu Xingliang: Trends of Thought in Modern Chinese Theater – The Modernization of Theater and the Modernization of Society). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ohah

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