The cleverly sobering axiom “May you live in interesting times” does not originate, despite several popular citations, as a Chinese curse. Instead its provenance has been traced to a speech by a U.S. Senator in the late 1930s, himself quoting a British statesman who’d never visited China himself but said he’d heard it from a British diplomat stationed there. This game of international telephone handily captures a truth about distorted perceptions of China in the West, and in the U.S. especially: Is there a major world culture about which the average American knows less and misunderstands more?
Domestically we have a shameful history with people of all Asian heritages, but it’s worth remembering that our original “yellow peril” hysteria was directed at Chinese laborers in the 19th century. And while we’ve been in actual hot wars with other East Asian countries, China has emerged in the U.S. imagination as a singularly towering rival, if not an open adversary. Ignorance breeds mistrust, and there’s no shortage of either in U.S./China relations. What’s worse: Lately it seems that the bad feeling is mutual.
For these reasons and myriad others, when choosing a theme for this year’s international special issue, we decided to train our focus on Chinese theatre. While we’ve covered it before in various piecemeal ways, we’ve never treated the subject head on. Of course, you might reasonably wonder, what can theatre tell us about the state of a nation? I refer you to Stan Lai, the Taiwanese writer/director, who told me in an interview for this issue, “I have a theory that if one wishes to gauge the general health of a society, contemporary or historical, one can take the pulse of the society, like a Chinese doctor does to gauge his patient’s qi, through the current condition of the theatre. The state of the theatre will tell you many things about the state of the society as a whole.” You read it here first, folks.
And what is the state of Chinese theatre? According to Raymond Zhou, the leading critic at Beijing’s China Daily, who contributes a thoughtful survey of the current scene, the work is vigorous and often formally adventurous, if underappreciated except by an informed, self-selecting elite. Sound familiar? Lai echoes this diagnosis, with the caveat that commercial popularity—which is increasingly accruing to some forms of live entertainment, if not all—can bring with it corrupting temptations. He refers to a dilemma of “double expectations: People look up to the theatre as a temple where they can receive revelations for the soul; people look down on the theatre as a place for crude and quick satisfaction.” If these sound roughly congruent with our own experience of theatre culture in the U.S., the following may not: Several observers note the overwhelming youth of Chinese theatre audiences. As here, these audiences are typically savvy, educated people seeking out new live experiences, both imported and indigenous; unlike here they are not predominantly middle-aged and above.
This hopeful trend might have something to do with the relative youth of Chinese spoken drama, or huaju, as the theatre scholar Siyuan Liu explains in an illuminating conversation with historian Michael Lueger in this issue. While traditional forms of “opera” or music-drama date back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, non-musical drama—influenced variously by Japanese, European, and U.S. traditions—is only about a century old in China, and it’s gone through several phases over the course of that tumultuous hundred years.
Its most recent dispensation, according to the correspondents who contributed to this special issue, mirrors the ambivalence of a nation that is both rapidly expanding and contracting, modernizing and de-liberalizing, commercializing and socializing, all at once. You might even call them interesting times—though for the theatre, in China as in the West, such times can be more blessing than curse.
A version of this story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of American Theatre.