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Emergence of Realism in Modern Chinese Drama

Updated: 2014-12-02 10:21:16

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May Fourth Movement ushered in a period of "absorbing new trends and shaking off the outmoded conventions".Chinaopened her arms to embrace almost all western drama trends that appeared or were emerging during that period. These schools include Oscar Wilde's aesthetic drama, the symbolist drama represented by Maurice Maeterlinck, Gerhart Hauptmann and Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev, expressionist drama presented by August Strindberg and Eugene O'Neill and the Italian futuristic plays. Chinese dramatists named them all as "neo-romanticism". Some drama societies or organizations simply named their societies after such famous plays asThe Sunken BellandThe Blue Bird.

The just awakened Chinese youth were especially sensitive to modern western drama, and were anxious for ideas on liberating "body and soul". They displayed unprecedented boldness and bravery in expressing their personal longings for both "body" and "soul hidden deeply inside".

That is why we see the influence of aestheticism on Chinese drama. Oscar Wilde'sSalomedepicts a lovelorn woman who kills her loverSt. Johnin order to kiss his head. The image of Salome can also be seen dimly in some of Chinese drama works.

In Ouyang Yuqian's Pan Jinlian, the heroine, a wanton woman inOutlaws of the Marsh, became a female character in a brave pursuit of love. Having no affection for her husband Wu Dalang, who was chunky and wretched, she fell deeply in love with Wu Song, her handsome brother-in-law. She said to Wu Song: "I am living in the hell and you come into my eyes like a shining star!" Constrained by traditional moral codes, Wu Song declined her love resolutely. As she could not love her true lover, she turned to Ximen Qing who was a little like Wu Song in appearance. Wu Song killed her sister-in-law. Faced with death, Pan Jinlian claimed: "I would rather be killed by you, my dear lover".

In terms of subject matter, ideological orientation and artistic techniques, Xiang Peiliang'sAmnonis deeply influenced bySalome. Clearly filled with a wild and tragic sense featuring "Salome", these plays depict strong personalities, express fiery feelings and challenge the feudalistic asceticism. In addition, they also hint the dejected feelings of the awakened Chinese youth.

The western symbolism also produced a far-reaching influence on Chinese playwrights. For example, in poetic dramaThe Rebirth of the Goddess, Guo Moruo combined ancient Chinese myths and legends with his own reflections on the then social reality and poetic ideals. The war between emperors symbolizes the warlords' war while the Goddess who creates the new Sun signifies the birth of a good ideal.

The early dramatic works by Tian Han are also filled with the mysterious and sentimental tone of symbolism. InThe Sound of the Old Pond, the old pond, which is profound, quiet and life-killing, is employed to symbolize a kind of unknown force that is alluring and destructive at once. The poet's decision to throw a piece of stone into the pond manifests his will to dive to the bottom of the pond and explore the essential meaning of human life. InThe Tragedy on theLake, Tian Han described man's abandon of "body" for "soul" by presenting the heroine's two suicidal acts.

The western expressionism, as a new trend of thinking, also attracted Chinese playwrights. Its most distinctive feature lies in its exploration of man's soul by means of externalization. InZhao, the King of Hell, Hong Shen depicted Zhao Da, a Chinese soldier escaping in the dark forest with some pelf, terrified internally and haunted by a twinge of conscience and fearful illusions. Quite similar toEmperor Jonesby Eugene O'Neill in technique, the play was not well received as "the audience do not understand what the play means" according to a news report.

In the 1920s, modernism from the west swarmed intoChinaand did gain the favor of some Chinese playwrights. However, the audience found it very difficult to change their psychology of reception from traditional art to the modern one. Moreover, as some Chinese dramatists applied mechanically modernist techniques due to a skin-deep understanding, the gap between modernism and the audience was thus further widened. As a result, short-lived like a meteor, Chinese modernist drama vanished quickly with the social mood turning from depression to exaltation. However, it is undeniable that some valuable elements of western modernistic drama were absorbed by Chinese realistic drama and thus became an organic component of Chinese poetic realism.

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