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Cao Yu's Trilogy: The Wilderness

If modern Chinese drama has come of age in the 1930s, then Cao Yu and his dramatic trilogy of Thunderstorm, Sunrise and The Wilderness are a hallmark of this maturity. Rich in implications and excellent in techniques, these dramatic works are regarded as the classics of modern Chinese drama.

Cao Yu (1910-1996) is a renowned modern Chinese dramatist who is regarded as "the Shakespeare of China". His original name was Wan Jiabao (alias Xiaoshi). He was born into a declining bureaucrat family in Tianjin. His ancestral home was Qianjiang Country, Hubei Province. Just before graduation in 1933 when he was only 23 years old, he finished his virgin play Thunderstorm, to be followed up by Sunrise (1936) and The Wilderness (1937).


Thunderstorm is a tragedy involving complicated blood relationships and numerous inevitable tragic coincidences. It is a dramatic feat with profound connotations and heart-stirring artistry.

As the chairman of the board of directors of a modern coal-mining company, Zhou Puyuan, a male character in the play had been to German to study. Cold-blooded, selfish and hypocritical, he was like a dictator of a dark dynasty in his home. The story unfolded around him. Thirty years earlier, his parents drove away Shiping, a maidservant whom he loved and who had born two sons for him in order to take as his wife for him a girl of an influential family. He thought she must have drowned herself in a river. However, she was saved and married Lu Gui, a lower-rank manservant.

By a quirk of fate, thirty years later, Lu Gui worked at the Zhou's as a servant. Furthermore, his daughter Sifeng also became a maid of the Zhou's just as her mother had been three decades ago. Sifeng fell in love with Zhou Ping (the eldest son of Zhou Puyuan and Shiping) and was pregnant. Yet their love was filled with internal anguish because Fangyi, the young mistress of the Zhou's, did not give up Zhou Ping with whom she had an illicit relationship. At the same time, Sifeng had to face the love of Zhou Chong (a son of Zhou Puyuan and Fanyi), the second eldest son of the Zhou's.

To look for Sifeng, Shiping came to the Zhou's. Here, something that she hated most to see happened. She met Zhou Puyuan again although their old love could no longer be rekindled. Her daughter followed her suit and fell in love with her elder brother and got pregnant. Her two sons Zhou Ping and Lu Dahai could not put up with each other due to their different social status. Everybody present was in the dark except her who knew the truth inside out and thus complained of the unfair fate.

As soon as the cloud over the blood relationships was cleared, a terrible tragedy occurred -- Sifeng was electrocuted and Zhou Chong died the same way in trying to save her; Zhou Ping shot himself with a pistol and Fangyi went mad. Shiping was dumbfounded in the face of all these tragic scenes. As the arch- criminal for all these tragic and sinful events, Zhou Puyuan was doomed at the end of the play to swallow all these dismal results.

Zhou Puyuan is a well-portrayed character in Thunderstorm. All sinful acts were attributable to his domestic autocracy. The profound significance of Thunderstorm lies in its exposure of the close political and ideological bond between Chinese capitalists and the deep-rooted feudal traditions. Through his mind filled with complicated conflicts and his superficially humane appearance, we can see the dark soul of a ghastly feudal despot.

Cao Yu once said that Fanyi was the stormiest character in the play. She was eccentric and capricious all along -- sometimes calm and sometimes wild. In addition, her freak love and strong lust drive reminded the audience of a sudden and violent thunderstorm. As Zhou Puyuan's second wife, she wanted very much to hold her own life. Despite a boring, apathetic, lonely and gloomy family life, a flame of love was still burning at the bottom of her heart. Because of her love for Zhou Ping, she was "neither like a mother as a mother nor like a sweetheart as a sweetheart". Her pursuit for dreamy happiness rendered destruction to herself and others.

In Thunderstorm , Shiping is a very important role. She was a simple and kind workwoman who had suffered much pain and humiliation. The unfair fate exerted tremendous pressure on her soul. Sifeng, her chaste and pretty daughter who should have her own love, followed her miserable lot.

Thunderstorm achieved great success in art. This results possibly from the inspiration of Greek tragedy, the influence of Ibsen's plays or Cao Yu's familiarity with well-made plays. However, rather than an imitation, the play derives from the playwright's anger at the Chinese family and society and his thunderstorm-like poetic sense. In particular, the dramatic language used in the play is refined, pure and full of undertones.

Shortly after the publication of Thunderstorm, Chinese students in Japan put it on the stage. In China, China Travel Troupe included it in its repertoire and staged it many times in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai. Guo Moruo called it "a rare weighty work". Mao Dun praised it as something that "shocked me like a violent storm I encountered at sea". Since the 1980s, it has generated a new upsurge of interest and has been staged all along.


Sunrise appeared less than two years after the publication of Thunderstorm. In this play, Cao Yu turned his attention from family to society. He chose a grand hotel and a third-class whorehouse as the stage settings, which formed a striking contrast.

In the first setting, the play described the luxurious and dissipated life of the upper class with the plot developed around Chen Bailu, a party girl and those banking managers, rich women, handsome men and foreign professors around her. In contrast, in the second setting, by depicting the fate of Cuixi, a prostitute and a girl named the Shrimp sold to Precious Harmony, the playwright exposed the infernal society. Cao Yu intended this contrast structure to flagellate the corrupt social system.

Chen Bailu is a clever and pretty young woman. As her family came down in the world, she had to work her own way into the society and became a star with her beauty. She pursued love and had fallen in love with a poet. But she parted with him finally in pain. Her life as a star and party girl brought her money, vanity and anguish of being betrayed. She enjoyed a luxurious life in the hotels, which also corrupted her at the same time. Not until Fang Dasheng who once loved her very much came to her did she have time to review herself and question her own soul. She was not a completely depraved woman. When seeing a girl named "the Shrimp" being beaten hard by some hooligans, she stepped forward boldly to defend the poor girl. Yet when she realized that "the Shrimp" could not escape death, she came to know that she was unable to change the reality and her own miserable fate of "being permanently possessed by this place".

She could not advance along the way pointed out by Fang Dasheng. So she became even more depressed. The downfall of Pan Yueting with whom she had played together illicitly exacerbated her depression. In fact, her clear thinking and reasoning had enabled her to realize that an inevitable tragedy was approaching her So she decided to end her miserable life.

Compared with Thunderstorm, Sunrise went a step further in exhibiting Cao Yu's talent in characterization. For example, he could still present the audience with penetrating descriptions of such characters as Li Shiqing and Huang Xingsan who appeared only a few times on the stage. His depiction of Mistress Gu, a rich widow and Zhang George, a flunkey of a foreign boss was concise but incisive.

In Sunrise Cao Yu employed many dramatic techniques on the basis of tragic keynote, such as comic and even farcical methods.

Sunrise made more use of metaphors and symbols. At the end of the play, against the scarlet morning sun was a resounding and exciting work song of the pile-driving workers. This represented the playwright's praise of work as well as his longing for the ideal. What's more, through depiction of different characters, the play exposed the harmful effects of money on the society and man.

  The Wilderness

Unlike his other two famous plays describing urban life, Cao Yu told us a story of revenge that happened in the countryside in The Wilderness.

As a prison breaker, Chouhu returned to his home village in secret. Many years ago, the local tyrant Jiao Yanwang buried his father alive, forcibly took possession of the land of his family, sold his younger sister into prostitution and took Jinzhi (his sweetheart) as his daughter-in-law When Chouhu appeared in front of the Jiao's home, Jiao Yanwang was already dead and his wife had become blind. Only Daxing, the coward son of Jiao who was Chouhu's friend in childhood, was there to support the family.

Chouhu's reunion with Jinzhi resulted in an interlude of strange and wild love. Driven by his distorted and depressed soul, Chouhu was anxious to kill Daxing so as to prevent the Jiaos from having any successors. It was not easy for him to summon up the courage to do that. However, he did kill Daxing and even tricked Daxing's mother into murdering Daxing's child. Notwithstanding this, he could not take any delight in achieving his revenge. Chased by the detective squad, Chouhu escaped into the forest where he felt violent terror and became deranged. As a result, various illusions flashed across his mind constantly: Jiao Yanwang, terrifying masks, his sister who died miserably. In addition, the shooting sounds and the drumbeats disturbed his soul and made him more confused. In the end, he did not walk out of the dark forest and died there.

This play was influenced by Emperor Jones, a play by Eugene O'Neil -- a renowned American dramatist. With expressionism, O'Neil hoped to externalize man's sub-consciousness, inner conflicts on the stage. The Wilderness is not a mere imitation. Here Cao Yu combined expressionism and realism. The most unique significance of the play lies in its presentation from a fresh point of view of the heavy burden on the peasants and the complex and circuitous psychological process they go through from revolt to awakening.

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