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The Flowering of Shanghai Theater

Naoko Suzuki
Research Associate, Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

The city of Shanghai and theater

Shanghai was once known as the "devil's city". This image is represented by the modern architecture which exists along the banks of the Huangpu River in the area known as the Bund (Wai Tan), and by Nanking Road, which bustles with people. All of the architecture and international settlements which form the image of Shanghai were created after entering modern times. In 1842, after the Opium War, Shanghai was opened by the Treaty of Nanking and forced to form itself into a modern city. The form of Shanghai was brought about by modernization, and this image remains in the city even today.

The current Japan-based exhibition of the Shanghai Culture and Art Museum is entitled "The Flower of Shanghai Theater". The theme of the exhibition is the coexistence and co-prosperity of culture and cities. Among the many cultural arts born in the city of Shanghai, the exhibition places particular emphasis on theater.

The city culture of Shanghai, also known as hai pai culture, developed as an intersection of Eastern and Western culture. This culture is spoken of in contrast with jing pai culture of Beijing. The phrase "the ocean never resists a little stream" is used to express hai pai culture. In other words, this phrase shows how the "ocean" of Shanghai has been formed by absorbing a variety of things.

Since the culture of Shanghai possesses the great diversity described above, "Shanghai theater" does not indicate one particular form of theater. Rather, just as the ocean that is Shanghai absorbs thousands of little streams, Shanghai Theater contains all types of theater, ranging from regional and traditional theater such as Huju Opera, Huaiju Opera, Yueju Opera, and Huaju to modern theater.

Shanghai and Mei Lanfang (October 22, 1894 to August 8, 1961)

Due to the diversity with which Shanghai theater incorporated a variety of different theater, Beijing Opera (Jing-Ju), the representative theater of Beijing, blended into the theater scene of Shanghai. Performances of Beijing Opera began in Shanghai in 1867. Afterwards, the art form continued to develop into a Shanghai-style of Beijing Opera (hai pai Jing-ju). Zhou Xinfang (1895 to 1975) was a representative performer of Shanghai-style Beijing Opera. Zhou Xinfang used the stage name of Qi-lin Tong, and his style of performing, known as qi pai, is continued by performers even today.

Mei Lanfang and Zhou Xinfang (collection of Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum)

Conversely, the performer Mei Lanfang was active in Beijing, the base of Beijing Opera. Mei Lanfang, a performer of Beijing Opera, first visited Shanghai in 1913 at the age of 19. Beginning for November 4th of the same year, Mei Lanfang began performances of female opera roles. Although the initial plan called for one month of performances, the plan was extended to include a further half-month of performances due to extremely high popularity among theatergoers in Shanghai. The performance was advertised heavily in the local newspaper Shen Bao, and the 45 days of the first Shanghai performance were a great success. As Mei Lanfang later revealed in his autobiography, the reason why his performance gained such reputation among theatergoers was not because of the technical skills of his acting, but rather because of the way in which he skillfully expressed emotion. "In the emotional areas, I have had a slight but solid understanding since I was young. For any play, I enjoy pursuing and expressing the personality and position of the characters, and I have worked hard to express these traits as much as possible. The attention that I give to this aspect (emotion) is part of my individuality." (from "Forty Years of Life on the Stage" (*1))

In the Beijing Opera of Beijing at the time, emphasis was placed on singing and it was normal for theatergoers to enjoy listening to the opera by ear. However, Mei Lanfang incorporated the richness of emotion and expression into these performances, enabling him to capture the hearts of theatergoers in Shanghai who enjoyed viewing performances by eye.

Mei Lanfang and Zhou Xinfang: Memorial of 50 Years on Stage (collection of Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum)

Afterwards, Mei Lanfang visited Shanghai 3 more times to give performances (November 30, 1914 to January 15, 1915; October to December of 1916; May of 1920). In May of 1920, Mei Lanfang performed filming for a movie, his first such work outside of the theater. The passage Chun Xiang Nao Xue (Chun Xiang Disturbs the Studies) from the Ming Dynasty kunqu opera Mu Dan Ting (The Peony Pavilion; written by Tang Xianzu) was filmed as a silent movie. The filming was performed by the Photography Department of the Commercial Press which was located on the Bao Shan Bei Lu of Shanghai at that time. Shanghai was a place in which the movie industry developed in addition to theater. Mei Lanfang also filmed another movie in the autumn of 1924. This filming was performed through consignment from a Shanghai film company named Mingxing Yingpian to another film company named Huabei Dian-Ying. A portion of the dances and acting from plays such as Xi Shi (Beauty Yu), Ba Wang Bie Ji (Farewell My Concubine), Shang Yuan Fu Ren (Lady Shang Yuan), Mu lan cong jun (Mulan Joins the Army) and Dai Yu Zang Hua (Dai Yu Burying the Fallen Petals) were filmed as a silent monochrome movie. Unfortunately, these two films were lost in the Japanese bombings during the Shanghai Incident in 1932. The bombings struck the printing center of the Commercial Press and destroyed film storage facilities.

Mei Lanfang moved from Beijing to Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War. He lived in Shanghai from 1932 to 1938 in order to flee the disasters of war, and moved further to Hong Kong from 1938 to 1942. However, he returned to Shanghai again in 1942, and returned to Beijing in 1951 after the war had ended and People's Republic of China was established. In July of 1951, Mei Lanfang established a home in the first residence of Hu Guo Si Jie. This residence is currently preserved as the Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum.

*1) "Forty Years of Life on the Stage" (Mei Lanfang, Xu Jichuan, Xu Yuanlai; "The Collected Works of Mei Lanfang", First Volume p.132 Heibei Education Press)

Birthplace of modern theater

When Mei Lanfang visited Shanghai, he was impressed with the newness of Shanghai-style theater in contrast to what existed in Beijing. The instant that he stepped on stage during his first appearance in Shanghai theater, he was surprised at the brightness before his eyes. In order to instill theatergoers with an impression towards the new performer from Beijing, the owner of the theater had lined lights along the front of the stage. These lights were turned on the instant that Mei Lanfang appeared. The stage in Shanghai used lights which were still rare at the time. Mei Lanfang also sensed freshness in the carpeted theater and the new semi-circular shape of the stage.

Photograph of performance by Mei Lanfang "Yi L端 Ma"(collection of Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum)

Examples of new styles of theaters at the time were the Xin Wu Tai Theater and the Mourtrie theater operated by the brothers Xia Yue Run and Xia Yue Shan. Outside of traditional theater, the 1910s was a period which saw a rise in new forms of theater with themes based on current events. The Xin Wu Tai Theater staged performances of foreign adaptations such as Cha Hua N端 (The Lady of the Camelia) and Hei Nuyu Tianlu (Uncle Tom's Cabin). The Mourtrie theater was a room in the building of a record company, not a true theater. Chun Liu She used this theater as a base for their activities. Chun Liu She was a literary group established in Tokyo in 1907 and composed of Chinese foreign exchange students. It is commonly theorized that Chun Liu She was the pioneer of Chinese dialogic theater. In 2007, a number of events were held on the 100th anniversary of the founding of Chun Liu She. After their return to China, Ou Yang Yu Qian and other central members of the Chun Liu She held performances of new theater (known as Wen Ming Xi at the time) at the Mourtrie theater.

Although the theater form of Wen Ming Xi declined in later years, dialogic theater became firmly rooted in Shanghai. In 1924, the Shanghai Drama Company staged a successful adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" (written and performed by Hong Shen) that served as a barometer for dialogic theater in China.

Characteristics of hai pai culture

Beijing Opera costume donated by Mei Lanfang (collection of Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum)

Many forms of theater existed together in Shanghai, including traditional theater, regional theater and dialogic theater. The current exhibition enables museum visitors to experience many different forms of Chinese theater under one roof. For example, the exhibition features traditional dramas (Beijing Opera, Kunju Opera, Yueju Opera, Huju Opera and Huaiju Opera, performing arts (Ping Tan, Hua Ji Xi), modern theater (Huaju), marionette theater (Mu Ou Xi), and shadow plays (Pi Ying Xi). An exhibition relating to Chinese theater which has gathered such a great amount of theater forms may be the first of its type in Japan. The contents of this exhibition are plentiful, true to the expression "the ocean never resists a little stream".

Even while containing such a great amount of theater forms, Shanghai theater has continued to develop until the present day. This variety is the main characteristic of Shanghai theater. The work "A Sea of Theater-Past and Contemporary hai pai Theater" (written by Hu Xiaojun and Su Yi Jin, Wenhui Publishing, 2007) discusses the following 5 characteristics of hai pai culture.

1) Openness
2) Creativity (create new things)
3) Abandonment
4) Pluralism
5) Commercialism (*2)

Item 1, openness, refers to being progressive rather than conservative. Item 3, refers to taking what is good and leaving what is bad from all things. Item 5, commercialism, can be called the most representative of hai pai. Shanghai is sensitive to both domestic and international markets, emphasizes entertainment as well as commercialism, and has developed through repeated competition.

I hope that many people will visit the current exhibition to learn about the flowering of Shanghai theater until today and to experience the diversity of hai pai culture.

*2) "A Sea of Theater-Past and Contemporary hai pai Theater" (written by Hu Xiaojun and Su Yi Jin, Wenhui Publishing, 2007) First Chapter (p. 6).

Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum Exhibition
Japan-China Cultural Exchange Exhibition: "The Flower of Shanghai Theater"

(Held by the Shanghai Culture and Art Museum and the Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum)

Venue: Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Nakamura Utaemon IV Memorial Exhibition Room, Exhibition Room I, Exhibition Room II
Exhibition Period: June 1st (Mon.) 2009 to June 30th (Tues.)

Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Naoko Suzuki
Research Associate, Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Born in 1974. Completed the Doctoral Program at the Ochanomizu University Graduate School of Humanities. Her specialty is modern Chinese literature and theater.