Chinese arts at the crossroadsOctober 8th, 2008 - 9:24 am ICT by IANS
Beijing, Oct 8 (Xinhua) For the 51-year-old director of the National Theatre Company of China (NTCC), Wang Xiaoying, the impulse to examine the human soul has been his primary driving force since the early 1980s.Born into a family of traditional opera performers in 1957, Wang got exposure to the arts at a very young age. After four years with a local performing arts troupe in eastern Anhui province, he left the Anhui Institute of Technology in preference to the Central Academy of Drama (CAD) in 1979. “My intuition told me that my life would be devoted to the arts.”
Wang and his 19 classmates, the first batch of directing majors since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, were strictly trained under the drama system adopted from the Soviet Union. “On the whole, it followed the traditional line: the arts are a tool to reflect reality and serve social needs.”
In his third year, Wang sensed a change, both in society and on the campus.
“We had the chance to read Western works, notably the absurd theatre led by Samuel Beckett and epic theatre led by Bertolt Brecht.”
The ’spring breeze of reform’ was stirring across China’s arts world, and artistes were experiencing a cultural reawakening that lasted for a full decade.
Later, Wang was able to see for himself foreign performances. The young man was deeply moved by a Japanese drama that told of a frog’s adventures on a tree.
“It never occurred to me that an adult’s outlook on the world could be reflected by animals. My previous concept that realistic drama is the ‘unbreakable golden rule’ was rudely challenged.”
When Wang enrolled in the China National Youth Theatre (the predecessor of NTCC) on graduation in 1984, he was deep into a movement of experimentation. “It was imperative to go through reform, to prevent the extinction of drama in the face of the mushrooming film and television scene.”
Two years later, the 28-year-old director staged his debut production “The Magic Square”.
Written by a student from East China’s Normal University, it was divided into nine sections, each telling its own distinct story. A multitude of artistic forms were exercised, such as the monologue, mime, interview, and even advertising.
“Novel as it was, the theme was easily grasped: the young generation’s multi-faceted thinking, or criticizing, of society and the meaning of life,” Wang recalls, still excited.
“I was enveloped by an urge to confront traditional drama.”
The passionate audience also experienced the urge, and the drama was shown consecutively for more than 80 nights in Beijing and Shanghai, winning acclaim from the avant garde and brickbats from conservative supervisors.
It was for his controversial experimental dramas that Wang was called “the most pioneering director in China”.
Nationwide, other drama directors were also experimenting with what they termed “an exploration of both artistic ideas and expression”.
“I was starting to search the innermost part of the mind. I could see clearly the shortcomings of Teahouse or Thunderstorm models that had been passed on from one generation to the next.”
To Wang and his colleagues’ profound disappointment, the experimentation movement culminated in 1988 with the drama Recollections of Mulberry Village before fading away in the early 1990s.
“With the receding tide, many dramatists paid too much attention to the form instead of the essence of the arts. They claimed to make experimental drama, but what they cared about more was money, which goes against the critical spirit of this form.”
Throughout the 1990s, the Chinese arts were confronted by a new master: the market. The number of government-sponsored drama theatres fell from around 200 to less than 100.
Wang believes this could be partly attributed to a new policy of “no money, no existence” introduced in 1998. Small theatres with less audience were squarely removed from the list.
But the stubborn Wang has stuck to his quest for “humanity’s struggle in a predicament”, a central theme dating back to the thriving 1980s.
One of his favourite works is British playwright Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which centres on German nuclear scientist Werner Heisenberg’s visit to his teacher Niels Bohr during World War II.
“The drama examines a scientist’s position as war approaches. Is it morally acceptable not to fight for his motherland and commit crimes against humanity by the invention and application of nuclear bombs?” Wang asks.
But for Cui, Guan and their young fellows, the arts no longer carry such heavy concepts.
Since they started to appreciate arts in 2001, the young couple has developed an interest in all the arts, including college theatre, installations, independent documentary movies, or rock-and-roll bands.
“In terms of the arts, China is in its prime,” Guan says. “Looking back at the past eight years, it’s developed from idealism to realism or industrialization, which is a good thing. Chinese artistes have managed to find a balance between the quality of performance and market success. They have come to rely on their senses and have gradually matured.”