Haiwang YUAN

Performance of the play Sunrise, by Cao Yu, performed at Beijing’s People’s Art Theater. The cast of characters—bankers and gangsters, rich widows and prostitutes, scholars and actors—represents a cross section of life in Shanghai in the 1930s. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Author of the classic Chinese play Leiyu (Thunderstorm), Cao Yu is considered one of the most important playwrights of twentieth-century China. He was instrumental in the acceptance of the Western style play into the Chinese theater tradition, and his plays are still popular in China today.

Cao Yu was China’s most accomplished playwright of the twentieth century. Born as Wan Jiabao in Qianjiang County of Hubei Province, Cao Yu relocated to Tianjin with his parents when he was young. In 1922 he went to Nankai Middle School, where three years later he joined its Xinjushe (Society of New Theatric Arts) and played a key role in it. A lover of literature, he read a great deal of Chinese and Western classics. In 1928 he enrolled in the Department of Political Science at Nankai University, Tianjin, and transferred to the Department of Foreign Languages at Tsinghua University in Beijing the next year. There his interest in Western theatrical arts and traditional Chinese operas intensified. He was particularly drawn to Shakespeare and classical Greek and Roman tragedians.

In the year of his graduation in 1933, he finished his debut work, Leiyu (Thunderstorm), which became a classic. He used his pen name Cao Yu instead of his real name; Cao and yu are the two parts that form the traditional character wan, his last name. In the same year Cao Yu enrolled in the Graduate College of Tsinghua University to study theater. The next year he became a teacher at Tianjin’s Hebei Normal School for Women, where he completed his second script, entitled Richu (Sunrise), which turned out to be another classic. In 1936 Cao Yu was hired by the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Nanjing to teach playwriting and Western drama. That year he wrote Yuanye (The Wilderness). When the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945, known outside China as the Second Sino-Japanese War) broke out Cao Yu took refuge with his school in Chongqing, a city in Sichuan Province behind the frontline. He served as a member of the Council of National Anti-Japanese Association of the Literary Circles and worked as a playwright for a movie studio. His works of the time included Tuibian (Metamorphosis), Dujin (Gild), and Beijingren (Beijing Man).. In 1946 he was invited by the State Department of the United States to teach as a visiting scholar. A year later he returned to China and was hired by the Shanghai Experimental Drama School. He published his play Qiao (Bridge) and wrote and directed the movie Yanyang tian (Sunny Skies) produced by the Shanghai Wenhua Film Company.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Cao Yu came to Beijing from Shanghai via Hong Kong. He served successively as the associate dean of the Central Academy of Drama (1950), director of the Beijing People’s Art Theater (1952), and secretary of the Secretariat of Chinese Authors Association (1956). In 1956 he finished his play Minglang de tian (Bright Skies) and co-authored Dan jian pian (Courage and Swords) in 1960. Two years later he planned to write a play entitled Wang Zhaojun but was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), during which he was forced to work as a gatekeeper and often publicly humiliated. Not until 1978 was he able to complete the play.

Cao Yu was pivotal to giving a foothold to the Western-style play after its introduction to China, where it is known as huanju (verbal drama) as opposed to the traditional Chinese operas that require singing. His plays still hold the limelight on the Chinese stage. Another contribution of Cao Yu was his masterful integration of Western and Chinese theatrical arts.

Further Reading

Hu, Xiaoxia. (2004). From revolutionary classic to media simulacra: A study of Cao Yu’s Sunrise and its TV drama adaptation. Masters thesis, University of Oregon, 2004.

Cao, Yu, & Zhangchun Liu. (2007). “Lei yu” de wu tai yi shu [Stagecraft of Thunderstorm]. Beijing Shi: Zhongguo xi ju chu ban she (China Theatre Press).

Chen, Suyun. (2007). Cao Yu xi ju yu zheng zhi. Xian dai wen xue yan jiu cong kan [CaoYu’s plays and politics, Contemporary Literature study Series], 27. Taipei, Taiwan: Wen shi zhe chu ban she [Literature-History-Philosophy Press].

Learn from other’s strong points to offset one’s shortcomings.


Qǔ cháng bǔ duǎn

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). CAO Yu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 277–279. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Scene from the play Sunrise, by Cao Yu, performed at Beijing’s People’s Art Theater. The plot involves a young female student who becomes the high-class courtesan of a wealthy banker. The theme of moral degradation in a hostile society is one Cao often revisits. As a student Cao was particularly drawn to Shakespeare and classical Greek and Roman tragedians. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

This scene from the play Wang Zao Jin, by Cao Yu, is set the Han dynasty and features the legendary Huangdi (known as the “Yellow Emperor”). Huangdi’s interest in traditional medicine and the prevention of disease was said to contribute not only to his one-hundred-year-long life but to his immortality. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

CAO Yu (Cáo Yú 曹禺)|Cáo Yú 曹禺 (CAO Yu)

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