Shiao-ling YU

Hong Shen, the famous dramatist, around 1930. Hong established a complete system for dramatic performance and introduced the role of the director to the Chinese stage.

A founder of the Chinese spoken drama (huaju ??), Hong Shen established the role of the Chinese director and a complete system for performing this new drama. His most important dramatic work is the play Yama Zhao (Zhao yanwang ???), which was influenced by Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.

Hong Shen, together with Tian Han ?? and Ouyang Yuqian ????, was one of the founders of Chinese spoken drama (huaju ??), which greatly affected the nature of theatrical performances in China.

Born into a well-to-do gentry family in Jiangsu Province, Hong attended modern-style schools in Shanghai and the prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing. He developed an interest in drama through acting in school plays. His formal dramatic education began in 1919 at Harvard University, where he attended Professor George Baker’s play-production workshop and became the first Chinese to study Western drama. In his spare time he also performed with drama companies in Boston and New York. His U.S. training laid the foundation for his career in drama.

When Hong Shen returned to China in 1922, modern Chinese drama was still in its infancy, with only student-organized amateur theaters to replace the declining “civilized drama” (wenming ???) of the previous decade. At the invitation of the Ouyang Yuqian, who had returned from Japan, Hong joined the Shanghai Drama Society and began his reform of the amateur theater. He required all performances to be based on a written script and instructed his actors to follow his detailed procedure for rehearsal. He also wanted to get rid of the old practice of female impersonation. His production of Hu Shi’s ?? play The Greatest Event in Life (Zhongshen dashi ????) in 1923 marked the first time men and women acted on the same stage in China. His adaptation and production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan the next year established a complete system for dramatic performance and introduced the role of the director in Chinese drama. His many writings on the theories and practices of drama and film laid a theoretical foundation for these performing arts. He also changed the name of “new drama” to “spoken drama” to emphasize the importance of dialogue in a play. This focus improved the literary quality of plays in China.

Hong Shen’s most important dramatic work is the play Yama Zhao (Zhao Yanwang ???, 1922), in which he exposes the brutalizing effect of the wars among the warlords on the common people. Modeled on U.S. playwright Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, the play employs expressionist techniques to explore the protagonist’s psychology. It also expresses Hong’s belief that evil is not inherent in the human nature but rather is a result of social forces. The central character’s transformation from an honest peasant into a murderer, or King of Hell (Yama), is due to his dehumanizing environment. He is both a victim and a victimizer.

In the 1930s, he joined the League of Left Wing Writers, and his Shanghai Drama Society adopted the slogan of “proletarian drama.” His representative works during this period were the three plays in his “village trilogy” (nongcun sanbuqu ?????), which describe the dire conditions in the countryside and the social causes of rural poverty. These plays reflected his belief that playwrights should do something beneficial for society, but in doing so he fell into the trap of using drama to preach political doctrines.

During the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945, known outside China as the Second Sino-Japanese War) Hong promoted “drama for national defense.” He wrote many patriotic plays and was active in organizing traveling troupes to spread the message of resistance against Japan. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), his many official duties prevented him from doing dramatic work, except the play This Is the American Way of Life (Zhe jiushiMeiguo de shenghuo fangshi” ??? “???????”), which he wrote to show his support for the Korean War. As a founder of Chinese spoken drama, Hong Shen followed the development of this drama from the pluralistic 1920s, when romanticism, expressionism, and Ibsenian realism coexisted, to the politicized theater after the 1930s.

Further Reading

Brown, C. T. (Trans.). (1983). Yama Chao. In E. M. Gunn (Ed.), Twentieth-century Chinese drama: An anthology (pp. 10–40). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Chen Meiying, & Song Baozhen. (1996). Hong Shen zhuan [A biography of Hong Shen]. Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe.

Pan Keming. (Ed.). (1986). Hong Shen daibiao zuo [Hong Shen’s representative works]. Zhengzhou, China: Huanghe wenyi chubanshe.

Zhongguo xijujia xiehui. (Ed.). (1959). Hong Shen wenji [Collected writings of Hong Shen] (4 vols.). Beijing: Zhongguo xiju chubanshe.

Source: Yu, Shiao-ling. (2009). HONG Shen. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1054–1055. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

HONG Shen (Hóng Sh?n ??)|Hóng Sh?n ?? (HONG Shen)

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