Writer employed drama to spur resistance

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Shiao-ling Yu

No country believes more deeply in the power of drama, and no country uses it more frequently in the cause of political purges and ideological feuds than the People’s Republic of China.

“Because of its mass appeal and propaganda value, drama was made ‘to serve politics’ as Mao Zedong called for,” said Shiao-ling Yu, a Center Research Fellow and associate professor of Chinese in OSU’s School of Language, Culture, and Society. “Politicization of drama reached its height during the Cultural Revolution when the stage was turned into a battleground under the direction of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing.”

Modern drama, with its spoken dialogue and realistic portrayal of life, was introduced to China in the early 20th century and since then has been closely linked to the social and political conditions of the country. One of the most important writers, novelist Lao She (1899-1966), turned to theater and produced 22 plays in response to a 33-year period of cataclysmic change that included the Japanese invasion and the move from a Nationalist to a Communist government.

“Given the truism that drama reflects the society that produces it, these plays by Lao She provide a rich source for studying the relationship between politics and drama,” said Yu. Her research project, “Politics and Theater in 20th Century China: A Study of Lao She’s Dramatic Works,” will focus on plays written during the war years and after 1949, new interpretations of his work, and his influence on younger playwrights.

The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 set off an eight-year war that united the Chinese people; even the Nationalists and Communists formed a joint front to combat Japanese aggression. Lao She left his wife and children in Beijing and rushed to the wartime capital Chongqing to join the war effort.

As head of the All-China Anti-Aggression Writers and Artists Association, he promoted the use of folk media such as drum songs, comic dialogues, storytelling and ballads to rally resistance to the invaders. Besides composing many of the folkloric pieces, Lao She also began to write plays in the hope that they would reach a wider audience than his fiction.

Some plays were patriotic, others such as The Problem of Face, were satirical, poking fun at such things as the Chinese obsession with social status and prestige, corrupt officials, shallow and opportunist intellectuals, and educated women preoccupied by fashion and romance.

“Even the positive characters are not fully committed to the nationalist cause,” said Yu. “All of Lao She’s plays expose the faults within Chinese society which hamper the resistance.” Lao She’s concern for national salvation transformed him from a writer with no interest in politics to an advocate for using literature and art to support a political cause.

“Before the war, he showed little interest in politics—he did not participate in the debate on revolutionary literature or join the League of Chinese Left Wing Writers. In fact, he was critical of revolutionary literature because of its lack of substance, lifeless characters, and political slogans.”

Persuaded that national survival was at stake, however, he changed style, and began to employ long speeches and to disregard dramatic conflict and the demands of a central plot.  He wrote: “In time of war, cannons are useful, as are bayonets. Likewise, in the War of Resistance, writing novels and plays is useful, as is writing drum songs and popular tunes. My pen must be a cannon and also a bayonet.”

The question of whether literature should be used as propaganda was hotly debated, but under Lao She’s leadership, the All-China Anti-Aggression Writers and Artists Association promoted resistance literature with the slogan: “Literature go down the countryside, literature join the army.”

The playwright “walked a tightrope between political duty and artistic integrity,” said Yu, and his suicide during the Cultural Revolution makes his story all the more powerful as a case study of the impact of political campaigns on Chinese writers and, in turn, the reception given their creations.