Approaching China Through Cao Yu
Being the daughter of Li Yuru and Cao Yu, I was deeply touched by the centenary commemoration. People’s passion for Cao Yu, whose plays have been loved by generations of actors, audiences and readers since their first appearance eighty years ago, made me realize the value of his life. Although he died in 1996, his plays ensure my stepfather is still alive among us!
I was also excited because the centenary gave us an opportunity to present modern Chinese theatre and culture to audiences who know very little about them!
The exhibition Cao Yu: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Drama, which opened in London in January 2011 and subsequently toured cities across the UK, has attracted a wide range of audiences: from senior citizens to school students; from academia and theatre professionals to the general public. Its success led to a duplicate exhibition touring North America from November 2011. Apart from exhibitions, old films like Thunderstorm and The Savage Land (both with English subtitles) were also welcomed by Western audiences. Lectures on Cao Yu and Modern Chinese drama told a story not only about the playwright and theatre but also about China. Our devised production The Sun is Not for Us was featured at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and has now come to Shanghai. It will tour Qianjiang in Hubei province (Cao Yu’s ancestral town) and Chengdu. Cao Yu has drawn Britain closer to China.
Cao Yu had been hoping to complete a play script, The Bridge, but never reached the stage where he could present it to his audiences. Yet, Cao Yu himself is a bridge. He skilfully combined artistic techniques from Western masterpieces (from Greek tragedies to works by Ibsen, Chekhov, and O’Neill) with Chinese reality. He made an imported theatrical form root in the Chinese soil, flourishing with beautiful fruit. This foreign theatre has become China’s own spoken drama.
China has transformed and evolved over the past century. The pain felt by the human beings during the transformation has been sharp and unbearable. Cao Yu’s plays ponder and reflect people’s agony and, today, we still find these characters utterly enthralling.
Through Cao Yu and Cao Yu’s plays, Western actors and audiences have come to China.