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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: October 25, 2010 NO. 43 OCTOBER 28, 2010
Master of Drama
2010 sees the centenary of Chinese playwright Cao Yu's birth


September 24 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Chinese playwright Cao Yu. Activities were held across China to commemorate the master of drama.

On September 7, a new version of Sunrise took to the stage at the Capital Theater Beijing by the People's Art Theater (BPAT), raising the curtain of performance series on Cao's works. After Sunrise, BPAT will also bring other Cao's works such as Thunderstorm, The Wilderness and Peking Man to the stage.

On September 13, a seminar commemorating Cao was held in Shanghai, with experts from cultural organizations and theatrical circles from across the country attending. As part of the commemorative activities in Tianjin, a newly built Cao Yu Theater, next to Cao's former residence, officially opened on September 23.

Cao, originally named Wan Jiabao, was born in Tianjin in 1910. His father was an official in the Kuomintang government for a while, but later lost his job and had no opportunity to achieve his ambitions. Meanwhile, Cao's mother died just three days after he was born. Growing up in such a depressing environment, Cao developed an introverted and melancholy character, which showed in almost all his dramas.

When Cao was still a young boy, his step mother often took him to watch Western dramas, which greatly influenced his future career. Around the same time, he became fond of writing sentimental and sweet poems. In 1922, Cao began his studies at Nankai Middle School, where he showed his talents in drama and became an active member of the Nankai New Drama Troupe, performing many roles, both male and female.

Despite the fact that his father expected him to study medicine, he eventually chose to study in the Department of Western Literature of Tsinghua University, due to his deep love of foreign literature and Western drama.

He finished his maiden work Thunderstorm in 1933 when he was 24 and published it next year. After that, Cao created eight more successful dramas—Sunrise (1936), The Wilderness (1937), The Metamorphosis (1940), Peking Man (1940) The Bridge (1945), Bright Skies (1956), Courage and the Sword (1961) and Wang Zhaojun (1979), which are all widely known in China.

As the most influential work of Cao, Thunderstorm is widely considered the mark of the maturity of modern drama in China. Cao was thus seen as "Shakespeare in China."

The drama features complicated relationships among the members and servants of a wealthy family and its disintegration in the 1920s and 1930s in China. Zhou Puyuan, a greedy and merciless owner of a factory and an autocratic father, had an affair with a maid Lu Shiping when he was young. Lu bore two sons for him. However, Zhou cruelly deserted Lu and the younger son, and married a girl from a rich family. Lu married a butler later and had a daughter with him named Sifeng. Thirty years after her mother was forced out of the Zhou family, Sifeng was incidentally sent to the family by her father. History repeats itself as Sifeng and her half brother, Zhou Ping, fall in love. An entangled family history is played out in the play, and the ending is doomed to tragedy.

Strongly affected by the creative ideas and methods of Western drama, Cao's Thunderstorm successfully presents the life, thought and character of people in a feudalist and capitalist family in China in the 1920s, becoming the first tragedy in modern Chinese drama. It showed that Western drama had been well nationalized in China and came into being a unique art form in the country.

Sunrise, another masterpiece, narrates the tragedies of courtesan Chen Bailu and the people around her. Through the vivid description about the lives of people both in the upper and lower classes in the l920s in China, the play reflects the sharp contrast of lives between those who are living an extravagant life and those who are exploited heavily.

All characters in Cao's works are living in the old days, far from modern times. However, his works can still move and inspire people of the contemporary era and strike a chord with audiences. His language, which was from the heart and is shared by all humanity, is used to interpret the misery of the people. His compassion is deeply understood, even by people of different times, different classes and different nations.

Cao's daughter Wan Fang, who is also a dramatist, feels gratified that her father and his works are remembered, admired and still inspiring, even 14 years after his death. She thinks it is all because his works are a sharp and profound reflection of both people and reality.

Chen Sihe, a professor of Fudan University and Vice President of the Shanghai Writers' Association, said that there were many famous dramatists and numerous outstanding dramas in the history of modern Chinese literature, but few of them attract audiences. On the contrary, Cao's dramas have never lost their original charm. Cao established his irreplaceable position in the history of Chinese drama.

"Classics are both original and immortal. Cao's dramas not only communicate with audiences of the past and present, but also of the future," Chen said.

Dramatic poems are the best poems, and Cao's dramas are poems, said Qian Gurong, a professor of East China Normal University and a student of Cao. "There is no doubt he deserves the title of a poet. All of his works are poetic."

Many of Cao's works have been made into films and TV series, including Thunderstorm, Sunrise and The Wilderness. His dramas are often performed overseas.

Recently, the new edition of the Chronology of Cao Yu and a pictorial book of Cao and his works were jointly published by the Beijing Publishing Group and BPAT.

Cao died in 1996 at the age of 86. In honor of his contribution to Chinese drama, a set of Chinese drama awards have been named after him. The awards were renamed in 2005 and honor playwrights every two years.


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