Introduction to Taiwan

September 15, 2010

Written by Alexa Alice Joubin

Taiwan: Modern

by Alexa Huang

Taiwan is a mountainous island off the southeast coast of mainland China on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. Throughout its modern history, Taiwan is simultaneously confined by the vast ocean surrounding it and open to endless opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges afforded by the ocean. Taiwan was colonized by the Dutch (1624-1662), governed by the Chinese Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (1662-1683), and ruled by the Chinese Qing imperial government (1683-1895). After China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan for fifty years. Since 1949 when the nationalists were defeated by Mao Zedong’s (1893-1976) army and moved its central government of Republic of China to Taipei, both sides of the Taiwan Strait have claimed sovereign over the other. At present, all three forces exist: Taiwanese independence movement seeking to establish a Taiwanese republic, intention of uniting with the People’s Republic of China and tendency for maintaining the current situation. The 23 million residents in Taiwan consist of Han Chinese, Taiwanese and nine different aboriginal groups. Mandarin is the official language, but Taiwanese and Hakka dialects are widely spoken. This multiply determined history is reflected by Taiwan’s languages and theatre. Influences from Holland, Japan, the mainland China, and America can be seen in today’s Taiwanese culture, a vibrant mosaic of Chinese, indigenous  and Western traditions.

There are both traditional xiqu and huaju. Since the 1980s, huaju has often been referred to as wutaiju (stage drama), shunning the emphasis of “spoken language” indicated by the conventional term coined by mainland Chinese theatre practitioners. Inflected by the same language and culture, modern Chinese and Taiwanese theatres share a few similarities; however, they took different routes of development. Modern Taiwanese theatre is characterized by its hybridity and its unique combination of a number of cultural and theatrical traditions from Japan, Taiwan, mainland China, the Chinese diaspora, and various forms of the “West.” The development of modern Taiwanese theatre could be divided into four periods, each with its distinct characteristics and concerns.

Colonial Theatre (1895-1945)

Pre-twentieth century Taiwanese theatre was informed by the styles and aesthetics of xiqu theatres in China, including gezaixi, jingju (known as pingju or guoju in Taiwan) and nanguan (see Taiwan: Traditional). More than sixty Chinese xiqu and modern theatre companies visited Taiwan between 1895 and 1937. From June to July, 1921, Shanghai’s Civil Revival Theatre Company (Minxing She) toured Taiwan and performed several wenming xi (see Huaju) plays. Although these productions were in Mandarin Chinese, a language not widely spoken in Taiwan in 1921, they provided alternate modes of representation that propelled the development of modern forms of theatre in Taiwan.

The first indoor theatre, Langhua Zuo (Waves Theatre), was opened in Taipei in 1897. The name of the theatre demonstrates Japanese influence. Modern Taiwanese theatre was not born until 1911, when Japanese shingeki companies toured Taiwan. Shingeki’s illusionist approach to performance quickly gained popularity. In the following decades, modern theatre companies were formed with actors who were homeless or gangsters. Therefore, this new form of theatre was often called gangster theatre (liumang ju or langren ju) during this time. Encouraged by the Japanese colonial cultural policy, a group of young people were sent to Japan to study theatre in the 1920s and the early 1930s. Upon returning to Taiwan, they established drama societies and xinju (new theatre) companies.

The extended Japanese colonial rule gave Taiwanese theatre a hybrid identity with advantages and disadvantages for the development of modern theatre. Artists and the native elite were subordinated to state-orchestrated “Desinicization and Japanization” campaigns (Kominka, or huangminhua yundong, 1937-1945). Therefore, Taiwan occupied a peripheral position relative to China within the Japanese Imperium. Theatre was an important part of the Japanese state-endorsed modernization program. With the advent of Japanese colonialism and militarism during the Pacific War in the 1930s came censorship and tighter control of theatre, as theatre was perceived as a political tool by the colonial government. The state-controlled Taiwanese Drama Society (Taiwan Yanju Xiehui) was founded in 1942 to censor all theatre activities. This coincided with the huangminhua (Japanization) movement, and more than ten state-directed huangminhua theatre companies were established to perform pro-Japanese propaganda plays. The contents of these plays were predictable and dull, but a significant number of theatre companies capitalized on theatre’s allegorical capacity and turned theatre into a venue for political subversion. In 1944, the influential Taiwanese writer, Yang Kuei (pen-named Yang Kui, born Yang Gui [1905-1985]), adapted Sergei Mikhailovich Tretyakov’s (1892-1939) Soviet play Roar! China (Nuhou ba! Zhongguo). It was staged in the same year. In the 1930s, this play was also adapted and staged in mainland China. However, in Yang’s version, accusations of European powers invading China in the play were perceived as criticism of the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. Set up in contrast to the xiqu stylization, the realist/illusionist performance became a viable alternative form of theatre presentation and as a form of entertainment that could compete with the popular xiqu and puppet theatres.

Post-war Taiwanese Theatre (1946-1959)

The Japanese colonization ended in 1945, and Japanese-language performances and pro-Japan plays declined. There was a brief period of flourishing for theatres in Mandarin and the Taiwanese dialects from 1945 to 1949, when new ideologies had not been formed. Frequent visits of mainland Chinese theatre companies invigorated Taiwanese theatre. Ironically, Taiwanese theatre did not find a free space for its development at the end of Japanese colonization. Since 1949, with Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-Communist policy taking effect, theatre was strictly censored and controlled.

With the departure of the Japanese in 1945 and the arrival of mainland Chinese refugees with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuo Min Tang (Guomindang) government in 1949 came new ideologies and prominent Chinese huaju playwrights, directors and actors. The government used huaju as a tool to eradicate the undesirable Japanese influence and to promote Mandarin Chinese. Ouyang Yuqian and his New China Theatre Society (Xin Zhongguo Jushe) were invited to Taiwan in December, 1946, to perform a history play, Zheng Chenggong. This event marked the first professional huaju performance in Mandarin Chinese since the end of the Japanese colonization. However, the cross-Taiwan-strait cultural exchanges soon came to a halt as the KMT government established rigid anti-communist cultural policies. The censorship on stage productions was especially strict, because theatre practitioners in Taiwan had been known for espousing leftist opinions and live performances had the capacity to reach and influence a greater audience than literary works. In the 1950s, all professional theatre companies in Taiwan were either affiliated with the entertainment units of the armed forces, such as the Army’s Glory Theatre Company (Luguang Huajudui) and the Air Force Blue Sky Theatre Company (Lantian Huajudui), or with government offices or universities, such as the Ministry of Education’s Chinese Experimental Theatre (Jiaoyubu Zhonghua Shiyan Jutuan) and National Taiwan University Theatre Society (Taida Jushe).

However, there were no plays that would fit conveniently into the anti-Communist ideologies. Adaptations and revisions of existing plays became necessary. Several Chinese plays dramatizing the Chinese resistance of Japanese invasion were reframed to portray the Taiwanese resistance of Chinese communist threats. Plays written in China satirizing the KMT Party were adapted into plays critiquing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and staged without acknowledgement of their original authors, who were leftists or members of the CCP. In March, 1950, the Chinese Literature and Arts Award Committee (Zhonghua Wenyi Jiangjin Weiyuanhui) was set up to promote locally written and produced anti-Communist plays. Lee Man-kuei, a Chinese playwright who moved to Taiwan with the KMT government, wrote Heaven and Earth (Huangtian houtu, 1950) that dramatized KMT’s agony of being forced to retreat to Taiwan by the CCP. With state-endorsed models to follow, a few other plays followed suit. These plays, however, were not popular for artistic and practical reasons. State-orchestrated plot lines and lack of character development made these plays into propaganda lectures rather than theatre works. Further, theatre in Mandarin Chinese, in contrast to the banned but popular Taiwanese-language huaju theatre, was restricted to small audiences, as the majority of Taiwanese residents only spoke Taiwanese. Modern theatre almost came to a halt by the end of the 1950s for lack of autonomous artistic creativity and voluntary participation. Drastic changes took place in the next decades, when directors returning from the West and immigrant Chinese playwrights took initiative to revive huaju theatre with refreshed theatricality and performing styles.


The Beginning of Western Theatre Influence (1960-1979)

Ma Sen argues that there are two waves of “Western tides” shaping the landscape of modern Chinese theatre, one in the early twentieth century known as European realism (which Taiwan missed), and the other starting in the 1960s known as modernism and postmodernism. When Chinese theatre engaged in feverish “modernization” (synonymous with Westernization for its promoters) in midst of the first wave of “Western tides,” Taiwanese theatre was censored and influenced by Japanese colonial governmentality and was thereby sealed off from Western theatre influence. However, between the 1960s and 1970s when China engaged in the inward-looking Cultural Revolution and sealed itself off from the Western world (see China: Modern), Taiwan became the main site in the Chinese-speaking world to engage in active and productive dialogues with Western performance traditions. The careers and works of major Taiwanese playwrights and directors such as Ma Sen, Lee Man-kuei, Lai Sheng-chuan, and Liu Ching-min, coincided with the arrival of the second wave of “Western tides.” Their cross-cultural experience and training in Europe and North America determined the hybrid nature of modern Taiwanese theatre.

Lee Man-kuei played an important role in the transition from political and state-directed theatre to artistically innovative commercial theatre. She was well connected with Taiwanese policy makers and opinion leaders, and held various positions in the public sector. Therefore, Lee was able to initiate the transformation of Taiwanese theatre not as a dissident but as an active participant in the formation of new cultural policies (see Lee Man-kuei). Propaganda plays gradually disappeared, and plays dealing with a wide range of topics began to appear. Some playwrights, especially Yao I-wei and Ma Sen, started to write plays that break away from the dominant illusionist representations. Yao’s The Red Nose (Hong bizi, 1969) used a chorus that resembled the chorus found in Greek tragedies. His A Box (Yikou xiangzi, 1973), written after he visited America, was influenced by Theatre of the Absurd. Ma Sen’s Flower and Sword (Hua yu jian, 1976), one of his most frequently staged plays, did not even assign the characters gender identities. It explored the subconscious of the characters and the question of representation. Ma consciously stayed away from Western realism or its Chinese formulations. This new generation of playwrights and directors came from a great variety of backgrounds and did not receive formal training before launching their careers in theatre. Some of them had studied or lived in the West. Their theatre works were informed by their cross-cultural experiences. Their pioneering work in liberating modern theatre from colonial and political incarceration set scene for a multiply determined new Taiwanese theatre in the following decades.


Xiaojuchang yundong (Little Theatre) and Other Forms (1980s to the Present)

While the 1970s saw bold yet premature experiments in theatre, the 1980s is often regarded as the golden age of modern Taiwanese theatre. Experiments in the earlier decades, successful or not, have enriched the theatre scene. The government loosened its control of theatre activities and, at the same time, reduced state funding for theatre companies. This meant opportunities, autonomy and challenge for theatre practitioners. Today’s major theatre companies were either founded or flourished in the 1980s. These artistically innovative and commercially successful theatre companies include: Performance Workshop (Biaoyan Gongzuofang), Pingfeng Acting Troupe (Pingfeng Biaoyan Ban) and Godot Theatre (Guotuo Jutuan). Even those companies that were later disbanded, such as Lanling Theatre Workshop (Lanling Jufang, 1976-1990), left clear marks on the development of modern Taiwanese theatre. (See Experimental Theatre: Taiwan; Lee Kuo-hsiu; Western Influence on Asian Theatre: Taiwan.)

Post-1980s theatrical works and theatre companies’ approaches are characterized by their uniform interest in a wide spectrum of plays and genres as well as hybrid forms of representation. They incorporated xiqu, huaju and Western performing styles, sets and music. Actors and directors created a significant number of theatre works collaboratively. Lai Sheng-chuan and Lee Kuo-hsiu, among others, frequently used this technique in their works. Lai’s A Dream Like a Dream, a seven-hour production, is a fine example of the latest achievements of modern Taiwanese theatre. The 1980s also marked the beginning of a new generation of American trained theatre artists in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese theatre artists studied in the U.S., and Richard Schechner has trained a great number of theatre scholars and practitioners who have become major figures in Taiwan. However, Europe has always been an integral part of Taiwanese theatre’s modern identity. Yao I-wei and other playwrights appropriate Brechtian, Artaudian and many other European methods in their works. Most Taiwanese theatre companies have more extensive experience touring Europe than the U.S.

In terms of performing styles, since the 1980s, there is no longer a clear-cut distinction between xiqu and huaju theatres. This is especially evident in the works of the Contemporary Legend Theatre (Dangdai Chuanqi Juchang, founded in 1986). The company, under the leadership of Wu Hsing-kuo and his wife Lin Hsiu-wei, experimented with jingju performing idioms, Western and Chinese music, and semi-illusionist sets. The company is best known for its adaptations of Western classics, many of which have become new classics for Chinese theatre. Lee Kuo-hisu’s Jingju Revelation (Jingxi qishilu, 1996), a semi-autobiographical play, used the meta-theatrical mode to present and comment on the convolutions of jingju and huaju theatres. Other huaju playwrights and directors are also influenced by xiqu to various extents and, in turn, influenced xiqu theatre.

The hybrid nature of Taiwanese theatre can be found in many aspects, including its dynamic combination of sets and body language from both Western and Chinese sources (see Experimental Theatre: Taiwan), uses of two or more different languages (Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, English and others), extremely varied personal and professional backgrounds of theatre practitioners, as well as co-existence and synergy of commercial and amateur theatre companies.

Further Readings:

Ching, Leo T.S. Becoming Japanese: Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Lai, Stan (Lai Sheng-chuan). “Specifying the Universal,” TDR: The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies, (38:2 [T142]), 1994 Summer, 33-37.

Quintero, Craig. “Pilgrimage as a Pedagogical Practice in Contemporary Taiwanese Theatre: U Theatre and the Baishatun Ma-tsu Pilgrimage,” TDR: The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies, (46:1 [T173]), 2002 Spring, 131-48.

Schechner, Richard. “One Hand, Many Fingers,” TDR: The Drama Review (48: 3), 2004 Fall, 174-179.

Comments (2):

  1. Steve Hsiung says:

    What is the Chinese name of Lee Man-kuei ?

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