Skip to main content

Wu Hsing-kuo: Excerpt from an Interview

By April 5, 2010 interview

4-6:30 pm, Monday, March 15, 2004

Ziteng lu [Wistaria Teahouse], Taipei, Taiwan.

JOUBIN: In the 1980s and early 1990s, you successfully adapted several Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, including Macbeth, Hamlet, Medea, and the Oresteia (with Richard Schechner). In fact, your theater company has been known for its exclusively non-traditional, Western repertoire. Do these jingju adaptations of foreign plays have any special connotations? Why do you privilege foreign plays?

WU: I believe that a combination of Western classics and jingju acting would benefit the development of jingju theater in a fast-changing age. It helps us to express the contemporary quality of the art. It is no longer enough to “inherit” the heritage of our ancestors [jingju predecessors]. We have to create new genres that will become a new “heritage.” However, I was very frustrated and annoyed by the nativist cultural policy and its monopolization of art festivals [in Taiwan].[1] We worked so hard to maintain and re-invent the exquisite tradition of jingju; why should we be excluded from the artistic forum? I could not accept this. However, we as artists did not want to take to the streets with flags and slogans like ordinary people. Further, I knew from experience that public demonstrations and protest would not change anything, especially the stronghold of political ideology.

I find the nativist call for “localization” absurd and ironic. What does it mean to “bentu hua [localize, nativize]” art and literature? I was born, raised, and trained here [as an actor] in Taiwan. I founded a theater company in Taiwan that staged plays for the Taiwanese audience. Why was I suddenly labeled as an “outsider” by the new predominant discourse of nativism? Who is the “real” native Taiwanese, then? Why did the art I profess, jingju, suddenly become an antithesis to the Taiwanese identity?

JOUBIN: What prompted you to adapt King Lear to the jingju [Beijing opera] stage in 2002?

WU: I had wanted to stage King Lear for a long time. It is a fascinating play, with complex characters and in-depth treatment of many issues. Two years before we [The Contemporary Legend Theater] produced Li’er zaici [here after Lear Alone], our theater company was disbanded. One of the reasons for disbanding was that we had staged nothing but costly large-scale non-traditional jingju productions [which led to financial difficulties for us] since the company was founded. We found a large audience for these kinds of new jingju performances that aligned themselves with Western dramas; however, when the environment in Taiwan changed drastically, even such “new” jingju could not find a space [in the Taiwanese theatrical circle]. Very little room was left—financially, artistically, and ideologically—for the kind of new jingju plays we were doing. The guiding principle for government and private funding for the arts was “bentu hua [nativism]” in its narrowest sense. In the wave of extreme “localization” [since the mid 1990s], any “Chinese” elements in the arts were to be marginalized, eliminated, and even penalized [by not receiving funding]. The complex political circumstances between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China reflected unfavorably on the arts, which led to the marginalization of jingju performances and drastic cuts in government and private funding for the traditional theaters that were perceived to be closely connected to “China.” They were talking about “de-Sinicization,” which was especially hard for jingju actors who directly embody an art form that was “Chinese” inside-out. Despite our effort to create a “new” jingju, the art I profess was still regarded as from Beijing, most obviously because of the name of its genre, and from the now tainted idea of “China.” Our fund-raising activities were thwarted.

Against this background, I conceived Lear Alone in an effort to continue to change the “tradition” in which we [jingju actors] were trained. The oppression [of jingju] and frustration I felt in the past two years made me feel that King Lear was the most appropriate play to express our agony, especially how the old Lear is banished, expelled, and even silenced by his daughters and how Gloucester deals with his two “real [legitimate]” and bastard sons. I connect my frustrations as a jingju actor in Taiwan with King Lear’s sense of loss and grievance. Just as Lear was mistreated by his daughters, I and my art were misunderstood. My previous jingju adaptations of Shakespeare have been enthusiastically supported by both Taiwanese and international scholars and audiences. My success in adapting foreign plays to the jingju stage was just like Lear’s success in establishing and managing a “kingdom.” That kingdom, however, is divided and split up not because of wars but because of inherent problems. The political ideology in Taiwan since the 1990s has been suffocating its own artists.

JOUBIN: Were there other motives for this solo performance [Lear Alone], which is so different from your previous stage works inspired by Shakespeare?

WU: A year before my theater company was disbanded, the director of Odeon Theatre [Ariane Mnouchkine] saw our Yuwang chengguo [Kingdom of Desire; an adaptation of Macbeth] at the Festival d’Avignon. The next year, Mnouchkine invited me to teach in her workshops. She asked me to perform a “traditional” jingju scene. However, I figured that if I performed—in jingju style—something that was familiar to her and her students, it would be easier for them to appreciate and incorporate traditional jingju acting styles. I demonstrated and taught jingju movements seven hours a day. It was exhausting but exhilarating. It was like a dream fulfilled during a difficult time for me—personally and professionally. I “reappeared” on the stage during the workshop. The first twenty five minutes [Act 1] of the solo Lear Alone were first conceived and performed there. It was the Lear-in-the-storm scene. Every one was very excited. Having learned about the disbanding of my theater company, Mnouchkine was furious and said to me: “Hsing-kuo, if you do not return to the stage, I’ll kill you!”

After returning to Taiwan, I was determined to finish this play, even without funding. At that time, I decided to do a solo performance, because the environment and atmosphere in Taiwan worsened. It was a challenge to me. However, with fewer characters [and a streamlined plot], I believed I could do it myself.

JOUBIN: Have you considered other plays?

WU: Yes, I considered such modernist playwrights as Samuel Beckett, whose plays are sharp yet require relatively little money to stage. I was looking for plays with fewer characters.

JOUBIN: In the play bill of Li’er zai ci [Lear Alone], you mentioned your relationship with your jingju Master, Zhou Zhengrong. What exactly is the relation between that complex relationship and your most recent stage work based on Shakespeare?

WU: I found the father-son relationship in King Lear fascinating and illuminating. Of course, my situation was not a carbon copy of that surrounding Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund. My Master, Zhou Zhengrong, had only one disciple, and there was no “bastard” apprentice elbowing me aside. However, my Master was a very traditional and conservative man who embraced every single doctrine of the old moral universe. Having seen what I had done with jingju [innovative acting styles and adaptations of foreign plays], he questioned me: “So you think you are an established ‘Master,’ too? So you think you can fly [and leave my domain], huh? You think you attended college, learned modern dance, and are a teacher now?”[2] Master Zhou had a very traditional concept of the master-disciple relationship. For academics, it is never a bad thing to learn new things and expand one’s horizon in this new age. However, for Master Zhou, it constituted a betrayal [to him and his art].

When I kowtowed to Master Zhou at the master-accepting-disciple ceremony, he invited all his friends and famous senior actors as witnesses. He told them: “Today I have accepted a disciple [tu]. Please do not hesitate to teach and share with him your art.” However, when I went and asked to learn specific acting techniques these teachers specialized in, they refused to teach me for fear of “betraying” Master Zhou and destroying their long-standing friendship. They found all kinds of excuses and told me: “Why don’t you learn about it from Master Zhou? He is an expert on performing this play.” They told me: “Hsing-kuo, I dare not teach you. Taiwan is so small. I cannot afford to harm my friendship with Master Zhou just for teaching you.”

JOUBIN: Why did they refuse to teach you? Did you study acting with any one other than your Master?

WU: I realized that as soon as I kowtowed to Master Zhou, I had only one teacher left! I had one Master. In the jingju system of master and disciple, the Master plays a dual role as father and teacher. He could even tell his apprentice whom to marry and whom to love. He cares for and dominates both the private and professional life of the apprentice. However, I still learned acting with a second teacher, Guan Wenwei, a famous male impersonator specializing in the role type laosheng [old male]. She was older than my Master, and therefore she had a larger repertoire. She taught me how to play certain characters in certain plays that my Master did not specialize in so as to avoid any conflict with my Master. She was well-intended. Unfortunately, this act constituted an even greater insult to my Master, for if Ms. Guan only taught those plays that my Master did specialize in, it implied that my Master was not good enough; if Ms. Guan taught me the plays that my Master did not specialize in, then it implied that my Master did not know enough, which was an even greater insult.

Upon learning that I was studying with another teacher in addition to him, Master Zhou became furious and stopped teaching me. Ironically, I had more space to explore jingju on my own. I founded the Contemporary Legend Theater [Dangdai chuanqi]. There were no longer boxes and restrictive frames. I headed toward my artistic ideal.

JOUBIN: Beyond artistic ideals, are there other motivations for these “new” jingju productions?

WU: Back in the mid 1980s, there was a group of college students who regularly attended jingju performances. We were very good friends. These students constituted a very small group of the younger generation audience who would even consider attending a jingju performance. They prompted us to think about the future of our profession and the art we profess. The audience was aging and its numbers were decreasing dramatically. Jingju would not survive without an audience. It became obvious that in order to attract new and younger audiences, we needed to create new plays and explore new acting techniques. My experiment started with Yuwang chengguo [Kingdom of Desire], an adaptation of Macbeth.

JOUBIN: How did Kingdom of Desire start?

WU: Since I was already on bad terms with my Master, I did not have to worry about his conservative views. I embarked on the bold experiment with jingju. However, the project of Kingdom of Desire encountered numerous obstacles and difficulties. At that time, I still acted in the Luguang [Glory of the Army] Theater.[3] I proposed to stage a jingju adaptation of Macbeth. However, as you know, professional soldiers knew nothing about drama and theater. They chastised me: “Are you looking for trouble? We have superintendents, generals, and high-ranking military officers. How dare you make jingju foreign?”

I said, “Fine, if you stand in my way, I’ll do it ‘outside’.” I did not want any trouble. I did not want to offend the conservative people, because I still had to rely on Luguang Theater for financial support. I founded the Contemporary Legend Theater and started my experiments, independent of my performances at Luguang.

JOUBIN: Coming back to Lear Alone, how was it first conceived?

WU: I had not had any contact with my Master since I founded my own theater company. One day, after teaching for seven hours in the workshops in Mnouchkine’s Odeon Theater, I was dead tired and fell asleep. I dreamt a dream. I rarely have dreams when sleeping. That night, in the dream I fought my Master. At the end, I killed him with my sword. I was shocked by the nightmare and I sweated heavily.

My Master died about two to three months after I returned to Taiwan from France. I felt a deep remorse. In the traditional environment, it is always the student who is wrong no matter what. I wanted to kowtow to my dead Master for one last time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because it was a Christian funeral. Master Zhou became a Christian two years before his death.

I felt a deep remorse after all these years, because Master Zhou was the one who first showed me the grandeur and beauty of jingju. I had studied wusheng [male martial role], but I did not begin studying laosheng [old male role] and understanding the real essence of jingju until I became an apprentice to Master Zhou who led me through the door.[4] He taught me professionalism and the attitude and restraint of an actor. Without him, I would have had only a skin-deep [pimao, fur and skin] perception of jingju. Based on the solid laosheng training I received from him and my other training such as modern dance, I was able to stand face to face with Shakespeare and create new plays.

Therefore, I always respected him even after he refused to teach me and after I had completely “betrayed” his art by staging jingju Shakespeares.

JOUBIN: I can see how important Master Zhou is to your career. Is this sentiment reflected in your representation of Lear? Is the dream you mentioned connected to the birth of your play, Lear Alone?

WU: Yes. my Master’s misunderstanding of my ideal deeply disturbed me. I think both of us were unfortunate victims of the generation gap and a transitional time. The tension between tradition and modernity reflected on our relationship. However, as I said, I have always respected my Master.

My predicament is not dissimilar to Edgar’s dilemma. As the legitimate son to Gloucester, Edgar is honest and loves his father. However, he is misunderstood and has to escape. When I sang Edgar’s arias in Lear Alone, I felt very close to the character. Edgar has every reason to vent his anger at his father. However, when he sees his blind father, he turns and helps Gloucester. He could have led Gloucester to jump off the cliff, but he does not.

Emotionally, I am connected to Edgar.

I can still vividly recall one day when Master Zhou was teaching me acting techniques. He beat me with a stick. I was already a teacher myself, and I was a father, too. I grabbed his stick and said, never raising my voice: “Master, could you not beat me? There are other ways to teach acting skills.” Though I uttered the words in the most polite and respectful way, it still constituted an unthinkable reproach. It infuriated Master Zhou. He never spoke to me again. He did not acknowledge me as his apprentice until his death.

In Lear Alone, when I took off my headdress and beard at the end of Act 1, I had quite a long monologue. It was inspired by Grotovsky.

Lear Alone represented my effort to revive my theater company after two years of disbanding. It signified my return to the jingju stage from the TV and film industry. Not everyone was supportive of my seemingly irrational decision. Lin Huaimin, my only non-jingju “Master,” did not particularly like my “return.”[5] He said to me: “Do you know how bad the environment is? Do you know what the economy is like? Why would you return to the jingju stage and abandon the more stable base you have established in the TV and film industry?” I have always had ideas waiting to be realized on stage. The environment has never been benevolent and receptive to the traditional performing arts. Why should I wait? If I wait till the day when the environment has indeed become “better,” I may not want or be able to return to my profession at all.

JOUBIN: You have talked at length about how you identify yourself with Edgar. How did you interpret Lear in Act 1 of Lear Alone?

WU: I was deeply moved by King Lear. I selected key characters and tried to understand them on a personal level. Of course, I had to struggle with the transition and connection among characters [since I was performing alone], coherence of set and costume, and extremely limited time to change the costumes. A few senior Shakespeare scholars at the National Taiwan University did not approve of my solo performance of Lear, because I did not follow the time line and the plot. However, I did not care. Any one with an understanding of modern theater would know that a solo performance cannot and will not follow the chronotope of the original play. The relatively simple plot line and sharply contrasting characters of King Lear lends themselves to experimental productions. The conflicts in the play lead us to reflect upon the interpersonal relationship in it.

Therefore, in Act 1, I combined Lear’s lines with lines from other characters as long as I felt they helped illuminate Lear’s situation. My gut feeling was that Lear is a hysterical, stubborn old man who does not speak much. He lives in his own world. He ostracizes himself and cannot accept the presence of “reality.” I used dancing, running, and even birds to satirize such an unreasonable old man. He has no function in the “real” world. However, he would not step aside. Therefore, he is abhorred and detested.


[1] As an immigrant society with arguably the largest diasporic community of ethnic Chinese in the world, Taiwan has a heterogeneous population of aboriginal tribes, early settlers from the eighteenth century, descendants of Dutch and Japanese colonizers, and the “mainlanders” that arrived with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. The people and the art and culture of the island have variously been characterized as a reflection of the true “China” or a new political entity known as Taiwan. Different groups rally for their political causes and support arts and literature of different “roots.” The contested identity of Taiwan and its residents has long been hotly debated in the cultural and political arenas. With the death of Chiang Ching-kuo and the birth of the first “bona-fide” Taiwanese presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, the nativist discourse became the predominant mode and suppressed any cultural icons that are perceived to be “Chinese.” In the theater circle, this means more support for local theaters such as gezi xi [Taiwanese opera], budai xi [puppet theater], and huaju [spoken drama]. Jingju, for all its linguistic and artistic affiliation with Beijing and “China,” became the number one target attacked by cultural nativists.

[2] It was not common for jingju actor apprentices to attend college, or any school. The apprentice enters the training “conservatory” or theater company to study with a Master at a very young age. Most of them did not have a choice, as they come from underprivileged families of low social status and a disadvantaged financial background. Wu Hsing-kuo attended the Chinese Cultural University, which made his Master uncomfortable. The jingju circle operates with a different system that emphasizes beifen [genealogical order and age] and strict codes governing the master-disciple relationship. Artistic excellence and coming of age precede epistemological knowledge of the genre.

[3] Before the mid 1980s, the majority of the traditional Chinese theater [known as guoju, or national music theater] troupes in Taiwan belonged to the armed forces, the largest diasporic community of “mainland Chinese” who fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Some prominent troupes are Dapeng guoju she [Giant eagle national music theater] (founded in 1950), Haikuang guoju tuan [The glory of the navy national music theater] (1954), and Luguang guoju tuan [The glory of the army national music theater] (1958). These troupes regularly staged performances for the general public as well as the army, and many of their actors were civilians. However, financially and administratively, they were supported by the armed forces. For brief English introductions to these and other troupes, please see Colby H. Kullman and William C. Young, ed., Theatre Companies of the World, 2 vols., Vol. 1 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 134-140. For discussions in Chinese of the development of jingju in Taiwan, see Wang Anqi, Chuantong xiqu de xiandai biaoxian [Modern representations of traditional music theater] (Taipei: Liren, 1996), 85-108 and Wang Anqi, Taiwan jingju wushi nian [Fifty years of jingju in Taiwan] (Yilan: Guoli chuantong yishu zhongxin, 2002).

[4] Traditionally, wusheng requires outward representations of the martial arts and violent scenes. On the contrary, laosheng requires a delicate presentation of emotions through singing, non-martial movements, and coded gestures. The role of laosheng is traditionally perceived to be more profound than a wusheng.

[5] Lin Huaimin is an important choreographer, dancer, producer, and cultural figure in Taiwan. In 1973, he founded the first professional contemporary dance theater in Chinese-speaking countries: Cloud Gate [Yunmen].

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.