Written by Yuning Liu.
Image credit: University of Michigan Press, Palgrave Macmillan, Edward Elgar and Springer.
“Taiwanese drama/theatre/performance” as a keyword is unfortunately not a prevalent term in Anglophonic academic circles. However, 2022 can indeed be considered a fruitful year in Taiwan’s play translation and theatre research. In this article, I review the research focusing on Taiwanese drama/theatre/performance published in 2022. As a theatre scholar, my goal is not only to raise awareness of Taiwanese theatre studies but, more importantly, to consider how to take Taiwanese theatre research beyond the framework of regional theatrical studies and find more possibilities for dialogue with global audiences and theatre studies scholars.
First, the year’s most influential publication belongs to a play translation. The prestigious University of Michigan Press published the set of Selected Plays of Stan Lai in three volumes containing twelve plays. Even Cao Yu, often regarded as one of China’s prominent playwrights or Pao Kun Kuo, the founding father of Singaporean theatre, have not yet had such a publishing project. An anthology that focuses on a single playwright can reveal the playwright’s creative trajectory and provide an exceptional selection of a diverse range of performances. This is a vital breakthrough for the future English academic community to understand Taiwanese drama. However, as a native English and Mandarin speaker, Lai’s linguistic ability makes it debatable whether his anthologies go beyond translation and involve re-writing and re-creating in the process of translation. Undeniably, these works are easy-to-read, easy-to-follow translations for English readers, which makes these plays full of potential for more opportunities to be seen, either for leisurely drama-readers to enjoy, for professors to select such plays as assigned readings in universities, for practitioners to stage the plays, or for researchers to explore academic topics.
Another significant translation publication of Taiwanese dramas is Alexa Alice Joubin’s edited Sinophone Adaptations of Shakespeare: An Anthology, 1987-2007, which features three Taiwanese Shakespearean plays among the seven Sinophone adaptations selected for the book, including Lee Kuo-hsiu’s Shamlet (1992/2008), Lü Po-shen’s The Witches’ Sonata (2007) and Wu Hsing-kuo and Contemporary Legend Theatre’s Lear Is Here (2001). These works, be they deconstruction, parody, or new interpretations of Shakespeare, ostensibly demonstrate the reception of Shakespeare in Sinophone Asia. Still, the more profound revelation is, as Joubin states, “[t]he plays featured in this volume shed new light on the intra-regional influence of Shakespeare across a geocultural area, and they help us transcend siloed, national perspectives on the development of performance cultures.” This anthology transcends national boundaries and does not consider Sinophone adaptations of Shakespeare to be merely marginal extensions of a particular region; instead, it emphasizes the connections between what appear to be isolated instances of artistic creation. To me, the adaptations of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear from Taiwan are distinct from other works in this anthology as they are especially rich in political metaphors. They showcase local theatrical creations and reflect deeper and intertwining political, historical, and cultural concerns. For classic Western readers unfamiliar with Taiwan, these adaptations serve as a stepping stone, opening the possibility of understanding culture through the lens of theatre.
Works on the study of xiqu (traditional Chinese opera) are also up-and-coming; jingju (Beijing opera), Taiwanese opera (kua-a, also known as gezaixi) and cultural theatre (wenhuaju, the production aimed to reform society and theatre and cooperated with the Taiwan Cultural Association) are all receiving attention. A Century of Development in Taiwan, edited by Peter C. Y. Chow, contains two articles related to xiqu. Jasmine Yu-Hsing Chen’s article, “Hybrid Theatre: The Origin and Development of Creative Taiwanese Opera,” retrospects the development of opeila (hu-pao-zai, hybrid and creative performance) and Taiwanese opera and reflects on how local Taiwanese culture has received and hybridized Chinese and Japanese cultural influences. Yin-Chen Kang also pays attention to Japanese influence on Taiwanese theatre in her article “The Rise and Fall of Cultural Theatre and New Theatre, from the 1920s to the 1960s,” tracing the origins and development of “Cultural theatre,” the modern Taiwanese theatre. These essays coincidentally discuss the encounter of contemporary Taiwanese theatre with various cultures by exploring Taiwan’s colonized history, which can be seen as an attempt to take Taiwanese theatre studies out of area studies and to emphasize that Taiwanese theatre matters to global theatre studies. University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme will host a featured event on this book on 14 March 2023.
In addition to books, there are two journal articles about Taiwan’s jingju published in 2022. Despite the wide gap between their periods of interest, both articles highly relate to jingju and politics. One article, by Yuning Liu, is “The Resignation of Wang An-chi, the Artistic Director of Taiwan’s GuoGuang Opera Company: A Debate from Two Versions of Phaedra (2019, 2021),” published in Asian Theatre Journal. It unveils the divergent routes of jingju production in Taiwan with the resignation of GuoGuang Opera Company’s artistic director. The other article by Jasmine Yu-Hsing Chen, titled “Performing Chineseness Overseas: Peking Opera, Photography, and the KMT’s Chinese Nationalism during the Cold War,” published in the Journal of Chinese Overseas, focuses on how jingju became an object of desire for ROC nationalism during the Cold War. Furthermore, it analyzes how overseas Chinese sought and compensated for their lost nationalism and nostalgic sentimentality through practising jingju.
Although not centred on Taiwan, several other critical theatre-related publications, including David Rolston’s masterpiece Inscribing Jingju/Peking Opera: Textualization and Performance, Authorship and Censorship of the National Drama of China from the Late Qing to the Present, and Josh Stenberg’s Liyuanxi – Chinese ‘Pear Garden Theatre,’ refer to the development of Taiwanese xiqu. While Rolston’s book focuses on jingju and Stenberg’s work focuses on the regional xiqu liyuanxi, both coincidentally point out the similarities and differences between these two genres in and beyond China. They both date their shared cultural traditions to the pre-1949 era, before the KMT and the nationalists retreated to Taiwan. Because of the geographical and cultural proximity, observing the development of both genres in and outside of China also involves a dialectic of how a single authentic tradition does not inherently exist. And Taiwan, in both cases, is an exciting exception, particularly when discussing Chinese traditional theatre/Chinese opera outside of China, which is always highly linked to national consciousness, patriotism and cultural identity.
Finally, it is worth noticing that a translation of Kunqu masters on Chinese theatrical performance edited by Josh Stenberg was initiated by Chang Tong-Ching, a Taiwan-born amateur kunqu (kun opera) enthusiast who has lived in Maryland, U.S., for decades. Although the book is not directly related to Taiwanese xiqu, it reveals the critical role of Taiwan in the journey of kunqu to the world. This translation of rarely seen analyses of kunqu performance by the genre’s masters benefits readers interested in xiqu’s performance conventions. In the foreword of this book, Chang sorts out her connection to kunqu, indirectly revealing the untold stories of the amateur kunqu musicians and performers she met as a child born and raised in Taiwan, who have spread the word about kunqu in a way that has yet to be written.
Similar to the Taiwan Creative Content Agency’s efforts in the “Books from Taiwan” program to translate Taiwanese publications into foreign languages, translations of literary sources, whether scholarly or not, open up all kinds of potential. This is precisely why Stan Lai’s selections of his plays are so promising that it has opened up the possibility of letting the world know about a unique aspect of Taiwan. With last year’s success, Taiwan Literature in the 21st Century: A Critical Reader, recently published in early 2023, has already set the year off to an exciting start to recognize Taiwan’s unique historical and socio-political context and aims to promote its literary and academic connections to global networks.
Yuning Liu is a PhD candidate in Theatre Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include the interplay between various xiqu (traditional Chinese theatre) genres in Taiwan and the interrelationship between xiqu, politics, national identity, and cultural policy.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Theatre in Taiwan 2022-2023‘.