Avant-Garde Theatre and China’s Sociopolitical and Economic Struggle

The Theatre Slogan. Note the modern elements and their integration with the traditional Hutong.


Deep in the Hutong district, a hub for the cultural melting pot that is today’s Beijing, exists a small converted playhouse café combination named PengHao (蓬蒿). The outside of the building, originally a Hutong or traditional Chinese place of residence, features a mural of blue human silhouettes and a small sign shaped like a speech bubble.  The two large wooden doors open onto a small entryway, with a long poster featuring the theatre’s name and the slogan, “Theatre without Borders”.  Turning to the right will lead you into a café with an included bar that “…would be considered rustic, with an exposed beam ceiling reminiscent of a tavern.” (Field Journal 2) The “wooden beams continue down the [walls] onto the unpolished wooden plank floor.” (Field Journal 2).  The doors on the right lead to the theatre proper, a small, but well-outfitted black box theatre with a single, wraparound balcony, and to the open air upstairs restaurant, bar, and garden.


Map of 蓬蒿 and the surrounding Hutong District Found in the Playbill

On my first trip to PengHao, I made contact with the creative director of the theatre, who spoke a little bit of English.  She invited me back to observe workshops, or plays.

I must confess that, when I began my field work, I did not know much about Chinese theatre.  In order to better understand the things I would see, and to lend some direction to my observations, I conducted a small amount of research on the history of Chinese theatre.

A Brief History and Hypothesis

Since early Chinese theatre, there has been a concept of an interaction between the theatre, the actors, the audience, and current sociopolitical and economic concerns. Theatre in seventeenth century, during the political, social, and economic turmoil due to collapse of the Ming Dynasty, identified, “the relation between the world and stage that permeated all aspects of…literary and artistic life and culture” (Tian 172).

This trend of society and theatre interaction continued and evolved in the Republican period, particularly in relation to the May Fourth Movement.  Here, theatre was used as a method of reform in rural communities in order to “arouse nationalist sentiment” (Merkel-Hess 162).  Theatre at this time was intended to bring communities together to form an identity; a sort of microcosmic mimicry of China’s macrocosmic struggle to attain a coherent identity.

Inside PengHao.  Notice the traditional building elements contrasted with the stage lights.

Inside PengHao. Notice the traditional building elements contrasted with the stage lights.

As the political climate changed in China, theatre began to evolve not only in what it critiqued or reflected, but displayed stylistic changes as well.  The May Fourth Era saw the introduction of spoken drama (huaju), as “..its realistic portrayal of life and use of spoken dialogue [was] as ideal vehicle for…programs to modernize China” (Yu 89-90).  Along with the change in styles, the shifting political climate was reflected in gender diversity among playwrights.  As the Mao Era displayed a departure from Confucian values, the role and status of women was more frequently reflected on the stage (Chen).

Avant-Garde theatre saw its rise following the Cultural Revolution, as it served as a commentary on “…the institutionalization of art as an instrument of propaganda and to question its role as a dispenser of prepackaged meanings” (Ferrari 1135).  Avant-Garde theatre served as a social rebellion that was capable of being undetected, as the message was conventionally spread through stylistic choices as opposed to content.  Typically, Avant-Garde plays in China invite thought by creating a theatrical environment that is drastically different to the audience.

PengHao’s Avant-Garde theatre approach is not unique, but part of a larger movement (Ferrari 2012).  For example, during the rise of Avant-Garde theare, China also witnessed the rise of the Fourth Generation Filmmakers, who portary loss of direction and disillusionment. However, the culture and personality of PengHao is a unique experience with its own cultural importance.  The attached café harkens back to the day of teahouses, the hutong is charmingly traditional, but for all the traditional, there are modern elements.  The stage lighting in the café, and the use of English make up two of the most noticeable modern elements.  The careful balancing of the two, modern and traditional, reflects not only the plays which are staged by PengHao, but the culture of China at large.

 Interviews and Observations

Armed with a better understanding of Avant-Garde theatre, which PengHao specializes in, I returned to interview the creative director of the theatre.  Carefully listening reveal a tension between traditional and modern elements that if often reference by current academics.  I was told that the history of the theatre could not be departed from. Further, she references the concept of a genetic memory, a sort of shared memory, among the people which one cannot forget.  Though this tension was mentioned throughout the interview, the interviewee also noted the importance of a connection between the actors and real-life.  She felt strongly that a lack of awareness or empathy to the current state of affairs would render theatre essentially useless.

This desire to communicate without losing roots speaks to the identity crisis of China at large.  In order to develop a stronger base for my understanding of current Chinese culture, I used a web of connections to get in touch with a younger person and discuss the current concerns that young Chinese people have about their culture.  Her connection to PengHao further evidences the community interaction that the creative director spoke of; the drama club this woman was a part of in college had rented out the theatre to perform a show.  The young woman spoke a little about her experience at PengHao and her feelings towards theatre in general.  One of the things she mentioned offhandedly mirrored an earlier observation that I had made.  That, “while the customers vary in age the majority are young, in their twenties”. (Field Journal 4)

That young people largely make up audiences accounts for some of the tension between traditional and modern the creative director of PengHao mentioned in her interview.  There is a sense of loss in the younger generation.  As children move to big cities, away from small towns or the countryside where their families have always lived, there is a loss of one of China’s oldest values, the importance of family.  Since these rich family connections are not being maintained, the cultural structure of the country is changing. There is a new emphasis on “…want[ing] to be rich [resulting in] work[ing] hard and ear[ing] money to get a better life.” (Field Journal 43).  In the words of my interviewee, China “…is developing too fast, we cannot follow the train.” (Field Journal 44)  Avant-Garde theatre, such as that preformed at PengHao, is deconstructed in a way that results in audience confusion and disillusionment.  As China is rapidly expanding and it a constant state of flux, it makes sense that Avant-Garde theatre would become the preferred style of performance as a younger audience will more readily empathize with a disenchanted world.  To this point, my interviewee commented that she liked Avant-Garde theatre because it “…shows all emotions.” (Field Journal 41)

A Play at PengHao

In order to fully understand and see these concepts in action, I purchased tickets to see an Avant-Garde play that was to be performed at PengHao.  The play was entitled 写诗, literally Writing Poetry, and told in a series of vignettes.  Each story was told by a young person, the oldest I would have place in their early Thirties.  The story’s mainly revolved around challenges that young people would face, love and loss, concern about the future, failing a exam, and depression.  While these stories were powerful while within their own right, the formal elements of this play were interesting to assess in a cultural context.

Starting with the set which, “consisted of one large (>25 ft.) white paper backdrop and white paper on the floor, with a fish drawn on far stage right.  Additionally, pieces of fishing line hung from the ceiling” (Field Journal 35).  Such a largely distressed set it very indicative of the Avant-Garde style in that it is so different from other types of theatre (Ferrari 2012).  The white background allowed for the usage of props the projection of elements, which transformed and lent meaning to the scene through physical objects, video clips, and poems.  The poetry grounded and hearkened back to a more traditional culture, the only trace of such sentiment in the entire set.

IMG_0792 IMG_0848 IMG_0924

Several way the set was used for projection. Notice the projections intensifying and eventually ending the the breakdown of the entire set.

In my last blog post, I assessed the meaning of a few of the poems in context.  As previously noted, the first story addressed the confusion and loss experienced by those growing up.  In a larger cultural context, this speaks to the rapid growth of China.  As noted, this change in economy has lead to a change in traditional familial relations.  Put into a larger context, this particular story then speaks to the “growing up” of China and the sense of loss experienced by its citizens as a result.  A brief note on context, this story details a young boy returning to him hometown to find that his hometown childhood sweetheart, all that he remember of his hometown, to be missing or married.  Thus, like China’s generation gap, his last tie to his roots is severed.

Accompany me to watch clouds

To watch clouds for one minute

The cloud is morose, reflecting my lonely face

Accompany me to watch clouds

To watch clouds for an hour

The cloud is a train, carrying the farmland from my home



Also mentioned in the previous blog post was the poem from the fourth story, which detailed depression and suicidal tendencies.  In my last entry, I asserted that this depression was due to internal conflicts of societal change.  Upon closer reading, the poem notion of the umbrella not knowing how small it is speaks to the effects of globalization.  While globalization has many good side effects, “…more economic growth, a more open outlook” (Field Journal 47), it also has the effect of making a country smaller or less important.  Now that China has been opened to outside influence, it is no longer a world contained within a country.

This world is very large

And not in every place

Does it rain

Your umbrella fell into the river

It looked like a boat floating away

It doesn’t know

This world is very large


Not mentioned in my previous blog posts was the poem presented in the third story.  Centered around a disenchanted artists, the featured poem was as follows:

His poem:

If the painting kit was not taken away because of the red score (failed)

I will not go down this “wrong path”

Literature is the shelter for those failures

Writing poems is a useless action

If there are one thousand choices, this will forever be…last choice?


From a purely superficial perspective, this poem outlines the well known pressures that accompany current day Chinese students when applying to Chinese schools.  Since the advent of the 高考, Chinese college placement test, the pressures placed on students to do well and succeed has been immense.  While a young person would be able to then empathize with this story on the concrete level, they would also be able to empathize on a more abstract level.  The male character was struggling with a loss of direction and a desire to do something, painting, his passion, which was denied to him due to a poor grade on an academically and socially standardized test.  In a way, the character’s desire to rebel against social norms speaks volumes.  The current younger generation is, while losing ties to their tradition, build a global perspective and furthering China’s influence.  In this way, the story of failure and following what you are “supposed to do”, verses desire to further oneself can be seen as a metaphor for China’s delicate balancing act of protecting the traditional and embracing the modern.

Conclusion and Predictions

As Avant-Garde theatre continues to take China by storm, aided by the viewership of the younger generation, it will continue to reflect the disparities of current China; or perhaps, as asserted by this paper, Avant-Garde theatre will continue to take China by storm for as long as it is a useful method of reflection.  As long as the prevalent feelings among the viewers of theatre, at this point the younger generation, are ones of confusion, loss, lack of direction, and tension between traditional and modern, Avant-Garde theatre will stand strong.  I noticed, on a much smaller scale, these feelings, particularly the balancing of traditional and modern, reflected in the usage of language in PengHao.  Both English and Chinese were present but, as detailed in my first blog post, each had a time a place where they were used.

To make a rather bold assertion, I believe Avant-Garde will continue to be popular in China in the foreseeable future.  Avant-Garde theatre allows for experimentation, it is highly adaptable as a method of reflection.  In China’s current state of flux, and foreseeable state of flux in the near future, an ability of Avant-Garde theatre to adapt will echo the Chinese adaption, growth and expansion.

Works Cited

Chen, Xiaomei. “A stage of their own: The problematic of women’s theater in in post-Mao China.” JSTOR. Journal of Asian Studies. Feb 97, Vol. 56 Issue 1, p3. 23p. Web. 01 Aug. 2013. DOI: 10.1179/1521538512Z.0000000004. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.wm.edu/stable/2646341?seq=1

Ferrari, Rossella. “The Avant-Garde Is Dead, Long Live the (Pop) Avant-Garde! Critical Reconfigurations in Contemporary Chinese Theatre.” Project Muse.  Positions. Fall 2012, Vol. 20 Issue 4, p1127-1157. 31p., 2012. Web. 01 Aug. 2013. DOI: 10.1215/10679847-1717690. http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.wm.edu/journals/positions/v020/20.4.ferrari.html

Merkel-Hess, Kate. “Acting out Reform: Theater and Village in the Republican Rural Reconstruction Movement.” EBSCOhost. Twentieth-Century China. May 2012, Vol. 37 Issue 2, p161-180. 20p. Web. 01 Aug. 2013. http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.wm.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=4132dbd2-cf45-46b0-9023-dc44a708c69f%40sessionmgr113&vid=2&hid=112

Tian, Min. “Worldly Stage: Theatricality in Seventeenth-Century China.” Cambridge University Press. Theatre Research International. Jul2013, Vol. 38 Issue 2, p172-173. 2p. Web. 01 Aug. 2013. DOI: 10.1017/S0307883313000163. http://ejournals.ebsco.com/Direct.asp?AccessToken=46C69YB8KTELJSSC9E9TET5P29T58T5BP5&Show=Object

Yu, Shiao-ling. “Politics and Theatre in the PRC: Fifty Years of Teahouse on the Chinese Stage.” Project Muse. Asian Theatre Journal. Spring 2013, Vol. 30 Issue 1, p90-121. 32p. 2 Black and White Photographs. Web. 01 Aug. 2013. http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.wm.edu/journals/asian_theatre_journal/v030/30.1.yu.html