A Cultural Reflection

The life blood of a theatre runs through its content.  Simply, if one wishes to truly understand the culture of a theatre, one must observe a performance it presents.  When deciding to see a play at Peng Hao (蓬蒿) I was confident in my ability to, at the very least, to be able to interpret the physical characteristics, set, lighting, costuming, even if a language barrier put me at a distinct disadvantage.  The play, however, incorporated written elements, poetry, which deepened and furthered my understanding.

In order to put this textual analysis in context, I will briefly address the nature of the play.  Stylistically, the play, Writing Poems (写诗), could be classified as avant-garde or post-modern, told in a series of vignettes without a concrete story line.  Rather, the play expanded on poem writing, whom the poem is written for, what it means to the writer, what sort of mood the writer was experiencing at the poem’s inception.  A bare bones set was used “…consist[ing] of one large (>25 ft2) white paper backdrop and white paper on the floor, with a fish draw[n] on far stage rt.  Additionally, pieces of fishing line hung from the ceiling” (Field Journal 35), which allowed it to be altered at will by lights, props, and actors.

To my knowledge, the first vignette depicted “a young man (early twenties)…[on] American coffee, his life growing up, and his love of a young woman who he returned to see (confess to?) and was either unable to find her or she had seen another man” (Field Journal 32).  The following poem was contained in his story:

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


On a very basic level, this poem aided in firmly establishing the concrete ideas presented in this piece, he rode a train back to his home town, he knew the girl from a young age, and they were from the same home town, and thus could go and watch clouds together.  On a deeper level, this poem reflects the innocence of the love portrayed.  As it was an attraction that started in childhood, and as they were separated early on, the love he feels for he is frozen in the same state it was in childhood.  Thus, his inability to find her represents and inability to return to past innocence, a fact of growing up that every person must deal with.

In stark contrast to the human truth of loss of innocence examined in the first story, the fourth story contained, I believe “depression and…suicide” (Field Journal 33).  The red lighting, destruction of the prop mirror, and effectively the actor, as it was reflecting his image, and the ingestion of a whole bottle of pills by the actor, communicated the message of immense grief.  The scene ended with the following poem:

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


Once again, the poem can be dually interpreted on the concrete and abstract levels.  Rain is almost exclusively equated with depression or sadness the world over.  In larger conceptual terms, the umbrella can be interpreted as both a metaphor for the man’s loneliness, floating on a wave of collected rain water, collected sadness, on the other hand, the man seems to regard the umbrella as the lucky one, as it is not aware of how small, unimportant, it is.  The poem also notes that, continuing with the metaphor of depression as rain, not everyone is depressed but that the man lives in a place that is afflicted by depression.

While textually analysis is essential for deeper understanding of a play and the culture of the theatre it is presented at, it is also, as all parts of theatre, a reflection of culture and societal changes and uncertainties.  In recent decades, China has vastly changed.  There is a tension between keeping tradition alive and losing Chinese identity, and a desire to be on the forefront of progress.  The loss of innocence through being forced to grow up and change, as well as the alluded to high rate depression, present in the first and fourth stories respectively, reflects Chinese cultural concerns.

The women I interview for an earlier field research assignment noted that theatre is mostly an outlet for the younger generation, as the older generation did not have access to theatre.  A younger generation that, in her words, “cannot follow the train” (Field Journal 47), referring to the rapid rate of Chinese expansion.  This speaks to a sense of uncertainty about the future, as well as this tension between traditional and modern.  Depression in realizing how big the world is and how small one is, a loss of innocence in growing up, both of these concepts, presented in the context of the arts, reflect the larger phenomenon of cultural change and uncertainty about the future found in the younger generation of China.

[First Story Gallery]

[Fourth Story Gallery]