By Haun Saussy
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 18, no. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 8-29
Mei Lanfang arrived with his opera troupe in Moscow in March, 1935, at a critical moment for Soviet art and theater: the beginnings of the imposition of an orthodoxy of “socialist realism” and the condemnation of such avant-garde movements as Formalism and Futurism. The reactions of the Soviet theater intelligentsia to Mei’s performances, recorded at the time, show that their interpretation of Chinese theater made of it a covert means of defending such Formalist ideas as “defamiliarization” and the autonomy of art. Bertolt Brecht’s theory of the “alienation-effect” in performance, developed at this moment, draws on both Mei’s example and the Formalist precedent.
The Russian interpretation of Mei as a Formalist artist–or at least as Formalism’s happiest example–pairs strangely with the critique of classical Chinese theater in China some two decades before Mei’s voyage to Moscow. That critique had condemned the classical theater as a relic of an earlier stage of literary evolution. Classical theater was branded as being, among other sins, “formalist,” that is, of failing to imitate prosaic reality as a proper modern genre of art should. The very techniques that so impressed Russian audiences by their non-representational modernity had been ridiculed by Chinese modernists for their failure to resemble real life.
This conflict of interpretations suggests the need for a history of the concept of modernity, a teleological concept that is all too easy to confuse with the particular ends to which it is harnessed.