The Avant-garde and the Popular
in Modern China: Tian Han and the
Intersection of Performance and Politics

By Liang Luo

Reviewed by Rossella Ferrari
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2015)

Liang Luo, The Avant-garde and the Popular in Modern China: Tian Han and the Intersection of Performance and Politics. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014. 368 pp. ISBN-10: 0472052179; ISBN-13: 978-0472052172.

Liang Luo, The Avant-garde and the Popular in Modern China: Tian Han and the Intersection of Performance and Politics. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014. 368 pp. ISBN-10: 0472052179; ISBN-13: 978-0472052172.

The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China traces the multiple intersections of avant-garde “performance, politics, and popularity” (16) in the modern Chinese cultural field through a comprehensive examination of the intellectual trajectory of Tian Han (田漢 1898-1968) in his manifold incarnations as a playwright, screenwriter, translator, lyricist, essayist, and activist. Luo tracks Tian’s journeys from Taishō Tokyo to Republican Shanghai, the wartime Chinese hinterland, and Communist Beijing, situating his experience in the context of national and international culture and politics of the first half of the twentieth century. Her research thus fulfills the twofold purpose of producing both a cultural history of the hybrid “popular avant-garde” (11) phenomenon in Republican and early Communist China and an extensive monograph of the life and work of one of China’s major modern intellectuals. The book is composed of a prologue, a theoretical introduction, five chronologically arranged chapters, and an epilogue, in addition to an exhaustive bibliography of sources in English, Chinese, and Japanese.

The Prologue offers a partly autobiographical comment on the liu xuesheng (overseas students) experience in Japan and the United States in Tian Han’s time and today. Luo evaluates her own dual positionality as both an insider and outsider to her field of enquiry as she traces the genesis of her project.

The Introduction, “The Avant-Garde and the Popular,” sets the theoretical foundations of Luo’s inquiry through a cultural-historical investigation of three keywords: “avant-garde,” “popular,” and “propaganda.” Luo rightly contends that, in the context of postsocialist China, “the term avant-garde […] has often been applied rather unreflectively” (8) to seemingly apolitical works that arose in reaction to the ideologically saturated environment of the Maoist era. However, the original use of the term suggests something very different—artistic projects that feature a crucial political dimension.

The activist character of many of Tian Han’s creative endeavors provides a rationale to Luo’s description of the avant-garde as a simultaneously aesthetic and ideological disposition that should not be examined exclusively in terms of formal innovation or artistic value, but primarily on the basis of its sociocultural “effectiveness” (15). Here, Luo tackles the well rehearsed yet hitherto unsettled question of when an avant-garde ceases to be so. She draws on classic avant-garde theories such as those of Renato Poggioli and Peter Bürger, evaluating their damning pronouncements about the demise of the avant-garde as a result of popularization and capitulation to the mechanisms of a commoditized culture industry. The Chinese experience, however, disproves such defeatist verdicts, since the modernist and internationalist avant-gardists featured in her study—Tian Han above all—engaged in trailblazing aesthetic experimentation while involving themselves enthusiastically with popular fashions and emerging mass technologies. In most instances, the avant-garde and the popular collided in a productive tension, constantly shaping one another. Hence the avant-garde worked alongside, rather than against, the burgeoning forces of capitalism in modern China.

In this regard, Luo’s critique can be said to be in tacit conversation with my own assessment of the generative entanglement of the avant-garde and the pop(ular) in late-twentieth and early twenty-first century China, as detailed in Pop Goes the Avant-Garde: Experimental Theater in Contemporary China (2012), which argues for a comparable realignment of these traditionally opposed cultural forces in the hybrid phenomenon of the “pop avant-garde.” To me, this not only reveals historical continuity in the international avant-garde project for the Chinese cultural experience, but also confirms the ineffectiveness of strict, exclusionary classifications of the popular versus the avant-garde that have directed the critical debate in (and on) China as much as elsewhere.

Luo repeatedly invokes the nineteenth-century Parisian intellectual milieu as a matrix for China’s early twentieth-century avant-garde, while also contextualizing Tian Han’s trajectory within aesthetic and cultural developments in modern Japan, where he spent his formative years. Tian and his peers came to embrace bohemian lifestyles and radical politics rooted in anarchism and utopian socialism while engaging in “a sustained and dynamic conversation” (7) with popular culture.

The centrality of politics in her description of China’s modern avant-garde as an ideological vanguard justifies the inclusion of the third keyword—“propaganda.” Cultural dissemination, or “going to the people” (到民間去), was a political gesture as much as a spiritual mission in Tian’s lifetime. For Luo, this popularizing drive constitutes one of Tian’s two “lifelong obsessions,” the other being “creating the new woman” (17). The image of the people, as much as the imagination of modern womanhood, was first and foremost an activist ideal, which Tian and his generation animated in their writings in highly performative fashion. Throughout her study, Luo does not engage performance analysis in a strictly theatrical sense, but rather adopts a broad approach to Tian’s creative undertakings that includes not only performances as they occurred on stages and screens, but also ritualized behaviors and self-reflexive tropes that variously informed the performance of the self and the strategic self-positioning of China’s modern avant-gardists in the national and international cultural fields.

Each chapter focuses on a specific time and locality in the life of Tian Han, which, in turn, corresponds to a defining moment in the history of China.

Chapter 1, “The Lights of Tokyo,” surveys the plays Spiritual Light (靈光, 1920), The Ghost of the Piano (辟亞羅之鬼, 1922), and Before Lunch (午飯之前, 1922), which Tian produced during his sojourn in Tokyo (1916-1922), under the influence of Christian socialism and philosophical romanticism. Luo positions this trilogy within the vibrant cosmopolitanism of 1920s Tokyo, where the young Tian Han was first exposed to modern theatre and cinema and where he became part of a dynamic network of progressive intellectuals from China, Korea, and Japan.

Chapter 2, “The Night and Fire of Shanghai,” details Tian’s activities in spoken drama (話劇 huaju), traditional theatre (戲曲 xiqu), and film from the early 1920s to the late 1930s. These activities were informed by both indigenous folk traditions and foreign practices, including Hollywood and European cinema, Russian literature, and modern dance. Luo surveys major works of this period such as the plays A Night in a Café (咖啡店之一夜, 1922) and The Night a Tiger was Captured (獲虎之夜, 1924), and the aborted film project To the People (到民間去, 1926-27), underscoring their linkages with both international modernism and emerging forms of mass entertainment. Tian’s adaptations of Salome (莎樂美, 1929) and Carmen (卡門, 1930) are also examined in relation to his sustained fascination with the trope of the modern woman—variously pictured as an innocent virgin or a dangerously seductive vamp. Luo skillfully relates the alternation, and sometimes interpenetration, of key imagery of “night” and “fire” to the concurrent sexualization and politicization of female icons in Tian’s stage and screen productions of the interwar era. Furthermore, she links these tropes to his ambivalence toward and captivation with the decadence of Shanghai as a modern metropolis, and to his keen interest in the avant-garde potential of the popular media. In Shanghai, Tian also played a crucial mediating role in Sino-Japanese intellectual exchanges, as evinced by Luo’s engrossing account of his shifting relationships with Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886-1965) and other Japanese writers before and after Japan’s military invasion of China.

While assessing the underlying interpenetration of the avant-garde and the popular in Tian’s literary and artistic production and, more generally, in the intellectual and creative environment of the epoch, Luo critiques the “rhetoric of conversion” (74) from aestheticism to proletarian values that was constructed around his persona upon the publication of the essay “Our Self-Criticism” (我們的自己批判, 1930). Rather, she regards this seminal piece of writing as a facet of Tian’s “textual performance” (74), and an instance of strategic use of political tools to justify artistic experiments. There was, in fact, deep cross-fertilization between the aesthetic and the political and between “high” and “low” cultural expressions—as further testified by Tian’s numerous transmedia and cross-genre activities.

Chapter 3, “Lovers and Heroes in the Wartime Hinterland,” details the modern avant-garde’s attempts at “going to the people”—literally and figuratively—as urban intellectuals relocated to the Chinese hinterland during the Sino-Japanese War, and strived to disseminate art among the rural population for mass mobilization purposes. Luo’s discussion of Tian’s intermedial experiments in traditional and modern drama and in cinema in such works as the literary adaptation A New Legend of Lovers and Heroes (新兒女英雄傳, 1939), the self-referential play Rhapsody on the Sounds of Autumn (秋聲賦, 1941), and the film Memories of the South (憶江南a.k.a The Lament of the South哀江南, 1947), reveals his continued commitment to appropriating folk genres and popular traditions for his modernist screen and stage projects. Tian’s idealistic vision of the hinterland (大後方) as a utopian realm and his fascination with romantic notions of the rural peasantry as a spiritually untarnished Volk (People) are also examined at length in the context of his political and philosophical affiliations with Japanese, Russian, and German populist movements. These works also manifest Tian’s ongoing obsession with powerful female characters who merge sensual allure with revolutionary élan.

Chapter 4, “The International Avant-garde and the Chinese National Anthem,” details the fortunes of “March of the Volunteers” (義勇軍進行曲), composed by Nie Er 聶耳 (1912-35) with lyrics by Tian Han, from its appearance as a song in the soundtrack of the 1935 film Children of Troubled Times (風雲兒女, which Luo renders as “Lovers in Troubled Times”) to its elevation to national anthem in the newly established People’s Republic of China. Once more, Luo evaluates Tian’s work in an international perspective, examining appropriations by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, who featured the song in the documentary The 400 Million (1939), and American actor and singer Paul Robeson, who recorded a version in Chinese and English in 1941. Both communist sympathizers, Ivens and Robeson viewed “March of the Volunteers” as a powerful embodiment of the revolutionary vigor of popular nationalism. Luo contends that the song’s cross-cultural resonance helps underscore the fundamental connections between aesthetics and activism, while foregrounding the key function of national propaganda and new technologies in the popularization of avant-gardism. In tracing the origins of the PRC’s national anthem in popular culture and mass entertainment, Luo offers a convincing argument against simplistic conceptions of propaganda as passive top-down indoctrination and draws a more nuanced picture of the complex interweaving of performance and politics in wartime and early communist China.

Chapter 5, “A White Snake in Beijing: Re-Creating Socialist Opera,” investigates yet another widely debated and seemingly contradictory phenomenon—the hybrid interpenetration of the avant-garde and tradition. This includes an exploration of the connections between performance, ideology, and popularization by detailing the dialogic negotiations of Tian’s avant-gardist disposition with the realities of socialist realism. Her discussion of the 1950s jingju 京劇 rendition of the legend of the White Snake (白蛇傳) traces the evolution of this popular character throughout Tian’s stage and screen career “from a folk demon to a modernist femme fatale, then to a female warrior, and finally to a female activist propagating socialism and feminism” (177). Luo thereby sheds light on a lasting trope in Tian’s oeuvre since the early 1920s, which she connects to his sustained interest in—and idealization of—images of the rural folk and “the fantastic feminine” (21) as essential sources of “vital ‘raw energy’” (22).

The Epilogue, “Endings, Happy and Otherwise,” comprises two sub-sections. One deals with the autobiographical drama Guan Hanqing (關漢卿, 1958), which refashions the Yuan playwright as a popular and politically involved avant-gardist, and fatefully forecasts Tian’s tragic death in 1968.

The other looks at visual artist Ai Weiwei 艾未未 as emblematic of “the transformation of the Chinese avant-garde” (222) in more recent years. While, surely, it is crucial to acknowledge the persistence of the modern avant-garde throughout and beyond socialism and to investigate its postsocialist afterlives, I nonetheless find this the least persuasive section of the book. Its brevity (it is only five pages long) conveys the impression that it has been added as somewhat of an afterthought. The volume’s persistent focus on the interweaving of experimental aesthetics, popular culture, and national politics may justify Ai’s inclusion as, indeed, both a celebrity avant-gardist and a committed activist. However, the connections between Ai Weiwei and the modern avant-garde generation strike me as being too tenuous to warrant using Ai to conclude a volume on Tian Han that primarily deals with stage and screen culture. Furthermore, the temporal shift from the 1950s to the twenty-first century feels somewhat abrupt, though Luo attempts to mitigate this apparent contextual distance by summoning the personal history of Ai Weiwei’s father, the poet Ai Qing 艾青 (1910-1996). Indeed, the latter shared with Tian Han a comparable record of persecution under Maoism, though certainly not a comparable avant-garde attitude.

Despite this slight incongruity, Luo’s research remains an outstanding contribution to the intellectual and cultural history of modern China and fills, at last, a long-overdue gap in Chinese literary, media, and theater studies by providing the first-ever monograph on Tian Han in English. Her terse and insightful study is surely bound to become a key resource for future scholarship on the intersections of modernist aesthetics, progressive politics, and popular media.

Rossella Ferrari
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London