Reflections on the Legacy of Tian Han: “Proletarian Modernism” and Its Traditional Roots

By Xiaomei Chen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 18, no. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 155- 215

This essay examines the diverse foreign influences on Tian Han in his earlier career, before his famous Southern Drama Society period. A strong foundation in the work of these foreign figures helped Tian Han form multicultural and multi-ideological identities as a proletarian modernist. His early plays and operas reflect a combination of socialist internationalism and feminist nationalism. Paradoxically, his fascination with Western writers gave him a greater appreciation of traditional Chinese operatic theater, with a view toward using it to articulate the core of his leftist perspective. In the larger scheme of things, Tian Han’s proletarian drama was shaped, somewhat ironically, by his encounter with modernism, which in turn provided a further impetus to continue to create an aesthetic theater in the forms of traditional opera and modern spoken drama. It is this distinctive inclusiveness of proletarian theater with Western modernism and traditional opera that set Tian Han apart from other cultural and literary leaders of the day, such as Lu Xun, whose satirical critiques of traditional opera predated Mao Zedong’s call to eliminate feudalist operas before and during the Cultural Revolution, when Lu Xun became a poster boy for cultural radicalism.

The historical trajectory from Quan Xuantong and Hu Shi’s proposal to abolish the old opera to Lu Xun and Mao Zedong’s distrust of it revealed the literati’s complex and paradoxical relationship to Chinese tradition in their construction of the “new” and “modern.” By contrast, Tian Han bypassed this mental block against the “stronghold of traditional culture” shared by seminal leaders of the May Fourth movement and worked tirelessly at opera reform, scripting the “new” to retain the “old” and finally remodeling it as “modern” and “proletarian.” In a merciless twist of history, Tian Han’s personal tragedy during the Cultural Revolution proved the scope and depth of his own success at opera reform. Ironically, Tian Han pressed forward the operatic revolution from the 1910s to the eve of the Cultural Revolution without realizing that the ultimate result of the model theater would be to eventually doom his own political and artistic careers. Tian Han’s theories and practice of Chinese theater, nevertheless, question the very premises of some of the May Fourth discourse, whose binary views of the “traditional” versus the “modern,” “China” versus “the West” laid a foundation for the history of modern Chinese literature and theater, and paved the way for the leftist literature to become a dominate mode of representation. This inquiry of Tian Han’s life and works ultimately challenges some of the literary histories centering not merely on the May Fourth paradigm, but also on its central figure, Lu Xun, who becomes a paragon in the narratives of Republican, Maoist, and post-Mao cultures. It is high time to examine literary paradigms different from that promoted by Lu Xun and the May Fourth mainstream, so that modern Chinese literature can be seen in all its diversity.

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