Chinese Salomés on the Chinese Stage

By Jing Jiang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2011), pp. 175-209

A paradoxical phenomenon of early modern Chinese drama is the flooding of the stage by figures of beautiful women resurrected from literary classics and historical narratives. Traditionally viewed as femmes fatales, this group of beautiful women were aesthetically transvalued into embodiments of free will and moral courage. This transvaluation of the beautiful woman on the modern stage, I suggest, is directly related to the broad influence of Oscar Wilde’s artistic philosophy–perhaps best embodied in his play Salomé–in China from the 1920s to the 1930s. The line of past beauties resurrected on the modern stage resulted from a Salomé craze that seized an entire generation of Chinese writers and playwrights. Through studying the vicissitudes of the fate of two dramatic figures among the rank of “Chinese Salomés,” Pan Jinlian and Wu Zetian, I trace the paradigmatic shift in the intellectual climate that had underlain their eventual disappearance from the stage. Inspired by Wilde’s philosophy, the earlier Chinese intellectuals subscribed to a transcendental view of art and shared a supreme faith in its creative and redemptive powers. This approach to art in general had brought about a welding of aesthetic and feminist concerns, resulting in the proliferation of Salomé-like figures on the stage from the 1920s into the 1930s. In the three decades to follow, however, changed historical circumstances had gradually led to the deposition of art from the philosophical height of beauty, the increasing politicization of the mission and function of art, and eventually the subsumption of women’s emancipation under patently statist assumptions and interests. Consequently, Salomé-like figures had disappeared from the modern Chinese stage altogether.