Theater of Pathos:
Sentimental Melodramas in the New Drama Legacy

By Li Jin

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 24, no. 2 (Fall 2012), pp. 94-128

The essay treats sentimental melodramas on the “new drama” stage during the early Republican era. It has two goals. First, it revises the common view that new drama is a reflection of late Qing politics. Second, it asserts melodrama as a critical cultural asset and questions the conventional definition of modern Chinese drama as “realist.” Drawing from archival materials, the essay first recovers the historicity of “sentimental melodramas”–e.g. the cross-generic transaction between new drama and popular fiction during the early Republican era. Then, analyzing the structure of these plays, it shows how virtue’s victimization in melodramatic formulae generates pathos both as sentimental tableau onstage and as sentimental responses offstage. Finally, it explicates “weeping” as a cultural idiom that aesthetically mediates the radical changes in early Republican China. The fad of pathos registers the status of literati as a transitional generation during the early Republican era; it evokes cultural conservatism in the form of “mental attitudes” or a “socio-psychological order” that relativize the sway of liberalism and radicalism in envisioning twentieth-century China.