When S/He Is Not Nora:
Hong Shen, Cosmopolitan Intellectuals,
and Chinese Theaters in 1910s China and America

By Man He

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 27, no.2  (Fall 2015), pp. 51-105

This essay offers a case study of Hong Shen’s (1894-1955) The Wedded Husband (TWH), the first English-language play written and staged by a Chinese national in America. In April 1919, Hong Shen—then an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University (OSU)—successfully premiered TWH with a mixed-gender and mixed-racial cast, which ran counter to both Chinese (single-sex) and Western (yellow-face) staging conventions of the day. Afterward, Hong would forgo a career in engineering to study drama at Harvard, and then return home in 1922 to become one of the leading figures in the field of Chinese modern drama (huaju). Yet, despite the unique perspective that TWH offers to the development of Hong Shen’s career and to Chinese theater more broadly, discussions of the play remain curiously absent from scholarship, as well as from canonical accounts of the formation of huaju. When TWH is mentioned at all, it is usually dismissed as a work of cultural conservatism that purposely promotes Chinese stereotypes for a Western audience. But TWH’s engagement with “China” and “the West” is more nuanced than such a reading would suggest. By staging “China” in the modern world (America), TWH offers a mirror image to modern Chinese drama’s fashion of “staging the world” in China to formulate a discourse of nationalism at the turn of the 20th century. Placing TWH within canonical accounts of huaju history cannot help but bring the authenticity of such accounts into question.

Relying upon newly discovered archival materials, the essay presents the first reading of TWH on its textual and performative levels. The author first ties together the significant textual borrowings that exist between TWH and earlier works—a prose piece by Bao Tianxiao (1876-1973), a contemporary costume Peking opera (shizhuang jingxi) orchestrated by Qi Rushan (1877-1962) and Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), and a civilized drama (wenming xi) staged by Ouyang Yuqian (1889-1962) and Lu Jingruo (1885-1915)—that appeared during the late Qing and early Republican eras, and have, until now, escaped scholarly scrutiny. By constructing the textual connection between the founding fathers of Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature, reformed Peking opera, civilized drama, and huaju, the author confirms that the “conservative,” “reformist,” and “radical” labels so often applied by scholars to describe writers and dramatists during the late Qing-early Republican transition are fit poorly in practice.

Next, the author turns to the performative aspect of TWH and examines how the play’s gender-appropriate and racially mixed cast empowered Hong Shen and his fellow Chinese overseas students to modify their “inferior” racial identities and lessen the fear for interracial intimacy between Chinese and Americans. Hong’s play-making activities at OSU provided him the means to actualize two interrelated goals: to “enlighten and educate” (jiaohua) Americans via an authentic and sincere display of sentiment (qing) infused with Confucian ethical norms; and to present Chinese culture and Chinese men as equal players on the world stage. A case study of TWH suggests an alternative trajectory for the development of huaju, one where the genre’s two attributed birth pangs—a “hostile west” and a “backward tradition”—are harmoniously reconciled. When we return TWH to its rightful place in the landscape of Chinese theatre, an important but heretofore unknown chapter in the development of modern Chinese drama is illuminated, a chapter in which She, the protagonist, and He, the playwright, were both not Nora.