Ding Xilin and Chen Baichen:
Building a Modern Theater through Comedy

By John B. Weinstein

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 20, no. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 92-130

This essay examines youmo (humor) and fengci (satire), the two major strains of comic huaju (spoken drama) during the Republican period. Ding Xilin’s 1923 play A Wasp (Yi zhi mafeng) exemplified humorous comedy, which created a unity of playwright, character, and spectator. The largely intellectual audiences of the day could easily identify with the protagonist of the play, an educated young man who opposed arranged marriage through clever dialogue replete with witty wordplay. By addressing an important contemporary social issue in a verbally elegant manner, Ding fused the realism of Henrik Ibsen and the aestheticism of Oscar Wilde into plays praised as ziran (natural).

Chen Baichen’s 1945 satire Promotion Scheme (Sheng guan tu) broke the unity of playwright, character, and spectator at a time when theater audiences were more politically diverse than those of Ding Xilin’s day. Chen forced his audience to choose sides, siding either with him or with his individual characters presented in the style of kuazhang (exaggeration). Chen’s own voice was placed in a collective mob protagonist. To realize the exaggerated style and the larger number of characters necessary for his satires, Chen developed new approaches to conceiving and staging drama, approaches facilitated by greater involvement from directors and designers.

Ding’s and Chen’s comedies gave rise to new and innovative dramatic skills, which made lasting contributions to the development of spoken drama as a whole. The artful language pioneered by Ding became a defining characteristic of spoken drama by the end of the 1920s. Chen’s action-packed layered scenes, incorporating many actors on stage at once, paved the way for the large-cast plays of the state-run theater troupes of the 1950s.