Spoken Drama in the Twenty-First Century:
Li Liuyi’s Sichuan-dialect Adaptation of Teahouse

By Megan Ammirati

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2019)

Lao She’s 老舍 Teahouse (茶馆) is one of the most representative works of modern Chinese drama. An epic history spanning the first half of the twentieth century, the play narrates the compromises that Wang Lifa 王利法, the proprietor of a teahouse, makes in order to survive the late Qing reform movement, the death of the would-be-emperor Yuan Shikai, and the War of Resistance. The play’s canonization has been reinforced in academic and artistic circles, anthologies in Chinese and English, as well as domestic and international productions. While the script certainly merits such a reputation, the play’s lengthy history on stage has been much more contentious.

The production history of Teahouse reflects the fluctuations in China’s political climate. The script was published to general acclaim in 1957, when the relatively liberal atmosphere of the Hundred Flowers Movement allowed for some of Lao She’s more critical perspectives on Chinese history. However, when Jiao Juyin 焦菊隐 and the Beijing People’s Art Theatre (北京人民艺术剧院) produced Teahouse in 1958, they were subject to the harsh criticisms typical of the new Anti-Rightist and Great Leap Forward movements. The Beijing People’s Art Theatre produced the play a second time in 1963, but the dominant literary policy was promoting a focus on the first thirteen years of the PRC rather than pre-Liberation history (Yu 2013: 107-108). The theatre did not produce the play again until 1979, after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the deaths of both its playwright and original director. This production preserved Jiao Juyin’s original designs and cast a large number of leading actors in their original roles (Chen 2010: 16-17). More than a nostalgic tribute, these staging decisions redoubled the commitment to the original production and its practitioners. Since then, most professional productions of Teahouse have stayed true to the Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s original staging, making similar choices about costumes, set designs, and acting style. When the famously innovative director Lin Zhaohua 林兆华 revived the play in 1990, he confessed that his respect for the script and its history had made him reluctant to make drastic changes (Yu 2013: 112).

One can imagine the magnitude of the task contemporary theatre practitioners face if they want to stage Teahouse differently, but two directors have recently taken on the challenge. In 2017, Li Liuyi 李六乙, a director at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, produced the play for the first time in cooperation with another theatre (Zhang 2017). Collaborating with the Sichuan People’s Art Theatre (四川人民艺术剧院), Li, himself a Sichuan native, translated the play into Sichuan dialect. In October 2018, as part the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, the avant-garde director Meng Jinghui 孟京辉 made a likewise iconoclastic decision by staging a minimalistic, and musically inspired, version of Teahouse (Qi 2018). With these adaptations, Meng and Li are imagining a new direction for Chinese spoken drama and raising new questions about how past performances of huaju should influence its future.

In the context of the play’s complex production history, I will discuss in this review the production of Li Liuyi’s Teahouse that I saw performed in Nanjing in December 2018 during its national tour. In many ways the production signals a departure from the qualities theatre scholars and practitioners have valued about the original script and its performance history. That being said, the clear innovations in the production’s language, set, and sound design are informed by Li’s deep familiarity with the history of Teahouse and the spoken drama movement as a whole.

One might argue that Li Liuyi’s boldest decision—translating the play into Sichuan dialect—is partly influenced by Lao She’s own commitment to reflecting the Beijing dialect in his script. Lao She was a Manchu writer whose novels and plays are famous for their “Beijing flavor.” For that reason, Teahouse may be one of the best examples of a canonical spoken drama that has been influenced by a regional dialect. It stands in opposition to much of the history of huaju: a genre that has positioned itself as a national art form that champions standardized Mandarin. While regional genres of Chinese opera are still performed in dialect, opportunities to see established spoken dramas in languages other than Mandarin are few and far between. On a purely anecdotal level, when I saw the production in Nanjing I observed multiple families whose reason for attending seemed to have been to see a performance in their home dialect. The graduate student from Sichuan who accompanied me, a reliably hard-to-please audience member, has never praised a performance as effusively. Perhaps, then, the regional elements in an elite play such as Teahouse may lend justification to a practitioner such a Li Liuyi who is interested in exploring dialect performance.

The choice to adapt the play into a new linguistic context at times appears, however, to be motivated by simpler considerations. In interviews, Li Liuyi goes to great lengths to explicate his choice to translate Teahouse. He speaks about his own childhood in Sichuan, the cultural affinity the region has with tea culture, and the capacity Sichuan dialect has to reflect Lao She’s wit (Zhang 2017). However, there is little textual basis for choosing to perform the play specifically in Sichuanese as opposed to, say, Cantonese, Shanghainese, or even Tibetan. As just one example of the occasional dissonance between the script and the spoken dialogue, the production provides no explanations for why (or how) Manchu bannermen would be speaking Sichuanese. In these circumstances, the Sichuan dialect does not come off as an interpretation of the original script, but rather as more of an extratextual imposition.

The most successful usages of dialect occur when the script is rewritten to acknowledge Sichuan’s own culture. Most notably, the production includes new lines for Yang the storyteller, a metatheatrical character who sings Beijing-style clapper ballads (快板书) in between each act to comment on the action. These monologues are rewritten to be performed by Zhang Xu 张旭 in the form of jinqian ban 金钱板: a traditional art form from Sichuan and Guizhou in which a performer accompanies himself with bamboo boards embedded with metal coins (Zhang 2017). In these interstitial asides, Zhang pays tribute to Lao She and Jiao Juyin while wittily commenting on the novelty of hearing the play in a new linguistic and cultural setting. It is this self-awareness and humor that finally make the use of Sichuan dialect feel organic.

More generally, the use of dialect seems particularly powerful not because of any connection to Teahouse itself, but because of the relative lack of opportunity to hear Sichuanese in a national, modern artistic form. Li Liuyi has commented that he hopes this performance of Teahouse can rise to the level of the 1963 film Forced Conscription (抓壮丁), one of the rare examples of a work of art in Sichuan dialect that has been canonized on a national level (Zhang 2017). This aspiration presents the Sichuan People’s Art Theatre with a difficult task: a theatre production is more difficult to subtitle than a movie and travels across the country at a much slower pace. However, the immediacy of live performance also allows dialect speakers to foster a (temporary) sense of community that is electric enough to attract and include people who are not fluent in Sichuanese themselves. While the execution is not always smooth, this production of Teahouse serves as an example of how huaju might be performed in languages other than Mandarin. Perhaps that precedent is ultimately the best justification for the translation.

The Sichuan People’s Art Theatre’s design decisions are more recognizably tethered to past performances of Teahouse. For example, the set designed by Yan Wenlong 严文龙 is a massive, realist reconstruction of a Qing-dynasty teahouse that calls to mind the minutely detailed and atmospheric set first designed by Jiao Juyin in 1958 (Yu 2013: 104). The key difference is that the realist set is contrasted against a series of broad, tiered platforms in pure white that stretch down to the bottom of the orchestra pit. This incongruous blank space expands over the course of the play to eventually overwhelm almost all of the set pieces and props.

In Act I, the platforms stand in juxtaposition to realistic replicas of Beijing storefronts (see figure 1). Clusters of tables and chairs cover each level and the steaming teapots and cheerful crowd signal a thriving business. In Act II, the set is simplified to indicate that Wang Lifa has made sacrifices to survive: the center backdrop is now a white wall, and a few remaining chairs and tables dot the platforms. By Act III, the vibrant atmosphere of the late Qing teahouse has been reduced to almost nothing. Three blank white drops surround the bare stairs. Only two tables are left onstage and most of the chairs have been stacked into a precipitous pile on the top left corner. The literal erasure of the teahouse not only reflects the narrative arc of the script, but also recalls the demolition of traditional Chinese architecture today. While acknowledging Teahouse’s past association with realism, Li Liuyi introduces a new aesthetic that creates space for critical reflection about the play’s contemporary resonances.

The sound design mimics Jiao Juyin’s original focus on background noise, but again interrupts expectations of how Teahouse should be performed. The 1958 production relied on a soundtrack of outside noises such as horses and cars to reference the shifting historical setting (Yu 2013: 104). Li Liuyi continues this tradition, including a cacophony of whistling teapots and yelling hawkers. His own intervention is to then add moments of eerie silence and stillness. For example, the cast refrains from speaking or moving for a full minute after a bannerman makes an offhand aside about the end of the Qing dynasty in Act I—allowing the radical nature of the comment to be fully acknowledged. In Act II the ensemble enters by quietly climbing up from the orchestra pit with the flood lights casting giant shadows on the back wall. These actors wearing rags and soldiers’ uniforms represent the catastrophic military conflicts and natural disasters that have occurred during the act break. When the pimp Pockmark Liu is beheaded by the secret police a few minutes later, the ensemble disperses while rubbing their hands together in the manner of Lady Macbeth. The only sounds are the quiet thud of feet climbing down the stairs and the clicks of soldiers assembling rifles. These moments of stillness are alienating partly because they look and sound so different from what one might except from a “classic work of Chinese drama.” Such discomforting silences allow the momentum of the evening to fall away and the attention to shift back to the sounds of shifting and coughing in the audience, restoring a sharp critical edge to Teahouse that has occasionally been forgotten due to the canonization and praise bestowed on it in recent decades.

The most heavily weighted debate in which this production intervenes concerns how the play should end. Lao She’s original script concludes with a moment of dark humor. Two corrupt businessmen, Pockmark Liu Jr. and Shen, come to evaluate the teahouse for sale after they have wrested it away from its original owner. Shen is a comically one-dimensional caricature, responding to Pockmark Liu Jr.’s ambitious renovation plans with the one-word answer “Okay” (好). When Liu reports that Wang Lifa has hanged himself, Shen again responds with the same, flat “Okay.” The script then ends abruptly, adding an ironic exclamation mark to the dark portrait of life in pre-Liberation China. In the 1958 and 1963 productions, Jiao Juyin altered the conclusion to focus instead on a preceding scene in which Wang Lifa and his two old friends hold a mock funeral for themselves, commenting that they will never amass enough wealth to be honored in such a way (Yu 2013: 105-106). While this ending is likewise pessimistic, the original productions emphasize the interpersonal connections in the script, rather than its irony, thus setting an important interpretative precedent.

Li Liuyi stages both endings along with a coda of his own design. First, he honors the emotional tenderness of the mock funeral by exaggerating its visual impact. Accompanying the two old men, the somber ensemble members sitting on the stairs throw white funeral money into the air. Thousands of pieces of white paper money carpet the stairs and the entire cast as if it has snowed (see figure 2). Li then goes on to stage the entrance of the two businessmen complete with Shen’s unfeeling response to Wang’s death. Instead of letting the curtain fall on this tragic suicide, the production seamlessly transitions into an added scene. The students and teachers who are on strike, alluded to earlier in Act III, enter wearing red armbands and singing a revolutionary song. One by one, they rouse the ensemble members who have been sitting amongst the detritus of the funeral to sing alongside them. As the momentum builds, the protesters stand on tables and begin to knock over the precarious stack of chairs piled in the corner, going so far as to hurl them to the ground.

One can interpret this ending in at least two ways—each with its own political implications. First, it can be understood as gently correcting for Lao She’s purported “errors” as they were first articulated in the 1950s and 1960s. The revolutionary song restores some faith that the tribulations of Old China are swiftly coming to an end. It also returns agency to the younger generation who is standing up against forces of oppression in contrast to characters like Wang Lifa who are merely appease them. Second, the conclusion can be read as magnifying the original script’s pessimistic examination of power. During the patriotic display, Pockmark Liu Jr and Shen remain standing center stage completely unaffected by the students. They do not flinch as the chairs crash around them, nor do the students try to involve them in the protest. At the song’s soaring conclusion, which is also the end of the play, the students throw their fists in the air. However, Shen swiftly undercuts the revolutionary mood by delivering the last line, “Okay,” in the same flat monotone as he did for the preceding scene. It seems as though the protest fails to alter anything: the teahouse is still being sold and members of the elite are still in power. Whatever their interpretations of how these choices may comment on the problems of power and corruption in contemporary China, the audience broke into applause immediately after Shen’s last line. The brilliance of Li Liuyi’s staging is that it allows for a range of readings, both conservative and radical. In this way, the production not only adroitly navigates the contemporary political environment, it also reveals the complexity inherent in the original script and its historically contentious conclusions.

Regardless of whether Li Liuyi’s production makes a positive or a negative comment on Chinese politics, it professes faith in the artistic potentials of spoken drama more generally. I am hopeful that this production of Teahouse is just one sign out of many that we may be entering a new era in which the classics of Chinese drama are treated less as museum pieces that need to be preserved and more as public art for the next generations of audiences and practitioners to re-discover. It is not just Western works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov that merit imaginative adaptations on Chinese stages. With this production, Li Liuyi and the Sichuan People’s Art Theatre have certainly proven that scripts such as Lao She’s Teahouse are rich enough to be approached with new questions and conclusions. It remains to be seen how future directors will interpret this same text and write new chapters to its production history.

Megan Ammirati
Visiting Researcher and Translator
School of Arts and Institute of Advanced Studies, Nanjing University


*Videos shot by the author on December 8, 2018 in Nanjing. 

Chen, Xiaomei. 2010. “Introduction.” In Chen, ed., The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1–55.

Qi, Xijia. 2018. “Ticket Opening for Wuzhen Theatre Festival.” Global Times (Aug. 1). http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1113373.shtml. (last accessed 2/13/2019).

Yu, Shiao-ling. 2013. “Politics and Theatre in the PRC: Fifty Years of ‘Teahouse’ on the Chinese Stage.” Asian Theatre Journal 30, no. 1: 90–121.

Zhang, Yue 张悦. 2017. “Li Liuyi: The Sichuan-Dialect Version of ‘Teahouse’ Has the Flavor of Hot and Spicy Soup and Skewers” (李六乙:四川话版《茶馆》有麻辣烫、串串香的味道). Chinese Arts Report 中国艺术报 (Nov. 28). http://m.xinhuanet.com/book/2017-11/28/c_129750783.htm. (last accessed 2/13/2019).