In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modern Chinese Drama

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Translations
  • Bibliographies
  • Musicological Studies

Chinese Studies Modern Chinese Drama
Edward M. Gunn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0011


Since the turn of the 20th century, modern Chinese drama and theater have taken their inspirations from a wide range of sources and contributed to a broad array of interests. So, too, the scholarship on the theater and dramatic literature draws from, and contributes to, a number of fields, not only literature, theater, and performance studies but also anthropology, film and media studies, history, musicology, and political science. A selection of these various types of studies is included in this bibliography. The influences of a modern world on 20th-century China provoked substantial innovations in the forms of music theater already embedded in Chinese social life for centuries. Chinese scholars have for the most part maintained a major distinction between opera (xiqu 戏曲) as a group of forms that they see as a perpetuation of the heritage of the historic past and music theater (geju 歌剧) that typically designates modern musicals inspired by forms of Western opera. In this bibliography, the term “music theater” is used for all forms of musicals while explicitly noting the subset of xiqu as “opera.” In addition to music theater, the modern world inspired new forms of drama, including what became known as the spoken drama (huaju 话剧) of the Western stage. Scholarship has followed both the response of older forms of theater, whether conservative or innovative, and the development of new forms. Although the bulk of scholarship has focused on the achievements and fortunes of spoken drama, a growing body of research on music theater has appeared. Although there is relatively little research on the responses of spoken drama and music theater to each other, a number of studies contribute to this well-known but little studied area. Because so many writers and theater artists shared with political leaders a vision of the theater as a means to create a new culture and persuade large populations of their causes, the stage has been intimately involved with the tumultuous fortunes of the Chinese state. Both the individual works and the history of Chinese drama as a whole have been decisively marked by the policies of its governments. At the same time, policies cannot totally define creativity. Much scholarship has stressed dramatic texts and theater performances not only as constructions of identities beyond explicit policies but also as interventions in, or complications of, these policies and identities. The discourses of social class, gender, national, and postcolonial identities have figured prominently in recent scholarship. Most recently the geographic spread and cultural complexities of Chinese theater have engaged scholars. A significant body of dramatic literature and theater in Chinese languages has been evident throughout the periphery of China—from Hong Kong to Taiwan to Singapore—and across the Pacific. The concept of intercultural theater, which adapts and freely reworks sources from other societies into local productions, is not new, but it gained in significance as more of Chinese society has moved into closer cultural contact with other societies. Especially in recent years, Chinese-language scholarship has provided an impressive set of sources on its wide array of theater and dramatic literature. A representative selection of this scholarship is included in this bibliography, following the English-language sources in each section.

General Overviews

General historical and critical overviews may be found in Chen 2010 and Mackerras 1975. Although Chen provides the most complete study on spoken drama in English, Mackerras offers the most informed review of music theater in addition to spoken drama, and Li 2010 a performance-oriented survey of Peking Opera specifically. Eberstein 1983 is one of the most thorough studies of theater and politics. Fei 1999 has selected and translated important theoretical texts. Yan 1992 puts theoretical exploration of theater into the terms of dramatic criticism in the late 20th century. Chen’s edited anthology (Chen 2010, cited under Translations) provides the largest single collection of plays of the 20th century beginning from the May Fourth era in 1919, incorporating several from an earlier anthology (Gunn 1983, cited under Translations). English-language translations for modern plays are not available prior to 1918, save for Karl 2002 (cited under Opera). Dong and Rong 2008 is included here as an excellent example of recent Chinese scholarship across the full span of Chinese theater. See also Musicological Studies for important studies of music theater linking musicology and dramaturgy.

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

    This is not only the most recent but also the most informed overview of modern, spoken drama from the early 20th century to the 21st century.

  • Dong Jian 董健, and Rong Guangrun 荣广润, eds. Zhongguo xiju: Cong chuantong dao xiandai (中国戏剧从传统到现代). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2006.

    Not a systematic discussion, but an excellent collection of articles that ably represents the state of current scholarship, its concerns, and methodologies across a wide range of spoken drama and music theater from late imperial times to the avant-garde works of the late 20th century.

  • Eberstein, Bernd. Das Chinesische Theater im 20. Jahrhundert. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Harrassowitz, 1983.

    This is a major, well-documented survey of political visions and initiatives to modernize opera and promote modern drama during the 20th century up to the early post-Mao years.

  • Fei, Faye Chunfang, ed. and trans. Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

    This volume of translations includes several important theoretical and critical statements on all forms of theater in the 20th century.

  • Li Ruru. The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

    Li explores issues in the transformation of Peking opera in the 20th century through case studies of celebrated performers.

  • Mackerras, Colin. The Chinese Theatre in Modern Times, from 1840 to the Present Day. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

    This remains the single most informative survey of Chinese theater in one volume for the period from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, especially for music theater.

  • Yan, Haiping. “Modern Chinese Drama and Its Western Models: A Critical Construction of Chinese Subjectivity.” Modern Drama 35.1 (March 1992): 54–64.

    In addition to the comparative discussion appearing in other studies, this study offers an overarching concept of the significance of the response of Chinese theater to Western sources.

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