Tao Qingmei: While active as a theater critic, Tao has published numerous studies and books in China on the subject of theater. She is a young researcher specializing particularly in modern Chinese theater. At TPAM 2004 she was guest lecturer at the seminar “Potential of the Chinese Market” held as part of the “East Asia Network” program.
Doctor of Modern Theater Culture Research
Assistant Researcher at the China Social Sciences Academy, Culture Dept., Comparative
The Chinese theater world has changed a lot over the
last 20 years. The contents of these changes are very complex, but you can divide
the movements roughly between those occurring up until 1990 and those occurring
since. While there had been some process of cultural development from the time
of the adoption of the government’s reform and liberalization policies up
until 1990, the Chinese at that time still had very little exposure to Western
arts, and the performing arts was a field where virtually no foreign influence
could be seen.
Entering the ’90s, however, new movements began to appear. One of the characteristics
of this change was that people from the general public began getting actively
involved in theater in increasing numbers. The birth of these new theater groups
arising from the general public with no government sponsorship or affiliation
was a result of the fact that up until 1990 people had the desire to see plays
but found there were no plays worth seeing. As a result, people took action and
began thinking about what theater could and should be.
When these new theater companies, which you might call “private sector”
companies, became really active around the year 2000, we saw the government beginning
to support them actively. Along with this boom in private-sector theater, we also
saw the appearance of small-theater productions in the various regions of the
country. And, the government began to support these experimental theater efforts,
This support from the public sector took the form not only of funding but also
new attempts by the government–affiliated theater companies to undertake
experimental theater productions of their own. Of course, owing to the fact that
they are government–affiliated companies, there were some limitations on
what they would undertake and the orientation tended to be toward public entertainment
rather than art theater. But, it is significant that they were beginning to create
new productions to cater to a public that was anxious to see new theatrical works.
One of the important stimulants behind this movement was the activities of the
former government–affiliated theater company director Bo Sen. It was the
recognition he won by actively participating in international theater arts festivals
with a private-sector company that made the government decide to lend its support.
This recognition he won has been a very big factor in the recent changes we are
One of the important works to emerge in China’s small-theater scene in recent
years is the play “Tianshang Renjian (People of the Heavens)” first performed in
2001. This work was so successful that the name of the play became the name of
the company, and from 2001 to 2003 some 50 performances were held around China.
For a small-theater production in China, this number was truly amazing. The production
was financed personally by Mu Tou, who also wrote the play and did the directing.
The budget was kept low, with the production cost for the first performance coming
to only 80,000 yuan (approx. 100,000 USD). Return performance followed
return performance until it set a record for the largest total audience draw for
a Chinese small-theater production by its fourth re-staging in March of 2004.
There is a possibility that successful Chinese small-theater productions like
this could be taken overseas, but I believe some re-writing of the script and
re-staging to accommodate foreign audiences would be necessary first.
We have also been inviting some Japanese small-theater productions for performance
in China, but I believe that the important thing for this kind of exchange in
the performing arts is that it be done on a continuing basis. Also, I don’t
think we should be trying to mount productions that recover the investment with
one staging. If the first performance doesn’t break even, we should be able
to think about what to do for a second and maybe a third performance. I think
it is important that we take a stance where we are prepared to plan longer-run
performances and exchange productions on a continuing basis.