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Tragic theater in China: Acceptance, awakening and development

ZHANG CHI | 2020-06-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured above is a scene from famed Chinese playwright Cao Yu’s magnum opus Thunderstorm. The debut of the great work in the 1930s proclaimed the birth of modern Chinese tragedy. Photo: FILE

As an exotic literary form, tragedy was not introduced to China until 100 years ago. Over the past 100 years, Chinese writers and artists have accepted and reproduced the time-honored Western tragedy tradition, while developing a unique modern Chinese tragedy that differs from Western tragedy and varies from traditional tragic dramas of the nation.

Examination and analysis of how the Chinese literary and art community embraced and have developed tragedy will reveal that the genre had different characteristics in different stages, but in general it has continuously advanced. If the development stages are inseparable from theoretical cognition, creative practice, social conditions and historical context, the inherent development path stems from the awakening of a tragic consciousness. In fact, the stages and the path complement each other.


Consciousness and spirit
As a branch of literary studies, what tragedy is and how it should be were the first questions modern Chinese tragedy researchers pondered over.

Renowned literary theorist Zhu Guangqian praised Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy as the best philosophical work on tragedy ever, partly in that the German philosopher’s conception of tragedy was neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Rather, it was a union of opposites.

In Zhu’s opinion, while tragedy originates from something undesirable, such as the dark side of life or unfair destiny, it represents rebellion against misfortune as well. To tragic characters, cowardice and surrender are the most unforgivable qualities.

This comment of Zhu, or Nietzsche’s seemingly paradoxical conception, unveils the two fundamentals of tragedy: the consciousness of facing up to the predicament of human survival and the spirit of challenging the impossible.

A tragic consciousness is like the kernel of tragedy, suggesting the philosophical nature of art, whereas the spirit of tragedy is like the soul in the kernel, displaying the depth of human nature in tragedy.

Specifically in tragic works, if the inevitability and insolvability of conflict indicate the depth and intensity of contemplation in the tragic consciousness, the natural demand of tragic characters for obtaining an ideal human nature, along with their unrelenting pursuit, action and even destruction, highlight the spiritual height and humanistic charm of tragedy.

In this sense, each classical tragedy is a philosophized poem. The profound thinking and solemn, stirring tone are their basic features, since they start from the ultimate concern of human survival and culminate in the juncture of metaphysical thinking and lofty human spirit.

Therefore, a deep tragic consciousness is insufficient to define a real tragic work. A tragic spirit of perseverance is likewise indispensible. Nevertheless, the awakening of the tragic consciousness is obviously the most fundamental premise.

Reviewing the centennial development of modern tragedy in China, it can be found that despite the small number of truly tragic dramas, the modern tragic consciousness has grown constantly and positively, maturing from outward to inward, from bottom to top, from society to the individual, and from reality to spirit. The tragic spirit varies as a result of authors’ different approaches and works’ different artistic elements, displaying unique qualities and sentiments.

Between the consciousness and the spirit, the awakening of the foundational tragic consciousness has become representative of the centennial development of modern tragedy in China, being a thread that runs through every stage.


The centennial development of modern Chinese tragedy can roughly be divided into three stages, each with a distinctive tendency. The first stage, spanning from the early 20th century to the 1930s, marked the opening of modern tragedy in the nation. This period saw diverse views exploding and clashing, yet gradually converging. The opening includes not only the germination and fledgling stage of modern Chinese tragedy, but also the creation of tragic works regarding human survival.

During this period, the theory and production of tragedy both bourgeoned. Against the social backdrop of the time, an aspiration for aesthetic independence in literature was accompanied by the mission to rebuild a nation state. Tragedy was imported at this moment and accepted out of dual political and aesthetic appeals. Tragedy’s enticing artistic effects in particular brought it into the spotlight.

At the time, various theories on tragedy advocated the use of resonant artistic effects, such as the arguments of Jiang Guanyun, Hu Shi and Xiong Foxi. The metaphysical and aesthetic attributes of tragedy were also championed, especially by Wang Guowei and Xu Zhimo, who were the first to show a clear modern tragic consciousness. 

It was the same case with production. Tragic works of this period were categorized as reflections on realistic social problems and the problems of individuals. Realistic dramas on social problems initiated by the Spring Willow Society, or Chunliu She, and early historical tragedies authored by Guo Moruo and Wang Duqing fell into the first category. The second category was headed by Lu Xun’s poetic drama Passer-By. And Tian Han’s romantic plays were also on the list. If the first category revolutionized the traditional model of the happy ending, the latter thought directly about life, existence and death. Both indicated the awakening and growth of a modern tragic consciousness.

The second highlight of this stage was the emergence of modern classics of tragedy. In the 1930s, the debut of Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm proclaimed the birth of modern Chinese tragedy. The masterpiece also represents the first peak and epitome of modern Chinese tragedy. The observation of and compassion for the survival of humans are the focuses of Cao’s attention and thinking. The work breaks from tradition, yet is distinguished from Western existentialist tragedy. The modernity anxiety is rooted in people’s blind life attitude, which is delivered to the audience through contemplation about life and a sense of panic. There is no happy ending, nor thorough destruction. Created on the basis of the Chinese philosophical idea “harmony in diversity,” it is a new and distinctive form of tragedy belonging to China and modern times.


The second stage from the 1940s to 1980s featured realistic tragedy due to realism’s status as mainstream. The first half of the period was dominated by Guo Moruo’s social-historical tragedy, and the second half by the Marxist conception of tragedy.

Guo’s historical tragedy in the 1940s was another peak in the history of modern Chinese tragedy and also typical of Chinese realistic tragedy. Grounded in tragedy, depicting reality through history and alluding to the present using the past are characteristic of Guo’s tragic writing. His dramas construct tragic conflict and portray tragic characters by underscoring the logic and spirit of historical development. Featuring well-rounded heroes, the dramas elevated their characters from the political to the ethical level, such that the characters radiate inspiring human potential.

For such, his works were acknowledged as the most influential tragic works and the most successful example of tragedy localization in China. Not only did Guo borrow the Marxist view on tragedy skillfully, but his integration of tragedy, society and history has had far-reaching implications.

After 1949, the literary and art community held many discussions on tragedy based on realism, ranging from Lao She’s On Tragedy and Wang Xiyan’s About Tragedy to systematic analysis of Friedrich Engels’s argument on tragedy and the ensuing reacceptance of tragedy, and to a variety of literary studies. All these attempts constituted a comprehensive cognition of socialist tragedy and a reevaluation of the realistic appeal for the genre since it was brought into China, laying a solid theoretical foundation for the further development of modern Chinese tragedy.


In the third stage, from the late 1970s to the present, modern Chinese tragedy has gradually matured. Through active explorations, theoretical examinations have deepened, though a relatively small number of works have been published.

From the late 1970s to the 1980s, theoretical studies on tragedy became increasingly systematic and diverse, as comprehensive or monographic research publications sprung up. Through observation of and inquiry into reality and life, fiction also inadvertently delineated the landscape of modern Chinese tragedy and contributed to its deepening.

Theoretical discussions and creative practices echoed each other, giving rise to such brilliant works as Gou Erye’s Nirvana authored by Liu Jinyun and Sangshuping Chronicles by Zhu Xiaoping.
However, after the 1990s, tragedy as a serious art has become more and more silent under the impact of media’s orientation toward entertainment. Nonetheless, the silence is more of an active retreat to explore the existence and survival of modern humanity in depth and reserve power for further development.


Zhang Chi is an associate professor from the School of Liberal Arts at Anhui Normal University.


​edited by CHEN MIRONG