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Cao Yu, "Shakespeare of the Orient"

03-04-2011 08:40 BJT

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Honored as the "Shakespeare of the Orient," Cao Yu was one of the greatest playwrights of 20th-Century China.

Throughout the month his classical plays have been staged to commemorate his life's work. Let's recall the late dramatist and his stage art.

Beijing People's Art Theatre, also known as Renyi where Cao was the first director in 1952 when the theatre was established, kicked off the series of performances with "Sunrise."

"Sunrise", Cao Yu's second play, was published in 1936. Following his first work "Thunderstorm," he continued his thematic treatment respecting an individual's progressive moral degradation in the face of a hostile society. In it, the tragedies of Chen Bailu, a Shanghai courtesan and people around her are narrated. The story shows their lives disintegrating in response to lack of affection and of acknowledgment by the society surrounding them, leading them down a tragic path from which they cannot escape.

It's hard to count how many times Cao Yu's plays have been adapted and staged. His writings have become the standard, and the messages his works convey are pervasive and eternal.

Lan Tianye, actor, said, "Cao Yu's plays are the nutrition for all the dramatic artists of New China. I don't know an actor who has never played a role in Cao Yu's dramas. I still remember that 66 years ago when I was 17, my school mate Su Min, who is now a renowned playwright of Ren Yi, asked me to play the first drama in my life. And it was "Sunrise.""

Honored as the "Shakespeare of the Orient," Cao Yu was one of
the greatest playwrights of 20th-Century China.

Born as Wan Jiabao, Cao Yu's hometown was in central China's Hubei Province. When he was still an infant, his family moved to Tianjin, a northern city with a strong western influence.

Cao Yu was first matriculated at Nankai University's Department of Political Science, but transferred the following year to Tsinghua University, where he studied until graduating in 1934 with a degree in Western Languages and Literature. During his university studies, he improved his abilities in both Russian and English, and his course of study required reading the works of western and Russian authors, as well as translated works of classic Greek writers.

The play "Thunderstorm", garnered Cao Yu critical success
and popularity on the international stage.

This immersion in western literature would mark Cao Yu's style in all writing genres including the "spoken theatre", which had had little tradition in China prior to Cao Yu's influence. During his last year at the university, he completed his first drama, "Thunderstorm", which would mark a milestone in Chinese theatre of the 20th century.


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