24 Sep 2010

In search of a new direction for the contemporary Chinese theatre aesthetics: review Lun Xiju 論戲劇 (On Theatre)

This book review was originally written in Chinese and published on Wen-Hsun 文訊, 298, August, 2010. After reading Lun Xiju, I find it necessary to write a review since what Gao Xingjian 高行健 proposes is something so basic but meaningful that in fact endows the contemporary Chinese theatre with strong aesthetic concepts deriving from traditional Chinese aesthetics and thoughts which would further open up new possibilities for contemporary theatre presentation and appreciation. Moreover, his concept of Chinese theatre and literature is not limited to the production of arts for Chinese only, but a well-developed theory for both artistic creation and aesthetic appreciation. Although what he has developed is closely related to Chinese theatre, his great concern for human beings makes his concept applicable to the production of arts in general. Therefore, with the intention to share Gao's precious thought with those who are unable to read Chinese, I translated my own work into English as follows.

Lun Xiju 論戲劇 (On Theatre)
By: Gao Xingjian 高行健, Fang Zixun 方梓勳
Taipei: Lian Jing 聯經, 2010, 216 p., NTD 270
ISBN: 978-957-08-3582-3

In one of his poems, Gao Xingjian implies that playwrights are like flying birds looking at this world from up in the sky. In the preface of this book, Fang Zixun explains that Gao’s works embody through his created figures a wisdom that is brought about by deep contemplation; they are not preaching but aesthetic. (p. 4) Aesthetic is an artistic experience one obtains from contemplation, and certainly it is nothing about preaching. However, aesthetic in theatre always has such implication aiming to speak to someone and teach about something; in theatre, what is spoken is the feeling of the playwright, and what is taught is the idea and meaning shown in the performance. In Gao’s mind, theatre aesthetic lies in the disclosure of what life is, and theatre must achieve this so as to bring the audience a “clear awareness” of humanity, of life, and of the society they live in. This “clear awareness” makes the beauty of theatre so appealing and generates deep meanings to the audience. Based on this understanding of theatre, Gao states that theatre should have the depth of thought as its support, a deep thought that recognizes and discloses all dilemmas and conflicts that can be found in life.

Gao’s theatre is an art of performers. In this book, he elaborates two important ideas: the “omnipotent theatre” and the “omnipotent performers”. The former relies on the existence of the latter whose actions and representations are, as he conceives, the practice of the “theatrical suppositionality”, a term he invents to indicate the necessary condition in playwriting. Although Gao admits he is influenced by Brecht’s concept of theatre, he makes it quite clear in this book that their concepts are in fact different from each other. He says his performers are required to have the “clear awareness of the third party”, a concept he developed from his understanding of Zen Buddhism and his rediscovery and reception of the art of acting in traditional Chinese theatre. This “omnipotent performer” is always clam and in contemplation, and he is equipped with the feature of the “triplicity of acting” – again, a concept deriving from the acting of traditional Chinese theatre that considers performers as having three psychological conditions that formed the “triplicity”: me as myself, me as a performer (the role), and me as the character in performance – that turns him into a “neutral actor” who can go in and out of his roles freely, control his performance precisely, and capture the instant reaction of the audience. As he states, this “neutral actor” is in fact in the second psychological condition having a “clear awareness” to act as the third party. Having done so, the communication with the audience is achieved. His concept of acting is based on the art of traditional Chinese theatre, and he reinterprets traditional concepts according to contemporary perspectives.

“Clear awareness” is originally a Buddhist term, but Gao turns it into a means for aesthetic practice to depict and explore “the interrelationship between an individual and the group”. Not only the performers should do so, but the playwright must also base his creation on such concept. According to him, when such aesthetic representations are shown on stage, the audience will naturally contemplate, in a calm and sensible way, what they have seen, heard and experienced in theatre. Fang says this abstract thinking runs through Gao’s overall concept of theatre. (p. 15) Gao explains that the depth of thought is a thorough understanding of human beings and life embedded in plays that can only be achieved by means of “clear awareness”. (pp. 154-7) Gao further points out that this “omnipotent performer” is always sincere whose attitude and vivid performance is the benchmark for aesthetic appreciation and the charm of theatre. He says that lacking the depth of thought and the required “theatrical suppositionality” in plays would easily make a performance become an empty vehicle for certain ideas or simply a game of language. These are what he considers the problem of contemporary theatre. He observes that contemporary performances usually lack theatricality and any necessary dramatic features, and it is common to see in these performances the dissipation of characters, or simply the cancellation of characters. This trend only turns performances into a simple written text or, worse than that, a speech. (p. 98) He believes the reason why theatre is theatre relies on the sense of calling of the playwright to reveal the truth of human life, and also on the performers’ actions in theatre “to hold tears in their palms, to crumble the world with their hands, to pull their hearts out of their bodies, and to expose their true souls”. (p. 142) His words are not just a serious criticism to contemporary theatre. His calling truly serves as a fine antidote bringing our attention back to the essence of theatre and aesthetic.

In the last chapter, Gao combines the form of manifesto and essay to declare his concept of “omnipotent theatre” and its required artistic expressions. Except this chapter that shows us a formal attitude, all others adopt the form of dialogue by using colloquial words and phrases. This form of dialogue makes reading interesting and easy to understand, and thus it allows the reader to explore easily Gao’s creativity and aesthetic concept. This book is truly an important resource for further researches on the theatre and literature of Gao Xingjian, but we should also acknowledge at the same time that the importance of this book is more than its being a resource for research. What this book offers is a new direction for contemporary Chinese theatre aesthetic that is not just for theatre practitioners and researchers but for whoever is interested in this art. By means of its logical presentation using plain spoken language, the general public can also achieve a lucid understanding of how theatre and its means for representations talk about human nature and sensibilities. Through this understanding, readers will realize that theatre is an art that teaches human beings to recognize again what “Humanity” is.

10 May 2010


三月看完了 Ballet Preljocaj 的《白雪公主》 Blanche Neige / Snow White (2008) 後,我寫了篇舞評〈舞動在當代潮流下的白雪〉 。很幸運的我的評論通過了「藝評台」審查發表在國藝會網站上。


19 Mar 2010

In reply to some questions raised

I am here clarifying some of my points in my previous post: Outrageous! The paranoid Canadian Customs 加拿大了不起啊,不把旅客當人看, and hopefully my words here can answer the questions raised in one of the comments to that post.

As I stated in my post, the terms "the arrogant Western mindset" and "rudeness" are used to express the attitude of the officials of Canadian Customs towards that woman while she was interrogated. Indeed, when we use the term "Western", regardless whatever words may come after it, the expression itself has already caused certain problem. This is exactly the same as we use the term "Oriental". However, if we are more sentitive to the use of terms, we would find that the use of the term "Oriental" usually has greater effects than the use of "Western". As Edward Said points out, the term "Oriental" itself shows a prejudiced interpretation - resulting from the Occidental tradition - of what seems strange, bizarre and exotic in the East. Since the East is interpreted according to the Occidental way of perceiving the objective world, the East is naturally placed in a position that is inferior to the West and subjects to the norms, attitudes, values, and even rules of the West. Of course, we could argue with such a theoretical structure Said constructs by posing a different way of looking at the world, such as using Chinese way of looking at the world to interpret whatever that is not Chinese, but that would be only a vain effort and would definitely go into ethnocentrism and nationalism. In other words, Said has given us a therotical structure that is based on facts, of course the old historical facts, and such a structure does explain how the West looks at the East before the modern time. We should be careful here that even though his interpretation of the interrelationship between the West and the East is quite correct, that in fact cannot be fully applied to the modern time. Culture changes according to how human beings live their life and how traditional values are modified and mutate accordingly. However, generally speaking, this binary view of which one is superior to the other somehow can still be observed. That "Western" view over the "Eastern" world still acts like a ghost lingering in our real everyday life.

Do I say that there is a definite Western way of thinking, a mindset, that is arrogant and rude? Of course, there is such a way of thinking. But do I refer this thinking to "all Western people"? No, I did not and will not do so. There are prejudiced thinking, rudeness and arrogance in whatever people from whatever cultural backgrounds. As I have said clearly, I am referring only to those who are involved in the case. Does this make me a racist? Of course not. The commentator of my previous post seems to overinterpret my words and have put me in an awkard position at which I must justify myself. The same is the question he raised that whether Taiwanese tourists are barred from entering Canada. Maybe my phrasing is not clear enough so that the commentator once again overinterpreted and exaggerated my words. My intention is to say that the Customs should treat people nicely instead of looking at them like they don't deserve any human rights. The last question the commentator raised is the problem of the media here in Taiwan. I agree that due to this nationalistic patriotism, we may be misled by the media here. However, according to the following reports on this issue, we cannot help but believe that there are something fishy about the actions of the Canadian Customs. Moreover, though I agree that we should be, at certain extent, skeptical to the power of the media, we must also realize that we are living in the world of media without which we may not know anything that is crucial to our life, especially our quality of life.

As I am typing here, and also the commentator's reading and leaving messages, isn't this the function of the media? Media offers us chances to find out what is wrong, what has not yet been fully discussed, and what that must be fought against. As my blog title says "when all is done and said, how says you", we should all try our best to say something. In fact, I owe this specific commentator my gratitude because his comments allows further discussion that is not just about the case concerned, but about cultural conflicts that urgently requires our attention, about human rights that should not be only a slogan, and about the latent problem of the media.

17 Mar 2010

Outrageous! The paranoid Canadian Customs 加拿大了不起啊,不把旅客當人看

廣告真實版 加海關刁難台婦 外交部討公道
中時 更新日期:"2010/03/17 02:16" 仇佩芬/台北報導




出示簽證和回程機票 仍強搜行李




隻身不通英語 被迫簽自願離境書




Even though this Taiwanese woman doesn't speak English and her husband isn't a millionaire, having a good traveling visa issued by the Canadian representative in Taiwan and a booked return ticket should indicate clearly that she has the right to enter Canada as a tourist without being discriminated against.

The actions of the Customs are rude and illogical. This woman asked if she can call her sister who waited at the hall, but the Customs rejected her and even took away her mobile and telephone book. Later she was offered two options: 1. stay in costudy for three days, or 2. sign the paper that delcares her will to leave the country on the next available flight. Okay, if the person has been considered by the Customs as suspicious and dangerous to the country, it is reasonable to see these two options offered to the person involved. However, if we look carefully at this case, we would find that there are no firm reasons to justify the action of the Customs.

First, if this woman is considered a terrorist, then the Canadian goverment should have taken the actions similar to the U.S. Customs, which means to arrest the person first and delcare immediately that her current status might be dangerous to the country. Then the issue will be dealt with on the level of national security. This also means she will not be held in custody for three days, let alone being put on the next available flight.

Second, if the Canadian Customs think she has the intention to stay in Canada, then they should have checked whether she has the confirmed return ticket and should immediately contact the immigration office and also their representative office in Taipei for relevent information. In the meantime, before they can finally confirm any possible status, the person involved should not be discriminated against, meaning she should receive a good reason for being held, and also proper treatment while she is held in custody.

In this case, the rude Canadian Customs just treat her like shit: they go through her personal belongings and ask "why do you have so many pairs of underwear?", "How can you travel to Canada when your husband only makes something like 3500 Canadian dollars a month?", and even questions her visa, which was issused by their official representative office in Taipei a day before she boarded the flight to Vancouver. If the visa is invalid, it is impossible for her to board the flight, as we all know this fact from our travel experiences. All these questions are unbelivable and they remind me of my personal experience when traveling to some underdeveloped countries. In fact, as I remembered, those underdeveloped countries, though they were rude when asking questions, they still treat me like a person, not a dog.

What makes us angry here is their taking advantage of this Taiwanese woman. They know she cannot speak Engish and knows nothing about immigration laws, so in order to protect themselves from further complaints, they force her to sign the paper declaring her will to leave the country on the next available flight. That is a legal paper that forfeits the right of the person concerned to enter the country. Thus, there is really nothing we can do afterwards. Worse than that, this woman will be recorded on their immigration records (or usually called the blacklist) as someone "not welcomed". We should know that once you are recorded on the blacklist of whatever country, it will be very diffult for you to travel to other countries in the future, let alone getting a visa from countries like the U.S. As I infer from this case, forcing the woman to sign the paper clearly shows their intention to protect themselves from future complaints. They might have already known that they made a mistake and thus gave only two options for the woman to choose. Who would choose to be held in custody for three days? I would if this happens to me and I will do whatever I can to sue those involved in this event.

So what is about Canada now? People used to say the people there are nice, but in this case we only see arrogant Western mindset and rudeness. Are women inferior, especially women from Asia? Are Asian people inferior, especially Chinese? Would they dare to do the same to a U.S. or a European citizine? If they don't welcome us to see their beautiful country, then why bother to spend so much money and time to fly there? Even they don't welcome us, they should still treat us like "normal" human beings, right!

9 Mar 2010

Tim Burton's Alice is in Underland

Yes, Alice is in Underland, not in Wonderland, as the New York Times review says. Wonderland is for children and we are all too old for and also too bored with that. Only Tim Burton's Underland can fulfill this grown-up taste for sarcasm and that bitter dark humour.

In this film, anyone who enjoys the dark world created by Tim Burton will find himself again indulge in that splendid fantasy. Alice in Wonderland shares the same idiosyncrasy of Burton, as can be seen in his The Nightmare before Christmas (1993), or the most recent ones like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). This created fantasy world always has a grayish tone, even though the colours shown are bright, sharp and vibrant. It is this grayish tone that successfully transforms a children's fatasy into an appropriate entertainment for grown-ups only. When Alice falls into that tree hole, she is destined and also forced to face her fear and rebellion, whether it is the confusion about her arranged marriage, about her childhood experience of that imagined world, or about her life in this reality that is full of all sorts of so-called normal standards of behaviours. Thus, her falling down into the tree hole seems to probe deeply into her complex emotions and thoughts, and only through her adventure in that imagined world in which no more normal standards are practiced can she really re-collect her courage to fight against her own confusion and fear. Does this make Alice someone abnormal, someone lacking the humanity proper to live in reality? Of course not! In fact, with Burton's unique understanding and his excellent presentation of the story, Alice and all other imagined characters are fully equipped with all sorts of human nature, which is once hidden deep inside our body but is now teased out, purified, then magnified and thus performing livily in front of our eyes.

Each character seems to have a certain human nature as his/her peculiarity, but at the same time he/she is not just the representation of that certain human nature. They all have their own complex personality and the highlighted human nature is to give the character his/her uniqueness and grotesqueness. In fact, it is this grotesqueness shown through the character's gestures, voice, and attitudes, or in other words, the complete action of the living body, that captures the audience's eyes and enchants them. The Red Queen's huge heart-shape head is not just a bodily deformity, it actually corresponds to her mental instability, that is, the fear of not being loved and the hatred of the normal standard of beauty. Due to her power over all other trivial living creatures, each one of them tries so hard to turn themselves into someone with any forms of deformity so as to keep themselves alive. This creates a funny aesthetic that takes the ugliness as the beauty and the defomity as the perfection. In fact, why can't the ungliness be beautiful? Why can't the selfishness be righteous? Who says the ugly and selfish person is doomed to be a loser? In her world, everything is turned upside down. Helena Bonham Carter successfully shows us what a wicked and desperate woman is and through her performance we get to see that we all have such personality somewhere in our body which we are so fear of and have to hide and suppress in the reality.

Anne Hathaway's White Queen is another funny creature, and she is such a criticism to hypocrisy and mannerism in our real world. That exaggerated gesture constantly shows her weakness and lack of emotions. She is the ice queen living in her while bubble world. Although her world is a world of goodness, it submits to the crazy reign of the Red Queen. Her great excuse is the two outrageous monsters: Bandersnatch and Jabberwocky. The White Queen can be seen everywhere in reality though those who have that quality mostly show it in a very subtle way. They belive they are elegant, pretty, good, and even generous, but the truth is they are ignorant of whatever is real. Is it wrong? No, of course not. It is just a type of human nature the producer of the film wants us to see.

Also, the Mad Hatter gives us a highly complex personality. He is somehow schizophrenic, especially when he goes mad. Yes, when a person is mad, it is likely he is schizophrenic; when a person is born mad, nothing can justify his maddness. He used to be a nice Hatter willing to spread the happiness to everyone. But when the village was burned down by that monstrous Jabberwocky, he lost himself and dwelled in his little dark world waiting with unstable mindset for the saviour, Alice, to return. The contrast of his two extreme personality is clearly represented in two scenes: the first is broken utensils and rotten food on the banquet table; in contrast to that is the wonderfully decorated banquet table in Alice's memory of her first visit to Wonderland. The more Alice probes into the heart of the Mad Hatter, the crazier he becomes. Isn't this what we all feel when someone goes too deep into our heart? When someone keeps asking us to face something that we try so hard to forget? The Mad Hatter is the most successful grotesque character in this film, and Johnny Depp once agian surprises us with his brillant perfromance. He is so interested in performing characters that are mentally distorted, but what he did well is there is always a tiny difference between all his mentally distorted characters. It is this reason that marks his brilliance in acting.

There are more characters that bear such grotesqueness related to the reality world, such as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the twins that are contantly in disagreement and argument that is formed according to their illogical and rediculous understanding of the condition. The exaggerated human nature of these characters in Wonderland is in fact observable in the real world. As we see, after Alice comes back to her engagement party, she suddenly finds that the twin sisters are the Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and Lowell somehow reminds her Stayne, the Knave of Hearts. Her refusal to Hamish's proposal results from her experience as the White Knight successfully slaying the Jabberwocky, and this achievement further pushes her to seriously look at herself. Thus, in the end of the film Tim Burton gives us a courageous modern woman whose confidence leads her to the real adventure, taking up her father's job and sailing to the Far East for commercial activities. This is unbelievable to the people of the mid-19th century! Burton is great at playing with this theme: if this is an adventure, then why not make Alice the pioneer of the female self-awareness!

25 Feb 2010

What if Dalai Lama decides not to come back to this life again?

After his visiting to the U.S., Dalai Lama talked to the reporter that he considers not to come back to this world again, or he could choose a person to represent his authority before he leaves this world. This is startling, even to a non-Tibetan like me. In fact, as I remember, he has made such statements couple years ago, but still, hearing these words again frightens me.

I am not a Tibetan, and thus I will not be able to feel what they feel when they hear this. However, as a Chinese Buddhist having known and familiar with the reincarnation system in Tibetan Buddhism, I feel sad and frustrated. Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and also the most praised and worshipped goddess in Chinese culture. She represents great mercy and love, and it is widely believed that whenever a person suffers from any kinds of pain and calls her name, the Bodhisattva will come and help release the person from pain. Thus, when the representation of this icon in this world decides not to come again, does this mean that we, the pathetic human beings, are finally left for eternal pain waiting for the Judgement Day, as is described in Christian tradition?

Of course not, I personally believe (according to my religious belief) that all gods are loving and they will not leave us. Dalai Lama is only making this statement according to the difficult political situation of Tibet. He understands well that his presence represets all Tibetans, and as long as he holds the idea that Tibetans and their culture should not be suppressed by the Chinese government, China will never welcome him and his people. Indeed, this is a dilemma, and he is left with no solution but not to come again. But such a decision will have a great influence on Tibetans because it is impossible for them to imagine the world without Dalai Lama. Thus, he says it is possible to name his successor while he is alive. In fact, this could be a good way since no more reincarnation is involved, and the new successor will be a new individual without all the past history which may be a hindrance for him to rule Tibet. In other words, this new leader is more like a political ruler than a religious icon, whose lack of religious power may make Chinese government fear less.

But still, this dilemma is still not solved. If the new successor is no longer the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, he will never be Dalai Lama, even with the current Dalai Lama's consent. Tradition exists according to his internal laws, and once they are destroyed it will take a very long time for the new laws to develop and function. Tibet as a political regime has been in difficult condition, and it is undoubtedly true that their culture are greatly damaged due to the political situation. Religious belief and tradition are the reason why this culture can still survive and also the reason why Chinese government fears it so much. If Dalai Lama breaks this tradition, I wonder how this culture can be maintained without losing the essence of it. Dalai Lama says that as the time progresses, Tibetan culture should also progress and change so as to match the contemporary world. I agree with him, but I do not think that destroying the core of the culture is the best way to force an old culture to progress. Also, I believe the Chinese government will not change their attitude just because the new Dalai Lama is no longer the reincarnation of the previous ones.

I am unable to imagine a Tibet without Dalai Lama, and I am also unable to imagine a Dalai Lama who is not a Dalai Lama. Call me superstitious! I do believe in this magical reincarnation system, and I do think Dalai Lama has the wisdom and knowledge that has been passed down through such system. This is the difference between me and him. He is an old man with great wisdom and knows what life means and the rules of the world. I am only a human who tries to use my little knowledge to understand the world. Maybe his not coming back would in fact benefit his beloved people. But as a human being, I just don't think that such decisions can solve the dilemma between Tibet and China.

Studying vs. Living

Recently a friend, or more precisely speaking my previous student, contacted me about her current studies and whether she should go for PhD studies. After reading her message, I suddendly realized that I must thank her for cotacting me. This message says that she trusts me as a friend, and more than that, it helps me develop and reaffirm my own ideas about life.

She says:


Here is what I think:


藉禪宗的話來說,「當下」就是人應該要注意的行動基準。換句話說,若是繼續讀 PhD 已經是已經考慮的問題,那麼就應該著手進行它。不要去思考什麼不行的問題。直接去做、直接去生活就是「當下」的意義,而禪宗也就是藉此為方法來幫助其子弟們「悟禪」。我不是要說人都要去「悟禪」,而是藉此觀念此來幫助我們了解,與其在世俗中受苦,何不在世俗中努力生活。苦海無邊,煩惱不斷,那就盡己所能的渡過苦海、斬斷煩惱。人永遠不會知道下一秒鐘的自己會是如何,就算是經過精心設計,仍是有不可預知的變數在中間。那何必煩惱?就把握「當下」,努力去做吧。

Later she talks about Foucault:
然後看了 Foucault 談到死亡的美學,就覺得像這樣的天才發展出來的想法應該也只有世上少數金字塔頂端的人有那樣的機會去探索體認他的看法,對於其他多數的芸芸眾生,每天都為了基本的生存而掙扎,談什麼美學呢

This part is crucial since it makesme think in deep what my thought is on life, living and death:
美就在生活之中;美學就是生活的學問。不可否認, Foucault 是那金字塔頂的人,但他仍是在這俗世欲海中沉浮,也因為他意識到生命的沉浮不定,迫使他去更深入的思考到底人究竟是什麼、生命的意義到底是什麼、死亡會什麼是可怕的?一般人對死亡那種晦暗不明的回答很是有趣的,這種回答其實是包含了恐懼、無能為力、放棄與因為放棄後所得到的豁達。但是畢竟人是不捨其一生中所擁有的一切,就算有了那一點點的豁達,也會因恐懼的升高而抹煞了因豁達所引發的釋然。死亡就是死亡,既然會死,何必去想?既然不用想它,那麼何不把握當下,努力去成就生命的美好?與其說是死亡的美學,它更是生命的美學、更是俗世生活的根基。佛學說要為死亡做準備(如《西藏生死書》中對生命與死亡的詮釋),但這事實上是要求我們努力去成就此生的美好,而不是去畏懼死亡的恐怖。

Foucault 並未放棄人生,雖他與佛理哲學無太大關係,但我們仍可發現到他的概念與禪思想並無衝突之處。他的AIDS病症事實上是督促他不斷思考的原動力。人都需要有極大的創傷、挫折來使他意識到自身的意義。當然我不是說人都需要經歷如此恐怖的病痛,但我們卻可以藉由閱讀、學習來發現「人的意義」,由別人的真實經驗來輔助我們那麼微小的、平庸的思想。