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In Session: Transnationalism and Transmediality in Wartime China
3: Pearl S. Buck's Chinese Living Theatre: Performing Wartime China across the Pacific
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Ryerson University, United States
Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel laureate for literature and gatekeeper of China matters in the United States, organized the Chinese Living Theater in 1943. In her letter to H. H. Kung, former financial minister of Republican China, Buck contended, it “may mean the opening up of Hollywood to Chinese actors and actresses in Chinese plays, a project which I have long wanted to see accomplished.” This paper traces the trans-Pacific endeavors of Buck’s theater, illustrating complex racial and ideological dynamics in making wartime popular culture such as theater.
The Theater featured Wang Yung, acclaimed “queen of modern Chinese drama,” writer, and underground Communist, who had just toured China and Southeast China to raise money for China's resistance. Frustrated with the “yellow faces” in Hollywood, as seen in the 1937 award-winning screen adaption of her famous novels The Good Earth, Buck was adamant that an all-Chinese cast present “authentic” modern Chinese plays (not traditional opera) to Americans.
Through an elite international intellectual society in Chongqing, that included Brooks Atkinson, the influential drama critic and then war correspondent of The New York Times, and John K. Fairbank, the future dean of American sinology, the Theater accessed new plays by Cao Yu, Lao She, and others. Such work signaled the maturity of modern theater in wartime China. Boasting their repertoire as “really Chinese,” the Theater strove to transform programs across class, race, and geographical space. Clandestinely supported by the Comintern network, it successfully toured the United States from 1943 to 1946.