The first half of the 20th century saw an increase in both the quantity and quality of cultural exchanges between China and the U.S. In addition to more well-known examples like the film industry, the impact of these exchanges was also felt in the traditional arts. Perhaps no story illustrates this better than that of the birth of huju, or “Shanghai opera.”
When MGM released its adaptation of the hit Broadway WWI drama “Waterloo Bridge” into American theaters in May 1940, it was generally well-received. When the film hit Chinese screens six months later, it proved a sensation. Part of the film’s success can be attributed to the appeal of its stars: Robert Taylor was a well-known actor, and Vivien Leigh was coming off the smash hit “Gone With the Wind.” But its story about true love amid a world at war also struck a chord with Chinese audiences, and within just a few months of its premiere, “Waterloo Bridge” had been turned into a Shaoxing opera, a Chinese-language film, and Shanghai’s first huju.
A portrait of Wang Yaqin, who played Myra Lester in the 1941 Shanghai opera version of “Waterloo Bridge.” From文化月刊杂志 on Wechat; Right: A screenshot of a 1983 performance shows actors Xu Jun (left) and Mao Shanyu. From Bilibili
Huju evolved from a local opera format known as shenqu, which in turn developed out of village songs and performance techniques native to the Shanghai region. Unlike their better-known counterparts, such as Peking opera and kunqu, local Shanghai opera formats don’t have a particularly long history or rich play repertoire. This has its advantages, however: Their late emergence makes them uniquely suited for telling stories about modern metropolitan life. Indeed, shenqu operas quickly became known for their use of suits and skintight qipao dresses instead of traditional opera costumes.
Over the course of the early 20th century, as shenqu gradually evolved to better reflect the lives and tastes of Shanghai’s residents, its playwrights and directors absorbed stories, techniques, aesthetics, and other elements from film and other popular media. In the process, they transformed what had once been a rural art form into something new and cosmopolitan.
Building off a growing understanding of, and appreciation for, Western drama from Chinese audiences, late-period shenqu looked little like their rural forebears. This was especially true of their plotting conventions — which had largely ceased to resemble those found in other local opera styles — as well as their choice of story materials.
In 1921, the actor Fan Zhiliang’s “Divorce Hatred” became the first shenqu to incorporate modern costume designs. By the mid-’30s, shenqu troupes were adapting popular non-operatic dramas like Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm”, a story of a wealthy, modern family abased by hidebound traditionalism and depravity.
By the time MGM’s “Waterloo Bridge” premiered in China, shenqu had a well-earned reputation for innovative performances and avant-garde art design, but performers and directors had begun to wonder if their works were still shenqu. In 1941, the city’s newest opera troupe decided it was time shenqu rebranded. Calling themselves the Shanghai Huju Society, they chose for their first performance a show that would both act as a mission statement for their new organization and attract audiences: an adaptation of “Waterloo Bridge.”
The troupe consciously framed their work as an evolution of shenqu, even to the point of printing a sign that read “Standard Huju; Improving Shenqu.” And in fact, the work of adapting a Hollywood movie to the Chinese stage did require them to overhaul the traditional shenqu production and rehearsal process. The goal was to merge cinematic direction with traditional theater playwriting and shenqu-style musical numbers. But for this to work, the troupe first had to rethink its approach to lighting, props, and costuming.
Unlike most shenqu, the huju version of “Waterloo Bridge” was fully scripted. This meant that not just the lyrics, but also the dialogue was written out beforehand. Previously, actors were allowed to adjust spoken interludes during performances. This proved a major turning point in the history of Shanghainese drama, in part because literacy had never been a requirement for joining an acting troupe. From then on, however, huju troupes began expecting their casts to memorize not just lyrics but to study entire scripts.
The show premiered on January 9, 1941 to widespread public acclaim. Contemporary audiences appreciated the show’s style, and “Waterloo Bridge” has since become a core part of many huju troupes’ repertoires, along with a number of Shakespeare plays and “Gone With the Wind.”
“Waterloo Bridge” is just one example of how early 20th century Chinese performing troupes learned from and adapted Western stories and materials for local audiences. After 1949, the state’s rejection of Western or otherwise foreign cultural imports both forced many huju troupes to stop performing these shows and interrupted the steady evolution that had transformed a collection of village songs into China’s most innovative, cosmopolitan operatic form. Beginning in the 1980s, however, groups have revisited these iconic shows, restaging them for a new generation of fans.
It’s unlikely huju will ever regain their former mass appeal. But they offer a lesson about the value of cultural cross-pollination. If we take anything away from the story of “Waterloo Bridge” — a largely forgotten classic in the U.S. that became a phenomenon in China — it’s that inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Left: A Chinese promotional poster for “Waterloo Bridge.” From @JoeyLu陆柏宇 on Douban; Right: A promotional photo for the Shanghai opera version of “Waterloo Bridge,” performed in 2014. From @上海沪剧院 on Weibo)