In a New Play, Women Take Center Stage
Authentically depicting a friendship is always harder than depicting love. Conveying a blossoming romance is simple: Two characters look deep in each other’s eyes and an expression of joy spreads across their faces until their transformation from strangers to soulmates is complete. Friendship is far more challenging to express in a singular action or image — it’s a process of accumulation rather than any singular event.
Even rarer is a depiction of female friendship done well. It’s unusual for even accomplished women to have their stories told in China. On television, women are often written into the background or relegated to love interests; on stage, I can think of only one play that focuses on the friendship between accomplished women: 2020’s “When We Two Parted,” written by Zhu Hongxuan and produced by the Beijing-based theater collective Jiuren.
The play tells the story of Gu Jingwei and Qu Jianxiong, heavily fictionalized versions of two remarkable scientists: Gu Jinghui, the first Chinese woman to obtain a Ph.D. in physics, and Wu Jianxiong (Chien-Shiung Wu), a physicist known as the “Chinese Marie Curie.”
In an interview, the playwright, Zhu, acknowledged that historical evidence for a friendship between the two women is sparse. Both entered the field of physics at a time when it was even more male-dominated than today, and from 1935 to 1936, they were the only female researchers at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Physics.
Biographies of Wu rarely mention her office relationships. Instead, Zhu uses historical materials to recreate what life might have been like for the two women. In one crucial scene, Qu, the stand-in for Wu Jianxiong, aces an exam, only to lose a place in an overseas exchange program to a man. The story is drawn not from Wu’s life, but that of another brilliant physicist, Wang Mingzhen.
It’s become a cliché to depict gender-based discrimination by embodying all the worst instincts of patriarchal institutions in a single chauvinist man whom our heroes must overcome to realize their dreams. “When We Two Parted” refuses to trudge down this well-trodden path. The show’s ostensible antagonist is the director of the research institute, Ding Xilin, whose attitude toward them is consistently amicable and supportive, if not always progressive. In another dramatic scene, Qu helps shorten the legs of Gu’s chair, which was designed for a person of taller stature. She then confronts Ding about the institute’s failure to consider its female employees. When Ding defends the chair as being designed for a “normal” worker, Qu admonishes him not to confuse a majority for normality.
For all his amicability, Ding has no way of empathizing with the physical inconveniences of being a woman in a man’s world. It’s in these moments, when members of the majority view their reality as the default, that marginalized individuals feel most excluded. The way that society overlooks and oppresses minorities is most evident in these seemingly banal details of everyday life.
Although the play depicts the many injustices that the two physicians suffer due to their gender, it doesn’t make a point of showing them rebelling against their marginalization. Gu doesn’t push back against the decision to deny Qu a chance to study abroad; likewise, when Gu is mocked by a blind date and overlooked by her bosses, Qu doesn’t come to her rescue.
The playwright doesn’t give an explanation for this choice, but I think it comes down to an awareness that the injustices women face can’t be resolved through one act of rebellion. The play doesn’t get bogged down in the resolution of one conflict in particular; instead, the way these women resist the unfair world around them is to become pioneers in their chosen field without compromising their femininity. The climax of the plot centers around a dispute concerning the direction of their research, rather than the unfair treatment of women, while several scenes of them working overtime illustrate their dedication to science above all else — even eating and sleeping.
The obvious comparison point here is the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” about three African American mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1960s. But unlike “Hidden Figures,” “When We Two Parted” doesn’t culminate in a breakthrough. Instead, it is a story of perseverance — even when failure feels inevitable.
Chinese historical dramas tend to portray important figures as serious and aloof, often to the detriment of their relatability, but the success of “When We Two Parted” lies in the way it humanizes its protagonists, representing not only their ambition and foresight, but also their doubts, despair, and failures.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the play “When We Two Parted.” From @话剧九人 on Weibo)