Leni Riefenstahl meets Busby Berkeley

Eugenia Lean’s new book is very interesting. It is a study of Shi Jianqiao’s 1935 assassination of Sun Chuanfang, the former warlord who had killed her father (also a warlord). The case became a sensation and makes a fine study because it pushed so many Chinese buttons at the time and pushes so many scholarly ones now. Shi was carrying out an act of filial vengeance despite the fact that she was female. (She was also quite media-savvy and fully aware of her own agency and how the press would shape it.) Was she doing this out of a traditional sense of filiality? Out of a desire to rid China of (ex) warlords? Out of desire for fame? Was Sun really all that bad a person? Was Shi seeking justice or publicity? Lean looks at all these questions as a way of getting at the rise of “public sympathy” in what she calls the High Republic.

After the assassination Shi became a media celebrity, and all sorts of versions of her story came out. Most interesting to me is the spoken-language play. As Lean points out, spoken-language drama, basically western-style plays, were very much a minority taste.. Intellectuals went to them, the masses were inclined to films or Chinese opera. This case seems to have been different, and a number of stage plays were produced, including All About Sun Chuanfang, which ran in Shanghai in 1935.

One of the problems with doing history of theater is that it is hard to find data on what actually happened onstage. Here there are large newspaper ads, and we can get at least some idea what the production was like. Apparently spoken-word drama was most popular when it could be tied to current events, and in this case it was tied the popularity of militarism in the Republic. The ad emphasizes that the play dispenses with the boring first act and instead opens with a “grand military spectacle, with more than 100 martial actors on stage at the same time.” The play also has “absolutely new and complete military attire, never before seen Russian-style troop movements, heart-stopping cannons, live horses that ascend the stage, and magnificent dance productions, both glamorous and sexy.”1 Lean makes all sorts of interesting points about this, but I was struck by the reportage element. People in Shanghai seem to have been eager to see what the warlord era had been like for those who had not been living in Shanghai. Given that the city had not really seen much fighting it must have been disconcerting to realize that one had just live through the era of “warlordism” and had no idea what a warlord army was or what it was like to see one in action. Less one end up feeling like a rootless cosmopolitan, one should hie themselves to the theater and see what was happening in the real China.

  1. Lean, p. 68 


  1. Interesting that that warlordism was exploited for its sensational, exotic dimension.

    A similar politically-oriented stage play in Burma during the 1950s by then Prime Minister U Nu on Communist Insurgents was more an exercise in moralizing, but it was adapted into a mass market film produced in Pasadena that probably made it sexier, to bad it doesn’t exist anymore.

    Before his reelection in 1961 he wrote another play that is actually very lurid with Communist insurgents picking up on their students and the crooked Interior Minister cohabiting with a prostitute, kind of lurid sensationalism under the guise of moralising. If you can read Burmese, I put I online:

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