America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat

Author: Wu Tingfang

Chapter 14. Theaters

The ideal of China is sincerity but an actor is a pretender. He appears to be what he is not. Now our ancient wise men felt that pretense of any sort must have a dangerous reactionary influence on the character. If a man learns how to be a clever actor on the stage he may be a skilled deceiver in other walks of life. Moreover, no one to whom sincerity is as the gums are to the teeth, would wish to acquire the art of acting as though he were some one else. Hence actors in China have from ancient times been looked down upon. Actresses, until the last decade or so, were unknown in China, and a boy who became an actor could never afterward occupy any position of honor. He, his children and his grandchildren might be farmers, merchants or soldiers, but they could never be teachers, literary men or officials. The Chinese feeling for sincerity, amounting almost to worship, has caused the profession of an actor in China to be considered a very low one, and so until the new regime the actor was always debarred from attending any literary examination, and was also deprived of the privilege of obtaining official appointment; in fact he was considered an outcast of society. No respectable Chinese family would think of allowing their son to go on the stage. As a natural consequent the members of the Chinese stage have, as a rule, been men who were as much below the level of moral respectability as conventionalism had already adjudged them to be below the level of social respectability. Regard anyone as a mirror with a cracked face and he will soon justify your opinion of him. If the morals of Chinese actors will not bear investigation it is probably due to the social ostracism to which they have always been subjected. The same phenomenon may be seen in connection with Buddhism. As soon as Buddhism in China ceased to be a power the priests became a despised class and being despised they have often given occasion to others to despise them.

I am aware that quite a different view is held of the stage in America and Europe, and that actors and actresses are placed on an equal footing with other members of society. This does not, of course, mean that either America or Europe lays less stress on sincerity than China, but simply that we have developed in different ways. I have heard of the old "morality plays", I know that English drama, like the Egyptian, Greek, and Indian, had its origin in religion, but this alone will not explain the different attitude assumed toward actors in the West from that taken up in China.* I am inclined to think that the reason why actors are not despised in the West as they are in China is because the West considers first the utility of pleasure, and the East the supremacy of sincerity. Here, as is so frequently the case, apparent differences are largely differences of emphasis. The West would seem to emphasize the beauty of the desire to please where Chinese consider the effect on character or business. The expensive dinners which no one eats and which I discussed in a previous chapter are an illustration. No one in China would spend money in this fashion excepting for some definite purpose.

— * In his discussion of actors, Wu Tingfang does not seem to be aware
that the idealization of actors in the West is comparatively recent,
and that historically, and even now in some parts of society,
actors and the acting profession have been looked down upon in the West
for many of the same reasons he gives for the same phenomenon in China.
— A. R. L., 1996. —

We Chinese like to flatter, and to openly praise to their faces those whom we admire. Most Westerners, would, I think, please rather than admire; most men and women in America and Europe enjoy applause more than instruction. This recognition of the delicate pleasure of being able to please some one else naturally attracts quite a different type to the Western stage from the material usually found in Chinese dramatic companies, and in a society where everyone acknowledges the beauty of pleasing another, the position of the actor naturally becomes both envied and desirable. When therefore a man or woman succeeds on the European or American stage he or she is looked up to and welcomed in fashionable society, e.g., Henry Irving had the entree to the highest society, and his portrait was always found among the notables. Newspapers published long notices of his stage performances, and when he died he received as great honors as England could give. During his lifetime he enjoyed the royal favor of Queen Victoria, who conferred a knighthood upon him. After his death his biography was published and read by thousands. All this is quite contrary to the spirit of the Chinese who, no matter how clever a man may be as an actor, can never forget that he is a pretender and that the cleverer he is the greater care exists for guarding one’s self against his tricks.

Actresses are no less respected and honored in the West, whereas in China there are positively no respectable women on the stage. Yet in the West it is a common occurrence to hear of marriages of actresses to bankers, merchants, and millionaires. Even ballet-girls have become duchesses by marriage. The stage is considered a noble profession. Often, when a girl has a good voice, nothing will satisfy her but a stage career. A situation such as this is very difficult for a Chinese to analyze. The average Chinese woman lacks the imagination, the self-abandon, the courage which must be necessary before a girl can think of herself as standing alone in a bright light before a large audience waiting to see her dance or hear her sing. Chinese actresses were quite unknown until very recently, and the few that may be now found on the Chinese stage were nearly all of questionable character before they entered the theater. In the northern part of China some good Chinese women may be found in circuses, but these belong to the working class and take up the circus life with their husbands and brothers for a livelihood.

The actresses of the West are different. They are drawn to the stage for the sake of art; and it must be their splendid daring as much as their beauty which induces wealthy men, and even some of the nobility, to marry these women. Man loves courage and respects all who are brave enough to fight for their own. In a world where self-love (not selfishness) is highly esteemed, manhood, or the power of self-assertion, whether in man or woman, naturally becomes a fascinating virtue. No one likes to be colleague to a coward. The millionaires and others who have married actresses — and as actresses make plenty of money they are not likely to be willing to marry poor men — meet many women in society as beautiful as the women they see on the stage, but society women lack the supreme courage and daring of the stage girl. Thus, very often the pretty, though less educated, ballet-girl, wins the man whom her more refined and less self-assertive sister — the ordinary society girl — is sorry to lose.

The suffragettes are too intent just now on getting "Votes for Women" to listen to proposals of marriage, but when they succeed in obtaining universal suffrage I should think they would have little difficulty in obtaining brave husbands, for the suffragettes have courage. These women, however, are serious, and I do not think that men in the West, judging from what I have seen, like very serious wives. So perhaps after all the ballet-girl and actresses will have more chances in the marriage (I had almost written money) market than the suffragettes.

I may be mistaken in my theories. I have never had the opportunity of discussing the matter with a millionaire or an actress, nor have I talked about the stage with any of the ladies who make it their home, but unless it is their superb independence and their ability to throw off care and to act their part which attract men who are looking for wives, I cannot account for so many actresses marrying so well.

What, however, we may ask, is the object of the theater? Is it not amusement? But when a serious play ending tragically is put on the boards is that amusement? The feelings of the audience after witnessing such a play must be far from pleasant, and sometimes even moody; yet tragedies are popular, and many will pay a high price to see a well-known actor commit most objectionable imitation-crimes on the stage. A few weeks before this chapter was written a number of men of different nationalities were punished for being present at a cockfight in Shanghai. Mexican and Spanish bullfights would not be permitted in the United States, and yet it is a question whether the birds or the animals who take part in these fights really suffer very much. They are in a state of ferocious exaltation, and are more concerned about killing their opponents than about their own hurts. Soldiers have been seriously wounded without knowing anything about it until the excitement of the battle had died away. Why then forbid cockfighting or bull-baiting? They would be popular amusements if allowed. It is certain that animals that are driven long distances along dirty roads, cattle, sheep, and fowl that are cooped up for many weary hours in railway trucks, simply that they may reach a distant market and be slaughtered to gratify perverted human appetites, really suffer more than the cock or bull who may be killed or wounded in a fight with others of his own kind. What about the sufferings of pugilists who take part in the prize-fights, in which so many thousands in the United States delight? It cannot be pity, therefore, for the birds or beasts, which makes the authorities forbid cockfighting and bull-baiting. It must be that although these are exhibitions of courage and skill, the exhibition is degrading to the spectators and to those who urge the creatures to fight. But what is the difference, so far as the spectator is concerned, between watching a combat between animals or birds and following a vivid dramatization of cruelty on the stage? In the latter case the mental sufferings which are portrayed are frequently more harrowing than the details of any bullor cockfight. Such representation, therefore, unless a very clear moral lesson or warning is emblazoned throughout the play, must have the effect of making actors, actresses and spectators less sympathetic with suffering. Familiarity breeds insensibility. What I have said of melodrama applies also, though in a lesser degree, to books, and should be a warning to parents to exercise proper supervision of their children’s reading.

Far be it from me to disparage the work of the playwright; the plot is often well laid and the actors, especially the prima-donna, execute their parts admirably. I am considering the matter, at the moment, from the view-point of a play-goer. What benefit does he receive from witnessing a tragedy? In his home and his office has he not enough to engage his serious attention, and to frequently worry his mind? Is it worth his while to dress and spend an evening watching a performance which, however skilfully played, will make him no happier than before? It is a characteristic of those who are fond of sensational plays that they do not mind watching the tragical ending of a hero or a heroine, and all for the sake of amusement. Young people and children are not likely to get good impressions from this sort of thing. It has even been said that murders have been committed by youngsters who had been taken by their parents to see a realistic melodrama. It is dangerous to allow young people of tender age to see such plays. The juvenile mind is not ripe enough to form correct judgments. Some time ago I read in one of the American papers that a boy had killed his father with a knife, on seeing him ill-treat his mother when in a state of intoxication. It appeared that the lad had witnessed a dramatic tragedy in a theater, and in killing his father considered he was doing a heroic act. He could, by the same rule, have been inspired to a noble act of self-sacrifice.

After all, the main question is, does a sensational play exercise a beneficial or a pernicious influence over the audience? If the reader will consider the matter impartially he should not have any difficulty in coming to a right conclusion.

Theatrical performances should afford amusement and excite mirth, as well as give instruction. People who visit theaters desire to be entertained and to pass the time pleasantly. Anything which excites mirth and laughter is always welcomed by an audience. But a serious piece from which humor has been excluded, is calculated, even when played with sympathetic feeling and skill, to create a sense of gravity among the spectators, which, to say the least, can hardly be restful to jaded nerves. Yet when composing his plays the playwright should never lose sight of the moral. Of course he has to pay attention to the arrangement of the different parts of the plot and the characters represented, but while it is important that each act and every scene should be harmoniously and properly set, and that the characters should be adapted to the piece as a whole, it is none the less important that a moral should be enforced by it. The practical lesson to be learned from the play should never be lost sight of. In Chinese plays the moral is always prominent. The villain is punished, virtue is rewarded, while the majority of the plays are historical. All healthy-minded people will desire to see a play end with virtue rewarded, and vice vanquished. Those who want it otherwise are unnatural and possess short views of life. Either in this life or in some other, each receives according to his deserts, and this lesson should always be taught by the play. Yet from all the clever dramas which have been written and acted on the Western stage from time to time what a very small percentage of moral lessons can be drawn, while too many of them have unfortunately been of an objectionable nature. Nearly everyone reads novels, especially the younger folk; to many of these a visit to a theater is like reading a novel, excepting that the performance makes everything more realistic. A piece with a good moral cannot therefore fail to make an excellent impression on the audience while at the same time affording them amusement.

I am somewhat surprised that the churches, ethical societies and reform associations in America do not more clearly appreciate the valuable aid they might receive from the stage. I have been told that some churches pay their singers more than their preachers, which shows that they have some idea of the value of good art. Why not go a step further and preach through a play? This does not mean that there should be no fun but that the moral should be well thrust home. I have heard of preachers who make jokes while preaching, so that it should not be so very difficult to act interesting sermons which would elevate, even if they did not amuse. People who went to church to see a theater would not expect the same entertainment as those who go to the theater simply for a laugh.

In China we do not expend as much energy as Americans and Europeans in trying to make other people good. We try to be good ourselves and believe that our good example, like a pure fragrance, will influence others to be likewise. We think practice is as good as precept, and, if I may say so without being supposed to be critical of a race different from my own, the thought has sometimes suggested itself to me that Americans are so intent on doing good to others, and on making others good, that they accomplish less than they would if their actions and intentions were less direct and obvious. I cannot here explain all I mean, but if my readers will study what Li Yu and Chuang Tsz have to say about "Spontaneity" and "Not Interfering", I think they will understand my thought. The theater, as I have already said, was in several countries religious in its origin; why not use it to elevate people indirectly? The ultimate effect, because more natural, might be better and truer than more direct persuasion. Pulpit appeals, I am given to understand, are sometimes very personal.

Since writing the above I have seen a newspaper notice of a dramatic performance in the Ethical Church, Queen’s Road, Bayswater, London. The Ethical Church believes "in everything that makes life sweet and human" and the management state that they believe — "the best trend of dramatic opinion to-day points not only to the transformation of theaters into centers of social enlightenment and moral elevation, but also to the transformation of the churches into centers for the imaginative presentation, by means of all the arts combined, of the deeper truths and meanings of life." Personally, I do not know anything about this society, but surely there is nothing out of harmony with Christianity in these professions, and I am glad to find here an alliance between the two greatest factors in the development of Western thought and culture — the church and the theater. The newspaper article to which I have referred was describing the "old morality play, Everyman" which had been performed in the church. The visitor who was somewhat critical, and apparently unused to seeing the theater in a church, wrote of the performance thus: "Both the music and the dressing of the play were perfect, and from the moment that Death entered clad in blue stuff with immense blue wings upon his shoulders, and the trump in his hand, and stopped Everyman, a gorgeous figure in crimson robes and jewelled turban, with the question, `Who goes so gaily by?’ the play was performed with an impressiveness that never faltered.

"The heaviest burden, of course, falls on Everyman, and the artist who played this part seemed to me, though I am no dramatic critic, to have caught the atmosphere and the spirit of the play. His performance, indeed, was very wonderful from the moment when he offers Death a thousand boons if only the dread summons may be delayed, to that final tense scene, when, stripped of his outer robe, he says his closing prayers, hesitates for a moment to turn back, though the dread angel is there by his side, and then follows the beckoning hand of Good Deeds, a figure splendidly robed in flowing draperies of crimson and with a wonderfully expressive mobile face.

"At the conclusion of the play Dr. Stanton Colt addressed a few words to the enthusiastic audience, `Forsake thy pride, for it will profit thee nothing,’ he quoted, `If we could but remember this more carefully and also the fact that nothing save our good deeds shall ever go with us into that other World, surely it would help us to a holier and better life. Earthly things have their place and should have a due regard paid to them, but we must not forget the jewel of our souls.’"

I have, of course, heard of the "Passion Play" at Oberammergau in Germany where the life of Jesus Christ is periodically represented on the stage, but I say nothing about this, for, so far as I know, it is not performed in America, and I have not seen it; but I may note in passing that in China theaters are generally associated with the gods in the temples, and that the moral the play is meant to teach is always well driven home into the minds of the audience. We have not, however, ventured to introduce any of our sages to theater audiences.

The theater in China is a much simpler affair than in America. The residents in a locality unite and erect a large stage of bamboo and matting, the bamboo poles are tied with strips of rattan, and all the material of the stage, excepting the rattan, can be used over again when it is taken down. Most of the audience stand in front of the stage and in the open air, the theater generally being in front of the temple; and the play, which often occupies three or four days, is often performed in honor of the god’s birthday. There is no curtain, and there are no stage accessories. The audience is thus enabled to concentrate its whole attention on the acting. Female parts are played by men, and everything is beautifully simple. There is no attempt to produce such elaborate effects as I have seen in the West, and of course nothing at all resembling the pantomime, which frequently requires mechanical arts. A newspaper paragraph caught my eye while thinking of this subject. I reproduce it.

"The Century Theater in New York City has special apparatus for producing wind effects, thunder and lightning simultaneously. The wind machine consists of a drum with slats which are rotated over an apron of corded silk, which produces the whistling sound of wind; the lightning is produced by powdered magnesium electrically ignited; thunder is simulated by rolling a thousand pounds of stone, junk and chain down a chute ending in an iron plate, followed by half-a-dozen cannon balls and supplemented by the deafening notes of a thunder drum."

Although, however, Chinese play-goers do not demand the expensive outfits and stage sceneries of the West, I must note here that not even on the American stage have I seen such gorgeous costumes, or robes of so rich a hue and displaying such glittering gold ornaments and graceful feathers, as I have seen on the simple Chinese stage I have just described. Western fashions are having a tendency in our ports and larger cities to modify some things that I have stated about Chinese theatrical performances, but the point I wish especially to impress on my readers is that theatrical performances in China, while amusing and interesting, are seldom melodramatic, and as I look back on my experiences in the United States, I cannot but think that the good people there are making a mistake in not utilizing the human natural love for excitement and the drama as a subsidiary moral investment. And, of course, all I have said of theaters applies with equal force to moving-picture shows.


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Chicago: Wu Tingfang, "Chapter 14. Theaters," America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. Maude, Louise, Maude, Aylmer in America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2023,

MLA: Tingfang, Wu. "Chapter 14. Theaters." America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by Maude, Louise, Maude, Aylmer, in America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 28 May. 2023.

Harvard: Tingfang, W, 'Chapter 14. Theaters' in America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2023, from