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2011.05.23 - Celebrating Cao Yu's Centenary in Britain

posted 23 May 2011, 09:01 by Web Admins ‎(Ben Caesar)‎   [ updated 9 Feb 2015, 02:12 by Admins ‎(Halima Chen)‎ ]

Cao Yu – the most significant figure in the development of modern drama in China – is the subject of a series of events being held in London, Leeds, Edinburgh and Newcastle throughout the year, as a celebration of the centenary (plus one) of his birth.

Work gives understanding of China's recent history and its culture

Born in 1910, Cao Yu lived through many of the great upheavals experienced in 20th century China and the exhibition presents his life and works as a way of giving audiences a more profound understanding of China's recent history and its culture.

Modern drama in China is known as 'spoken drama' to distinguish it from the traditional Chinese song-dance theatre. Often compared to Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and O'Neill, Cao Yu is credited with aiding this non-indigenous type of drama reach a degree of maturity in both form and audience reception in the mid-1930s. His early plays gained canonical status due to their artistry and skilful fusion of contemporary political and social themes. His powerful portrayal of people and exploration of human complexity still touch the hearts of twenty-first-century audiences.

'Although crowned with glory in public, Cao Yu remained deeply troubled by inner torment, particularly by his inability to write more plays in his later years,' says Dr Ruru Li, Cao Yu's step-daughter and curator of the exhibition. 'His life and career exemplify the dilemmas and difficulties faced by generations of Chinese intellectuals in the 20th century, offering us a vivid narrative of modern China.'

Continuing influence

Despite the fact that Cao Yu died in 1996, he continues to influence Chinese drama. Jude Kelly OBE, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, said of Cao Yu: "Anyone involved or interested in theatre will be fascinated by his life and career and how he navigated the twists and turns of the Chinese political regimes and, in particular, the communist ideology and Cultural Revolution. His writing has influenced two generations of young Chinese artists and been the catalyst for the burgeoning state run theatre industry in Beijing, Shanghai and other cites."

Exhibition details

The exhibition opened on 10 February in the Brunei Gallery in SOAS. WREAC core researcher Dr. Li Ruru gave a lecture 'Cao Yu and China's Modern Drama after the Thunderstorm', which was illustrated by video clips and images of performances followed by an open discussion. A film version of Thunderstorm was shown after the talk.

From 21-26 March the exhibition visited Leeds University, where Dr Li is a senior lecturer. A devised stage work 'The Sun is Not For Us' based on the female characters from Cao Yu's plays was also featured at stage(at)leeds from 21-23 March.  A report of the opening of these events on 21st March can be found at the Chinese Ministry of Culture's website 'Chinese Culture' (in Chinese).

The exhibition will move to Edinburgh, being held from 7-8 September at the Conference Centre, University of Edinburgh and then from 9-16 September at the Confucius Institute of Scotland. The exhibition will also be shown in Newcastle in October (dates to be confirmed).

For further details please contact Dr Ruru Li, senior lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds on 0113 343 3469 or email


The exhibition is supported by the White Rose East Asia Centre, London Confucius Institute, Confucius Institute for Scotland, Chinese Embassy Cultural section, Shanghai Theatre Academy Theatre Museum and the Beijing People's Art Theatre Theatre Museum.

For further information on Cao Yu, please visit our Introduction to Cao Yu pages.