09-06-2008 11:33

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In 1909, the first year of the reign of Emperor Xuantong, or Puyi, the Baihe River in Tianjin was busy as usual. The river was lined by foreign settlements. That year, two people were the talk of Tianjin: one was Huo Yuanjia, the Tianjin-born martial arts expert who had defeated a British opponent; the other was Zhang Boling, headmaster of Nankai Middle School, who had dared to stage modern dramas.

On October the 17th that year, Nankai Middle School, in south Tianjin, was unusually busy. It was the school’s 5th anniversary, and headmaster Zhang Boling, along with several students, was staging Useless Knowledge, a new drama that he himself had written and was directing. The drama told the story of Jia Youzhi, a former engineering student who had returned to China from abroad. He had initially wanted to serve his country, but was corrupted by fame and fortune.

Zhang Boling had only recently returned from a tour of Europe and North America. There he had discovered that drama, as a key element in “visual arts education”, was used to train students in developing their language and physical expression skills. Zhang had written Useless Knowledge soon after his return, in the hope of inspiring Chinese schools to adopt a similar approach. 33-year-old Zhang himself played the main protagonist, Jia Youzhi. However, the performance was criticized by conservatives, in part because of its use of the vernacular.

The play was well received among the school‘s students, one of whom would later recall:“The play 30 years ago broke new ground. It remains instructive today. Headmaster Zhang Boling was a true pioneer of Chinese drama.”

Back in 1898, 22-year-old Zhang Boling, a recent graduate of the North China Sea Naval Officer’s College in Tianjin, met Yan Fansun, a teacher at a private school founded by his family. Yan taught English and Mathematics, subjects that were new to traditional private schools, where education had been dominated by the Four Books and Five Classics. Zhang and Yan decided to work together and establish a new type of school in China. But first they would study educational practices abroad.

In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War broke out, and Northeast China became a battlefield

In March of that year, on the 70th birthday of Empress Dowager Cixi, Lin Baishui, editor-in-chief of China Vernacular Newspaper, published a couplet, which read: “Empress Dowager Cixi, gracing the West Garden today and the Summer Palace tomorrow, when will she grace Yuanmingyuan Park? What is the meaning of her existence, towards which all the people have made such sacrifices? Losing Ryukyu at the age of 50, the Taiwan Strait at 60, and the three provinces of the Northeast at 70! Our once-vast territory keeps diminishing under her rule!” The couplet, written in the vernacular style, was sharp and sarcastic. It reflected the belief of leading reformer Liang Qichao, that classical Chinese was the source of all calamities. So, he promoted the vernacular, new learning and new drama. He even wrote three plays.

In June 1904, Yan Fansun was appointed by Yuan Shih-k’ai as superintendent of education in the Chihli Provinces. He and Zhang Boling embarked on a tour of Japan, in which they visited 12 educational institutions, including Waseda University and the Japan Women’s University. After 2 months, they returned to Tianjin. There they set up a new school – Jingye College – equipped with scientific instruments and books they had bought in Japan. Zhang Boling’s brother Zhang Pengchun was among the first group of students. 2 years later, a local landlord named Zheng Juru donated nearly a hectare of land in Nankaiwa to the college for the construction of new buildings. In 1907, the college moved to the new site. 4 years later, it was renamed Nankai Middle School. Zhang Boling was the first headmaster.

With the abolition of the imperial examination system in 1905, new schools sprang up across China. From 1906 to 1907, the number of new school students increased from 54,000 to 1.65 million. The development of new schools attracted the attention of a number of officials. During the construction of Jingye College in 1907, Yuan Shih-k’ai, who was at the time governor-general of Chihli and Minister of Beiyang, visited the college and donated some money to it.

Weiting Hall became a venue for new plays in Nankai. Eight years later, the plaque would be smashed by students angry at Yuan Shih-k’ai, after he became president, signing the Twenty-one Demands issued by the Japanese. Even so, plays were still performed in the hall. In 1909, Zhang Boling staged Useless Knowledge on campus, and subsequently drama productions became a feature of the Nankai School’s anniversaries. Zhang Boling continued to play an active part in promoting new drama, out of his conviction that it was instructive and could refine the social climate and public morality.

In September 1906, Zhenru Island, a vernacular novel in 40 chapters, was published in The Tournament Newspaper. It was written by a 15-year-old boy from the mountainous regions of Anhui Province who was studying at Shanghai New School. The boy was Hu Shi, and he would go on to be one of the initiators of the May the Fourth Movement. 2 years before, Chen Duxiu, who was also from Anhui Province, wrote in the 1st issue of Anhui Suhua Bao, “We must express our ideas in the vernacular, so that Anhui people, even if they don’t have money to go to school, can gain some knowledge by reading our newspaper.” At Nankai, new plays were all presented in the vernacular, as a way of broadening their appeal. As Zhang Boling himself had once noted, concerning his purpose in promoting new drama on campus, it was to: “Practice public speaking and refine the social climate through new dramas.”

In 1913, 15-year-old Zhou Xiangyu moved to Tianjin, together with his uncle Zhou Yigeng. In August of the same year, he was admitted to Nankai Middle School. Zhou Xiangyu would later become one of the early leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, when he would be better known as Zhou Enlai. Less than a year after his arrival, the Nankai New Drama Society was established, with departments in charge of editing, performing, stage settings and script reviews. Zhou Enlai was appointed deputy director of the Department of Stage Settings.

The new drama society was established in 1914, which was the year of Nankai Middle School’s 19th Anniversary. An eight-act drama called Enyuan Yuan, or Destiny, was staged that year. The society only accepted male students, and so 16-year-old Zhou Enlai played the role of a woman. His handsome appearance won him many female roles. In One Yuan, he played the heroine, Sun Huijuan, dressed in the typical women’s clothing of the early years of the Republic of China; purple-black high-necked tight-sleeved satin and red laced skirt. In Aunt Qiu, he impressed audiences with his portrayal of Huiniang. A document from Nankai Middle School records: “Zhou Xiangyu is the best at playing new drama. He is handsome, and always amazes audiences with his female roles.”

Zhou Enlai was also admired by Zhang Boling and Yan Fansun for his excellent academic performance. Yan even considered betrothing him to his daughter. However, the two young people rejected the idea.

Several years later, members of the “Women’s Patriotic Society” of the First Women’s Normal University staged two plays, Huamulan and Itō Hirobumi, at the Guangdong Representative Office in Tianjin. As a core member of the society, Deng Yingchao played the role of Korean hero Ahn Joong-keun in Itō Hirobumi. After Zhou Enlai met Deng Yingchao, he would go to the theatre regularly and sit in the back row to watch her perform.

By this time, Nankai new drama was becoming quite popular in Tianjin. Aware of the educational benefits of drama, schools across China launched drama activities. In 1914, Hong Shen, a student at Tsinghua University, took part in rehearsals for the famous English drama, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Subsequently, some newspapers and magazines started to publish new drama scripts. In November 1915, the vernacular drama Story of Two Owls was published in the 31st issue of Novel Times. Soon afterwards, Zhou Enlai published an article, My View of New Drama in Nankai. In it, he wrote: “To achieve the congruence of written and spoken language in today’s China, we must start from education. Effective education must be easily comprehensible. Only new drama can achieve that.”

5 years after the Republic of China was founded, Zhang Boling’s younger brother Zhang Pengchun completed his studies in America, and returned to Tianjin. There, he began presiding over the affairs of the Nankai New Drama Society. Like his elder brother Zhang Boling, he was also very fond of drama. He had even attended special drama courses while he was in the U.S.