Grotowski and China

Muyun Zhou

Grotowski had an interest in the oriental arts ever since his early years. In his childhood, his mother brought home a book after going in town one day, titled A Search in Secret India and written by the English journalist Paul Brunton. The book opened up a variety of folk rites and beliefs to the young Grotowski, who was brought up in an orthodox Catholic environment. When he attended the State Theater School in Kraków in 1951, this initial sparkle started to ignite in Grotowski a greater passion for Asia.

There, after consulting with professors in Indian cultural and religion, the 18-year-old Grotowski even briefly considered transferring to the East Asian program. Although he eventually chose to continue his theater career, in the summer of 1956, Grotowski was able to travel around major Central Asia cities such as Bukhara, Samarkand and Aralsk on a fellowship.

Grotowski’s exposure to Chinese culture was perhaps a natural extension from his learning in Central Asia. As he came back to Kraków to teach at the Theater School in 1957, Grotowski led a six-month lecture series in its student club, covering topic from Buddhism, Yoga, the Upanishads, Confucianism, Taoism, to Zen-Buddhism. During this period, he also created radio plays for Polish Radio Theater, where he took inspirations from Chinese and Tibetan legends and the old Indian play, Shakuntala.

Throughout the 1950s, political environment and diplomatic relationship between China and Poland provided ample opportunities for Grotowski to learn about the performance arts in China without leaving Poland. Due to both countries’ past relationship with the USSR, when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Poland was among the first countries to establish diplomatic relationship with the new government. Following this event, Poland and China signed several exchange agreements, including the cooperation agreement on culture signed in April 1951.

Through this agreement, Chinese performance groups of both traditional and modern art forms were sent to Poland almost annually in the ten years between 1951 and 1960. Translation projects in both directions were also flourishing. While classical works of Zhuangzi became available in Polish, as well as the modern works of Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Lao She, Mao Dun, etc., Chinese audience was also warmed up to Polish theater and methods through their translations and introductions on Chinese periodicals.

After the Bucharest Conference in 1960, the Polish Chinese relationship deteriorated. Neither the Polish government nor the Chinese followed through the agreement to send over artists or working groups on time every year. However, Grotowski’s trip to China benefited directly from this vacancy of exchange groups within the worsened political atmosphere. Without competition, Grotowski became an official delegate of the Polish Ministry of Culture and Arts’ working group on theatre matters and traveled to China between August 17 and September 9, 1962.

Among the many stops he made at local theaters, theater schools, professional meetings, and tourist attractions, the most influential part to Grotowski’s later works from this China trip were his observations of the demanding vocal and acrobatic training in the traditional Chinese theater. According to an interview with Maciej Prus, an actor at the Theater of 13 Rows, after he came back from China and joined the final rehearsals of Akropolis, Grotowski presented a photo of Mei Lanfang to show his actors the “fantastic fitness” of the Chinese actor to play sixteen-year-olds at the age of sixty or seventy.

In his guidebook essay “Actor’s Training” (1966), Grotowski also introduced various Chinese theater vocal training routines to enrich his own methods on breathing, opening the vocal channels, and engaging resonators. Within those line, Grotowski quoted specifically from “Dr. Ling,” whose students and colleagues he was able to meet while in China. As to the apparent connection on the use of signs between his ‘poor theatre’ and traditional Chinese theater, Grotowski only regarded it as a formal coincident between the two theater traditions.

Grotowski was highly aware that the two traditions provided different artistic soils, and each system of signs would not be effective outside of their native soil. Consequently, he proposed that the Chinese system “must look for another cradle” in Western theater. By that, Grotowski emphasized on systematically integrating the techniques into something useful to the domestic theater and enriching them with local meanings, rather than aiming for a translation across systems of signs that is mutually responsible to both traditions.

Another notable event during his China trip was that Grotowski was invited by the Chinese Theater Association to give a speech in Beijing, on August 22, 1962. There, he presented the recent development of theater and art in Poland and his working progress with the concept of “poor theater.” Two crucial figures to the later popularity of Grotowski in China probably learned about Grotowski and his theory through this speech. First, the lecture probably reached the film and theater director Huang Zuolin (1906-1994), who soon became the Vice-chairman of the Chinese Theater Association and the Director of Shanghai People’s Art Theater.

On May 8, 1980, Huang Zuolin gave a speech on Grotowski’s “Poor Theater” at a seminar at Shanghai People’s Art Theater, which made the first instance of introducing Grotowski to the board Chinese audience. Second, Ge Yihong (1913-2005) was at that time the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Waiguo Xiju Ziliao (Foreign Theater References) that published Grotowski’s speech. He later took up the Editor-in-Chief position at China Theatre Press, the publishing house that published the first and only comprehensive translation of Toward a Poor Theater in mainland China in 1984. In that translation, while Huang Zuolin’s speech at the seminar was incorporated as its preface, the translator Wei Shi gave credit to Ge Yihong in the afterword as one of his main consultants to Grotowski’s theory.

In the 80s, after China had recovered from the Cultural Revolution and the diplomatic relationship with Poland had improved, Grotowski and his concept of “poor theater” received great attention across Chinese artists. Between 1980, when Huang Zuolin made the first speech, and 1984, the debut of the first translation, Grotowski’s Toward a Poor Theater was discussed in two journal articles and published in translated segments twice. Meanwhile, a younger generation of Chinese artists started to read Toward a Poor Theater keenly. In 1985, an artists’ group named “Chishe” (池社) was created upon the key concepts from Grotowski’s Toward a Poor Theater, with its members including Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Song Ling, Wang Qiang, Bao Jianfei, and Guan Ying. The writer and painter Gao Xingjian published three articles discussing by Grotowski’s theory and continued to incorporate Grotowski’s key concepts in his later creative art. The actor Feng Yuanzheng received training in the Grotowski method in Germany. The director Mou Sen also deemed Grotowski and his Theater of 13 Rows as his most admired director and model of theater. Yet in retrospect, Grotowski’s lasting fascination with China and Chinese people’s familiarity to that name early in the 60s certainly contributed to rise of his theory’s popularity in the 80s, if that was not the first cause.