Cao Yu

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The secondary school in Nankai, where Cao Yu studied and acted in western plays.

Cao Yu (Chinese: 曹禺; pinyin: Cáo Yǔ; Wade-Giles: Ts'ao Yü) (September 24, 1910 - December 13, 1996), born as Wan Jiabao (萬家寶), was a renowned Chinese playwright, often regarded as China's most important of the twentieth century. Some call him "the Shakespeare of China."[1] His most well-known works are Thunderstorm (1933), Sunrise (1936), and Peking Man (1940). It is largely through the efforts of Cao Yu that modern Chinese "spoken theater" took root in twentieth century Chinese literature.

In traditional Chinese theater, no plays were performed in vernacular Chinese or without singing. But at the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese students returning from abroad began to experiment with Western plays. Following the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a number of Western plays were staged in China, and Chinese playwrights began to imitate this form. Cao Yu was the the most notable of the new-style playwrights. His major works have been widely read in China.

Although Yu was critical of communist ideology at his youth, because Yu's early works had elements of criticism against bourgeois society, they allowed for a Marxist interpretation, and he became the director of Peking's Popular Theater Art League under the communist reign of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Yu, in 1961, published his first historical drama, Courage and the Sword which alluded a criticism against Mao Zedong. Although Yu suffered during the Cultural Revolution led by Mao, he was rehabilitated after Mao's death and under Deng Xiaoping's political control over China.

Biography and works


Chen Duxiu

Cao Yu was born into a wealthy family in Qianjiang, in the province of Hubei. When he was still an infant, his family's business interests necessitated a move to Tianjin where his father worked for a time as secretary to China's President, Li Yuanhong. Tianjin was a cosmopolitan city with a strong western influence, and during his childhood, Yu's mother would often take him to see western style plays, which were gaining in popularity at the time, as well as productions of Chinese traditional opera.

Such western style theater (called "huàjù" in Chinese; 話劇 / 话剧) made inroads in China under the influence of noted intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu and Hu Shih, who were proponents of a wider cultural renewal campaign of the era, marked by anti-imperialism, and a re-evaluation of Chinese cultural institutions, such as Confucianism. The enterprise crystallized in 1919, in the so-called May Fourth Movement.

Literary beginnings

Between 1920 and 1924, Cao Yu attended a Nankai secondary school, which offered a western style study program. The school maintained a society of dramatic arts in which the students were able to produce various western works, notably those of Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill, who were well-known authors in China thanks to translations published by Hu Shih. Cao Yu took acting roles in a number of the society's dramatic productions, even going so far as to assume the female role of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. He is also known to have assisted in the translation of Englishman, John Galsworthy's 1909 work, Strife.

After finishing his studies at Nankai secondary school, Cao Yu was first matriculated at Nankai University's Department of Political Science but transferred the next year to Tsinghua University, where he would study until graduating in 1934 with a degree in Western Languages and Literature. During his university studies, Cao Yu improved his abilities in both Russian and English. His course of studies required reading the works of such western authors as Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill, and of Russian authors such as Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky, as well as translated works of classic Greek writers, Euripides and Aeschylus. This immersion in western literature would mark Yu's style in all writing genres including the "spoken theater" (as opposed to sung Chinese opera), which had had little tradition in China prior to Yu's influence. During the course of his last year at the university, Cao Yu completed his first work, Thunderstorm, which would mark a milestone in Chinese theater of the twentieth century.

While works of Chinese playwrights previous to Cao Yu are of fundamentally historical interest and were famed in China, they garnered little critical success or popularity on the international stage. By contrast, the works of Cao Yu were marked by a whirlwind of worldwide interest, turning Cao Yu into the first Chinese playwright of international renown.


Thunderstorm is undoubtedly the most popular dramatic Chinese work of the period prior to the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. It was first published in the literary magazine, Four Months of Literature, which was founded in 1934 by Chinese intellectuals, Zheng Zhenduo and Jin Yi. Shortly after its publication, a production of the play was mounted in Jinan, and later, in 1935, in Shanghai and in Tokyo, both of which were well received. In 1936, Thunderstorm debuted in Nanjing, with Cao Yu himself acting in the lead role. In 1938, following its theatrical triumphs, the play was made into two separate movie productions, one in Shanghai, and another in Hong Kong, that were almost coincidental versions of one another. The latter production, made in 1957, co-starred a young Bruce Lee in one of his few non-fighting roles (Lei Yu, dir. Wui Ng). The 2006 movie, Curse of the Golden Flower, directed and written by Zhang Yimou, sets the same play in the imperial courts of the late Tang Dynasty.

The plot of Thunderstorm centers on one family's psychological and physical destruction as a result of incest, as perpetrated at the hands of its morally depraved and corrupt patriarch, Zhou Puyuan. Although it is undisputed that the prodigious reputation achieved by Thunderstorm was due in large part to its scandalous public airing of the topic of incest, and many people have pointed out technical imperfections in its structure, Thunderstorm is nevertheless considered to be a milestone in China's modern theatrical ascendancy. Even those who have questioned the literary prowess of Cao Yu, for instance, the noted critic C. T. Hsia, admit that the popularization and consolidation of China's theatrical genre is fundamentally owed to the first works of Cao Yu.

Sunrise and The Wilderness

In Cao Yu's second play, Sunrise, published in 1936, he continues his thematic treatment respecting individuals' progressive moral degradation in the face of a hostile society. In it, the history of several Shanghai women are narrated, and whose stories show their lives disintegrating in response to lack of affection and of acknowledgment by the society surrounding them, leading them down a tragic path from which they cannot escape. In 1937, Cao Yu's third play, The Wilderness (the Chinese name of which can also be translated as The Field), was released but which enjoyed less success than his previous works. The Wilderness, which was influenced by O'Neill's expressionist works, relates a succession of murders and stories of revenge set in a forest. At the time the play was published, social realism was the rage in China, and critics were not pleased with the work's supernatural and fantastical elements. There was a resurgence of interest in The Wilderness in 1980, however, and Cao Yu, then 70-years-old, collaborated in staging a production of his play. The play was made into a film in 1987.

Writings during the Japanese occupation

After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Cao Yu took shelter in the central city of Chongqing, along with the government of Chiang Kai-shek. There he wrote his fourth work, The Metamorphosis, which greatly departed from his previous works, concerning itself with patriotic exaltation. Produced for the first time in 1939, the play is set in a military hospital that is bombed by the Japanese army. Although a change for Cao Yu, he was in good company as concentrating on war themes and settings was favored by most of the prominent Chinese writers active during the Second Sino-Japanese War in areas controlled by the government of Chongqing. By contrast, in northern China, as controlled by Mao Zedong's communists, an altogether different type of literature was developing, dedicated to exalting the communist movement.

In 1940, Cao Yu completed the writing of his fifth play, Peking Man, considered his most profound and successful work. Set in Peking (today Beijing) as its name implies, and in the 40's, surprisingly the work does not allude to the war with Japan at all, but chronicles the history of a well-heeled family that is incapable of surviving and adapting to social changes that are destroying the traditional world and culture in which they live. The title of the work is an allusion to the so-called Peking Man, the proto-human who inhabited northern China several hundred thousand years ago. Cao Yu's recurrent themes are present, emphasizing the inability of traditional families to adapt themselves to modern society.

In 1941, while still in Chongqing, Cao Yu completed a theatrical adaptation of the famous work, The Family, by novelist, Ba Jin. His last written work during the Japanese occupation was The Bridge, published in 1945 but not produced as a play until 1947, after the end of the war when Japanese troops in China formally surrendered on September 9, 1945.

During his tenure in Chongqing, Cao Yu taught classes in the city's School of Dramatic Art and completed a translation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in Chinese.

Travel to the United States and return to China

Following the end of the war, Cao Yu traveled to the United States with another celebrated Chinese writer Lao She. Together, the pair spent a full year touring the U.S. After returning to China, Yu was hired by a movie studio based in Shanghai to write the screenplay and to direct the 1946 released movie, Day of the Radiant Sun (艷陽天 / 艳阳天; Yànyángtiān).

Writings after the founding of the People's Republic of China

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Cao Yu took on the role of director of Peking's Popular Theater Art League—a role he would remain in for the rest of his life. Although in his youth Yu had been critical of communist ideology, because his first works, with their portrait of decline and cruelty brought on by bourgeois society, were admitting of a Marxist interpretation, they became very popular in 1960s Chinese society; an epoch in which the ideology of Mao Zedong demanded that all literary creation be in service to the communist cause.

In addition to supervising successive production of his earliest plays, Cao Yu kept on writing, and in 1956, published Bright Skies. Thereafter, in 1961, the decade of his major public recognition, he published Courage and the Sword, his first historical drama. This work, although set at the end of the Zhou Dynasty during the Warring States Period, contains pronounced allusions to the defeat of Mao Zedong's political ideology clothed in his Great Leap Forward. His and others' critiques of Mao, and the struggle for power in the halls of government, ultimately ended in the Cultural Revolution; a campaign enforced by Mao to reaffirm his power and to fight against the bourgeois and capitalist elements surfacing in both the political and cultural spheres. The attacks against intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution affected Cao Yu, causing him distress and alienation. However, he was able to rehabilitate himself after Mao's death and Deng Xiaoping subsequent rise to power as de facto ruler of China.

Cao Yu's last work was Wang Zhaojun, released in 1979. On December 13, 1996, at 86 years of age, Cao Yu died in Beijing.


Cao Yu is probably the most well known Chinese dramatist of the first half of the twentieth century. Cao Yu was one of the first who adopted Western dramas within China’s unique social and cultural contexts. People today continue to praise and perform his trilogy, which contains Thunderstorm, Sunrise, and The Wilderness, to this day.

His plays have a universal appeal and were translated into English, Japanese, Russian, and other foreign languages. In addition, many have adapted his original works into various plays and movies. For example, Zhang Yimou made the film Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006, based on Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm.


  • Thunderstorm (雷雨 Leiyu), 1934.
  • Sunrise (日出 Richu), 1936.
  • The Wilderness (原野 Yuanye), 1937.
  • The Metamorphosis (蛻變 / 蜕变 Tuibian), 1940.
  • Peking Man (北京人 Beijing ren), 1940.
  • The Bridge (橋 / 桥 Qiao), 1945.
  • Bright Skies (明朗的天 Minlang de tian), 1956.
  • Courage and the Sword (膽劍篇 / 胆剑篇 Dan jian pian), 1961.
  • Wang Zhaojun (王昭君), 1979.


  1. China Culture, Cao Yu.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cao, Yu. Sunrise: A Play in Four Acts. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2001. ISBN 9780898751833.
  • Cao, Yu, Leslie Nai-Kwai Lo, Don Cohn, and Michelle Vosper. Peking Man. UNESCO collection of representative works. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. ISBN 9780231056564.
  • Cao Yu and His Trilogy. Retrieved December 10, 2008.
  • Cao Yu. Retrieved December 10, 2008.
  • Hsia, C.T. A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-253-21311-8.
  • McDougall, Bonnie S., and Kam Louie. The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-231-11085-5.
  • Wang, Aixue. A Comparison of the Dramatic Work of Cao Yu and J.M. Synge. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999. ISBN 9780889463936.


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