The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China

Tian Han and the Intersection of Performance and Politics
Liang Luo
Provides a new perspective on the Chinese avant-garde through the figure of artist and activist Tian Han


The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China explores how an important group of Chinese performing artists invested in politics and the pursuit of the avant-garde came to terms with different ways of being “popular” in modern times. In particular, playwright and activist Tian Han (1898-1968) exemplified the instability of conventional delineations between the avant-garde, popular culture, and political propaganda.  Liang Luo traces Tian’s trajectory through key moments in the evolution of twentieth-century Chinese national culture, from the Christian socialist cosmopolitanism of post–WWI Tokyo to the urban modernism of Shanghai in 1920s and 30s, then into the Chinese hinterland during the late 1930s and 40s, and finally to the Communist Beijing of the 1950s, revealing the dynamic interplay of art and politics throughout this period. Understanding Tian in his time sheds light upon a new generation of contemporary Chinese avant-gardists (Ai Wei Wei being the best known), who, half a century later, are similarly engaging national politics and popular culture.

“Skillfully written, concise and insightful, this book deepens our understanding of performance culture by productively connecting politics, popular culture, and aesthetic theater to explore the multi-cultural influences and national and international contexts that fostered the spirit and temperament of Tian Han and his generation of artists... A substantial and significant contribution to the literature on Chinese theater, media studies, global cultural studies, and Chinese-Western comparative performance studies.”
—Xiaomei Chen, University of California, Davis 

The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China offers an engaging close reading of Tian Han’s works, and demonstrates how understanding Tian and his generation can help us understand the politics and cultural dynamics of our own times.”
—Alexa Huang, author of Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange

Liang Luo is Associate Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Kentucky.

Praise / Awards

  • "An outstanding contribution to the intellectual and cultural history of modern China and fills, at last, a long-overdue gap in Chinese literary, media, and theater studies by providing the first-ever monograph on Tian Han in English. [Luo's] terse and insightful study is surely bound to become a key resource for future scholarship on the intersections of modernist aesthetics, progressive politics, and popular media."
    Modern Chinese Literature and Culture
  • "By any measure, Luo has provided a compelling study on Tian Han and the international interwar avant-garde. Not only has Luo written the definitive English-language account of Tian’s career, she has irredeemably problematized the binaries between the avant-garde and the popular, as well as between art and propaganda."
    --Frontiers of Literary Studies in China
  • "Demonstrating an impressive array of intercultural and trans-media expertise, Luo weaves connections, historical as well as interpretive, to the international avant-garde throughout the book, giving nearly every work of Tian’s that she discusses a transnational dimension."
    ---Theatre Journal
  • "Luo’s realignment offers a powerful frame with which to examine Tian’s tremendously wide range of output."
    --Modern Drama
  • "Liang Luo shows how Tian’s work is transnational. Luo challenges the idea that Chinese avantgarde performance practice was only established in post-Mao China and places it in the context of international artistic experimentation during Tian Han’s artistically active period between 1917 and 1965." 
    --The Drama Review
  • "A substantial and important contribution to the fields of modern Chinese literary, cultural, visual, and performance studies, The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China also significantly augments our understanding of the nature and intensity of global cross-fertilization that took place between Chinese cultural agents like Tian Han and the international avant-garde."
    --Journal of Asian Studies
  • "Luo makes a convincing case that Tian Han should be included in discussions of the twentieth century avant-garde worldwide, along with international figures like Bertolt Brecht and Joris Ivens."
    --Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews
  • "What especially distinguishes the author’s work is her courage, using Tian Han as an example for modernity, in bringing together politics and eroticism, Peking opera and Hollywood, war and art, “pop culture” and the Party. The value of this study lies in its removal of the generally accepted separation of art for art’s sake from social commitment."
    --Comparative Literature & World Literature

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 386pp.
  • 12 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2014
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07217-0

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  • $94.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2014
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05217-2

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  • $38.95 U.S.

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  • Tian Han, Propaganda, Avant-garde, Popular Culture, Performance, Modern China, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Politics