Yao Yi-Wei (姚一葦), the “Mentor of a Generation” in Taiwanese Theatre Arts

Professor Yi-Wei Yao, born Gong-Wei Yao (April 5, 1922 – April 11, 1997), grew up near Poyang Lake in Jiangxi Province, China. At the age of 16 in 1938, he entered Jian Middle School. Not long after though, several years of successive warring began and he was forced to move with the school. Finally he was admitted to Xiamen University and made the school his new home. After graduating in 1946, Yao moved to Taiwan to work. However, political turmoil soon erupted in China, resulting in Taiwan being diplomatically cut off from the mainland. It was not until 51 years later, in 1989, that Yao was able to visit his home in China again.

Yao worked at Bank of Taiwan for 36 years. Throughout his life, Yao found immense pleasure in reading at his leisure time. He aspired in creative writings and teaching, and firmly believed in the spirit of traditional humanities and classical aesthetics. His studies were rigorous and his creative concepts far-reaching. Yao was an accomplished writer in the areas of stage play, aesthetics, theory, critique and essay. Starting in the 1950s, he participated in editing important literary publications such as “Literary Review” and “Modern Literature.” Through his work, he endeavored to discover new talents and nurtured the young generation. Because of these efforts, Yao was called “a torch-bearer in the dark night” in the literary circles.

With regard to theatre education, Yao began teaching the arts when he was 35. For over twenty years, he taught at such schools as Fu Hsing Kang College, National Taiwan University of Arts (formerly National Taiwan Academy of Arts), as well as the Graduate School of Arts and Department of Film and Theatre in Chinese Culture University (formerly College of Chinese Culture). In 1982, he was able to retire early from the Bank of Taiwan, giving him time to put all his efforts into the preparations for opening the new National Institute of the Arts and establishing the Institute’s theatre department. He was the department’s first head and the first Dean of Academic Affairs. Yao dedicated himself to education for 40 years, nurturing countless future leaders. In particular, he presided over five seasons of contemporary experimental Taiwanese theatre exhibitions which cultivated numerous practitioners in the fields of the arts and education. He is widely renowned by theatre practitioners as “the mentor of a generation.”

Even though Yao used historical materials from the Song Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period in his plays The Emerald Bodhisattvas and The Crown Prince Shensheng, he was able to create a clever balance between the traditional and contemporary. In his pieces Let's Start Again and Suitcase, he was able to expose a new reflection on people’s inner-orientation through his methodical use of metaphor and symbolism.


Play Title: The Emerald Bodhisattvas (January 12, 1985)

In 1967, Yao used Cui Ning’s (崔寧) jade carving to break through the dust-covered soul of the secular world’s normalcy to reveal the original beauty (or benevolence) that humankind possesses. As an orphan living with a distant relative called County Mayor Han (韓郡王), Cui Ning lives far from his homeland. At one point, County Mayor comes into possession of a beautiful piece of jade. Cui Ning volunteers to help County Mayor sculpt the jade piece into a carving of the goddess of mercy Guanyin (觀音) so that County Mayor may give the carving to the empress dowager as an honorable birthday gift. The resulting carving of Guanyin bears a striking resemblance to County Mayor’s only child, his daughter Xiu Xiu (秀秀).  After discovering Cui Ning’s inadvertent expression of his deep adoration of Xiu Xiu via the Guanyin carving, County Mayor and his wife decide to give Cui Ning a sum of money and send him away to prevent him from affecting Xiu Xiu’s future. But instead of preventing a relationship from happening, Xiu Xiu instead decides to run away with Cui Ning. The couple runs a jade carving shop for two years, but during the second year they are discovered by the Han family housekeeper. Upon being discovered, Xiu Xiu decides that in order to save the lives of her beloved Cui Ning and their children she must take her children and return home with the housekeeper. After thirteen years of raising her children on her own, Xiu Xiu hears the old sound of Cui Ning’s reed organ floating in the wind and orders her maid to investigate, only to discover that the organ-blower is a blind beggar. The beggar has no means to repay the kindness of Xiu Xiu when she provides food to him, so he gives her a piece of carved jade in gratefulness. To protect her children’s welfare, Xiu Xiu pretends not to recognize the beggar as Chi Ning even when he is dying. It is not until Cui Ning passes away that Xiu Xiu finally feels regret. She feels that Cui Ning was in love with the Xiu Xiu of his dreams, but that Xiu Xiu of his dreams simply does not exist.

Play Title: The Crown Prince Shensheng (November 27, 1991)

(申生) is a historical drama published in 1971. The setting for the play is set 2,500 years ago in the Jin Dynasty of China’s Spring and Autumn Period. According to historical records, Duke Xian of Jin (晉獻公) was obsessed with women and wine in his old age and doted on Concubine Li Ji (驪姬) of the Li Rong (驪戎) tribe. Li Ji gave birth to their son Xiqi (奚齊). Duke Xian, however, already had several other heirs, Prince Shensheng, Prince Chonger (重耳) and Prince Yiwu (夷吾). Li Ji carried a secret ambition to become Duke Xian’s first wife and in 655 BC framed Shensheng so that he committed suicide. She also forced Chonger and Yiwu to flee the state. When Duke Xian died in 651 BC, Xiqi ascended the throne. But one of the state chancellors, Li Ke (里克), gathered up supporters of the other princes and started wreaking havoc in the state, eventually killing Xiqi. The script follows the general storyline of the actual events but with particular emphasis on parts involving Concubine Li Ji. At the start of the first act, Prince Shensheng has just returned from successfully leading an army to wipe out Dongshan. But this victory does not bring good fortune to the brave, strong and well-loved warrior. Instead, it just increases Concubine Li Ji’s vicious desires, forcing her to take action to eliminate Prince Shensheng in order to allow her own son Xiqi to become heir to the throne. She conspires with her trusted confidant, the duke’s jester Youshi (優施), creating a plan to frame Prince Shensheng by making the duke believe Prince Shensheng is attempting to kill the duke with poison. When the plan succeeds, the duke is furious. Prince Shensheng has no way to redeem himself from the lies and so quietly hangs himself. Xiqi then smoothly steps into the role of the duke’s heir. The events following this actually have the opposite outcome of what Concubine Li Ji desires: she is not at all happy. Instead, all day and all night she is haunted by the figure of Prince Shensheng, and she begins to feel very ill at ease. Several years later, the duke dies and Xiqi ascends the throne only to be killed by rebel forces soon after. With all that has happened, after seeing all she has worked for disappear in the blink of an eye, Concubine Li Ji goes mad and kills herself in the palace.


Play title: Let’s Start Again (June 27, 1995)

In 1993 when Yao was 71, the play was published by Unitas Udngroup. Not only is it Yao’s last written play; the piece was directed by Yao when he reached the age of 73. The play concerns a married couple on the verge of disintegration, striving to restore their marriage but failing. Twenty years later, the pair meets again by chance, triggering a series of reflections. From the point of view of the plot, Let's Start Again seems to be a play about marriage issues. The two main characters, Qiong Jin (金瓊) and David Ding (丁大衛), used to be married but divorced because of conflicting beliefs. Twenty years after breaking up, they meet by chance in a tourist hotel when they are both abroad. The two open up their hearts and tell each other of all the desperate changes they went through in the breakup. During this intimate conversation, their relationship gets a new chance to grow.

Play title: Suitcase (May 25, 2007)

Suitcase was Yao’s sixth published play. Yao wrote it in 1973 after completing his research in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. In almost every instance, the theatrical language of his first five plays included the singing or odes of poetic literature. But Suitcase was different in that it was comprised completely of purely spoken language. The theatrical action of Suitcase is the undying love Ah San (阿三) has for his suitcase results in his being chased and eventually killed. The play is made up of four scenes. The first scene presents the two main characters of the play: Ah San and his partner. Through their fairly aimless dialogue, the audience learns of their background and that the two are unemployed. The second scene takes place in a noisy and crowded restaurant. The newspapers and radios are all reporting on the disappearance of a suitcase which holds radium for use in medical therapy and that there is a 20,000 NTD reward for the suitcase’s return. The people in the restaurant all mistake Ah San’s suitcase for the missing one and begin to scuffle with Ah San and his partner. This scene is used to foreshadow Ah San’s tragic fate in the future. The third, and most important, scene takes place in an ancient temple. The psychological background and childhood experiences of the two main characters are revealed when they talk in their sleep. Finally, they head to the wharf to hide from the police and the people from the restaurant who are chasing them. The fourth scene takes place in the abandoned ruins of the wharf’s lookout post. The two main characters cannot escape from the chasing horde. To prove their innocence, Ah San’s partner tries to convince Ah San to open his suitcase while Ah San hysterically refuses. As the two wrestle over the suitcase, Ah San and the suitcase both fall to the ground. An inspector opens the suitcase to find old clothes, children’s toys, books, and an award certificate. At this point, they discover that Ah San, lying on the ground, has died. This is the tragedy’s climax and dénouement.

Text and images are provided by Digital Collection of Originality in Theatre of Yi-Wei Yao, Chi-Mei Wang and Stan Lai and School of Theatre Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts