The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Dance and the Railroad is based on a historical incident in which Chinese railway workers went on strike to protest unfair conditions while helping construct the transcontinental railroad. In five numbered scenes the play depicts the evolving relationship of two young Chinese workers through the last seven days of the strike.

In scene 1, eighteen-year-old Ma arrives on the mountaintop to warn twenty-year-old Lone that other Chinese workers (90 percent of the Central Pacific Railroad’s builders were Chinese) disapprove of his antisocial behavior in leaving the group to ascend the mountain by himself. Unfazed by Ma’s warnings, Lone scorns comradeship with fellow workers and continues his solitary habits. He is practicing for the profession of Chinese opera, a demanding art form combining acrobatics, dancing, singing, and acting.

In the second scene, Ma returns to the mountaintop to forgive Lone his earlier rebuff. Lone rejects Ma’s gesture; however, he demurs to Ma’s new wish to train for the opera under him. In making his request, Ma reveals his triple immaturity: his desire to play the lead opera role of the patron god of warriors and adventurers, Gwan Gung; his grandiose ideas of finding success in “Gold Mountain” (from the Cantonese term Gam Saan, which immigrant Chinese used for California and America); and his gullibility in believing fellow workers’ lies about “warm snow,” the pleasures of working, and the salary bonuses they expect at year’s end. The more experienced and skeptical Lone offers Ma a gift of dice to play the Chinese game of die su. However, Ma will not be deterred from becoming Lone’s apprentice, so Lone provisionally accepts him as a student. Lone says that the training proves life through elected labor, as opposed to the work gang’s “death” in whites’ forced labor. (Historically, 10 percent of the twelve thousand Chinese who worked on the railways in the West died.)

In the third scene, Ma is already becoming impatient to play Gwan Gung. However, Lone says that he should aspire only to play the opera role of Second Clown and reveals his own story. He was sold to a Chinese opera company when he was ten and endured eight years of harsh conditions with eighty other boys in training. At...

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The Dance and the Railroad Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Several physical actions in the play convey the unique dramaturgical symbolism of theater. For example, Lone’s twirling his pigtail in the dance practice that opens and closes the play has the allusive symbolism of an alien cultural feature—the Chinese pigtail or “queue.” Historically, Chinese pigtails evoked white intolerance and persecution. Though the queue was a Chinese custom dating back to the seventeenth century, the state of California legislated against the wearing of queues in an 1873 ordinance, which was one of several discriminatory laws aimed at the Chinese.

Lone’s and especially Ma’s miming of the duck’s waddle and locust’s hop, along with the stances of these creatures, helps to convey visually the physical rigor of the Chinese opera as well as the identification with “the other” too often lacking in society or between societies.

Physical actions combined with the props of fighting sticks convey multiple symbols in the Chinese opera about Ma’s life staged in scene 5. The sticks are used to represent oars in the “water-crossing dance,” signifying Ma’s voyage from China to the United States. In the labor dance, they are used to represent pickaxes symbolizing Ma’s railroad construction work. In the “battle dance” they are used to represent fighting sticks or weapons, signifying the workers’ battle against the mountain in their construction work. Besides the opera dancing of Lone, all these additional “dances” impart multiple meanings to the play’s title and suggest complex interrelations between art and life.

The Dance and the Railroad Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cooperman, Robert. “New Theatrical Statements: Asian-Western Mergers in the Early Plays of David Henry Hwang.” In Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Dickey, Jerry.“’Myths of the East, Myths of the West’: Shattering Racial and Gender Stereotypes in the Plays of David Henry Hwang.” In Old West—New West: Centennial Essays, edited by Barbara Meldrum. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1993.

Gerard, Jeremy. “David Hwang: Riding the Hyphen.” The New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988, 44, 88-89.

Hwang, David Henry. Introduction to FOB and Other Plays, by David Henry Hwang. New York: Plume, 1990.

Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Li, David. Imagining the Nation: Asian American Literature and Cultural Consent. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Pace, Eric. “I Write Plays to Claim a Place for Asian Americans.” New York Times, July 12, 1981, p. D4.

Street, Douglas. David Henry Hwang. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1989.

Wong, Sau-ling. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.