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Chinese Theatre

Chinese Theatre


Chinese Theatre, theatrical performances, including singing, dancing, and acting, in China.


The earliest full-blown, thematically complex Chinese drama flowered in the 12th, or, more probably, 13th century ad, though there had long been a rich history of performing arts in the empire. This history included the shamanistic and court dance-performances and the hilarious and thought-provoking court-jester skits of the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 bc) onward; the massive fostering of circus-like arts from the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220); the great blossoming during the Tang dynasty (618-907) of written and printed tales that would later be used so extensively for the theatre; the copious import and extension of Buddhist and other kinds of foreign musical and narrative entertainment styles from the Six Dynasties (222-589) on; widely loved puppetry and balladry from the Song dynasty (960-1279); and the age-old skills of flexible and improvised physical theatre. All these styles can be seen to have influenced Chinese drama in its comprehensive form.

Chinese Theatre


The first indisputably golden age of mature Chinese drama was that of the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) Variety Play around the mid- to late 13th century, in particular under the Mongol emperor of China Kublai Khan, who reigned between 1260 and 1294. Shaking up and in some ways devastating traditional Chinese society, the Mongol rulers, who took northern China in 1234, were also patrons of popular entertainments, and in and around their capital in ancient Beijing in the northern part of China there was a thriving cultural milieu. With the Mongol conquest of southern China in the 1270s, the Variety Play became a nationwide drama form. The prolific 13th-century playwright Guan Hanqing may well have been the “father of Chinese drama”, though the most famous Chinese play of all time, the delicately and lasciviously romantic Xixiang Ji (West Wing), was a Variety Play by Wang Shifu in the 13th or 14th century.

Hundreds of plays on all manner of themes were composed during this period. The performance style was in great contrast to later traditional drama forms such as Peking Opera, the acting and singing being both more natural and also directly comprehensible to the audiences, and the costuming and gestures less flowery and symbolic. In another contrast, actresses were prominent, if indeed not dominant, on the Yuan stage. The plays were usually four acts long, took an hour or more to perform, each consisted of a complete story, and the vital singing of them was done by only one actor in each play or act.


During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which originated in southern China and replaced the Mongol regime, a drama known as the Wonder Play came fully into its own. This differed markedly from the Variety Play and was more typical of later Chinese traditional drama as a whole. It used mellifluous, sinuous singing, stressing music over direct word-meaning; many actors shared the singing in any one play; and the plays were much longer, containing 20 or more acts, sometimes more than 40, and therefore requiring performance over more than one day, although one or two acts might be taken out to constitute a complete bill (or the core of one). The wording of the Wonder Play tended much more to display verbal artifice, and its plots were more intricate. The zenith of dramatic writing in the Wonder Play is found in such plays as Pipa Ji (Lute) by the 14th-century playwright Gao Ming, Mudan Ting (Peony Pavilion) by Tang Xianzu (16th century), Changsheng Dian (Eternal Life Palace) by Hong Sheng, and Taohua Shan (Peach Blossom Fan) by Kong Shangren (both 17th century).


As an offshoot of the Wonder Play drama, but in its essential singing style a new mixture of both northern and southern elements, there developed what came eventually to be China’s most highbrow and classical theatre and music, Kunju (Kun drama), often called the Kun Songs. This genre may have been inspired by Liang Chenyu, who experimented with dramatic singing and wrote the famous drama Huansha Ji (Washing Silk). This play contained a cornucopia of drama elements: fine songs; rich comedy; China’s greatest historical tale of revenge; and one of China’s most famous romances, involving Xishi, China’s byword for female beauty, and Fan Li, China’s archetypal and outstanding social drop-out and generous tycoon. Although later fading from prime prominence, the minutely differentiated acting gestures of Kunju and its elegant music have made it the highest dramatic form in the eyes of connoisseurs, and in recent years it has even been the form of a highly successful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that toured internationally.


At the end of the Ming dynasty there was a proliferation of regional and local styles of drama. An amalgam and development of a few of these eventually came to represent the essence of traditional Chinese drama, Peking Opera. From the late 18th century its early forms found favour in Beijing; by 1830 or so it was fully fledged; and by the mid- to late 19th century Peking Opera was indubitably the national drama, thriving also in Shanghai, from where it was exported to other regions. Although it draws on the most highly regarded Chinese literature, Peking Opera has mainly been celebrated for the quality of its actors. Its most famous actor, nationally and internationally, was Mei Lanfang, who acted female roles. Indeed, until the late 20th century all roles were performed by men, the male impersonators of females developing their own stylized characterizations of femininity that many theatregoers came to view as more authentic than reality.

On stage, Peking Opera most commonly enacts short episodes or vignettes from well-known larger dramas or cycles of stories. The very brevity of the episodes, along with the need to know the wider thematic settings from which they have been taken; the extenuated and often falsetto mode of singing; the unique combination of dialect pronunciations; the fantastically showy costuming for major male roles; the highly elaborate painted face patterns; the symbolic and stylized movements and acrobatics; and the absence of realistic scenery, have all made the finer points of Peking Opera somewhat esoteric even in China, but all its unusual qualities have a combined purpose of concentrating the impact of a performance.


Most traditional Chinese drama employed a lot of music and song. Song had often been the vital spiritual backbone of plays, and music had often been the main characterizing feature distinguishing a particular genre of drama. From the late 19th century onward, however, Western drama steadily increased its influence in China, and Chinese playwrights took to writing plays with little or no song in their text and without music for their performance, in the modern Western manner, these being termed Speech Dramas (Huaju). For most of the 20th century, the Speech Drama, although favoured by some politicians and many of the new urban intellectuals, was less generally popular than the traditional drama forms, especially Peking Opera. Outstanding Speech Drama playwrights have been Cao Yu, with his Leiyu (Thunderstorm) and other frequently presented plays, and Dian Han with his play Guan Hanqing, which drew enormous audiences in the mid-1950s.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), all China’s existing dramas were banned; instead a handful of new “model dramas” were persistently performed to the Chinese, and even widely exported through films and recordings. Since 1976, with a more relaxed creative climate prevailing in China, many new plays have been written and much dramatic experimentation has taken place. There have been worries about the decline of traditional genres, and indeed modern television, internationalism, and commercialism have undoubtedly combined with the cultural sterility of the Cultural Revolution to severely damage traditional entertainments, but the rich combination of the ancient and the modern continues to produce exciting theatre.

Chinese Theatre

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