Dallas L. McCURLEY

Actors perform a revolutionary play during the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese drama—the combination of song, dance, and music creating a whole greater than the sum of the parts—first appeared in the courts of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) and has evolved steadily ever since, employing comedy and tragedy for the enjoyment of rich and poor alike.

The key Chinese theatrical aesthetic of melding into a singular whole the skills of singing, dance-acting, stage combat, and speech techniques with the use of costuming, props, and dramatic storytelling began in court ritual as early as the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). Drawing on the primary theatrical developments —variety shows (baixi ??) in the Han dynasty (206 BCE220 CE), popular skits and Buddhist storytelling (bianwen ??) in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), and variety plays (zaju ??) in the Song (960–1279) and especially in the Yuan (1279–1368), when multi-act plays of literary richness and newly-honed actor skills came to the stage— traditional Chinese opera (xiqu ??) developed in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties to produce nearly 400 regionally-distinct forms. Spoken drama (huaju ??) and “New Theatre” (xinju ??) reflected Western influences on dramatic form at the beginning of the twentieth century; the years since 1976 have seen multiple theatrical exchanges between China and other nations.

Chinese drama has a long tradition. Generally, the highly developed structure of dramatic text created in the Yuan dynasty is considered to have influenced later traditional theater literature. The Yuan dynasty is often cited as the age in which Chinese drama began. Dramatic influences on Yuan drama, however, go back many centuries, beginning in the earliest courts of record during the Zhou (1045–256 BCE).

Drama during the Zhou Dynasty

One of the most important elements of Chinese drama—the performance synthesis of song, dance, and music—first appeared in the Zhou courts. The Liji (Book of Rites) describes performance synthesis as the inherent, correlative relationship between music, movement, emotion, and other aspects of performance wherein the sum of the parts creates a greater whole. Throughout Chinese theatrical history, the aesthetic of melding into a singular whole the skills of singing, dancing, acrobatics, special speaking techniques, and use of costuming, props, and dramatic storytelling has been an identifying feature. Both the Zhou court ritual dance dramas and some of the acts staged by court jesters featured performance synthesis as an inherent element of the dramatic basis of their presentations.

Drama during the Qin and Han Dynasties

In the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) eras, the court ritual of the Zhou was assumed for new purposes, although quite likely revised, and new forms of dramatic entertainment arose in both the countryside and urban areas. Two of the most important forms were based on popular stories. In the dramatically enacted combat scenario of chiyouxi, or Chi You theater, one finds the epic myth of the cosmic battle between the demonic rogue Chi You and the Yellow Emperor (the legendary founder of the Chinese empire). In the second skit, Donghai Huanggong (Duke Huang of the Eastern Sea), a drunken shaman is overpowered by a tiger and killed after displaying a series of magical acts. These dramatic pieces, as well as others, were often performed as part of enormous variety shows (baixi, hundred acts) staged by the courts as part of expensive displays intended to impress foreign envoys. They took the form of circus-like entertainments with costumed performers singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments among equestrian, acrobatic, and magic acts.

Drama during the Tang Dynasty

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), such skits as Donghai Huanggong continued to be popular presentations in the marketplaces, at court, in temples, and in the homes of patrons. Other favorite dramatic sketches of the Tang included Tayaoniang (Singing-Stepping Woman), in which male and female actors employed song and dance to comically portray the plight of a battered woman married to a drunken, egotistical official. In another favorite, Botou (Setting Matters Right), a son mourns his father, killed by a tiger while journeying through some mountains, using a mixture of monologue and conventionalized movement patterns to portray the father’s ill-fated trip. Similar to these entertainments was canjunxi (adjutant theater), wherein two actors enacted a comic scenario about a corrupt official who steals bolts of silk.

Also during the Tang period, Buddhist monks began to dramatize sermons with the aid of scrolls illustrating Buddhist teachings. This form was called bianwen, or transformational tales, and exhibited not only religious but also historical and social or political contemporary themes. All topics were presented through a mix of literary and vernacular styles, using song, prose, verse, and idiomatic speech. Additionally, chuanqi, or marvel tales, a more literary form composed of short stories with dialogue, originated during the Tang dynasty and initiated a greater interest in using literary stylization in the dramas of developing theatrical forms. Puppet performances may have also played a significant role in the evolution of drama at this time.

Drama during the Song Dynasty

During the Song dynasty (960–1279), dramatic developments began to take place that would distinguish northern from southern forms until the present day. Song zaju (miscellaneous theater), popular in both the north and south, included on a much smaller scale some of the variety-show characteristics found previously in Han baixi. But the primary focus of the presentation was on a central play or sketch. By the time of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), Song zaju was composed of three parts: a curtain raiser, the main comedy, and a comic or variety-show act. A variation of early zaju, known as southern theater (nanxi), also developed at this time, as did ballad forms such as daqu (great song set) and zhugongdiao (various palace tones), which, using direct speech rather than description, alternated song and speech. The Mongol Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234), operating in the north while the Southern Song continued in the south, developed yuanben (courtyard literature), instigating a tradition of crafting texts through writing guilds that collectively worked to craft their scripts of words, song, and music.

Drama during the Yuan Dynasty

Drama flourished during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Some historians theorize that this resulted when the many unemployed literati, ousted from court office in the Mongol conquest and the subsequent political shift against Confucianism, used their free time to write dramas to attack the new government. Yuanben continued in the northern courts, but the most important form to evolve was that of Yuan zaju. The writing guilds of the court infused tremendous literary breadth into zaju, and the compositional form encouraged further development of actor technique, especially in singing. Yuan zaju was divided into four acts, each featuring a soloist. Every act contained several songs, all in a single key, giving the acts a musical unity
. Metrical rules were set for the alternation of prose and poetry, with over 80 percent of the ends of lines rhyming. Each act, however, had a rhyme scheme differing from that of the other acts in the play. Additionally, a wedge (a simple song of one or two stanzas) could be placed between acts. Although the song sets (qu) were a primary element, the plots and dramatic dialogue were also rich. Plays often contained forty or more acts and could have been staged in their entirety only over several days. The length of such scripts has strongly influenced presentation until this day. Most modern performances stage only highlights of a drama instead of performing the whole story. In the south, nanxi continued to develop, employing duets and trios to present the alternating lines of sung and spoken dialogue.

Drama during the Ming and Qing Dynasties

In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), various forms of music were combined with dramatic features of pronunciation, rhyming patterns, and regional singing fashions (alternating song and speech was a common motif), producing new forms. The dramatic texts for these forms included song and musical scores. Some plays were shared, but altered, between forms. Kunqu (Kunshan opera) evolved in this age and is still performed by five major troupes located in both the north and south of modern China.

In the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), musical systems continued to be melded with regional songs and stories to produce forms such as Beijing Opera, now performed by hundreds of professional and amateur troupes. Between 1895 and 1905, plays using Western themes and traditional Chinese performance forms were introduced and called New Theater (xinju or xinqu). An example is Liang Qichao’s Xin Luoma (New Rome) staged in kunqu form with a theme relating the contemporary government to that of the Italian risorgimento (the nineteenth-century political movement toward Italian unity and the formation of a nation state), with the characters of Dante and Cavour quoting Confucius and Tang poetry. Huaju (spoken drama), essentially Western nonmusical drama, was then imported and translated into Chinese, with favorites being works of Brecht, Shakespeare, and Chekhov. Chinese authors, such as Cao Yu and Lao She, wrote their own plays using this dramatic style.

Drama in the People’s Republic of China

During much of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), theater was banished except for eight plays and one ballet. The plays, focused on concerns of workers, were performed in the style of traditional opera but without its elegant costuming. In 1972 the ban on theater was lifted, with traditional and new performances again becoming significant aspects of Chinese culture.

After the 1976 fall of the Gang of Four (the four administrators held responsible for implementing the Cultural Revolution, including Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife), the “model” operas of the Cultural Revolution were no longer performed. During the next ten years, an open-door policy initiated an influx of foreign drama and theatrical personnel into China as well as an opportunity for Chinese artists to bring Chinese opera to America and Europe. Arthur Miller directed Death of a Salesman in Beijing in 1983, and the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe toured Europe with a kunqu-styled production of Macbeth in 1988. Dramatic developments focused on experimental and social-problem plays. A Jia and other theorists began to elaborate on the result of combining Western schools of acting, especially the Stanislavsky method, with traditional Chinese drama form and with artistic elements taken from ancient Chinese poetics and painting. The result is an evolving style of drama, uniquely Chinese, combining realism and well-defined characters with performance techniques that focus on the actor’s presence.

Many of China’s new works have developed under the auspices of major institutions, such as the Beijing People’s Art Theater. Outside the opera centers in Beijing and Shanghai, Wei Minglun’s absurdist chuanju (Sichuan opera) production of Pan Jianlian, which reexamines the eponymous, traditionally evil heroine through the varying viewpoints of several historical figures, has won international recognition as well as exerting considerable domestic influence. China’s minority groups have also actively produced works of their own. Two well-recognized productions are The Battle of Potala Palace, by the Tibet Autonomous Regional Drama Troupe, and Hello, Standard Bearer, by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Drama Troupe.

Further Reading

Crump, J. I. (1990). Chinese theater in the days of Kublai Khan. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan.

Dolby, W. (1976). A history of Chinese drama. London: P. Elek.

Shih Chung-wen. (1976). The golden age of Chinese drama, Yuan tsa-chu. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Source: McCurley, Dallas L.. (2009). Drama. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 641–644. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Two actresses with tiny bound feet greet one another in a comic vignette from the Song dynasty.

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