Nirmal DASS

During the Tang dynasty the progressive emperor Xuanzong endowed the Pear Garden in Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in 714 CE as a conservatory for the nascent performing arts. Secular music and dance developed and thrived there, especially Chinese opera; the roots of later classical and modern Chinese dramatic performance can be traced there as well.

In 714 CE Emperor Xuanzong (685–762) established a conservatory for the performing arts in the city of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), which he called Li-yuan, or the “pear garden.” During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), a period both of political stability and rich cultural expression, China encouraged, and sought out, interaction with the outside world. One of the results of this cultural and political milieu was the thorough advancement of the arts.

Although this period is renowned for its poetry, painting, and ceramics, it was also a time of steady progress in musical knowledge and theory. But it was during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (685–762) that one aspect of Chinese music received his personal support: opera (xiqu). The initial purpose of the Pear Garden was to train actors, singers, and dancers for the personal delectation of the Emperor, but it was not long before the innovations that were developed there began to influence Chinese performing arts as a whole. Before 714, the performing arts were intimately linked with religious rites and rituals. Xuanzong, however, demanded personal entertainment that incorporated modes of performance that were traditionally sacred in origin, namely, singing and dancing. By removing the religious element, the performing arts began to develop along secular lines.

One style of presentation especially favored by the Emperor was choral song, which became further refined as art-song (xiaoling), a form that related tales in a dramatic fashion. Such songs were often concerned with courtly activity as well as the trials and tribulations of lovers beset by hardship and even political intrigue. Given their narrative emphasis of these songs, it was not long before another venue of dramatic recitation was engaged that depended upon music and dance. Consequently, much attention was given to developing secular music at the courtly level, and instruments, such as the lute, the harp, the zither, the flute (both vertical and transverse), the side-drum, the kettle drum, the oboe, the gong, and the clapper were perfected to accompany choral, narrative song. Thus, the Pear Garden tradition successfully combined the various performing arts (music, dance, dialog, and acting) into one art form, that is, opera; the linguistic basis of operas performed at this time was the vernacular that would later be classified as classical Chinese.

It is also important to note that, at this early stage, Chinese opera did not include what has become its traditional cast of characters: the clown, the male and female, and the strong male with the painted face; these innovations were introduced later during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Whether choral song during the Tang period involved humor, elaborate costumes, and acrobatics is still debated among scholars. Also, given the penchant of Emperor Xuanzong, the majority of the students in the Pear Garden and its subsequent graduates were women who were employed to provide entertainment both at courtly functions and at private performances solely for the Emperor. And given the breadth and extension of China during the Tang Dynasty, it is also assumed by scholars that many of these women were slaves from other countries. The importance and durability of the techniques engendered during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong are such that, to this day, actors are commonly referred to as “children of the Pear Garden.”

Children of the Pear Garden

In his 1894 essay “A View From the Great Wall” William Alexander Parsons Martin discusses the “Children of the Pear-garden”:

It is a mistake to reckon the whole population of China as adherents of the Buddhist faith. It has absorbed Taoism, but the educated classes, almost without exception, adhere to Confucius; and even the uneducated profess allegiance to the Great Master of China. The truth is that, while each religion has a hierarchy of its own, the faith and practice of the masses rest on a mixture of all three.

In the T’ang dynasty (618–905), poetry, which appeared in the rudest ages, attained its highest pitch of perfection—Li Po and Tu Fu [Li Bai and Du Fu] being the Pope and Dryden of an age of poets. Chinese poetry comprehends every variety, except the epic, its place being filled by semi-poetical romances.

The Chinese theatre now secured for the first time the honor of Imperial patronage, a stage being erected in a pear-garden, whence actors are still described as “Children of the Pear-garden.”

Source: Martin, W. A. P.. (1894). Hanlin papers: Essays on the history, philosophy, and religion of the Chinese. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 56.

Further Reading

Chen, Jack. (1949). The Chinese theatre. London: Dennis Dobson.

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

Hung, Josephine Huang. (1961). Children of the pear garden. (Trans.). Taipei, Taiwan: Taipei Heritage Press.

Mackerras, C. & Wichmann, E. (Eds.). (1983). Chinese theatre from its origins to the present day. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Scott, A. C. (1978). The classical theatre of China. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal (2009). Pear Garden. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1731–1732. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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