Patricia SIEBER

The last section from the Yuan drama The Story of the Western Wing, by playwright Wang Shifu. Calligraphy by Wang Cheng (1494–1533).

Growing out of a largely anonymous performance and ritual tradition of the Song and Jin periods, Yuan drama matured into a recognizable artistic form. During this first golden age of Chinese song-drama (1279–1368), individual actresses and actors, playwrights, and critics perfected performance conventions, scripts, and aesthetic criteria.

The Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) is generally regarded as the first golden age of traditional Chinese song-drama, particularly with regard to the theatrical form commonly known as “Northern-style zaju drama.” Drama became significant enough as an aesthetic form for urban communities and their participants—authors, performers, critics, patrons—to acknowledge their contributions to the world of theater. The names of approximately one hundred zaju authors and the titles of more than six hundred plays attributed to them are known to us today. Similarly, the names, and in some rare cases the likenesses of individual zaju actors and actresses, have been transmitted through visual, poetic, and documentary sources produced by patrons, scholar-officials, other playwrights, and drama connoisseurs. In addition, a number of critics developed explicit formal criteria to evaluate the authors, the performers, and the stylistic characteristics of song-drama as well as the musically related form known as sanqu songs. Finally, the libretti of at least thirty zaju song-dramas were considered aesthetically important and linguistically demanding enough to be printed as early as the first half of the fourteenth century, thus providing us with some of the earliest texts in the Asian theatrical repertoire.

History of the Form

All the impressive firsts of Yuan dynasty zaju notwithstanding, zaju evolved over the course of at least two hundred years before becoming a literary medium for playwrights and a star vehicle for performers. In the mid-twelfth century contemporary observers reminisced about the large commercial theaters operating in the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), Kaifeng (modern Kaifeng), where comic duos (fumo and fujing) together with a leading man (moni) and an official (zhuanggu) role type offered humorous fare then known as “variety plays” (zaju). These same diarists also mentioned that various entertainments were enacted on permanent open-air stages attached to temples as well as on temporary stages erected for particular holidays. In the context of a Buddhist-inspired All Souls Festival the title of a particular zaju play, the Buddhist salvation story of Mulian Rescues His Mother [from Hell], first appeared. The tale was subsequently adopted into the Yuan zaju repertoire and remains a staple of certain regional operas to this day.

When in the 1130s the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234) assumed control over the heartland of early zaju performances (modern-day Henan, Shanxi, and Shaanxi provinces), the development of zaju continued unabated, partly because Jurchens had a strong song-and-dance tradition of their own and partly because the Jin court selectively adopted Song institutions as well as Chinese literary culture more generally. Not only do later lists of comic skits about everyday life and of stories about historical figures, romance, and religions suggest a rich urban repertoire performed in the new capital of Yanjing (present-day Beijing), but also Jin dynasty stages found in smaller towns around Henan, Shanxi, and Shaanxi provinces suggest that zaju performance was a common feature of rural life. Furthermore, judging both from extant stages and from the replicas of stages and performers unearthed from Jin dynasty tombs, conventions of zaju performance were moving toward a specialized theatrical stage and the role system of a main female or male lead (zhengdan and zhengmo), both of which would become hallmarks of mature Yuan drama. Moreover, the popularity of the musically innovative Jin dynasty chantefable genre known as “All Keys and Modes” (zhugongdiao) coincided with the final stage of the maturation of Yuan drama. Rather than simply repeating identical tunes patterns, “All Keys and Modes” welded together several melodies into song-sets, a feature that would be developed into song-suites set to different musical modes in Yuan zaju plays.

The Mongol defeat of the Jin in 1233 and of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) did not disrupt but rather furthered the evolution of song-drama in the old capitals as well as the hinterland. The new Yuan capital, Dadu (modern Beijing), was located in the same city as the Jurchen capital of Yanjing. Not surprisingly perhaps, Dadu was the initial urban epicenter of the synthesis of the theatrical, musical, and authorial developments begun under the Song and the Jin dynasties. Most of the early dramatists hailed from Dadu, including the reputed progenitor of the genre of Yuan zaju, Guan Hanqing. However, the move of the Song court to Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou), the capital of the Southern Song dynasty, had helped old-style zaju find a new home in the south in the 1100s, and hence mature Yuan zaju quickly took hold in the former Southern Song capital as well, with many of the later Yuan dramatists such as Zheng Guangzu being active in Hangzhou.

Form of Yuan Zaju Song-Drama

In its mature form Yuan zaju typically consisted of a melodic sequence of songs set to different musical modes, which musically delineated four distinct acts. Occasionally the four-act format was expanded with short melodic prologues or interludes known as “wedges.” In rare cases such as the cross-culturally famous The Orphan of the House of Zhao (Zhaoshi gu’er), Yuan zaju were comprised of five rather than the standard four acts. With five books consisting of four acts each, the famous love comedy The Story of the Western Wing (Xixiang ji) adhered to the conventions of both the short zaju and the much longer chuanqi form. In general, each song-suite accommodated different sets of melodies, which were said to have connoted different emotive timbres. All songs were sung by a single role type, the main female (zhengdan) or male lead (zhengmo), the story’s central locus of emotion. In most cases a single character occupied that role type, but in rare instances two characters assumed the role of the singing lead. In the exceptional The Story of the Western Wing, a set of four acts was principally sung by the same role, but the lead role varied across the five books of the play.

The arias alternated with dialogue spoken by all parties. The language of the arias blended both classical allusions and colloquial elements, which earned the genre the characterization of “being neither excessively formal nor vulgar” (buwen busu). In Yuan-printed texts the dialogue was sketchy rather than fully elaborated, implying that performers may have improvised those segments or that audiences needed no reading aids to follow the spoken parts. By contrast, extant Ming dynasty (1368–1644) versions of Yuan drama greatly expanded the dialogue and added set poetic recitation pieces. In Selections of Yuan Plays (Yuanqu xuan, also known as One Hundred Yuan Plays, Yuanren baizhong qu, 1615/16), Zang Maoxun (1550–1620) fleshed out the dialogue and edited the arias to create the definitive re
ading text for “Yuan drama.” Cleverly claiming that the Yuan court selected the highest echelon of examination candidates through the writing of arias, Zang provided a new sheen of literary respectability for song-drama in general.

Authors and Themes

The bulk of individually attributable Chinese literature written prior to the Yuan dynasty originated with scholar-officials or aristocrats. By contrast, Yuan zaju was the first major body of Chinese texts to have been primarily written by relatively well-educated professional authors. Zhou Deqing (flourished 1330), the most influential contemporaneous critic, singled out Guan Hanqing, Zheng Guangzu, Bai Pu, and Ma Zhiyuan as particularly accomplished, a judgment that, with the addition of Wang Shifu, has largely withstood the vagaries of time.

Within a corpus of more than sixty known titles, Guan Hanqing was, despite the uncorroborated claim to a minor post, the professional author par excellence. The subject matter of his plays ranged widely, covering all social registers and moving from uproarious comedy to deeply felt grief. Guan’s plays reworked both well-known and untapped tales about lovelorn emperors and heartbroken consorts; turned biographical bits about generals, scholar-officials, and young girls into alternately heart-rending and didactic stories such as The Jade Mirror Stand (Yujingtai); adapted episodes from the well-known The Records of the Three Kingdoms to turn them into heroic or melancholy pieces; fashioned innovative romantic plots with few or no known precedents into vehicles for clever courtesans, maids, and widows such as Rescuing a Coquette (Jiufengchen). In the Yuan dynasty other playwrights adopted the nicknames “Little Hanqing” and “Southern Hanqing,” attesting to Guan Hanqing’s standing as Yuan zaju’s foundational author. In the twentieth century The Injustice to Dou E (Dou E yuan) was singled out and came to exemplify Guan’s excellence as a writer of the then newly sinicized genre of tragedy.

Pai Pu (1226–c. 1280) ranked among the few known literati authors of Yuan drama. Hailing from Shanxi Province, Pai Pu’s father, Bai Hua, had passed the highest examinations during the Jin dynasty, an honor that earned him a biography in the official History of the Jin. After the fall of the dynasty the family fell on hard times but eventually settled in Nanjing. Bai’s song lyrics alluded to his longing for the old dynasty; given the extant attributions, his plays for the most part dealt with romance. Most famous among these was Rain on the Pawlownia Tree (Wutongyu), one of the few extant song-dramas that survived the Ming dynasty prohibition on the imperial figures in zaju texts and performance. Rain empathetically told the well-known story of Tang emperor Xuanzong’s loss of his favorite consort, Yang Guifei, to political necessity from the point of view of the heartbroken emperor.

A native of Dadu, Ma Zhiyuan, may have served as a minor functionary, according to one source, but according to another, he was a member of a professional writing association. The rather bleak outlook of his songs and of his plays certainly seemed in tune with the often resentfully satirical tone associated with the Southern xiwen plays produced by writing guilds. Ma adapted famous episodes from the dynastic histories and from the annals of poetry to conjure melancholy meditations on loss, most notably in Autumn in the Han Palace (Hanqongqiu) and Tears on the Official’s Gown (Qingshan lei). Ma is equally well known for his Dao-inspired deliverance plays that tout the rewards of renunciation in the face of an intractable and futile quest for success. Ma adopted the official patriarch of a newly popular school of Quanzhen Daoism, Lü Dongbin, as the hero of two of his deliverance plays, The Yueyang Tower (Yueyanglou) and The Yellow Millet Dream (Huangliangmeng).

Another native of Dadu, Wang Shifu, made his name largely as the author of The Story of the Western Wing (Xixiang ji), the most widely reproduced love comedy in the Chinese corpus. When literary critic Jin Shengtan (1608–1661) created an alternative, quasi-modern canon of six literary works called “books of genius,” he included a highly idiosyncratic version of Wang’s Story as the “Sixth Book of Genius.” The many successive reprints and versions of Jin’s version of The Story of the Western Wing, together with Zang Maoxun’s One Hundred Yuan Plays, ensured that Yuan zaju continued to be widely disseminated as reading material long after the end of the Yuan dynasty.

Modern Impact

Although the musical form of Yuan zaju drama gradually died out in the sixteenth century, Ming dynasty playwrights such as Tang Xianzu (1550–1616) drew ideas from Yuan drama, and many of the stories from the Yuan corpus, such as The Butterfly Lovers, found their way into the regional operas of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Among the earliest Chinese dramatic forms to be introduced to Japan, Xixiang ji was translated into Japanese in the early 1800s. European translations of Yuan zaju plays inspired famous plays by the French writer Voltaire (1694–1778) and the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). Because of the modern academic study of Yuan drama by influential scholars such as Wang Guowei (1877–1927) and Wu Mei (1883–1939), many important modern Chinese playwrights such as Guo Moruo (1892–1978) and Tian Han (1898–1968) seized upon plays in Zang Maoxun’s anthology and other Yuan dramas to address modern cultural concerns such as marriage reform. More recently other Chinese playwrights have staged Chinese and Western versions of Yuan drama side-by-side to offer political commentary. Thus, the legacy of Yuan drama continues to evolve at the crossroads of Chinese and world theater.

Further Reading

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

Sieber, P. (2003). Theaters of desire: Authors, readers, and the reproduction of early Chinese Song-drama, 1300-2000. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

West, S. H. (Ed.), & Idema, W. L. (Trans.). (1995). The story of the western wing. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Play a harp before a cow.


Duì niú tán qín

Source: Sieber, Patricia. (2009). Yuan Drama. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2594–2598. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Illustration for The Story of the Western Wing, a Yuan period play. Ink and color on silk, by Qiu Ying (active painter c. 1522–1560).

Yuan Drama (Yuán Cháo zájù 元朝杂剧)|Yuán Cháo zájù 元朝杂剧 (Yuan Drama)

Download the PDF of this article