20080303-Cantonese opera-web Chinese historical society.jpg
Cantonese Opera
Opera is a popular traditional art form in China. Styles of Chinese theater and opera include Peking Opera, other kinds of regional opera, “xiangsheng” (comic opera-like dialogues), storytelling, shadow plays, puppetry, glove puppetry, and puppet opera. Because music is such an important element of Chinese drama and story is such an integral part of Chinese Opera, Chinese opera and drama are considered one in the same. There is quite a variety of forms and adaptions. Examples of China theater performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. have included the Tangshan Shadow Puppet Theatre, the improv comedy of the National Theatre of China’s “Two Dogs: Opinions on Life” and the Beijing Dance Theater's performance of Haze, a celebration of Chinese symphony and opera.

Opera and drama in China evolved from ancient folk songs, dances, and especially local dialectical music. Over time it incorporated art and literature and became a form of stage performance. Traditional drama, often called "Chinese opera," grew out of the zaju (variety plays) of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and continues to exist in 368 different forms, the best known of which is Beijing Opera, which assumed its present form in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) court.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote:“In a giant country like China with its cultural continuity of several Millennia, there have understandably been and still are countless different forms of the performing arts. Many of the basic elements of Chinese theater, i.e. poetry, music, dance, and martial arts, are known to have flourished already during the first Millennium B.C. By approximately A.D. 1000 these early genres intermingled with each other and evolved towards a sung theater form with fixed role categories. It was characterised by a tendency to combine dance-like movements and also sometimes movements from the martial arts with sung text. So in the West it is usually called Chinese “opera”. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Kunqu, Yueju and Peking opera have been selected as a UNESCO intangible cultural asset. Westerners usually find that about an hour of Chinese Opera is enough. The costumes, the acrobatics and the atmosphere are interesting but the music and singing becomes tedious and irksome after a short while. The Chinese in the audience often eat meals, breast feed their children, spit and hack, and listen the radio while observing the opera. The younger generation in China has little interest in Chinese opera, which these days is performed mainly in a shortened form for old people and yawning tourists. Few young people are familiar with the symbols and stories that are essential to understanding operas and most young people don't like the strange falsetto singing style. One young man attending a Peking Opera told the New York Times, "That screaming stuff” I can't believe people like that."

Websites and Sources: Chinese Opera Wikipedia article on Chinese Opera Wikipedia ; Beijing Opera Masks ; Literature: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC); Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site ; English Translation PDF File ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project

Characteristics of Chinese Opera

Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Chinese opera performances are elaborate and highly stylized, involving acrobatic movements and intricate makeup and costumes. The subject matter is usually historical, and the language is archaic. Opera is not an entertainment only for the elite; it is often performed in the marketplace for a few pennies a ticket. [Source:Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “Chinese operas are accompanied by traditional musical instruments like the lute, the gong and the erhu. During the opera, actors present unique melodies and dialogues which are beautifully written and of high literary value. Combining the music, dialogue, costumes and symbolic head and body movements, Chinese opera has layers of meaning that enthusiasts delight in. For example, designs are painted on the performer’s face to symbolise personality, role and fate. A red face generally represents loyalty and bravery, a black face represents valor, yellow and white faces represent duplicity, and golden and silver faces represent mystery. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

In Beijing Opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting. The acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is divided into recitative and Beijing colloquial speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. Character roles are strictly defined. The traditional repertoire of Beijing Opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles. [Source: Library of Congress]

History of Theater and Opera in China

Chinese opera, Greece tragedy and and Indian Sanskrit Opera are the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world. China’s first official opera school was established the in the Tang Dynasty the Emperor Taizong (ruled A.D. 626 to 649). The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) is considered the Golden Ager of Chinese opera. At that time the Imperial court and scholar-official class encourages its development as a traditional art form along with poetry, calligraphy and poetry. . During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Chinese opera became fashionable among ordinary people. Performances have traditionally been in tea-rooms, restaurants and around makeshift stages. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote:“In a giant country like China with its cultural continuity of several Millennia, there have understandably been and still are countless different forms of the performing arts. Many of the basic elements of Chinese theater, i.e. poetry, music, dance, and martial arts, are known to have flourished already during the first Millennium B.C. By approximately A.D. 1000 these early genres intermingled with each other and evolved towards a sung theater form with fixed role categories. It was characterised by a tendency to combine dance-like movements and also sometimes movements from the martial arts with sung text. So in the West it is usually called Chinese “opera”. In the A.D. early centuries play scripts were written. In the beginning they were based on an oral story-telling tradition and didactic Buddhist stories (bianwen). These archaic “dramas” heralded the rich tradition of Chinese drama literature with its heydays in the Yuan (Yüan) dynasty (1279–1368) and the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

By the A.D. 6th century pantomime dances were being performed in dynastic courts. Regarded as the precursors of Chinese theater, they blended stories, songs and dances. The performers wore masks or painted their faces. Early pieces from this genre include a performance based on the legend of Prince Lan Ling and a dance hall-style farce about a drunken wastrel called The Swinging Wife. One of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, Ping tang (literally "words and song"), comes from the ancient city of Suzhou. It features men playing mandolin-like instruments and women singing and reciting ancient stories of love and betrayal "with much wringing of hands, shrill exchanges and appeals to heaven."

Evolving out of comic and balladic tradition from the Song Dynasty, Chinese Opera has a continuous history of at least 900 years. The colorful make-up and costumes, loud percussion and ear-slitting shriek singing of Chinese opera all date to a time when the art was performed outside at open-air markets and temple courtyards and the performers had be able to project themselves above the crowd noises. In the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) the formal four-act structure and the standardized role system of Chinese drama was developed. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) wealthy families supported their own theatrical troupe for their entertainment of themselves and their extended families.

“In different parts of China local opera forms evolved with their own characteristic dialects and types of melody. A division into two major cultural regions, the northern and the southern, occurred around 1000 AD, which led to a kind of competition between the northern and the southern operatic styles. It was the southern kunqu or Kun Opera (K’un-ch’ü) which regained the status of a “national” style among the educated elite during the 16th and 17th centuries. The status was inherited in the middle of the Qing dynasty (Ch’ing) (1644–1911) by a new, more popular form of opera, the Peking Opera. **

“The western impact started to be felt in theatrical life in the Republic of China (1912–1949). During the early periods of the People’s Republic (1949–) traditional opera was still performed, although the emphasis was on its didactic use and propaganda value. “In the early years of the People's Republic, the development of Beijing Opera was encouraged; many new operas on historical and modern themes were written, and earlier operas continued to be performed. As a popular art form, opera has usually been the first of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. In the mid-1950s, for example, it was the first to benefit under the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Similarly, the attack in November 1965 on Beijing deputy mayor Wu Han and his historical play, "Hai Rui's Dismissal from Office," signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) all traditional arts were banned and a new form of theater was created and propagated by the Communist Party. It was the Revolutionary Model Opera. During the Cultural Revolution, most opera troupes were disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all operas except the eight "model operas" approved by Jiang Qing and her associates were banned. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Beijing Opera enjoyed a revival and continued to be a very popular form of entertainment both in theaters and on television. After the Cultural Revolution traditional theater forms were revived and now China has an abundance of theatrical forms, starting from Kun and Peking Operas to hundreds of local opera forms, to spoken theater and to western-style opera and ballet groups, as well as, more recently, to experimental theater and dance.” **

See Separate Article on the History of Chinese Theater and Opera.

Early History of Chinese Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “As elsewhere in the world, it is also in China that the origins of the theatrical arts seem to lie in early religious rituals, in China most probably in shamanistic rites. China has always been an exceptionally history-conscious culture with a long continuity, and the Chinese system of writing was invented very early. Thus it is no wonder that a relatively substantial amount of written evidence of the theatrical tradition exists from the early periods. It gives enlightening, yet fragmentary, information about the development of early performance traditions. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

It is known that during the Shang dynasty (c. 1766–1066 BC) hunting dances as well as dances imitating animals were performed. As has been already discussed on several occasions, the dances imitating animals and employing the so-called “animal movements” have been common in most cultures. In fact, animal movements still form an integral part of many martial art, dance and theater traditions today. ** The so-called chorus dances were popular during the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (c. 1066–221 BC). They were divided into two groups: wu dances performed by men and xi (hsi) dances performed by women. Besides religious rituals, there were less ceremonial types of performances, such as comic numbers performed by clowns and dwarfs as well as displays of acrobatic skills. **

Martial art demonstrations or shows were popular and, as elsewhere in Asia, in China, too, many of the movements employed by dances originated from the martial art techniques. It seems most probable that the early martial art systems formed the basis from which the rich tradition of Chinese martial operas and their acrobatic fighting scenes as well as the 20th century gongfu (kung-fu) movies later developed.

Baixi or “A Hundred Entertainments”

Before the beginning of our era it was customary at the court and at public festivities to organise grand-scale spectacles called baixi (pai-shi) or a hundred entertainments or hundred games circus. They were kinds of variety shows featuring mimes, jugglers, magicians, acrobats, song, musical recitals, and martial art demonstrations. They also featured dancing girls wearing dresses with long, fluttering silk sleeves. Their dances may have been the predecessors of later opera scenes, in which female characters elegantly operate their extra long white silk sleeves, the so-called “water sleeves”. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Besides the textual sources, there exists a great deal of visual evidence of early theatrical forms. Contemporaneous terracotta tomb statuettes include hundreds of lively depictions of different kinds of performers. They show mime actors, acrobats, jugglers, musicians, sometimes even whole orchestras, and, of course, dancing girls with their flying sleeves. These female statuettes seem to indicate that the aesthetics of female dances in China, which is dominated still today by linear beauty created by sleeves, ribbons and scarves undulating in the air, has an extensive history indeed. **

Tang Dynasty (618–907) Theater

The Tang dynasty is often regarded as the classical period of Chinese civilization. It was a relatively peaceful phase in Chinese history. Literature, the visual arts, and music flourished and the theatrical arts were evolving towards their present forms. The most influential capital of the dynasty was Changan (C’hang-an) (currently Xi’an, Hsi-an) in Central China. During the Tang dynasty it was the world’s biggest metropolis. A vast network of caravan routes, generally known as the Silk Road, connected Changan with Central Asia, India, Persia and finally with the Mediterranean world. The influence of Tang culture spread to Korea as well as to Japan, where two of its capitals, Nara and Kyoto, were built according to the city plan of Changan. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Earlier theatrical forms were further developed during the Tang period. However, the traditional ceremonial chorus dances with their large orchestras were also performed. Their stories included, among others, earlier play scripts, such as Mask and The Dancing, Singing Wife. Perhaps echoes of these kinds of ceremonial performances can still be captured in the Japanese bugaku court dances. Acrobats, jugglers and clowns, on the other hand, entertained the audience in the less serious spectacles, as had been the case in the earlier baixi or hundred entertainments shows. **

The spectacles could reach megalomaniac proportions. Literary sources mention a performance organised in the 7th century in honour of a Turkish embassy from Central Asia. There were some 30 000 spectators. On the stage, which covered a square kilometre, acrobats, magicians and dancers demonstrated their skills. There were even grander shows. Literary sources mention a festivity with 18 000 performers and, it was told, the accompanying music was heard kilometers away. **

With its keen interest in other cultures, the Tang court received musicians and performing arts groups from many regions. Several terracotta statuettes show Central Asian performers and the court annals record visitors from even farther away. Southeast-Asian groups were popular and it is known that performances by a Pyu group from present-day Myanmar was greatly appreciated at the court in the 7th century. At approximately the same time a group of Champa dancers, from present-day Vietnam, was employed at court. **

Indian music was said to have accompanied a grand-scale court dance performance called Costumes decorated with feathers of the colours of the rainbow. The graceful swings and spins of the colourfully dressed dancers were greatly applauded by the court annalists. More serious scholars, however, had a critical attitude towards these kinds of mass spectacles. **

The scholarly audience preferred intimate performances with artistic refinement. Dances were divided into two groups, energetic jian (chien) dances and softer ruan (juan) dances. The dances of the former group were often based on the martial arts or the traditions of foreign nations and they were frequently performed by male dancers. The soft ruan dances were performed by female dancers and these small-scale performances often took place at the intimate parties of connoisseurs. **

Fusion of Singing, Lyrics and Prose in the Tang Period (618-907)

The merging together of several literary forms such as lyrics and colloquial language seems to have happened for the first time in the didactic Buddhist stories introduced by Buddhist monks in connection with their missionary work. Verses were combined with colloquial prose in order that the ordinary audience could fully comprehend the morality of the stories. The monks, who were the storytellers, employed different devices to visualise their stories, such as picture rolls or panels, a tradition with its roots in early India, from where Buddhism was adopted. Emperor Ming Huang and the School of the Pear Garden. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

One of the most illustrious emperors of the Tang dynasty was the emperor Ming Huang (who was called Xuanzong (Hsüan-tsang) when he came to power, 712–756). He was an active patron of the arts. At his court he had several orchestras, dancers and actors including Central Asian artists. **

From the beginning of the Tang dynasty it was customary to have two state offices for administering the training of performers needed in official rites and ceremonies. In addition to these two offices, Ming Huang founded a third school, which trained musicians, dancers and actors. It is generally regarded as the first “theater school” in the history of China, although in reality it probably concentrated on Buddhist ceremonies. According to tradition emperor conceived this idea from a dream he had had in which he visited the moon, where he saw performances of heavenly musicians and dancers. **

The school got its poetic name Liyuan (li-yüan) or the Pear Garden from the location in which it was established in the palace grounds. Even today actors and actresses may call themselves “the children of Pear Garden”. At the school, it is said, the training was occasionally overseen by the Emperor himself. Ming Huang is still today regarded as a kind of patron god or spirit of the art of theater and his small portrait was often placed at the lower part of the stage, in front of the audience. **

Besides the emperor Ming Huang, his dear concubine Yang Guifei (Yang Kuei-fei) is also immortalised by Chinese literature and theater. The Emperor’s love for her, which nearly caused the collapse of the whole empire, is the subject of many poems and plays. Their tragic love is described in a 17th century play called Changsheng dian (Ch’ang-sheng tien) or The Palace of Eternal Love. **

Another side of the concubine’s personality is portrayed in a popular drama script called Guifei zui jiu (Kuei-fei chui chiu) or The Drunken Concubine. It relates the events of an evening when the Emperor leaves Guifei alone in order to have an encounter with another girl. The angry Guifei consoles herself by drinking and the play concentrates on describing the different stages of her drunkenness. **

In the turmoil of Chinese history, the Tang dynasty shimmers as a kind of lost Golden Age. It was a period when China was exceptionally open to outside influences. Many forms of Chinese culture, such as poetry, music and painting, produced masterpieces still regarded as classics. As has been discussed above, theater and dance also flourished. Ming Huang founded his theater school, adjutant plays experimented with fixed role categories, and, according to some scholars, Chinese dance had already attained its quintessential characteristics. **

Chinese Opera Takes Shape in Tea Houses of the Song Dynasty (960–1279)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: After the Tang dynasty the empire split into several smaller states. A new cultural renaissance took place from c. 1000 onwards when the Song dynasty rose to power. At the beginning of the dynasty the capital was Kaifeng in the middle regions of the country, some 500 kilometers to the east of the earlier Tang capital, Changan. Later, because of enemy attacks, a new capital, Hangzhou (Hang-chou), was founded in the south-eastern coastal area. The period was politically unstable. However, many kinds of art, such as ceramics, painting, calligraphy and poetry, attained their classical forms. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Many of the Tang period theatrical traditions were continued. Most of the information we have from the Tang period focused on the court practices. From the Song period, however, much information is available concerning public performances. Maybe because of the impoverished court, the entertainers were obliged to find their audiences from among the growing merchant and handicraft population. In both Song period capitals, in northern Kaifeng and in southern Hangzhou, there were large entertainment or “red light” districts (wazi, wa-tzû) offering any kinds of amusements. In the theater houses and in the teahouses it was possible to see mimes, dance spectacles, acrobatics, circuses with animals, and magic shows. Prostitutes lured customers by singing and dancing, and the alleys were lined with fortune-tellers and street musicians. **

The popular repertory included several dances reflecting the traditions of foreign cultures and earlier times. They encompassed powerful male dances related to the martial arts, popular drum dances, and numbers imitating animals, such as butterflies and peacocks. Dancing lions appeared on the streets during festivals. Ordinary people enjoyed the shows of yangge (yang-ke) village music groups. Their performances featured familiar stock characters such as monks, young scholars and sturdy villagers. Female dancers added their gracefulness to these shows, which were, more or less, improvised kinds of commedia dell’arte.

At court the performing traditions inherited from the Tang court were continued, although on a reduced scale. Adjutant plays were still popular and the most spectacular dance performances could almost evoke those of the Tang period and the smaller-scale performances gave pleasure even to connoisseurs. The process of merging together different forms of performing arts intensified further and resulted in theatrical genres, which had already many of the distinguishing features of later Chinese opera. **

Zaju, an Early Form of Opera from the Song Period (960-1279)

During the Song period, a new form of theater was born. It was zaju (tsa-chü), which combined drama, music and dance. It gradually evolved into two forms, the southern and the northern. The northern one, characterised by its string accompaniment, continued to be performed for a longer period. A performance started with a music and dance “prelude”, after which the actual dramatic action followed. It combined acting, speech, declamation and singing. The show ended with a comic number and instrumental music. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

No complete Song zaju scripts exist today, although it is known that there once were hundreds of them. Some of them were, however, assimilated into some of the later theater forms. Certain stock characters of zaju had their roots in the clowns of the earlier adjutant plays, but the gallery of characters expanded further. Instead of two characters, several actors performed on stage. The male lead was called moni, and a kind of narrator or the primus motor of the play was called yinzi (yin-tzü). An actor who could play officials and female roles was called zhuanggu (chuang-ku). The characters derived from earlier adjutant plays were the clowns with painted faces, fujing (fu-ching) and fumo (fu-mo). **

The stories covered a wide range and featured ghosts or heroes and villains of ancient times, who made their dramatic entrance onto the stage in their elaborate costumes. Love stories were also popular. Many of the plots were loosely based on earlier story material, such as religious or historical legends, and stories about the supernatural. The plots often involved a young scholar who was forced to leave for the capital to attend the imperial examination. Young lovers are separated and they have to go through many hardships and adventures – a basic theme for countless later operas. **

Nanxi, Early Southern Opera, and the Earliest Play Script

In 1125 the northern Song capital, Kaifeng, was conquered and the Emperor was captured. Part of the court fled to the south, where a new capital, Hangzhou, was founded in 1138. The southern regions had their own local drama form, called nanxi (nan-shi), which combined indigenous dialect and melodies with mime and dance numbers. Nanxi was popular in southern parts of China from the 11th to the 15th centuries. Some twenty nanxi scripts exist today and almost three hundred titles of plays are known. The stories were more or less similar to those of the northern zaju plays. The play started with a spoken introduction while the number of acts varied. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Top Graduate Zhang Xie, Zhang Xie zhuangyuan (Chang Hsieh chuang-yüan) is so far the earliest known complete Chinese play script (synopsis). It represents the nanxi style and it was written in the city of Wenzhou (Wen-chou) in the south-eastern coastal region in the middle of the 13th century. It recounts the hardships and cruelty of a young selfish scholar who is determined to attend the imperial examination in the capital. According to the nanxi convention the play was performed by seven actors, all of them specialised in their own particular types of role. **

The male lead, called sheng, acts the role of the selfish scholar, Zhang Xie. The female lead is called dan. She plays the role of the poor orphan girl, who becomes the first wife of Zhang Xie. The clown character or chou, distinguished by his make-up, a white patch round the nose and eyes, appears, for example, in the roles of a fortune-teller, a villain, a servant god, and the Prime Minister. **

The role category, which is distinguished by its extremely stylised and usually colourful make-up, is called jing or painted face. In this play the jing actor appears in the roles of a friend of Zhang Xie, the mountain god, an elderly lady, and a prison guard. An actor of the mo type acts as a kind of master of ceremonies introducing the play and the main actors to the audience. Furthermore, he is seen in several minor roles. The supporting female actor, tie, plays the role of the Prime Minister’s daughter, who becomes Zhang Xie’s second wife. A second supporting female actor, wai, plays the role of the Prime Minister’s wife. **

Seven actors in all are seen in the eighteen different roles. Acting styles vary according to the character portrayed. The sung “arias” and the spoken dialogue as well as the stylised dance-like movements, postures and gestures are all accompanied by music while the orchestra is present on the stage all the time. **

The music of the northern zaju was dominated by its quick and rhythmic accompaniment, whereas the music of nanxi was softer, characterised by its lyrical, lingering melodies. The music of the present opera styles, of course, differs from the music of zaju and nanxi; however, this regional stylistic difference is still very much the same. The northern style is usually quicker and more accentuated, while the southern style is generally softer and more lyrical in character. **

Heyday of Chinese Drama Literature in the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1369)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Northern China was under the dominance of the Mongol warlike nomad-civilization from c. 1215 onwards, and the whole country came under Mongol rule in 1279. During this new dynasty, the Yuan (Yüan), the Chinese themselves became despised in their own country. Lowest was the status of the inhabitants of the regions south of the Yangzi River, although the region had been both economically and culturally very important. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The institution of imperial examinations for scholar-officials, so crucial for the administration and cultural life of the empire, was abolished. Thus the scholar officials could no longer participate in the country’s affairs. In former times the Confucian literati formed the elite, but now they were regarded as one class lower than prostitutes and only a grade higher than beggars. The foundation of Chinese society was shaking. **

Many of the frustrated scholar-officials focused their energy on the arts. The theatrical styles shaped in the Song dynasty became extremely popular. Through the theater one was able to explore matters common to all: the cruelty of the conquerors, the tragedies of the war, the separation of families or lovers etc. While reflecting the collective sentiments, theater was able to serve as a form of passive resistance. **

Censorship was, however, merciless. In order to avoid the death penalty, which was the result of any kind of direct criticism, the writers turned for their material to old stories from the country’s long history or to popular legends and to early, simple plays. The underlying message was, however, clear to their audiences. **

The scholar-writers of the Yuan dynasty created high-quality dramatic literature, which is still regarded as classic and is still performed in various later styles. They are shorter than the earlier zaju plays. They usually consist of four acts and sometimes kinds of “prologues” or “interludes”, which, however, form an integral part of the whole. More role categories were employed by the Yuan dramas than the earlier zaju and nanxi traditions. **

They include: 1) Mo, or male characters: a) zhengmo (cheng-mo), singing male lead; b) fumo (fu-mo), supporting male character; c) xiaomo (hsiao-mo), young man; and c) chongmo (ch’hung-mo), a kind of narrator or a master of ceremonies. 2) Dan (tan), or female roles: a) zhengdan (cheng-tan), singing female lead; b) fudan, waidan, tiedan (fu-tan, wai-tan, ti’eh-tan), supporting female characters; c) laodan (lao-tan), old female character; d) xiaodan (hsiao-tan), young woman; e) huadan (hua-tan), coquette female character; f) chadan (ch’a-tan), intriguer. 3) Others: a) jing (ching), evil or comic characters; b) za (tsa), supporting minor characters, such as servants, crooks or children. **

An early 14th century temple mural shows a troupe of actors from the Yuan period. The stage has a silken back curtain and the actors wear handsome costumes reflecting their social status. The costumes are, however, not as pompous as the later Peking Opera costumes. The mural also depicts musicians among the actors, a flautist and a percussionist with his clappers. **

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The region south of the Yangzi River, Jiangnan (Chieng-nan), maintained its importance as a cultural centre. It was not only a centre of the arts and passive resistance; it was there where a successful rebellion arose. It was led by a Buddhist monk, Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yüan-chang), who made the city of Nanjing (Nanking, Nan-ching) and its surroundings his stronghold. With his troops he marched up to the north and deported the last Mongol ruler from the country. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

This heralded the beginning of a new period, the Ming dynasty. Although foreign oppression was now over, it did not change the awkward situation of the scholars and artists. The liberator, Hongwu (Hung-wu), which was the name he was known by when he was the ruler, turned out be an unpredictable despot. During his time artists were in danger of losing their heads and scholars their tongues, if any critical remarks could be detected in their plays. It resulted in the phenomenon common in Chinese history: at the beginning of a new dynasty censorship of plays was meticulous, almost to the point of paranoia. **

During the Ming dynasty the Yuan zaju lost its popularity to the southern forms of operas. The quick and feverish music of the north gave a way to the soft southern melodies. Many regional opera forms evolved. Then, as well as now, the regional styles differed mainly in the dialects in which they are sung, and in their melodies. Otherwise they, more or less, share the same kind of basic aesthetics. **

The Suzhou (Su-chou) region became an important economic and cultural centre. By the Grand Canal system wealth was brought to this region with its large concentration of population and active communication with the outside world. It became a centre of fashion and set the standards for customs and taste throughout the rest of China. The region’s local kunshan (Kunshan qiang, Kun-shang ch’iang) opera style gained great popularity in the 16th century. **

Wei Liangfu , who was a composer and a singer, concentrated on a renewal of the Kunshan Style. He created a new musical style, which was regarded as “the most melodious and romantic since the Tang period”. Its leading instrument was a bamboo flute, whereas the northern styles were dominated by string instruments. **

Kunqu, The Oldest Form of Chinese Opera Still Performed

The new form of opera, fashioned by the composer and singer Wei Liangfu, is kunqu (kun-ch’ü). It is the oldest form of Chinese opera still being performed. The music has a strongly plaintive quality. With its flowing melodies and soft and supple note of the bamboo flute, it is a typically southern style of opera. Its singing is characterized by its long notes and elaborated ornamentation. It is said that the general effect of kunqu music is that of “undulating waves”. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

During the Ming dynasty kunqu emerged as the most popular and most patronised of the many theatrical forms and it retained its national dominance until the 19th century. It was patronised particularly by the educated elite, the scholar-officials and the literati. The acting technique is most demanding, since the delicate singing is combined with constant dance-like movements. Because of the complexity of both its language and acting technique, the educated courtesan actresses, trained in several arts, dominated the kunqu stage for a long time. **

The complex imagery of classical poetry and the need for increasingly ornate language and music led to longer plays. The appreciation of this kind of art form naturally demanded a great deal from the audience, too. The dialect used was the Suzhou dialect, a local dialect of Chinese, which was not understood universally in China. The increasing sophistication and the use of local dialect were the factors that led to the gradual unpopularity of kunqu in the early 19th century, when a new and more popular form of opera, the Peking Opera, gained a wider audience in northern China. **

The so-called Taiping (T’ai-p’ing) Rebellion in the mid-19th century isolated the southern region, which had traditionally been the stronghold of kunqu. The kunqu, already in decline, never regained its former status while the northern Peking Opera replaced it in popularity. The pattern of dramatic construction and expression developed through the kunqu were carried over into the Peking Opera, although this new style was devised for different, less sophisticated audiences. **

In the 1920s and 1930s the famous Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang, together with a kunqu scholar, established a society to revive the kunqu. Different attempts had been made in this direction for decades. In connection with this revival a northern kunqu troupe was founded, and its style was called beikun. At the time of writing this material, the beikun theater has declined to some kind of semi-kunqu, semi-Peking Opera style, struggling to survive among other theater forms in Beijing. **

The southern kunqu style was called nankun. South Chinese nankun groups can be found, for example, in Shanghai and in Nanking, the latter one probably representing the most authentic kunqu style at the moment. For generations many have been afraid that this unique opera form will completely decline and disappear. In 2001 it was, however, included in the UNESCO List of Outstanding Examples of the World’s Intangible Heritage, and a stylised kunqu scene was one of the highlights of the giant opening show of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, broadcast all over the world. **

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.