EARLY HISTORY OF THEATER IN CHINA

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. **

Early Chinese Plays

Early dramas combined mime, stylised movement and a chorus. The chorus described the action which was enacted by dancer-actors. A play called Daimian (tai-mien) or Mask tells about a prince whose features were so soft that he was obliged to wear a terrifying mask in battle in order to scare the enemy. Later, in the Tang (T’ang) (618–907) period the play also found its way to Japan. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

A play called Tayao niang (t’a-yao niang) or The Dancing, Singing Wife comes from the 6th century AD and is a story about domestic violence. The husband is a drunkard, who beats his poor wife. Finally, however, he is punished for his misbehaviour. From Central Asia or even from India originates a dance play called Botou (Po-t’ou) or Head for head. It is about a youth whose father was killed by a tiger. The youth, in a white mourning costume, wanders a long way over the hills and through the valleys in search for the killer tiger. During his wanderings he sings eight songs and is finally able to avenge his father’s fate. **

The play scripts of those early dance plays, which also seem to combine sung passages, are now known mainly through sources from the Tang period (618–907). Studying them is a kind of detective work where textual sources are used side by side with visual ones. Possibly some of the characteristics of later Chinese operas can be traced back to these early plays. **

The fighting scenes appear to originate in the early martial arts systems, whereas the female movement vocabulary of later operas has retained the use of the long sleeves which dominate the female dancing tomb figurines. Even some of the themes of the early plays have continued to be essential for countless later operas, such as filial piety and other themes related to the feudal, ethical codes. **

As has already been mentioned, speculation about how the early plays were actually performed is based on textual and visual sources. No archaic theatrical forms exist anymore in China, where the communist regime consistently destroyed forms of culture that were regarded as feudalistic. If one would like to get an idea of the early Chinese forms of performance, one should, perhaps, turn to the neighbouring cultures of Korea and Japan, which have preserved traditions from early periods when they had close contacts with imperial China and were profoundly influenced by it. **

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. **

“Adjutant Plays” and Early Story Material in the Tang Period (618-907)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “At court a new form of entertainment gained popularity. It was the so-called canjun xi (ts’an-chün hsi) or the adjutant play, which probably evolved from earlier, more or less loose, clown and jester numbers. It consisted of short comic skits and featured two comic characters, a more or less dumb courtier, canjun (ts’an-chün), and a slightly cleverer character, canggu (ts’ang-ku). The “adjutant play” has been seen as a forerunner of the fixed role categories of later Chinese opera and particularly of its comic chou characters. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The Tang period was also the golden age for literature and many romantic stories. Buddhist legends and miracle stories were also popular. The Indian influence was strongly present, which is clearly indicated by the fact that a manuscript of the famous Indian Sanskrit play Sakuntala has been found in China. **

The influence of the Indian epic Ramayana can be traced in the stories about the beloved (and yet anarchistic) Sun Wukong (Sun Wu-k’ung) or the Monkey King. He is a central character in originally orally transmitted stories centred on the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), who travelled to India in order to obtain sacred Buddhist manuscripts. Later in the 16th century the stories were collected in a book called A Journey to the West, Xiyou ji (Hsi-yu chi), by Wu Chengen (Wu Ch’eng-en). The most colourful travelling companion of the monk Xuanzang is the Monkey King, who even today is the playful hero of many later operas, shadow and puppet plays, cartoons and animations. **

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. **

Famous Yuan Dynasty (1279–1369) Dramatists and Plays

The names of about a hundred Yuan dramatists have come down to us, and the titles of seven hundred plays are known. The flourish of Yuan drama centred mainly in North China and the then capital, Beijing. The Yuan plays were written to be sung and acted. The language used was mainly the vernacular of its day but the sung “arias” employed sophisticated lyrics. 171 complete Yuan dramas are known today. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The northern zaju was the style in which these four-act dramas were performed. The music also presented the Yuan zaju style, which unfortunately is lost. At the beginning, one of the supporting characters explained the plot to the audience, after which the leading actors appeared. Only the leading actors sang. Singing, acting, mime and drama merged together, forming an operatic whole. **

The most famous of the Yuan dramatists were “The Four Yuan-Period Masters”, Guan Hanqing (Kuan Han-ch’ing), Ma Zhiyan (Ma Chih-yüan), Bai Pu (Pai P’u), and Zheng Guangzun (Cheng Kuan-tsun). The earliest of them, Guan Hanqing, is regarded as the “Father of Chinese Dramatic Literature”. Another important Yuan period dramatist was Wang Shifu (Wang Shih-fu), who wrote the famous Romance of the Western Chamber, Xixiang ji (Hsi-hsiang chi). **

Guang Hanqing or the “Father of Chinese Dramatic Literature” often portrayed in his crime stories, as did also other Yuan dramatists, mistreated prostitutes and beauties in distress. One of the most famous plays of this genre is Guan Hanqing’s Dou E yuan (Tou Eh yüan), The Injustice Experienced by Dou E or Snow in Midsummer. **

Most of the Yuan dramatists came, as mentioned, from the class of the scholar-officials. Bai Pu (1226–1306) was a son of an impoverished civil servant family. His best-known play is Wutong yu (Wu-t’ung yü) or Rain on the Pawlonia Tree. It tells the tragic story of the love of the Tang emperor Ming Huang and his concubine Yang Guifei amid the political intrigues and power play while the Tang dynasty was nearing its end. **

Besides historical stories, stories about the supernatural also often served as the material on which the Yuan dramas were based. One example of an early Taoist-inspired ghost opera is Qiannü lihun (Ch’ian-nü li-hun) or Ciannun sielu irtoaa ruumiista (synopsis). It was written by Zheng Guangzun (1280–1330) and is based on a story from the Tang period. Yuan dramatis could explore several story genres. Ma Zhiyuan is famous for his Taoist themes, but his well-known play Hangong qiu (Han-kung ch’iu) or Autumn in Han Palace, is based on an ancient, tragic love story with patriotic overtones (synopsis). It has been one of the most beloved Yuan dramas. **

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. **

An important early Ming-period dramatic script is Pipa ji (p’i-p’a chi) or The Story of the Lute by Gao Ming (Kao Ming) (1307–1370). It is about a youth who flees from his parents and his young wife to attend the imperial examination. After passing it successfully, he is forced to marry the daughter of a prominent minister. Back home the young scholar’s parents die during a famine. The wife dutifully takes care of their funeral rites, after which she heads for the capital in search of her husband. She carries with her the only possession she has, a lute. The minister’s daughter understands the love her husband feels for the girl and agrees to accept her into the household as a second wife. **

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. **

Kunqu Plays

The birth of kunqu was due to the close co-operation of musicians, such as Wei Liangfu, with talented play writers. Chinese is a tonal language, and thus when it is sung, its relationship with accompanying music is close and specific, an important phenomenon to be further discussed later. The tones, according to whether they are level, ascending, or first descending and then ascending, or descending in pitch, affect the actual meaning of the word and consequently create a kind of musical basis within the language itself. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The first writer who was able to create dramatic scripts and language matching the fashionable kunqu melodies was Tang Xianzu (T’ang Hsien-tsu) (1550–1617). As he was contemporaneous with Shakespeare he is sometimes called the “Shakespeare of China”. His works are regarded as the epitome of the dramatic literature of the Ming period. His plays are still praised for their harmonious structure, deep emotions and sophisticated style. **

His style is often called the “dreaming” Ming style. This is because of the so-called dream scenes, which were both his innovation and his trademark. Through these dream scenes or sequences, in which the leading character falls asleep, it was possible to make a character’s secret or unconscious hopes or fears visible. The most famous of these kinds of dream sequences is in Tang Xianzu’s most popular opera, The Peony Pavilion. **

In the play, a young lady falls asleep in a peony garden. In her dream she meets a young, handsome scholar and falls deeply in love with him. When she awakes and understands that everything was only a dream, she mourns herself to death. The effect of Tang Xianzu’s dream scenes were so moving that young female spectators, it is said, went out of their minds, and even committed suicide. Later, Tang Xianzu’s dream-scene technique was imitated by several less talented playwrights, and some of them substituted Tang Xianzu’s magical poetry with simple stage effects. **

Kunqu dramas are of a high literary standard and their poetic language is complex and not easy to understand for modern audiences. They employ the full scale of role categories developed in the earlier theatrical styles. They include the sheng or the male roles, the dan or the female roles, the chou or the comic roles, and the jing or the painted-face categories (with their numerous sub-categories, to be discussed in connection with the Peking Opera). **

The themes tended to be romantic and concerned which such things as lovers’ sorrows. Thus the leading characters in kunqu plays are often a young lady and a young scholar. This is not always the case. A play that is renowned for its dream sequence, called Spilling the Water in Front of a Horse, Maqian po shui (Ma-ch’ien p’o shui), recounts the story of an elderly, less successful scholar and the tragic end of his selfish and over-ambitious wife, played by an actress who has specialised in the coquette female characters, called hua tan (synopsis). **

One landmark in the revival process of kunqu was the performance of a play called Fifteen Strings of Cash, Shiwu guan (Shih-wu kuan) in Suzhou in 1957. The play had been seen performed as Peking opera, but in Suzhou it was again produced in the original kunqu style. Kunqu plays were very commonly adapted to the Peking Opera style, which had inherited so many elements from the earlier kunqu. **

A kunqu play that is also popular as Peking opera is Longing for Worldly Pleasures, which, in fact, had been adapted to the kunqu repertory from an even older southern style. It is a kind of monodrama for a virtuoso huadan actress who interprets the romantic longing of a young Buddhist nun. Another play, very popular both as kunqu opera and Peking opera, is The White Snake, Baishe zhuan (Paishe chuan). In the play, the spirit of a white snake turns into a young woman and marries a young pharmacist. A monk is determined to destroy the snake and her marriage. The white snake goes through numerous hardships and ends up by being locked up in the dungeon of a pagoda. **

The White Snake is exceptional as a kunqu, since it includes fighting scenes that employ movements from the martial arts. That was not common in the southern kunqu tradition, whereas the later Peking Opera makes full use of them. Before turning to the birth of northern Peking Opera, which gained the status of the national style after the kunqu, it is time to look at what kinds of operas were and still are performed in other regions of China. The play was created from an old story by Tian Han in the beginning of the 20th century. **

Peony Pavilion and the Peony in Chinese Literature

One of China’s most famous stories, “The Peony Pavilion”, written more than 400 years ago by the Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xiazu, is a love story that takes place within a dream: a woman falls asleep by a peony pavilion and dreams of a handsome scholar she has never met. Unable to find him in the real world she dies of a broken heart and ends up in the Underworld, where the strength of her desire convince the Infernal Judge to release her ghost back into the land of the living to marry the man of her dreams. Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “The story “tells you universal emotions and passions. People can understand how strongly the heroine fights to find love. Drama and novels developed from the same story-telling tradition in which the use of vernacular language is a prominent feature. The Peach Blossom Fan and the popular short stories collected in Lasting Words to Awaken the World and Pounding the Table in Amazement are other works that grew from this tradition.

In a review of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin, Sixiang Wang a PhD candidate at Columbia University wrote: “The peony has come to have a variety of associations in the East Asian literary tradition. Its luxurious petals have signaled wealth and beauty while its peculiar, seedless manner of reproduction has come to symbolize sterility and empty luxury. It has even come to represent political power as a symbol of China as a nation, arguably one of its dominant associations today. [Source: A review by Sixiang Wang PhD Candidate, East Asian Languages and Cultures; History-East Asia. Columbia of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin +++]

“Jeongsoo Shin gives an overview of the peony flower’s origins as a medicinal plant. Despite its connection with female allure in later literature, the flower, from a traditional horticultural perspective, possessed characteristics of both “male” and “female” plants. Understanding the peony’s origin as an androgynous, medical plant is essential for appreciating its subsequent emergence as a literary trope. Although it is difficult to establish exactly when the peony became a garden flower, its emergence in Tang China (618–907) as a significant literary trope was undoubtedly connected to its popular cultivation. New methods of cultivation produced varieties never before seen, and the peony’s chameleon-like ability to appear in different colors made it a “prodigy” among flowers. By the High Tang, through the poetry of Li Bo (701–762), the peony flower came to be intertwined with the tragic figure of Consort Yang on whom later writers blame the decline of the Tang, due to emperor Xuanzong’s (r. 712–756) singular attention to her. The flower thus emerged as a rather negative symbol, representing exuberance, luxury, and desire. +++

“Though its association with the court made it also a symbol of secular power, the flower enjoyed cultivation beyond the confines of the palace: Buddhist monasteries, among the locations famous for their flowers, sometimes supplied the imperial palace with peonies. Peony poetry took off in the late Tang in step with the development of peony as a fashionable commodity, and it was during this frenzy that the idiom “Guo se tian xiang”, which Shin translates as “reigning beauty and heavenly fragrance,” first came to be attached to the flower in the poems of Li Zhengfeng. What is curious, however, is that despite its feminine allure the peony also acquired the epithet, “king of one hundred flowers”, a term that in all likelihood originally applied to other flowers than the peony. +++

Later Shin “turns attention away from the poetry of the capital Chang’an to that of Luoyang, which emerged not only as a center for peony cultivation but a political and cultural center supplanting Chang’an amid the decline of the Tang. Here, the flower lost its connection with the Tang court per se, emerging as a symbol for “Chinese civilization”. Shin gives one poignant anecdote: as northern China was coming under the hegemony of the Northern Song (960–1127), southern kingdoms such as the Southern Han (917–971) held on to their independence. The people of the Southern Han were disdainful of the “Central States”. Proud of the jasmine flowers they cultivated, the southerners called them their “small southern vigor”. When the Han was conquered by the Song, the Han ruler was taken to Luoyang, only to be “terrified” by the size of the peony blossoms there, where, he was told, they were called “great northern victory”. Though the size of the peony blossoms may symbolize the power and strength of the “Central States,” others interpreted the “barren seeds in the large blossoms” to be indicative of “empty, superficial brilliance”. +++

“The flower found its way into the court politics of the early Song. Shin discusses the development of connoisseurship in terms of the political conflict between two courtiers, Qian Weiyan (962–1034) and Li Di (971–1047). While the latter was lauded for resisting the regency of the empress Dowager Liu, Qian was seen as currying favor with the powerful. Criticism of Qian’s “peony cultivation” was an oblique criticism of Qian’s political position. Qian’s protégé, however, the well-known early Song statesman Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) , not only refused to criticize his patron, he also celebrated the peony’s cultivation. His “Account of the Luoyang Peonies” elevated the peony above all other flowers, and the peonies of Luoyang above the flowers of all other regions. The way Ouyang explains the lusciousness of the peony’s blossoms, however, was in terms of a “disease of [its] original, vital energy”. He too saw the peony as a prodigy of nature, but one that was remarkable as a “concentration of beauty”. Its uncanny existence was for Ouyang not a vehicle for moral criticism; in Shin’s reading, Ouyang’s celebration of the aesthetics of peony cultivation was in fact a veiled political defense of his patron. +++

The horticultural dimension of the story helps reveals a separate set of concerns. Writing against what he believes to be the overemphasis of the peony as an embodiment or representation of “Chineseness,” which has “overshadowed other significant elements of the flower,” Shin has set out to give a more diverse reading of its valences within the Chinese literary tradition (p. 221). By bringing in the Korean literary context, he has pointed how the gendering of the peony as female cannot be taken for granted. Its “transgendering” was, then, a mechanism of “transculturation.” Elucidating the many ways in which the literary symbol of the peony has been deployed in politics. +++

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 December 2013


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