A Concise History of Theatre in Imperial China

by Stefan Kuzay

Chinese theatre and opera as we know them today only developed rather late in Chinese history, compared with the other genres of the acting profession. Nevertheless, their origins lie far back in the very early forms of religion and the first and simple forms of dance and play. Thus, as in the West, the opera and theatre of China are deeply rooted in the realms of both religion and the profane. Those who are tired of hearing that the Chinese invented practically everything earlier than the rest of the world will be dismayed to learn that Chinese drama already existed in all its characteristic features in the 12th century, while it took our culture several centuries more to produce its own variation of the genre.

Early Developments Formation of the elements of Chinese Drama

The earliest forms that can be related to acting are the Shang Dynasty court rituals. A set of professions had already been established between the 2nd and 1st millennium BC. The professions were those of priests, magicians and exorcists. They conducted rain dances, dances for hunting and warfare, the annual spiritual cleansing of the palace, the driving away of evil ghosts from graves, and also exorcisms. Such shamanistic dance rituals were accompanied by drums and flutes, and performed at all the courts of the pre-Han Dynasties.

Shamans and Rituals

Such Shamans of the earliest times were called wu. This character relates to a form of oracle-bone script which shows a human being, dressed for a ceremony, with feathers or yak tails hanging from both arms, which were probably meant to sway during a ritual dance. The semantic relation between the wu shamans and the dancing wu (another Chinese character which now has the meaning of dance and dancing) can be seen from the fact that both shaman and dance have their origin in the same Shang Dynasty pictograph.

Originally, the wu were, in fact, female shamans and not male shamans, while the term for their male colleagues was xi. In the oldest texts the wu appear far more often than the xi. Thus it is safe to assume that the beginnings of shamanism in China were female. Only in Zhou times was the term wu also applied to male shamans.

From Ritual to Performance

A big step forward in development lay in the separation of court music and dance in religious and secular forms. By and by, the distinction between performance and ritual disappeared. One example was the Great Nuo (Danuo). At this ritual the exorcists, as we have just heard, acted, sang and danced, wearing head-dresses, masks, costumes and probably face-painting. The most important roles that were performed were the Twelve Wild Beasts, meant to drive all demons away. Between 500 and 200 BC it became fashionable for the various courts of the feudal lords to employ artists for court entertainment, such as all popular kinds of performances, like music, acrobats, dance and others. Consequently, the court entertainment of this period rapidly developed into mainly different forms, while the ritual music of the state cult remained basically unchanged up to the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Early Influences and Baixi

From the Han Dynasty onwards the development of stage arts in China was, to a large extent, inspired by foreign cultures. Northern and Western influences spiced the traditions of Central and South China. Even a delegation from the Roman Orient, probably Syrians, came to the court at Luoyang. It all began with the expansion of the Han Empire (206 BC—220 AD), which brought about enormous changes for early Chinese dance and drama. In addition, the court entertainment was largely influenced by the popular music and games of the common people. This genre was called Baixi, the “One Hundred Games”. It contained a combination of all sorts of performing arts, both Han-Chinese and foreign. Among them were not only dances in the disguise of deities, demons and fierce animals, but also acrobatic skills like walking on the tightrope, balancing on poles and a variation of hazardous tricks with swords, daggers and spears.

Baixi remained extremely popular up to Tang times, though it constantly changed its form and content. The period between the two great dynasties Han and Tang saw the development from puppet plays, marionettes, mask dances and small plays to the first, easy, short impromptu sketches. These were, of course, still far from plays in the modern sense, but they were important for the development of Chinese drama, because it was here for the first time that a plot and clearly defined characters were used. One famous story was that of “Duke Huang of the Eastern Seas”, Donghai Huanggong, a satire against the magicians: There was once a person from Donghai called Huang Gong, who in his youth practiced magic arts and was able to drive away tigers. At his waist he carried a red knife and he bound his hair up with a dark red silk shawl. When he grew old he drank to excess, so that he was no longer able to repeat his earlier magic. One day a white tiger was seen on the east coast and Huang Gong took his red knife to kill him. But, as the story goes, his magic skills failed to work any longer and so he was killed by the tiger. It appears that this and similar stories were turned into a short dance or sketch and performed by groups of two or three people.

Gewu xiaoxi

The same category, though still another step forward, included the Small Plays of Dance and Song, the Gewu xiaoxi. They flourished mainly between the 4th and the 7th centuries, but were still performed in Tang times. In all those plays, dance combined a simple plot and probably an improvised text. The roles followed a fixed pattern and seem to have produced a kind of role type, like the female hero, the evil villain and the stupid country bumpkin. According to the descriptions of historical sources, some of the plays might have been a kind of slapstick sketch, which may well be counted among the direct ancestors of the drama.

Another important feature of foreign culture that quickly gained the favour of Chinese audiences was the Barbarian Dance, the Huwu. Later in Tang times the Hu barbarian frequently appeared as a popular figure in folk and court dances, but it was during the time between Han and Tang that he really became prominent.

Game Versus Play

The synthesis of different kinds of performance, like those of Baixi, sketch acting and acrobatics, might not have directly led to the birth of drama, but they have created an awareness of the possibilities of drama. In that context it is interesting to have a look at the Chinese terms for play and act. Originally, the words for “game” and “play” were identical: xi. This term stood for all sorts of entertainment, acrobatics and sport, down to children’s games. In that way it is comparable to the Latin word ludus, the Anglo-Saxon pleg, the English play and game, or the German word Spiel. A second terminus with the same meaning was ju. In later times it was combined with xi to create the Chinese word for “drama” xiju. But xiju does not at all imply a full-scale drama performance; it also refers to market-place or back-street performances. [s.a. Dolby 1976:4]

Influence from Sanskrit Drama

Yet another influential source (which presumably came from India) was one that has most probably encouraged the development of drama: together with Buddhism, Sanskrit Drama was introduced to China via the Silk Road. Sanskrit Drama was already fully developed in the first centuries AD, and it must have been known to the Chinese court at least in the Tang Dynasty.

Like all dynasties that had set out to reunify China, the Tang also went beyond the borders of the empire and vastly expanded their territory. The artists of this period made a great step forward not only in the adaptation of musical instruments and styles of the North and West, but also in foreign dance techniques. These, combined with the lyrics of Tang poetry, created a whole new range of song and music that was soon to be performed all over: at court, in the markets and especially in the famed wine houses of the capital, Chang’an.

Buddhist Influence

During the pre-Tang period with its various short-lived dynasties, the various courts did their best to surpass each other in splendor. Consequently, all the different sorts of actors and entertainers had much sought-after professions. Now, during the following centuries of stability and peace, the stable conditions again supported the creation of new forms of theatre. A vast body of extant literature gives a vivid impression of diversified and extravagant entertainments, as well as of religious dramatic activities. The most prominent of such activities were the Bianwen, the “transformation texts”, which appeared in approximately the 8th century. Bianwen were a new sort of texts, in which alternatively prose and song were used for the first time in Chinese drama. The aim was to propagate Buddhism to the common people and so the parts of direct speech and the dialogues were written in colloquial language. The verse parts were much regulated, consisting mainly of lines with seven syllables, more rarely with five or six. In contrast, the prose part followed no fixed rules, but reflected the rough vernacular language of the market places, obviously to attract the low-class audience. Bianwen fuelled the further development of real drama in that way so that their structure and language were, to a large extent, also used in the much later opera. The most famous example was the play Da Muqianlian mingjian jiumu bianwen, Mahamaudgalyayana’s Search for His Mother in Hell. This story relates the adventures of a faithful Buddhist that journeys down to hell to save the soul of his sinful mother.

Different forms of play start to emerge

One factor that can hardly be overestimated in the development of the arts was the Tang’s economic boom. The transfer of money and goods between the rich trade clans of all corners of China influenced the city-culture. In peaceful times, as a rule, money is earned more easily and people are ready to “waste” it more light-heartedly than in uncertain periods. The new wealth no doubt stimulated the building of tea and wine houses, and also the construction of whole pleasure districts and of establishments, where people came to enjoy plays and acts and other entertainments. The guild of actors and entertainers, who in normal years formed the lowest class and were much looked down upon, now saw their chances coming. They went for their share of the new prosperity, and they served the audience with ever new plays and acts.

Adjutant Play

The speciality of those plays was its use of a rough sense of humour, which was appreciated by all walks of life. Two or more actors per performance showed all kinds of satirical and comic themes, and they were very frequent and popular during the whole Tang period. A very popular example must have been the so-called Adjutant Play, the Canjunxi. It appeared during the 8th century, and it is known from references in Tang literature that it came very close to real acting in the theatre. The play was accompanied by woodwind instruments, strings and percussion. It relates the story of an official who has stolen a certain amount of silk from the tax funds. When he was arrested he was not punished but pardoned under one condition: From then on he had to appear at every banquet to confess his offence and be made a laughing stock by the actors of the palace. This soon turned into a play that was performed all over the country.

Role Categories

While the Gewu Xiaoxi first showed a distinct subdivision in scenes and role-like characters, the Adjutant Plays went a step further: It was the first genre to use role categories. Such role categories, although they have changed their names and features since Tang, are one of the main characteristics of Chinese drama and one of the most distinct differences from Western drama and opera.

All in all, we can say that by the end of the Tang Dynasty the basic features of Chinese opera, as we know it today, were firmly established. The main difference from the later forms of drama is the lack of knowledge of authorship. It is unknown whether certain plays were composed, or whether, which is more probable, the majority of Tang plays were directly and spontaneously adopted from folklore traditions like storytelling and ballads.

First Theatre School

The main big step forward in Chinese stage-art was the founding of the first school of entertaining arts — a first sort of drama school by emperor Xuanzong (713—756). In the year 714 Xuanzong, better known by his canonical name Minghuang, initiated the famous Liyuan, the Pear Garden Academy. Here, in the heart of the Tang capital Chang’an, the roots of professional Chinese theatre with all its variations and traditions lay. The main subjects taught at the academy were singing, music and dance, and the tutors of the Pear Garden taught men and women alike. The term Pear Garden came to be the synonym for the acting profession in general, and also for the Chinese drama of later times. Accordingly, an actor would call himself a Liyuan dizi, an Apprentice of the Pear Garden. This title is widely used among actors even nowadays.

Minghuang’s greatest passion was his love of music and drama, which he shared with his favourite concubine, Yang Guifei, who was much engaged in song and dance. It is said that he himself used to play the role of the chou (clown), and even today the clown enjoys special respect and privileges. His merits in the tradition of Chinese stage arts are remembered up to the present day, and after his death Minghuang was duly canonized as the leading guarding patron deity of Chinese theatre, though in competition with a variety of other, more locally worshiped deities. Even today, offerings are presented in the xifang, the backroom behind the stage, in front of his portrait.

Boom of Entertainment

But the great era of Chinese drama was still to come: Between the 11th and 13th century the Chinese territory was divided between the non-Chinese house of Jin (1115—1234) and the Southern Song Dynasty (1027—1279). Even though the country was torn apart in military campaigns and the Chinese population suffered from the oppression of the Northern conquerors this period saw a large step forward in the development of theatre and related entertainments. It is known from a variety of texts that the courts of Liao (916—1125), Jin and Song provided a wide range of performances that entertained foreign ambassadors as well as the local community of the court.

If the Tang period was a time of growth for the entertainment profession in general, the Song period was equally important, especially for theatre culture. We have to imagine that theatre troupes performed at each market place, at each street corner and in every temple court. They all profited from the economic boom of the then biggest metropolises of the world. In cities like Linan (Hangzhou), Bianliang (Kaifeng) and Zhongdu (Peking) the traveler would find amusement quarters, called Washi, Tile Markets. These Washi contained multitudinous theatre tents or even solidly built theatre halls, which could take several hundred visitors. By the middle of the Song period many theatre names included the character lou, meaning a high-storied building, which indicates tower-like wooden constructions with several storeys and balconies, from which the audience would follow the events on the stage.

Zaju and Yuanben

The genre mainly performed then was an early sort of Zaju (Diversified Plays), containing short plays, storytelling, shadow-play, puppet-plays, and many more. It was broadly divided into Xiao Zaju, Minor Zaju and Da Zaju, Main Zaju, and also further into “supernatural Zaju” and “rake Zaju”. These labels hint at the contents of the plays: the former was most probably concerned with ghost stories, demons and gods, the latter with romance, sex and love stories.

The other important genre of that time was the Yuanben. The name itself means “textbooks of the brothels”, which might not have to be taken literally, yet it nevertheless gives an impression of the character of the entertainment quarters. The difference between Yuanben and Zaju seems to have been marginal, and referred mainly to the area in which they were most popular. Zaju was performed mainly in the South, while Yuanben enjoyed widespread popularity in the North.

From Song and Jin times an abundance of plays are known at least by name. Most early Zaju and Yuanben have been lost, but there are a small number of plays that survived in Yuan and Ming dramas (1368—1644) and in Ming novels. By the Song period all the components of Chinese drama were already in existence as established traditions: the telling of tales with drama-like plots, colloquial speech mixed with verse, recitation, dialogue, singing, chorus, musical accompaniment, background percussion, dance, acrobatics, slapstick, dressing up in costume and make-up, females impersonating men and males impersonating women. [s. Dolby 1976:15] The topics that were discussed onstage covered a wide range, from love stories to satires about officialdom and to dramas about ghosts, gods and demons. A full programme of Zaju usually contained the following:

  1. a musical prelude, dancing, and a little play as a curtain raiser,
  2. a brief sketch, or any other short item of acrobatics or dancing,
  3. the real performance: the Zaju-proper, or, in the North, a Yuanben play,
  4. the afterpiece: a comic sketch, like “A Country Pumpkin in Bianliang”,
  5. the musical round-off.

Role Types

One of the most important features of Chinese drama is the role types. Even from very early times, actors specialized in performing a certain type of character, like “the young hero” or “the elderly lady”. Once trained in their field they would go on to perform this role type for the rest of their acting career, trying to reach the utmost possible perfection. Only the most courageous and talented actors attempted to learn a second role type. An actor would often train his children in his role from a very early age, thus founding his/her own tradition and school. Families of actors that handed down their special skills from generation to generation were not uncommon. Such famous actor-clans have been living in Peking up to the present day, trying to keep up their time-honored tradition in the world of Gongfu movies and Karaoke.

During the different periods of Chinese theatre history the number of these role types varied strongly. Five role types were established in the plays of the Jin and Song periods, but every different theatre genre throughout history used its own number and titles of roles. Here are, just one example from dozens, the role types of Song Zaju and their functions: The main role was, officially, the male hero, called moni. This did not mean that he was also the most popular actor on the stage. Up to today the clown enjoys at least the same popularity among the audience. This was no different with Zaju and Yuanben. The clown, called fujing, had much sharper dialogues, and his acting was far more witty and entertaining. Equally important for the comedy was his partner, the fumo jester. The fumo could be easily recognized by his props: a kind of cudgel, which in the early days was a simple cucumber, but later a soft, leather-cushioned club. Further there was the zhuanggu, a Mandarin role, and a play leader, the yinxi, which spoke, for example, the prologue. For musical accompaniment just one flute player was employed: He provided an introductory part, rounded-off all musical functions and played a short postlude to “drive” the audience out of the premises. Out of these stage functionaries and roles all later role types were developed.

Southern Theatre

In the early 12th century a new form of theatre emerged, called Nanxi, the “southern plays”. Its antecedent was the Southern Song Zaju, while in the North the Jin Yuanben developed into the famous Yuan Zaju. The cradle of this new genre lay in the South of the Song empire, in Wenzhou, close to Ningbo, in Zhejiang province, and its main characteristic was not only that it used mainly southern language. The real novelty was that it combined the refined court music of the Song with traditional and local Zhejiang folk tunes. The base of the Nanxi tunes was the ci, a form that had derived from Tang and Song poetry, and that comprised a variety of poetic forms, rhyme patterns and tunes. In combination with the traditional and folk tunes it was now labelled Nanqu, “southern qu”. Later Ming sources describe Nanqu tunes as “meandering and slow, drawn-out endlessly, graceful, charming, seductively lilting, floating and drifting one away, so that one loses all firmness”. [Nanci xulu, quoted from Dolby 76: 74] All Nanxi plays laid special emphasis on the sung part, while acrobatics and acting were less important. Thus the label “Songplay” might describe the character of the “southern plays” better than our understanding of theatre and opera. The singing in the Nanxi did not follow as strict rules as later traditions of drama: the solo was as common as a duet and also singing in a chorus with three people or more was by no means a rare phenomenon. As a topic love stories strongly dominated the repertoire. Nanxi libretti consisted of prolonged sections of arias, in which lovers confessed to each other with all sentiment, and opened their hearts to the public. A tragic end was not uncommon, but so were satirical pieces and comedies.

The novelty of Nanxi did not lie with topic but in the form: Up to now no other dramatic genre in China had achieved such elaborated scripts or such complex and intricate storylines. For the first time writers of great literary talent created real masterpieces for the stage. Nevertheless not a single name of a Nanxi playwright has come down to us. All texts of that period are recorded as joint creations of anonymous Literary Societies (Shuhui) and mark the beginning of the extensive Opera literature of later times. Contemporary theatre enthusiasts clearly understood that they were to witness a new and exciting step in the history of Chinese literature, as they coined second name of Nanxi, which is Xiwen, play texts, literature of the theatre.

Form and First Librettos

As love stories made up the majority of Nanxi plays, the ideal hero and heroine were the main characters on stage. And because handsome, but somewhat bookworm-like scholars or beautiful and virtuous young ladies do generally carry a certain preset stock of features, the roles of the hero and heroine now turned into regular role types: The old set of five role types was enlarged to seven, and among them the main four role types, as they still exist today, appeared: sheng, dan, jing and chou, hero and heroine, plus two slapstick clowns.

The first Nanxi play that we have a complete libretto of is the “Top Graduate Zhang Xie”, Zhang Xie zhuangyuan. Like several other of the southern plays it is about a young scholar who sets off to the capital to take part in the palace examinations. Also like in various similar cases he leaves behind his young wife to look after his parents. And usually this young scholar soon is to forget his spouse to prove unfaithful. This is also the case in the “Top Graduate Zhang Xie”. When he emerges as the top candidate he forgets his companion of poorer days and marries the daughter of an influential minister. Not enough with leaving her in poverty and shame, he also attempts to kill her with his sword. But miraculously she survives his poor swordsmanship and after a few rather astonishing turns of the plot the two are reunited and live happily ever after — to the bewilderment of the incredulous audience. Similar Nanxi plays show a somewhat different result. There the evildoer is struck by lightning or haunted to death by the demon of his deceased spouse. If the plot of those plays seems strange or absurd to us, we have to keep in mind that they contain quite a portion of black humor. The two clowns and jesters served the audience with slapstick and they cracked jokes, but it is, rather, the subtle dry irony of the main roles that created wit and suspense. Still, the scholarly elite felt reserved about the Nanxi, namely owing to the folk elements. Though Nanxi contained more verse in the spoken parts and thus might have been on a higher poetic level than northern drama, the way in which it treated romance and love was too vulgar and in parts far too “outspoken”, that the rigid minded Confucian scholars could have admitted to enjoy watching it.


Though, musically, the Nanxi was probably the most developed of the early drama genres, it was initially rather limited in its range of topics. This was the main reason why in the middle of the 13th century, around 1270, Northern Drama, the Beiju, became predominant. Beiju had a wider choice of themes, as it drew from a vast variety of stories. Love stories stood for just a small part of its themes, and they were treated more delicately. Others were stories of the supernatural, of ghosts and gods, political and historic topics, and many more. Still, Nanxi continued to be performed throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, though on a smaller scale. If might well have declined to complete oblivion if it had not experienced a sudden and unexpected revival by 1360. It was not more than the appearance of one single but outstanding play, “The Lute”, Pipaji.Written by Gao Ming (1301—1370) it was based on one of the earliest Nanxi plays, “Zhao Chaste Maid”, which again tells the story of a young scholar, Cai Boxie, who leaves for the capital to take part in the palace examination. As in “Top Graduate Zhang Xie” (s.a.) he wins first place, immediately forgets his former fiancée and marries another woman. But his luck does not last long, as Heaven duly rewards his unfaithfulness and crushes him with a stroke of lightning. Gao Ming in his “Lute” was dismayed by the unfavorable light in which the young hero was shown. He set out to rescue the honor of that young scholar. In his story he is utterly innocent — a mere victim of circumstances. Shortly after his departure, a famine strikes Zhejiang. Though Zhao, the young wife he had left behind, does everything to save his parents, they die of hunger and misery, as no letter or other sign of life and support reaches them from the capital. But far from having forgotten his beloved ones at home, Cai Boxie sends money and letters home. But the wicked messenger does not deliver them. After many twists and turns, all misunderstandings are cleared up, the plot leads to a happy reunion of the loving couple in the capital and Cai Boxie ends up by living with his two virtuous wives in blissful harmony. “The Lute” made such a strong impression on the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang that he ordered it to be performed every single day in the Inner Palace. He further sent for Gao Ming to offer him a position at court. But the artist preferred his freedom to a promising but also perilous career among the society at the court. When the imperial messengers came he turned from script writer into actor: He performed “the poet turned mad” and thus avoided the unwelcome honors.

The Rise of Playwrights

Among all the periods of Chinese history it is doubtless the Yuan Dynasty (1271/80—1368) that most deserves to be called the zenith of Chinese Opera. During that period, drama, the famous Yuan Zaju, was the leading means of literary expression, outshining both poetry and the novel. What was also new was the fact that playwrights appeared. Authorship switched from anonymous Literary Societies, as were common for Nanxi plays, to individual personalities. The melodies and also the language were from the North. All texts, including the songs, used direct and clear language, and were easily understandable — even by an uneducated audience. This was in sharp difference to the elaborate way of singing and the highly poetic classical verse of the Nanxi.

One of the main reasons for the theatre boom in Yuan times was the political situation after the downfall of the Jin and Song Dynasties: China had always been the chief target and fiercest enemy of the Mongols, and it had resisted them bitterly. When Kublai Khan had finally completed the conquest of China, he thoroughly mistrusted all members of the former political elite. The political system of the Chinese empire rested on the ideals and rules of Confucianism, represented by the scholar class, supported by a set of examinations on all administrative levels and an educational system, unrivaled in East and West. On the way to wealth and power the average student had to pass these examinations, after which he would most probably be appointed to an official position. As the examination system was a symbol of the old order, and also because its function was to perpetuate it, the Mongolian rulers abolished it straight after founding the Yuan dynasty. Thus they abolished all regular opportunities of promotion to the higher circles. Unable to obtain official positions, large parts of the gentry became impoverished or had to choose a profession much below their status. Naturally, they and their families were the Mongols’ main adversaries. This negative attitude of the Mongolian ruling circles towards the Confucians and vice versa was an influential force that substantially supported the development of drama. Many scholars turned their creative energies from studying the classics to writing plays. All the centuries before that time, writing librettos for theatre troupes had been despised. But now, in these new circumstances, intellectuals were proud to show their literary skills in composing songs and texts for the opera. For many it was also the only way to at least limited success and income.

Political Control

One often reads the assumption that Yuan writers used drama to express patriotic spirit and to ridicule the Mongolian intruders. Quite a large group of plays do take great pleasure in describing various groups of foreigners as “barbarians” and as uncivilized. But one should not forget that the playwrights were professionals. It was their chief purpose to entertain, and making fun of other people does very often guarantee laughter. Only some relatively few dramas do use Mongolian terms or names, transcribed into Chinese, and can thus clearly be identified as political protest or satire. Other political statements could very well be later additions of the Ming editors, as the Ming government was also no paragon of democracy.

In contrast to all this antipathy the Mongols’ attitude to the theatre and all the entertaining arts was, nevertheless, more than positive: It is commonly known that artisans and actors were among the very few whose lives were spared when the Mongols conquered a besieged city. In times of peace they supported the acting profession in every possible way and also employed large theatre groups for their entertainment. Successful playwrights received donations, quite similar to the state scholarships of today, and the Mongols ordered their plays to be performed all over the provinces. Still, they kept in mind the fact that theatre in general has an immense potential of propaganda and agitation that could be readily used against them. One skillfully written play could easily arouse a rebellion against the foreign lords. Out of caution, the Mongolian government, but also all subsequent Chinese governments, kept close control of the theatre troupes and they took great pains to censor librettos if it seemed at all necessary. To support the troupes’ morals, the military was strictly prohibited from any singing and performing. According to a Yuan edict, the composing of songs was to be punished with the death penalty. Anyone hoping that the “civilized” emperors of the Han (Chinese) might have a more positive attitude was soon to learn better. In the year 1398 it was prohibited for the officers and soldiers of the capital to learn singing on pain of having their tongue cut out. Similarly, those who played football and backgammon risked their hands and feet being cut off. Furthermore, a ban was issued on performing the so-called throne plays — plays that were offensively familiar about emperors, sages and kings. Librettos had to be handed over and burnt. All those who had not done so within five days were to be executed, together with their entire clan. Such draconic penalties, though considered harsh even in their own days, were no empty threats. They have been duly carried out too. [s.a. Dolby 1976:77]

Yuan Zaju
The heyday of dramatists

The structure of Yuan Zaju followed a strict pattern. Each play was structured in no more then four main acts, called zhe. This is in stark contrast to Nanxi, where there could be as many acts as the author saw fit — from three to over forty. Each of these four main Zaju acts comprised prose parts and songs with qu-melodies. Quite a few of these melodies came from outside China or were taken from northern folk melodies. Sadly, these tunes have not been written down or must have been lost completely, as no Yuan music has survived to the present day. All we know is that they were generally for solo voices, and that the leading male and female roles were the only ones to sing. To regulate it further, only one of them would sing in any certain act. Some plays were even more extreme. There, only one leading role, male or female, sang throughout the play. The instrumentation was also rather simple. For the melody, instruments such as a dizi transverse flute and a pipa (four-stringed lute) were used. The rhythm section just consisted of the ban clapper and a drum.

Among the many names of Zaju authors that have come down to us, that of Guan Hanqing (1240 to ca 1320), a citizen of Dadu (Peking), is the most renowned, as he is called the inventor of Yuan Zaju. Though most of the necessary components already existed before his time, it was his genius that combined them into a completely new style of drama. Guan Hanqing was not only unusually talented, but also extremely productive. He wrote over sixty plays, and for them he drew from a vast fund of topics. Apart from romantic stories about concubines and courtesans, scholars and warriors, drunkards and ghosts, he also wrote a play on Judge Bao, the wise and strict judge and detective. This famous literary figure is derived from a historic person that had lived in Hefei/Anhui during the Song Dynasty. Judge Bao plays had been very popular, especially in Yuan Zaju, and also in Ming and Qing drama. The judge, of whom it was said that a smile on his face was as rare as a drop of clear water in the Yellow River, did not only bring justice to a world of corrupt maladministration, but he also solved criminal cases with intellect and courage. At times he would also maneuver himself into embarrassing situations, which no doubt only increased his popularity with the audiences. Judge Bao, fighting the treacherous officials and protecting the law, has to be counted among the most popular characters of Chinese drama.

But Guan Hanqing was also famous for strong female characters, as he showed a preference to choose women for the main roles of his plays. The most famous of them was doubtless the beautiful widow in the tragedy “Injustice done to Dou E”. In this play a vagrant tries to force a young and virtuous widow to marry him. To reach his goal he even poisons his father and threatens Dou E by blackmailing her, if she does not give her consent. She refuses to give in and only when her old mother-in-law is about to be tortured does she confess to the crime she has not committed. Before her execution she asks for a long white silken flag to be suspended from a pole. She prophesies that if she has been innocently decapitated her blood shall flow up the flag, snow will fall in summer and three years of drought will follow. All her prophecies come true. Finally, her father clears up the case and her soul is released to heaven.

Dominance of the Main Actress

The preference of Guan Hanqing for the dan role type reflected a distinct, special feature of Yuan drama: the dominant role of the main actress. Yuan and Ming literary sources contain many enthusiastic biographies about the actresses, but hardly any about the actors. The male audience adored the actresses, rich and influential men tried to win their favors, and ministers, generals, artists and playwrights all vied to win their hearts and even to marry. Not infrequently, they were also highly talented composers, poets and writers. Many of them had perfect memories. It was not uncommon for an acclaimed actress to paste the names of all the plays and arias of her repertoire along the walls and pillars of the theatre hall. There were sometimes several hundreds of them, and the audience could choose from them whichever title it liked. The same biographies also tell us the special skills of each artist, whether it was Zaju or often also Nanxi or Yuanben. The fact that these genres are mentioned in one breath shows evidently that they were contemporaries and that the line between them was all but strictly drawn. It is more than obvious from all sources available that similar eulogies do not exist of the Yuan actors. Among the many potential reasons may count that women could hardly visit theatre houses independently and turn devotees of certain talented or otherwise attractive actors. Though literacy among females was scarce before the Ming period, quite a few names and works of female writers of the Song and Yuan time are known. Still there is no evidence that female enthusiasts would have created a fan club for Zaju actors. Either the male artists failed to create a lasting impression on womankind, or it was simply not customary during that period to adore actors. Their time was still to come, but it had to wait another 500 years.

Kun Opera
And Local Opera Styles

The beginning of the Ming period saw the rise of new forms of drama, and the fall of others. Nanxi and Zaju traditions continued, though Zaju adopted many features of the Southern Plays; Southern music influenced the northern tunes, or was used alternatively in duets between loving couples. Duets were formerly unknown in the Northern tradition, but common in Nanxi. By and by, audiences looked less favourably on Zaju, and the Northern tunes disappeared from the stages. But though the Southern Drama enjoyed a new boom, it also experienced some alterations. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty it was called Chuanqi, “marvel tale”, or “tales of the weird”. “Chuanqi” was also the name of a genre of Tang novellas. The new Chuanqi blossomed in the transitional period between the Yuan and the Ming and developed in the 16th century again into a new style, the famous Kunqu.

With Ming Dynasty the great time of Local Operas, of difangxi had arrived. All over China different music styles developed, based on the local traditional folk songs and instrumental music. The most prominent among those local opera styles of the Ming was Kunqu. It originated from the area of Kunshan, near Suzhou, not far from the origins of the Nanxi. It is one of the very few styles that can be attributed to musicians that can be verified by historical sources: A small group of opera aficionados, specialized in the musical traditions of Jiangnan, as well as in the northern qu melodies of Jiangsu and in classical southern tunes. They were both virtuosi on all instruments, acclaimed singers and composers. This group chose some of the most promising elements from the Jiangnan styles and combined them with those of Yiyangqiang, a popular style from Jiangsu province. The result of this fusion was Kunshanqiang, soft and melodious, with a strong vigorous touch. The key instrument was the flute, only accompanied by a clapper. For a small-scale performance no other instruments were needed to accompany the singing, but for large performances a whole orchestra with practically all instruments of the time was employed, including traverse and end-blown flutes (dizi and xiao), sheng mouth organs and different types of plucked instruments like pipa. Altogether, they created smooth and delicate music. In combination with opera the term Kunqu was applied. Initially, Chuanqi was distinctly different to Kunqu, but when Chuanqi began to use mainly Kunqu-tunes for its accompaniment, the latter term was used for covering the combination of both traditions.

For the Educated or for the Masses

As Kunqu had originated in a blending of refined folk melodies and southern local tunes, it was designed as a theatre for the masses. Rapidly it won public favor, spread all over the Chinese provinces, and conquered even the hearts of the capricious capital audiences too. Thereby in a few decades it had developed into the leading drama form of Ming China. Having gained the patronage of the rich and noble Kunqu playwrights employed ever more elegant poetry which in combination with the highly refined music turned Kunqu away from the simple folks and into a regular kind of court opera. While the artistic level was unrivaled by any other kind of drama in this period such an elaborate aristocratic form had also its weaknesses. The major problem was doubtless that the average drama enthusiast that was not necessarily highly educated would not be able to follow the arias, using classical literary language. This had to alienate many of those that originally did admire the Kunshanqiang tunes and Kunqu in its early days. Furthermore the urge to write more and more sophisticated plays and to create the ultimate poetic language and literary form shifted the actual content of the plays into the background. Form had become more essential then matter. But this was not what the broad audience came to visit the theatre for. Formalized language and tunes could not substitute thrilling and moving plots. As a result people by and by turned away from Kunqu. For some decades of the later Ming period the former patrons of Kunqu, the wealthy salt merchants, the scholars and officials kept their private troupes and supported the actors. Finally even the courtiers, the emperors and highest dignities lost enthusiasm. The simple folks had by then long shifted to other forms of entertainment, leaving the higher classes to themselves. These new forms of drama were the Local Opera styles, called Difangxi. The common people loved its fresh and vigorous tunes, but the gentry and the scholar officials did initially not approve at all with the popularity of regional drama. No doubt the officials did no less enjoy Difangxi then everybody else, but as an educated person in public life it would have been outright impossible to admit it. Loss of face would have been the inevitable consequence. Nevertheless it took only several decades before also the gentry and the scholarly elite turned their back to the elegant Kunqu tradition. They disbanded the costly court opera troupes and rather employed local artists or itinerant troupes when they saw fit. For a long time it was only the court that stood firmly behind Kunqu, but towards the declining years of the dynasty even the palace deserted tradition. Now Manchu nobles enjoyed the newer forms of local drama just like any average citizen: The aristocratic Kunqu Opera dwindled away to almost complete oblivion. It did not disappear entirely form stage though: After its downfall it still developed into a Northern and a Southern style. As such it is still regularly performed — though on a smaller scale. The numbers of Kunqu enthusiasts has not been rising, but at least Kunqu has gained the label of UNESCO world cultural heritage. Since then official awareness has slightly increased and for many friends of beautiful music and elegant lyrics Kunqu still constitutes the climax of Chinese performing arts.

Rise of Local Operas

From the end of the Ming- to the beginning of the Qing period the many styles of Local Opera (Difangxi) spread rapidly. Its various traditions incorporated the most popular features of the earlier Zaju and Kunqu and combined them with own the newest and most current tunes. Accordingly Difangxi superseded all earlier forms of drama in terms of popularity and dominated Chinese theatre up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

By the end of the Qing Dynasty several hundreds of different styles of regional drama had developed throughout China. They varied in style, repertoire, language, dialects, in the art of acting and also in role types, but most of all in distribution. Some enjoyed wide spread popularity, being performed in many provinces, while the influence of others was restricted to a few mountain valleys only. Also in terms of musical traditions, tunes, instruments, libretti and singing styles they differed substantially. These differences resulted less from regional seclusion but rather from local clan traditions, being handed down from generation to generation.

Performances of regional operas were always largely dependent on local traditions in secluded areas. Until today they are often organized by clans or villages for annual festivities, religious festivals or celebrations of local historical events. Seldom clans or village heads command own local theatre troupes, though they exist too here and there in i.e. remote mountainous districts of Anhui or Jiangsu. Yet it is more common to rely on itinerant companies, which would visit the village each year at the same time, following the same route year by year and providing the communities with plays featuring local heroes and heroic or tragic events of the local past. Performances of three subsequent nights are quite usual and for the time of their stay the actors’ families live in temples and ancestral halls, sleeping and eating on the same stage they perform on in the evenings, before they finally fold up their requisites and travel on.

The Peking Opera
Creation of a long melting process

Among all the multitude of regional opera styles there was one to achieve national predominance and fame. Up to the present day Peking Opera is the most important of all forms of traditional Chinese theatre. It developed during the middle period of the Qing Dynasty and soon became the best known regional style. The Peking Opera is, in fact, nothing else but another regional opera. The difference from other Difangxi is that it did not develop out of a single regional tradition. Rather it was created by the merging of two different styles that happened to be performed at the same time in the same a city. The origin of Peking Opera, or Jingju, Capital Opera, can relatively precisely be dated to the period between 1780 and 1790. It was when the 70th birthday of Emperor Qianlong in 1779 was arranged that many different regionally famous opera troupes had been invited to come to Peking to perform before the Emperor. The festivities being over the troupes saw their chances to gain fame and riches in the vicinity of the court, instead of returning to the province. This first wave of regional troupes to the Northern Capital may be understood as a prelude to the birth of Peking drama. Ten years later, in the year 1790, the 80th birthday of Qianlong demanded again for the arrangement of splendor and entertainment. Like before the court invited a great number of theatre troupes from the surrounding provinces. By that time the Southern province of Anhui was home of the most successful and popular Difangxi. Though the new development of Chinese drama took place in Anhui the majority of the actors of these troupes originated from Jiangsu province, known since centuries as a hotbed for new and elegant opera styles. Once arrived in Peking the Anhui actors conquered the hearts of the high class capital opera enthusiasts with performances in two particular local musical styles: Erhuangqiang and Xipiqiang. Both styles were by no means brand new inventions to the stage. Erhuangqiang was a direct descendant of the equally melodious and vigorous Yiyangqiang from Jiangxi province. The actors of this form excelled especially in acrobatics. Over 150 years before it finally reached the capital under the new label of Erhuangqiang it had travelled from Jiangxi to most southern Chinese provinces, namely Anhui. Xipiqiang was one of the many variants of the Northern Clapper Opera (Bangziqiang), famous for its shrieking tunes and already for a long time very popular in the Northern plains.

From Local Opera to National Opera

These two separate traditions, once out of their natural habitat, quickly intermingled into a new style called Pihuangju. The combination of the features of them both became characteristic of Peking Opera and created the basis of the Peking Opera of today, and also of the opera styles of Canton, Hubei and other regions. And as this hybrid form was first performed in Peking on that occasion, the year 1790 has been commonly regarded as the birth of the Peking Opera.

After 1790 many other theatre troupes, mainly from the south, came into the capital. Among them it was the Anhui troupes again that seem to have achieved the greatest fame, as the new theatre development was labeled the Four Great Anhui Companies, a name that hinted at the four big stages that dominated the capital during the 19th century. Even in the 18th century the new opera was so popular that the emperor had it prohibited in the Inner Quarters of the palace, and for the military, as it speeded up the “degeneration” and “weakening” of the Manchu Banner men. But in spite of all the prohibitions the opera rose in popularity among the common people and the Manchu nobles alike. The year 1975 saw the introduction of Capital Opera to the new metropolis Shanghai, where a veritable Jingju-boom reshaped the stage productions of Yueju and other Southern traditions. At the end of the 19th century the repertoire of the Peking Opera already comprised over 700 pieces. People whistled the newest tunes from the latest performances everywhere in the lanes, alleys and parks of the capital. To distinguish Peking Opera form other forms of music was never difficult. Melodious instruments, like the flute in Kunqu and Sichuan Opera, were used rarely, as was the moon Yueqin or the Pipa lute. Predominant instead were the huqin, the two-stringed “barbarian fiddle”, with its screechy, ear-splitting, but also vigorous sound, mainly accompanied by the erhu, a similar instrument, in a lower and softer tune and the percussion ensemble. The absence of melodic instruments was therefore as characteristic of the Peking Opera music as the powerful huqin sound created by virtuous virtuosi. Often the instrumentalists were equally famous as the singing stars. For over a century the old Anhui troupes prevailed in Beijing and Shanghai. Their star sank only with the Boxer Uprising (1900—1901), when all of the famous troupes vanished from the scene. The acting guild played not a small role in this rebellion, and only very few of the glamorous 19th century opera houses survived the turn of the century. In the cause of the fight between the Boxers and the eight colonial powers large parts of old Beijing were reduced to rubble The great theatre houses suffered a similar fate as its’ personal. Actors and stages perished, and the beginning of the 20th century saw new companies established on the Peking stages.

Stefan Kuzay

Selected bibliography

Crump, J.I.: Chinese Theater in the Days of Kublai Khan. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, 1980

Dolby, William: A History of Chinese Drama. Paul Elek, London 1976

Hanson, Elizabeth: Peking Opera. Oxford University Press, London 1966

Mackerras, Colin P. (ed.): Chinese Theatre From Its Origins to the Present Day, University of Hawaii Press, Honululu 1988

Mackerras, Colin P.: The Rise of the Peking Opera, 1770—1870, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1972

Pan Xiafeng: The Stagecraft of Peking Opera. New World Press, Peking 1995

Wu Zuguang et al.: Peking Opera and Mei Lanfang, Peking 1981

Zhao Menglin et al.: Peking Opera Painted Faces. Morning Glory Publishers, Peking 1992

Zung, Cecilia S.L.: Secrets of the Chinese Drama. Arno Press, New York 1980