Facts about China

Surface area: 9 596 969 km2

Capital: Beijing, formerly Peking (Pei-ching)

Population: 1.3 billion

Ethnic structure: Han Chinese 91.6%, 55 ethnic minorities, all together 8.1%, of which the largest are Zhuangs, Uigurs, Huis, Yis, Tibetans, Miaos, Mantchus, Mongols, Buyis and Koreans.

Languages: Mandarin Chinese (putonghua) and its dialects 94%, several minority languages, all together 6%, Tai languages, Tibetan languages, Miao-Yao languages, and Altaic languages

Religions: Atheistic state, traditionally Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims 2–3%, Christians 1%

In a giant country like China with its cultural continuity of several Millennia, there have understandably been and still are countless different forms of the performing arts. Many of the basic elements of Chinese theatre, i.e. poetry, music, dance, and martial arts, are known to have flourished already during the first Millennium BC. By approximately 1000 AD these early genres intermingled with each other and evolved towards a sung theatre form with fixed role categories. It was characterised by a tendency to combine dance-like movements and also sometimes movements from the martial arts with sung text. So in the West it is usually called Chinese “opera”.

In the early centuries AD play scripts were written. In the beginning they were based on an oral story-telling tradition and didactic Buddhist stories (bianwen). These archaic “dramas” heralded the rich tradition of Chinese drama literature with its heydays in the Yuan (Yüan) dynasty (1279–1368) and the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

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

The western impact started to be felt in theatrical life in the Republic of China (1912–1949). During the early periods of the People’s Republic (1949–) traditional opera was still performed, although the emphasis was on its didactic use and propaganda value. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) all traditional arts were banned and a new form of theatre was created and propagated by the Communist Party. It was the Revolutionary Model Opera.

After the Cultural Revolution traditional theatre forms were revived and now China has an abundance of theatrical forms, starting from Kun and Peking Operas to hundreds of local opera forms, to spoken theatre and to western-style opera and ballet groups, as well as, more recently, to experimental theatre and dance.