Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Classical Chinese Theater


Origins of Chinese Theater

  • The Chinese word xi means both “play” and “game,” to emphasize that performances in China are a combination of performance forms.
  • Syntheses of dance, music, and poetry appeared after Yi Shun’s reign (2300–2205 b.c.e.).
  • Shamanistic and court rituals using dance and music appeared during the Shang Dynasty (1760–1066 b.c.e.).

Theater during the Tang and Song Dynasties

  • Skits, shadow and puppet plays, circus, satires, and storytelling thrived during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 c.e.).
  • Emperor Minghuang established the Pear Orchard Conservatory during the Tang Period for training actors and performers.
  • “Tile Districts” (wazi) were amusement centers that evolved in Northern China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279).
  • Zaju—shows with dramatic sketches accompanied by music, dancing, and comedy were popular in Tile Districts.
  • Nanxi—shows that used folk music and character types were popular in Southern China.

Yuan Drama: zaju

  • Drama flourished during the Yuan Dynasty (1234–1368) under Mongol occupation.
  • Guan Hanquing (ca.1245–ca.1322) was the most popular and prolific Yuan playwright.
  • Yuan writers abandoned Confucian teachings and style and used common language for dramas; “Yuan zaju” differs from Northern zaju in that it treats a range of historical, legendary, and modern subjects.
  • Yuan zaju plays are four acts long with shorter acts (xiezi) to enrich the plot, and twenty songs sung by the main character.
  • Yuan zaju plays maintain a Confucian element by ending with justice.
  • Drama flourished during this period because Chinese scholars, excluded from government, turned to other writing forms for work.

Actors and Stage

  • Men and women could act and appear in either gender’s role.
  • Costumes were colorful and ornate with detailed makeup.
  • Stages consisted of a bare tile floor with entrances on either side of a decorative wall-painting in the rear. There was no formal scenery and few props.
  • The pipa—a lute-like instrument—played a role in the musical component.
  • Yuan zaju was performed for all social classes.

The Rise of Nanxi

  • Nanxi plays are longer than zaju plays, containing fifty or more acts with their own titles. Songs are performed by multiple characters and are accompanied by a bamboo flute.