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Stories Expressed Through Songs and Dances

Chinese Theater, a Comprehensive Performing Art

During the pre-art era (or era of primitive religion) the buds of various arts of all nations in the world were mixed up with each other; but in the period of artistic creation, arts in Europe were gradually classified. For instance, in ancient Greece, stage performances included songs and dances .Later, Sophocles and Euripides began to reform the drama, resulting in the gradual disappearance of song and dance troupes, and the emergence of dramas mainly consisting of poetic dialogues and actions. As time went by, poetic dialogues developed into realistic dialogues, imitating everyday speech. Hence the birth of modern drama, and operas which included singing and dancing, each of which occupied an important place in the theater.

The situation is totally different as regards Chinese theater. Since its birth, it has always combined singing, dancing and drama into one. From the Paiyou Drama, the origin of the Chinese theater, of the Qin(221-206 BC)and Han(206BC-AD220)dynasties, to the Baixi Drama of the Han Dynasty, the Canjun Drama of the Tang Dynasty(618-907), the Southern Drama of the Song Dynasty(960-1279), and the Zaju Drama of the Yuan Dynasty, the Chinese theater developed from a simple, low-class art to a complicated, high-class art. During the course of its development, the Chinese theater kept absorbing nutrition from poetry, music, dances, painting, acrobatics, songs, martial arts, etc., aiming at unfolding a brilliantly colorful life on the small stage for the delight of ordinary people, who lived humdrum lives. gradually, Chinese theater became a comprehensive performing art with extensive contents and various forms. Chinese drama consists mainly of dialogues and actions, but it has been developed on the basis of literature (popular singing and story-telling), music, dances and various other art forms. (Fig.1-1 )

Performing Stories Through Songs and Dances

Those have visited the theater know that actors and actresses play the roles of characters and present stories through dialogues and movements. This is equally true of Chinese theater. However, as an art form, Chinese theater has always kept to a unique way of reflecting life, featuring musical dialogues and dance movements. The scholar Wang Guowei (1877-1927) once said that Chinese theater is the presentation of stories through songs and dances.

In Chinese theater, musical dialogues are known as "singing" and "recitation," and dance movements are known as "acrobatics" and "combat." Chinese theater is a comprehensive performing art, with singing, speaking, dancing, acrobatics and martial arts as the basic performing techniques for telling a complete story. Moreover, the synthesized art forms in Chinese theater are not independent; instead, the dividing lines between them are blurred, and they intertwine with and penetrate each other. No matter how beautiful the dances in an opera are, and how brilliant its acrobatics are, all of them are techniques and means used by actors and actresses to portray characters. This is quite different from Western opera, in which the dividing lines between various art forms are distinct, each giving full play to its brilliance. Therefore, it is not very easy to be a Chinese opera performer, who is required to be good at singing, acrobatics, recitation and martial arts as well. That is why Chinese operas have everlasting charm. It is no wonder that audiences went wild when Mei Lanfang told about a woman's experiences with a modulated tone, clear, soft and smooth recitations, sentimental facial expressions, sweet and mellow songs, and elegant dances. (Fig.1 -2)

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