You are here > Home > Quick Navigation > Performing Arts > Nurtured Folk Arts

The Maturing of Chinese Theater

Chinese theater finally came to maturity during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), after a long period of gestation, with the appearance of the drama TOP Scholar Zhang Xie.

Zaju of the Song and Kin Dynasties

During the Song Dynasty, urban life became very active. The shops in the capital were open all night, doing brisk business. This was in sharp contrast to the Tang Dynasty, when a curfew was imposed at night. In the flourishing night markets permanent arenas for performances, known as goulan (or wapeng),appeared, and it was here that the Zaju drama developed. Zaju (consisting of a prelude, the main play in one or two scenes and a musical epilogue) grew out of the traditions of the ancient you and the Canjun play, as well as China's heritage of songs, dances and other arts .

Documents Surviving from the Song Dynasty describe how a Zaju drama had one scene and two or three parts. The first part, or yanduan, was the prelude, the content of which was predictable; the second part was the main play, telling a story with intricate contents; and the third part, or sanduan (the loose part), was a comical ending. A Zaju drama was usually performed by tour or five players. The roles of moni and yingxi originaed in the roles of Canjun and Cangu.Mmoni was also known as fujing and fumo. The term for all female roles was zhuangdan, and that for officials, gu.

Clashes between the Song and Kin dynasties resulted in the introduction of Zaju to the area of north China under the rule of the Kin. There they became known as Kin Yuanben or Song-Kin Zaju.

No scripts of the Song or Kin Zaju have survived, but we do know the titles of 280 Zaju of the Song, and 690 Yuanben of the Kin. Some of the names are amusing, such as Sour Eye Ointment; some are named after celebrities, such as Xiangru and Wenjun, and Wang Zongdan Rejects His Wife; and others are combinations of a person's names, plus the title of a tune, such as Cui Hu Liuyao.Here Cui Hu is a person's name, and Liuyao is the title of a tune. These titles give us an indication that the Zaju dramas of the Song and Kin were still narrative songs and dances, plus dramatic performance (i.e., songs and dances performed by the characters). This shows that the Zaju of the Song and Kin could combine various artistic elements flexibly, and that they must have been very close to modern dramas. They provided the groundwork for the birth of the Southern Drama and the northern Zaju.

Southern Drama - the First Fully-Fledged Chinese Theater

Wenzhou, in southeast China, was the place where a fully developed Chinese theater sprang to life, in the form of the Southern Drama. But why did the Southern Drama quietly take form in Wenzhou, and not grow Out of the northern Zaju?

During the Song Dynasty, Wenzhou was an important trading port, with a large population. Though it was not as prosperous and bustling as the cities in north China, it enjoyed more freedom, since it was far away from the central government. When the internal and external conditions were ripe, the Southern Drama came forth.

The Southern Drama was also known as Yongjia Zaju or yongjia Drama, as it was born in Yongjia(present-day Wenzhou). To distinguish Yongjia Zaju from the Zaju of north China, the local people named it Southern Drama. The earliest Southern Dramas included Zhao Zhennu and Wang Kui. The scripts of these two dramas have been lost, but we know from other sources that they described how poor scholars abandoned their wives and married the daughters of high officials after they passed the highest imperial examination and became officials themselves. During the 200 years from the Song t0 the Yuan dynasties, there must have been a large number of such dramas. However, as these dramas were created and performed by ordinary people, not scholars, they were not written down; only fragments remain.(Fig.2-11)

Top Scholar Zhang Xie - An Ancient Drama

In 1920 a Chinese scholar bought a copy of The Yong Le Encyclopedia (Volume 13991) from an antique market in London. It includes three ancient dramas, one of which is Top Scholar Zjamg Xie. It was exciting news that a complete Southern Drama script had finally been found.

This script aroused great interest, because it retains all the features of the Southern Drama. It is introduced by a narrator, and the characters start to perform as he is telling the audience the background to the play. Top Scholar Zhang Xie shows the traces of the transition from singing-and-recitation performance to the drama proper, and that is where its cultural value lies. (Fig.2-12)

The Artistic Characteristics of Chinese Theater

Though comparatively unsophisticated, the Southern Drama had the basic characteristics of Chinese theater. First of all, it presented a complete story through singing, recitation, actions and other means. The narration of the story occupied an important position in the Southern Drama, and each drama had a beginning and an end. The length of these dramas varied from 20 programs to 50 or more, thus providing flexibility to reflect wide and complicated social issues.

The tunes of the Southern Drama came mainly from folk music, and the ci poetry tonal patterns and rhyme schemes, as well as Zhugongdiao in various tempos. The songs could be solos, antiphonal or choral, and were interspersed with recitation, either monologues or dialogues. The combination of singing and recitation is characteristic of the Southern Drama. Bodily movements were called ke and jie, symbolic and exaggerated actions, in the Southern Drama. For instance, in The Story of the Pipa, Zhao Wuniang is beaten by her father-in-law when she returns home late from the granary. This episode is expressed on the stage not by actual strife, but by exaggerated and symbolic gestures. Folk dances were also performed on the stage, adding grace and charm to the Southern Drama.

In the Southern Drama there were five stereotyped characters: sheng (male characters), dan (female characters), jing(or fujing, painted face), mo (or fumo) and chou (male clowns). The jing and mo, which originated in the ancient Canjun and Canggu, were comedy roles, together with the chou). The five main roles-sheng dan,jing,mo and chou (in the Southern Drama were inherited by later Chinese theatrical arts. The other two roles in Chinese opera are waisheng (minor male characters) and tiedan (minor female roles). In general, a story unfolded with the sheng and dan characters at the core to carry the main plot. The subject matter of the Southern Drama was usually serious, and performances were done very earnestly. As compared with the performances of former ages, focusing on comic gestures and remarks, the Southern Drama marked great artistic progress, with impromptu comic gestures and remarks by the chou, jing and mo being used for defusing tension.

The Southern Drama not only affirmed, but also abided by the principle of Chinese theater of exaggeration and symbolism based on illusion. A major drama required the presentation of a large number of places and long periods of time, which taxed the resources of the simple stage and the skills of the performers. When performing Southern Dramas, actors brought into full play their imaginations to display flexible and shifting time and space on the stage- For instance, in TOP Scholar Zhang Xie,when Zhang Xie and other young scholars leave home for the capital to take part in the imperial examination, they need to make a long and arduous journey. This is done very simply on the stage, with the actors taking turns to sing, "We have covered one li after another" In a word, since the birth of drama in China, neither actors nor audiences have ever required vivid realism.

Quick Navigation

New Article