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Three Golden Eras

Chinese theater enj0yed three golden eras - in the Yuan (1279- 1368), Ming (1 368-1 644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, respectively The strides made by Chinese theater during these periods would have been inc0nceivable previously, and the foll0wing eras never matched them. This grand, beautiful and I0ng-standing artistic phenomenon reflected the amazing strength of Oriental civilization.

The Yuan Drama

The First Golden Era

The dramas 0f the Yuan Dynasty are called Yuan Zaju, poetic dramas set to music. As a mature, high-class theatrical f0rm, the Yuan Zaju are full of the characteristics of that period, and display unique artistic creations. Hence, they are regarded as the most notable achievement of Yuan literature. At the beginning, the Ziju was centered on Dadu (present-day Beijing, and was later spread widely over northern China. After Southern Song fell t0 the Yuan, the Zgiu became a national drama. It quickly flourished, with a laop number of plays being written, and the ranks of perf0rmers swelling.

The prosperity of the Yuan Zaju reflected developments in the arts and society as a whole. Regarding the development of the arts, influences in Chinese theater which had been slowly maturing for many years in both its internal structure and external expression suddenly flowered in the Yuan Dynasty. This was a period in which, paradoxically, traditional poetry was in decline, after flourishing so brilliantly in the Tang and Song dynasties. In the eyes of leading artists, the artistic and literary salon of the drama was a piece of virgin soil waiting to be cultivated.

In the social sphere, the Yuan rulers abolished the imperial examination system, lowering the status of intellectuals to a position only a little higher than that of beggars. Such scholars found an outlet for their talents as professional playwrights. They set up an organization called the "Scholars Association," which was one of the cradles of play writing, giving rise to the Yuan golden age of Chinese theater in contrast to lyric poetry, which mainly expressed the subjective feelings of the poets, the Yuan Zaju gave wide publicity to social problems. This was because the playwrights themselves lived among the people, and knew all about real life and the tribulations of the ordinary people.

In general, the Yuan Zaju mainly consisted of a prelude and the main story, composed of four acts, which were well coordinated. The prelude was fairly short. Singing was the most important means of expression in the Yuan Zaju, in combination with recitation. Each act featured one mode of ancient Chinese music and several songs, sung by the leading male or female character Influenced by the Canjun play, the recitation in the Zaju was often full of impromptu comic gestures and remarks. All in all, the Yuan Zaju showed great maturity in the integration of music with drama. (Fig.3-1)

Guan Hanqinq - the Chinese Shakespeare

Guan Hanqing led a dissolute life, spending much time in places of low entertainment, yet he emerged as perhaps China's greatest playwright. He turned out 68 Zaju, of which 18 have been preserved. Acknowledging his bohemian lifestyle, he called himself "the leader of all loafers in the country," and described himself as a "copper pea which cannot be crushed." Twelve of his dramas are about women, including his best-known one, Snow in Midummcr (also known as The Wrong Done to Dou E).

Snow in Midsummer is based on a Han dynasty folk tale, "A Filial Woman of Donghai." Guan Hanqing used the story as a framework for criticism of the evils of contemporary society. In her childhood, Dou E was sold to the Cai family to be brought up to marry their son. Soon after they married, her husband died. Dou E and her mother-in-law, who had also become widowed, were dependent on each other for survival. Zhang Luer, a local hoodlum, pressured the pair to marry him and his father, respectively. When the two women spurned his offer, Zhang Luer tried to poison Dou E's mother-in-law, but killed his own father by mistake. Zhang put the blame on Dou E. The muddle-headed local prefect had Doug E flogged, until she confessed to the murder Dou E was finally executed, and Zhang Luer got off scot-free. Facing death, Dou E cried out, "The lives of the poor, though virtuous, are short, while the evil enjoy prosperous and long lives. It is unjust. Even Heaven and Earth bully the weak and fear the strong! The earth cannot tell good from evil, and Heaven has wronged an inncent person." Dou E's words expressed Guan Hanqing's noble spirit of not yielding to his own hard destiny. Most Yuan Zaju give voice to repressed and indignant feelings - a natural Outcome of the fact that the playwrights were fully aware of the dark side of the society they lived in.

The West Chamber - a Moving Love Story

Wang Shifu, whose birth and death dates, as well as other details of his life, remain unknown, is best known as the author of The West Chamber an immortal masterpiece. This drama is based on a short story written by Yuan Zhen (779-831 ) of the Tang Dynasty. It tells how a young scholar whose surname is Zhang meets Cui Yingying, daughter of Prime Minister Cui, when they are staying at the Salvation Monastery. Zhang falls in love with Yingying at first sight, and marries her Later, the young man leaves home for the capital, to take part in the highest imperial examination, Succeeding brilliantly. He then callously abandons Yingying. Wang Shifu adapted the tragedy and made it into a brand-new story. The West Chambertells how Master Zhang and Yingying meet at a temple, and fall in love. Their association is opposed by Yingying's mother, Madam Cui. The two young people manage to meet secretly, with the help of Hongniang, Yingying's maid. Finally, after many vicissitudes, the young lovers are united. The theme of the drama is an attack on feudal mores, Supporting the longing of young people in those days for freedom of marriage, although it follows the time-worn pattern of a gifted scholar and a beautiful lady falling in love at first sight. According to the orthodox viewpoint of feudal society, love was not supposed to be a basis for marriage, as most marriages were arranged by the parents of the couples, but the happy ending of The West Chamber embodies the aspirations of people for more meaningful and happier lives.

The West Chamber is a drama with fairly high literary value, especially as regards the portrayals of Zhang Sheng's love for beautiful Yingying, Yingying's shyness and charm, and Hongniang's cleverness and gift of the gab. In particular, the author conveys his democratic sympathies by portraying Hongniang, a servant girl, as being quick-witted and brave, especially when she stands up to defend the couple in front of Madame Cui. Hence Hongniang, a splendid character, has become a synonym for a tribune for the Chinese people.(Fig.3-3)

Tragedies Reflecting the Pain of a Conquered Country

Parasol Rain by Bai Pu (about 1226-1306) and The Han Palace in Autumn by Ma Zhiyuan (about 1250-1321 ) are two famous historical tragedies. The former describes the love between Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty and imperial Consort Yang, with the An Lushan-Shi Shiming Rebellion as the background. The latter depicts the love between Emperor Yuandi of the Han Dynasty and Wang Zaojun, a court lady who volunteered to be a friendship envoy and married the khan of the Xiongnu. These two dramas have the message that in a society full of ethnic conflicts, even love between an emperor and his consort was marred by the bitter reality of politics. Neither the authors nor the audiences took them as serious historical dramas, as both of them reflect the pain in the authors' hearts at living in a conquered country. In this way the playwrights of the Yuan Dynasty set a basic literary style for Chinese historical dramas - reviewing the previous dynasties from a gloomy perspective, and expressing their disillusionment with reality, and their lack of hope for the future. (Fig.3-5)

Ji Junxiang (his birth and death dates are unknown) is famous for his drama The orphan of the Zhaos, based on a historical tale. During the Spring and Autumn Period, TU Anjia, a treacherous court official of the State of Jin, framed the upright official Zhao Dun. As a result, m0re than 300 members of Zhao's family were killed. To protect the only baby of the Zhaos and all the babies of the same age of the State of jin, a doctor by the name of Cheng Ying exchanged his own son for the orphan, and Gongsun Chujiu, an officer guarding the city gate, took his own life in the course of saving the orphan of the Zhaos. Twenty years later, the orphan grew up, and Cheng Ying told him the whole story. The young man then killed TU Anjia. In his play, Jijunxiang sings the praises of the indomitable spirit of revenge of the Chinese nation through shocking scenes. The slogan "Protect the Zhao orphan" shouted in the drama indicates that the people under the rule of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty cherished the memory of the Song, which had been destroyed by the Mongols.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was inspired by this drama, and wrote one himself on the same theme under the name of A Chinese Orphan. Goethe (1749-1832) did the same.(Fig.3-6)

Four Major Legends

Throughout the Yuan Dynasty, the Southern Drama continued to develop, while absorbing elements from the Zaju. As a result, the Southern Drama made 3 great leap forward in sophistication. The Story of the Hairpin, The Story of the White Rabbit, The Two Moon Prayers and The Story of killing the Dog are the most representative of the dramas popular at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. It is a great pity that the names of their authors are unknown.

There is a historical account of how QianYulian, a prostitute, marries Wang Shipeng. After Wang is successful in the imperial examination, he abandons her.Qian Yulian then throws herself into a river and drowns. However, the drama tells a totally different story of how a couple is loyal to each other, and Wang Shipeng is a positive character This complicated story has as its theme the loyalty of a man to the wife of his poverty- stricken days after he becomes a high-ranking official. It criticizes a very common phenomenon in feudal society, by which men who became successful abandoned the wives they married when they were poor. This drama was very popular among the ordinary people of the time, as it sings the praises of true love and loyalty, and despises the treachery of rich and high-ranking officials.

Liu Zhiyuan, a historical figure, was born into a family which had been reduced to poverty. Starting out as a humble soldier, he wins promotion right up to the rank of general, and finally becomes an emperor. His amazing life story was a good theme for short stories. The Story of the White Rabbit is based on Liu Zhiyuan's life and official career. Liu was a symbol of hope for the common people in the feudal era, as they were distressed by the great disparity between the rich and the poor, and had no way out. The drama also lauds Li Sanniang, who did not judge people by their wealth, and married Liu Zhiyuan, a poor man. The most touching aspect of the drama lies in Li Sanniang's sufferings: She "carried water 3,000 times a day, and milled grain all night," just like a slave. Li Sanniang is a symbol of the condemnation of a society in which families were broken up and the common people lived in dire poverty, while a handful of people achieved wealth and power.

The Two Moon Prayers portrays the turmoil and chaos of war, and tells how people were uprooted from their homes and forced to wander destitute. The leading male and female characters meet as they flee from war. They go through thick and thin together, and finally fall in love. Without the permission of their parents or an introduction by a go- between, they marry amidst the flames of war, contrary to feudal mores. The tension in this drama stems from the contrast between the love between the two people and the grim situation of war.

The Story of killing the Dog tells how sun Hua, jealous of his youther reduces him to the condition of a beggar. Sun Hua's wife, who feels sorry for her brother-in-law, has a dog killed and disguised as a corpse. She then places the "corpse" in front of the house. Sun Hua is terrified and asks his worthless cronies to help him move the "corpse," but they all refuse. Only his younger brother generously offers to get rids of it. So that Suspicion should not fall on Sun Hua, his younger brother claims to be the murderer. In the end, the brothers are reconciled, and are praised by the local magistrate. This drama warns against falling in with bad companions, and failing to tell good from evil.

The Story of the Pipa - A Pearl of Southern Drama

A folk tale extant in the Southern Song Dynasty tells how Cai Bojie betrays his parents and wife, and is killed by a thunderbolt. Based on this story, Gao Ming, wrote a play which has a happy ending. In The Story of the Pipa,Cai Bojie is an honest scholar who is devoted to his parents and wife, and bas no desire for riches or fame. His father, however, insists that he go to the capital to sit for the imperial examination. When he passes with the highest honors the prime minister forces him to marry his daughter, and the emperor refuses to allow him to leave his post and go home. Meanwhile, a severe drought strikes his native region, and his parents starve to death. Cai's wife, Zhao Wuniang, begs her way to the capital, and at last finds her husband. Cai Bojie and his two wives observe a three-year period of mourning for his deceased parents. and they win acclaim from the emperor and people for their filial devotion. The message 0f the play is that the pursuit of wealth and rank tore families apart in feudal times. Cai Bojie unwittingly falls into the trap that lies in wait for the Successful, while Zhao Wuniang loyally Supports her parents-in-law despite grueling hardships. In the drama, high-ranking officials are arrogant and domineering, enjoying lives of luxury and extravagance; at the same time, the countryside is a scene of desolation. This vividly shows the profound contradictions in the old society. The image of Zhao Wuniang is especially appealing.

The Story of the Pipa is a brilliant combination of highly developed narrative and theater.(Fig.3-10)

The Ming Drama

Zhu Yuanzhang the founder of the Ming Dynasty, ruled despotically, and the Chinese theater, along with other arts was virtually stifled. It was not until the jiajing reign period (1522-1566) that further progress was made; the Southern Drama developed into another theatrical form-poetic drama, and Chinese theater entered its second golden era.

Poetic Drama - Mainstream of the Ming Theater

As poetic dramas extended from the Ming Dynasty into the Qing Dynasty, they were also known as poetic dramas of the Ming and Qing. They carried on and improved the tradition of the Southern Drama. A script generally consisted of two parts and 30 programs. Playwrights paid particular attention to well-knit composition, and the use of comic gestures and remarks. The music of poetic dramas developed on the basis of that for the Southern Drama, with a variety of tunes. One program might use more than one musical mode, depending on the demands of the plot. All the characters might sing.

Poetic dramas included numerous local tunes, of which Kunshanqiang and Yiyangqiang tunes were the most popular. Reformed by Wei Liangfu (his birth and death dates are unknown) of the jiajing reign period, Kunshanqiang became mild, smooth and graceful, and performers attached great importance to clear recitation, correct singing and pure tunes. Three types of musical instruments (stringed instruments, bamboo flutes, and drums and clappers (formed the accompaniment. The performance of the play Washing Gauze made Kunshanqiang famous throughout the country. Later, Kunshanqiang developed into a national opera genre. Yiyangqiang,which originated in Jiangxi Province, was the creation of itinerant theatrical troupes. Whereve a troupe went, it would create new songs and tunes to suit the local dialect and folk music tradition. Yiyangqiang was not accompanied by orchestral music, but by gongs and drums only. The main part was sung, with the other characters joining in when needed. Great attention was paid to the audience's responses. The raucous Yiyangqiang was totally different from the graceful and exquisite Kunshanqiang. Over time, the roles in Chinese theater were more elaborately divided. For instance, Kunshanqiang had 23 roles, and all the characters other than zhengheng and zhegdan could play leading roles. Moreover, the jing and chou roles were no longer those exclusively portraying foolish, awkward or stingy people.

In the later part of the Ming Dynasty, the performance of zhezixi (highlights of dramas) became popular. This was an inevitable result of the development of the performing arts. The audience, which knew the stories well, could appreciate the highlights of dramas to their hearts' content. "Wandering Through the Garden" and "Startling Dream" from The Peony Pavilion, "Treading on an Umbrella" and "Paying Homage to the Moon" from The Tw0 Moon Prayers, and "Chasing After a Boat" from The Romance of the jade Hairpin were favorite episodes.

Three Poetic Dramas Created During the Jiaing Reig Period

The Story of the Sword, The Story of Mingteng and Washing Gauze were the three most important poetic dramas created during the jiajing reign period. They directly reflect topical conflicts and important historical themes. Li Kaixian (1502-1568) wrote The Story of the Sword, after being dismissed from his post as deputy minister of imperial sacrifices. He had his own theatrical troupe. Drawing its materials from a story in the classical novel The Outlaws of the Marsh, the drama describes how Lin Chong, having been forced to flee to Mount Liangshan, Submits petitions to the emperor time and again complaining about his enemy Gao Qiu, whose clique is bringing calamity to the country and the people. The drama puts a political slant on the original story to give Lin Chongs rebellion more social significance. In The Story 0f the Sword, his status is raised, and he is very concerned about the fate of the country and the people. Through Lin Chong, the playwright expresses his own views. Though the drama's plot is set in the Northern Song Dynasty, it reflects the reality of Ming times.

The Story of Mingfeng,the author of which is unknown, describes a contemporary political struggle. Yan Song, a scheming minister, controlled the court for more than 20 years, from the 21st year of the jiajing reign period (1542). The drama describes how a group of loyal officials waged an unyielding struggle against Yan Song and his son, portraying a realistic political struggle at the court in a timely fashion.

Washing Gauze by Liang Chenyu (1519-1591 ) draws its materials from a famous historical story: Gou jian, king of the State of Yue, underwent self-imposed hardships so as to strengthen his resolve to wipe out a national humiliation. The love between Xi Shi and Fan ji runs through this drama as a unifying thread. Their joys and sorrows, partings and reunions, as described by Liang Chenyu, follow the political twists and turns of Liang's time. (Fig.3-11)

Tang Xianzu and His Dreams

The Peony Pavilion is Tang Xianzu's representative work. The story goes that one day Du Liniang, daughter of Prefect Du Bao of Nan'an Prefecture, went to a garden, where she fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream, she met a scholar by the name of Liu Mengmei, and the two fell in love. After Du Liniang woke up, she thought of the young scholar she had met in her dream day and night. Soon afterwards, she died. Three years passed, and Liu Mengmei, on his way to Lin'an to take part in the imperial examination, found a self-portrait of Du Liniang. Her ghost thereupon appeared to him. Liu Mengmei dug up her coffin and brought Du Liniang back to life. The lovers got married. However Du Bao refused to accept Liu Mengmei as his son-in-law. It was not until Liu Mengmei became the No.1 Scholar at the highest imperial examination, and the emperor approved of his marriage to Du Liniang that Du Bao finally accepted Liu Mengmei as his son-in-law.

In the drama, the unconventional Du Liniang bravely expresses her wish for a free life: "In nature, grasses and flowers are loved, people can do what they wish, and no one groans because of the hardships of life." The beautiful garden in spring made her long for love, and her feelings of oppression were dispelled by her dream of looking for love and a life in which she could be true to herself. Such a woman, who sought freedom regardless of the consequences, had never appeared in Chinese literature or the theater before.

Based on a real-life story, and full of allusions, this drama is very realistic in terms of social life and the spirits of the characters. The image of Du Liniang had a tremendous impact on the thinking of young people in the days when the drama was first performed; it was even said that a young girl of Loujiang died of melancholy after watching a performance, and Shang Xiaoling, a famous opera actress, died after despairing of ever being able to emulate Du Liniang. In the novel A Dream of Red Mansions, written by Cai Xueqin, this drama is performed, and Lin Daiyu, a heroine of the novel, weeps sadly over Du Liniang's fate. The drama focuses on the free expression of feelings and the conflicts between people's longing for free love and the chains of feudal ethics. Through The Peony Pavilion,Tang Xianzu called for a new era for the emancipation of human nature. (Fig.3-12)

Outstanding Works of the Late Ming Dynasty

The Wanli reign period (1573-1620) saw another high tide in drama creativity, as it produced a bumper crop of playwrights of the ilk of Tang Xianzu. Noteworthy works of this period are The Romance of the Jade Hairpin by Gao Lian(whose birth and death dates are unknown) and Red Plum Blossoms by Zhou Chaojun (whose birth and death dates are also unknown).

The Romance of the Jade Hairpin is about love between a scholar and a Buddhist nun. Pan Bizheng, a nephew of the prioress of the Nuzhen Temple, pays a visit to the temple after failing in the imperial examination in the capital. He meets Chen Miaochang, a young nun, there. After discussing the zither, drinking tea and reading books, the pair finally fall in love. Pan's aunt discovers their secret, and sends Pan off again to take the examination. Chen Miaochang follows her lover in a boat, and confesses her attachment to him. Pan succeeds in the examination, becomes an official, and marries Chen after she leaves the temple.

Red Plum Blossoms is the source of a famous ghostly character in Chinese theater. Jia Shidao, a treacherous court official, murders his concubine Li Huiniang, simply because she has uttered casual praise of a scholar by the name of Pei Yu. Later, jia Shidao kidnaps a girl loved by Pei YU and imprisons Pei himself. The ghost of a girl named Li Huiniang gets the young scholar out of the prison, and torments jia Shidao. When all his crimes are exposed, Jia Shidao is dismissed from his post and then executed. After Pei Yu passes the imperial examination, he is appointed an official by the emperor, and marries his lover. The drama interweaves a love story with an account of a struggle against a powerful and treacherous court official. Though Li Huiniang is not a major character in the drama, the public has consistently shown great interest in her. A girl from the lower levels of society, Li Huiniang continues her battle against evil on earth even though she has been dispatched to the netherworld. She represents a creative invention in the history of Chinese theater.

Li Yu, a Playwright from Suzhou

In the period covering the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, Suzhou, the birthplace of Kunqu Opera, produced a number of excellent playwrights, of whom Li Yu (1591 -1671 ) was the most outstanding. He was famous for A Club of Snow The Man-and-Animal Pass, Everlasting Reunion and Marring a Famous Prostitute, which were written at the end of the Ming Dynasty. In the early years of the Qing Dynasty, he wrote Loyal Officials and one Thousand Gourd of Food Li YU, as a professional playwright, had a fairly low status in society. Though he was not highly educated, he knew instinctively what kind of dramas audiences would respond to. He wrote altogether more than 40 dramas involving a wide variety of themes. Most of them drew their materials from current affairs or contemporary historical events. Loyal Officials and The People Live in Happiness(which is no longer extant) have as their background two large-scale citizens' movements in Suzhou. A Club of Snow directly denounces Yan Shifan, a treacherous court official. One Thousand Gourd of Food portrays a struggle for power among the nobility. It tells how, after Prince Yan Zhu Di conquered the capital, Nanjing, Emperor Wendi fled disguised as a monk. Wandering as an exile, the emperor, for the first time in his life, saw how the common people were suffering. The prominent themes of this play are blind loyalty to the emperor, political turmoil and the grievances of the ordinary people.(Fig.3-14)

The Maudgalyayana Drama - Chinese Religious Theater

The Maudgalyayana Drama refers to a series of plays about how Maudgalyayana rescues his mother from Hell. Legend has it that Fu Xiang's family were Buddhists. After Fu Xiang died, his wife Liu Qingti (or Liu Siniang) broke religious taboos by killing animals and eating meat. After Liu Qingti died, she was sent to Hell for her sins. Fu Xiang's son Fu Luobo (or Maudgalyayana) went to the west to ask the Buddha for help. The Buddha gave him a copy of a Sutra and an iron club. Maudgalyayana went down to Hell, experiencing untold hardships, and persuaded his mother to abandon her evil ways. She did, and the whole family was reunited.

The Maudgalyayana Drama is the most representative religious drama in the history of Chinese theater Audiences were attracted by these dramas, not because they were religious stories, but because of their complicated plots, and fantastic settings, such as Heaven and Hell, in addition to unusual characters from religious and philosophical sects. The performances required combat and acrobatic skills, such as walking on stilts, sword dances, and fighting with spears, as well as comic episodes. The music of the Maudgalyayana Drama included more than 100 traditional qupai (the names of tunes to which qu are composed), folk songs and Buddhist music. The richness of the performing arts in the Maudgalyayana Drama made them popular for several hundred years. Hence, artists called them the "Mother Dramas."

In this period too, the Nuoxi Opera flourished. This was a dramatic form drawing its inspiration from ancient shamanistic prayer ceremonies presided over by witches and wizards. Mythological figures are prominent in the Nuoxi Opera.

The Qing Drama

The most outstanding dramas of the Ming and Qing dynasties were The Palance of Eternal Youth and The Plum Blossom Fan, which were written by Hong Sheng (1645-1701) and Kong Shangren (1648-1718), respectively, in the early Qing Dynasty. They are the cream of the third golden era in the history of Chinese theater.

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