Traditional Chinese Opera

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China has one of the oldest and richest theatrical traditions in the world, including more than three hundred local operas, over sixty types of shadow and puppet theaters, modern (spoken) drama, opera and dance-drama. Traditional Chinese opera took shape in the twelfth century. Through constant enrichment, refinement and development it has come down to the present day with a show of great vitality.

Traditional Chinese opera (中国戏曲), called xi () in Chinese, combines music, singing, dialogue, dancing, acrobatics and martial arts with artistically mature scripts and performance techniques.

According to the records in the New Tang Annals · Records of Etiquette and Music, Emperor Ming of the Tang Dynasty trained 300 musicians and several hundred maids to perform in the Pear Garden. "Pear Garden," called li yuan in Chinese, then became a synonym for theatrical troupes and theaters, and the emperor was honored as founder of theatrical troupes.

Formation and History

In the 11th century at the latest China had a fairly mature and diverse opera art, which had developed out of a long theatrical tradition.

Singing and dancing, which are regarded as part of the sources of Chinese theater, emerged out of the production activities of early man. On a colored ceramic jar dating from 5,000 years ago, excavated in northwest China's Qinghai Province, is a picture of three groups of five dancers each. The dancers are hand by hand, each wearing a plait and carrying an ornament on the back. The picture clearly depicts a group of ancient hunters celebrating a successful hunt or some other memorable occasion.

In the Qin-Han period (221 BC-AD 220), large-scale memorial ceremonies began to be held. According to the historical records, in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), a grand ceremony for driving away demons would be held annually to ring out the old year and ring in the new, which even the emperor attended. This ceremony included a group dance performed by 120 young people, one dressed in a bear skin and personating a god. The latter, brandishing weapons, and led the people to the imperial palace to drive evil spirits away. Ceremonies to pray for a good harvest were also accompanied by dancing and singing.

In the dim, distant past, the dancers began to re-enact the struggle between Chiyou, the god of war, and the Yellow Emperor, in which the latter was victorious. This Chiyouxi was the origin of the subsequent dramatic plot. At that time, xi meant a bout of wrestling.

In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), such performances became popular in the imperial palace, only more sophisticated. The song-and-dance drama Tayaoniang (Lady Tayao) describes the relationship between a man and his wife, and in another play, a rascal called Cang Hu constantly outwitted a corrupt official.

Theaters appeared in the Song and Kin dynasties (960-1234), and gave birth to the zaju (a type of dramatic performance with both spoken and sung parts). Yanyaosuan (Eye Ointment) is a typical example of this genre. There are 280 zaju extant, dating from the Song and subsequent Kin dynasties.

Another source of Chinese theater art is folk story telling and ballad singing. Figurines excavated from tombs of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-221) in Sichuan Province are of ballad singers and story tellers. In the Tang Dynasty, there appeared professional storytellers and balladeers, and fixed performance forms, which soon developed into dozens of varieties.

About 1127, a special form of zaju was born in Yongjia (present-day Wenzhou) on the southeast coast of China. It combined local folk songs and dances, music, story telling and ballad singing, and formed the basis for the later Southern Drama. About 100 years later, Zhugongdiao, a kind of ballad, emerged in North China, and plays with this type of musical accompaniment were called Northern Zaju. One of the most influential of the Northern Zaju was Xi xiang ji (Romance of the Western Bower), written by Wang Shifu. Northern Zaju and Southern Drama made great progress during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when Northern Zaju reached its peak. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Southern Drama developed regional variations, such as Haiyanqiang in Haiyan and Yuyaoqiang in Yuyao, both in Zhejiang Province, and Kunshanqiang (origin of Kunqu) in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, and Yiyangqiang in Yiyang, Jiangxi Province. Of them Kunshanqiang and Yiyangqiang exerted the greatest influence, and were the longest lasting.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Yiyangqiang merged with many local operas as traveling players introduced it to different parts of the country, and Kunqu opera began to decline. Local operas were sung in local dialects, and were divided into major and minor types. From the mid-Qing period, major local operas flourished, such as Qinqiang, Peking Opera, Hunan Opera, Chaoju, Cantonese Opera, Yunnan opera and Chuanju. A dozen types of local operas come under the heading of bangzi opera.

In the period which saw the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the birth of the Republic of China (1875-1920), a large number of local operas sprang up, such as Pingju opera, Yueju opera, Quju opera of Henan Province, Huangmei Opera, Tea-picking opera of Jiangxi Province, Flower-drum opera of Hunan Province, Huadeng opera of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, Meihu opera of Shaanxi Province and Quzi opera of northwest China. From the 1930s to the 1960s, many other types of opera appeared, such as Luju opera of Shandong Province, Huju opera of Shanghai, Quju opera of Beijing, Pingxian opera of Qinghai Province, Qianju opera of Guizhou Province, Jiju opera of Jilin Province and Longjiang opera of Heilongjiang Province. By 1982, China had more than 390 types of local operas.

Thanks to the growth of these local operas, Chinese theater has formed its own characteristics, which are different from those of its European counterparts. In Europe, whichever opera house you go to, you will hear the arias of any opera sung to exactly the same tune. But in China, the same story can be told accompanied by a wide range of different tunes, vocal renditions and musical instruments, depending on where it is being presented. In fact, the very concept of "genres of Chinese opera" appeared in the mid-Qing Dynasty, so as to distinguish the various local operas that sprang up one after another.

In general, Chinese operas can be divided into three genres. The first is based on the story-telling and ballad-singing arts, such as Huju opera of Shanghai, Quju opera of Henan Province, Luju opera of Shandong Province, Meihu opera of Shaanxi Province and the various Quzi operas of northwest China. Tibetan opera has also been greatly influenced by the ballad tradition of that nationality. The second genre developed on the basis of songs and dances, such as yangge, a folk dance popular in north China, and Flower-drum opera, Tea-picking opera and Flower-lantern opera in south China.

But of all the types of opera in China, Peking opera has achieved the highest artistic accomplishments. In the Qing Dynasty, huiban -- opera troupes featuring the tunes of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and funded by the richest merchants in the city of Huizhou -- began to arrive in Beijing. They performed with opera troupes from Hubei who sang in the Han tunes, and over time they influenced each other. Eventually, Peking opera was formed. Sichuan opera, Xiangju opera of Hunan Province, Dianju opera of Yunnan Province and Yueju opera of Guangdong Province were formed in a similar way. Because this third genre of operas consists of a mature art form which later absorbed the strong points of local operas it emerged more mature and shows a higher artistic level in terms of repertoires and staging arts than the other two genres.

Dramatists and Scripts

As Chinese theater art is a folk art, most scripts express ordinary people's ideals and wishes, as well as their pursuit of happiness. During the centuries of development of Chinese theater, a number of great dramatists appeared, such as Guan Hanqing, Wang Shifu, Tang Xianzu, Hong Sheng, Kong Shangren and Tian Han. Many of these dramatists knew at first-hand the hard and miserable lives the ordinary people led, and expressed the feelings of the common folk through their works.

Following the Revolution of 1911 great changes took place in artistic circles, and operas with patriotic, anti-imperialist and anti-feudal themes were produced. Examples are Mei Lanfang's Daiyu zang hua (Daiyu Buries Flowers) and Chen Moxiang's Du shi niang (Courtesan's Jewel Box) -- all Peking operas; the Hebei bangzi by Yang Yunpu called Dang ren hun (The Factionalist's Soul); and the Henan operas by Fan Cuiting called Di xue chi (Wipe Out Humiliation) and Jin guo xia (The Lady Warrior).

After 1949, a large number of new operas on both historical and modern subjects were worked out by leading opera writers such as Tian Han, Ma Shaobo and Weng Ouhong.

As modern life became the theme of Chinese operas from the 1950s on, there arose a need for a change in the traditional techniques of expression. In the 1950s, Bai mao nü (The White-haired Girl) was considered a great step forward in the adaptation of Peking Opera to the demands of modern times, but while the costumes were up-to-date the traditional methods of singing and speaking, using stilted language, were used. The next step forward came in the 1960s, with Hong deng ji (Red Lantern), Sha jia bang (Shajia Village) and Zhi qu Weihu Shan (Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy), which used ordinary everyday language.