Theatre of China

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Performers in a production in Chengdu

Theatre of China has a long and complex history. Traditional Chinese theatre, often called Chinese opera, is musical in nature. Western forms like the spoken drama, western-style opera, and ballet did not arrive in China until the 20th century.[1]


Scene from a public performance in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Open Air Theatre

Theatre in China dates back to as early as the Shang dynasty (16th century BC?–c. 1046 BC). Oracle bone records reference rain dances performed by shamans,[2] while the Book of Documents mentions shamanistic dancing and singing.[3] For the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046 BC – 256 BC), evidence from the Chu Ci suggests that in the 4th or 3rd century BC State of Chu, shamans performed with music and costumes.[4] Some scholars have identified poems from the Classic of Poetry as possible lyrics of songs accompanying court dances from the early or mid-Zhou dynasty.[5]

The Zhou royal court as well as the various ancient states employed professional entertainers which included not only dancers and musicians but also actors. The earliest court actors were likely clowns who pantomimed, danced, sang, and performed comedy.[6] One of the most famous actors from this period was You Meng or Jester Meng (優孟), a giant who served King Zhuang of Chu (reigned 613–591 BC). After meeting the impoverished son of Sunshu Ao, the late prime minister of Chu, he is said to have spent a year imitating Sunshu Ao's speech and mannerism. Finally he performed his role at a banquet and successfully appealed to King Zhuang who then granted land to Sunshu Ao's son.[7][8]

Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian contains a passage about Confucius (551–479 BC) explaining the Great Warrior Dance or Dawu Dance (Chinese: 大武舞; pinyin: Dàwǔ Wǔ), which told the story of King Wu of Zhou's overthrow of the Shang dynasty in c. 1046 BC, and how he founded the Zhou dynasty with the help of Duke of Zhou and Duke of Shao. The Great Warrior Dance not only depicted a full story, but was also filled with symbolism, as Confucius explained:[9]

When they dance in two rows and lunge in all directions with their weapons, they are spreading the awe of his military might throughout the Central States. When they divide up and advance in twos, it indicates that the enterprise has now been successfully accomplished. When they stand for a long time in their dancing positions, they are waiting for the arrival of the rulers of the various states.

Part of a second-century tomb mural from Dahuting which depicts entertainers at an aristocratic banquet.

During the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), a wrestling show called Horn-Butting Show (Chinese: 角觝戲; pinyin: Jiǎodǐxì) flourished and became one of the so-called "Hundred Shows" (百戲) under Emperor Wu (reigned 141–87 BC). While most probably this was also a spectator sport, both textual and archaeological evidence suggests that performers were dressed in fixed roles and performed according to a plot. One such story the wrestlers re-enacted was the battle between a tiger and a magician named "Lord Huang from the East Sea" (東海黃公).[10] Han-period murals discovered from an aristocratic tomb in Dahuting, Xinmi, Henan, offer strong proof that entertainers performed at banquets in the homes of higher-ranking ministers during this period.[11]

Six Dynasties, Tang dynasty, and Five Dynasties[edit]

An early form of Chinese drama is the Canjun Opera (參軍戲, or Adjutant Play) which originated from the Later Zhao Dynasty (319–351).[12][13][14] In its early form, it was a simple comic drama involving only two performers, where a corrupt officer, Canjun or the adjutant, was ridiculed by a jester named Grey Hawk (蒼鶻).[12] The characters in Canjun Opera are thought to be the forerunners of the fixed role categories of later Chinese opera, particularly of its comic chou (丑) characters.[15]

Various song and dance dramas developed during the Six Dynasties period. During the Northern Qi Dynasty, a masked dance called the Big Face (大面, which can mean "mask", alternatively daimian 代面, and it was also called The King of Lanling, 蘭陵王), was created in honour of Gao Changgong who went into battle wearing a mask.[16][17] Another was called Botou (撥頭, also 缽頭), a masked dance drama from the Western Regions that tells the story of a grieving son who sought a tiger that killed his father.[18] In The Dancing Singing Woman (踏謡娘), which relates the story of a wife battered by her drunken husband, the song and dance drama was initially performed by a man dressed as a woman.[17][19] The stories told in of these song-and-dance dramas are simple, but they are thought to be the earliest pieces of musical theatre in China, and the precursors to the more sophisticated later forms of Chinese opera.[17][20]

The Later Tang (923–937) founding emperor Li Cunxu (885–926) — who was of Shatuo extraction — was so passionate about theatre that he enjoyed acting himself. During his reign, he appointed three actors to prefect-ship and in the process alienated his army. In 926, after just 3 years on the throne, he was killed in a mutiny led by a former actor named Guo Congqian.

Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties[edit]

In the Song dynasty, there were many popular plays involving acrobatics and music. These developed in the Yuan Dynasty into a more sophisticated form known as zaju, with a four- or five-act structure. Yuan drama spread across China and diversified into numerous regional forms, the best known of which is Beijing Opera[citation needed], which is still popular today.

Ming dynasty[edit]

Theatre of late imperial China is referred to operas, or xiqu. People during this time had many types of music-related entertainments, and opera was one of them.[21] It began to rise during the Yuan period (1279-1368). In the subsequent Ming period (1368-1644), Chinese theatre was divided into three categories by audience: imperial court, social elite, and the general public.[22] The actors underwent strict training in singing, dancing, and role-playing techniques.[22] Especially in elite theatre, actors also served as sexual partners for their owners.

Play writers in Ming dynasty were mostly educated and hold relatively high social status, unlike those in Yuan dynasty who stayed at the base.[23] Throughout their education, Confucian ideas are ingrained in their minds, which were then reflected in their writings.[23] As a result, Ming plays often conveyed Confucian teachings, especially in private theatre troupes.[23] For instance, as women desired more equality towards late Ming, Wang Tingne wrote a play called Shi Hou Ji (狮吼记) to educate male authority to women.[23]

The Ming imperial court also enjoyed opera. However, most Ming emperors liked to keep their music entertainments inside the palace.[24] They performed for the court. Ming theatre had less freedom than the previous dynasty, Yuan.[25] Some plays included a role of the emperor and was common in Yuan and early Ming.[26] However, Ming Taizu prohibited the actors to impersonate any imperial members, high officials, or well-respected figures.[26] Whoever performed them or allowed such performances were punished severely.[26] However, these restrictions were not always carried out by the public.[27]

These theatre troupes targeted at commoners and performed in public. However, due to the Ming’s Confucian influence of gender separation, public theatres were dominated by males.[28] Private theatre troupes were very prominent during Ming China. Professional public troupes did not thrive until Ming elite class start to collapse.[29]

During Ming time, officials, rich merchants, and eunuchs liked to manage private theatre troupes as a way of entertainment or a sign of status.[30] A female courtesan in late Ming named Ma Xianglan was the only woman who owned a private theatre troupe.[31]

Developing a private theatre troupe was a huge investment. The owners first pick potential actors from poor families or slave households and from performing schools.[32] These families either sell them directly to the theatre owner or to performing school. Since the owners would invest in further training for these people, they did not need much knowledge and skills beforehand. A person’s musical talent and looks are hard to guarantee when they are young, since not everyone grew up to become a successful actor, so some investments did not pay off.[33] When selecting young actors, troupe owners consider looks to be more important than their singing talent, because the chance of having both nice appearance and skills is low, and one could develop singing skills through training.[34]

Actors in all three categories had to undergo tedious training. Particularly in private troupes, an actor’s training could take as long as eight years, for children who did not have prior knowledge.[35] Owners could also purchase older children from performing schools and train them from one to three years.[36] The standard for Ming actors includes Cai, Hui, and Zhi.[29] Cai is extraordinary talent, and Hui is the wisdom that enables them to utilize their skills with flexibility. The most important one is Zhi, the ability to combine practical and abstract beauty on stage.[29] As for techniques,the actors needed to excel in singing, dancing, and role-playing. These actors developed outstanding singing and dancing techniques to serve the ultimate goal of creating a character.[37] The most common way was for the leaders to hire music masters to teach them. Some trained actors themselves or coordinated with the professional teachers.[38] The music masters were usually retired actors and taught all three aspects.[39] The actors learn the songs by memorizing what their master teaches them.[34] During the lessons, the master would stop them and correct what they sing wrong.[34] Matching the correct character with each strong beat is necessary for a performer. However, they purposely avoided teaching them script-interpretation and left it to the owners.[38] The owners were well-educated literati and the performers were often illiterate, so the latter might not reach their employer’s standard of interpretation.[39]

After these actors became mature in skills, they performed for owners or their guests. The stage was built inside residential halls and half of it was exposed to nature.[40] Performances often utilized natural lighting as part of their stage effect.[41] Some troupes rarely went on public tours for commoners as well.[42]

Although these performers contained excellent skills, they were considered as the base people in Ming society. Providing sexual services was a common practice among actors, both heterosexual and homosexual.[43] For instance, a theatre critic described a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old actress as perfect for the bedroom.[44] Some actresses become their owners’ wives. Both males and females served as concubines, and some just sexual partners.[43] During a friends’ gathering theatre night, the elites would each pick their choice for the night.[45] Particularly for females, the audience viewed and actresses’ acting skills as sexually attractive.[46] In some cases, the audience were attracted to the character she created, which was often a famous heroine.[47] They would then ask her to dress like this character so they could fanaticize about having sex with a superstar.[48]

Actors could not terminate their relationship with the owner. Instead, their owner could trade his actors with other people or distribute them as gifts.[49] The owner would send actors away for other reasons, such as insufficient finance.[50] The only case in which the actors could control their leave was retirement.[51] The common career span for actors were ten years. When actors passed teens, they had the freedom to retire.[51]

Qing dynasty[edit]

20th century[edit]

Hsiu, sleeve movement[edit]

Sleeve movements were an important feature of dancing technique in ancient China and were considered essential to add the grace of the performer. There are many references to the beauty of a dancer's sleeves to be found in old Chinese poems.[52]

"What festival is this, with lamps filling in the hall, And golden hair pins dancing by night alongside of flowery lutes? A fragrance breeze flutters the sleeve and a red haze arises, While jade wrists flit round and round in mazy flight."

Shadow play[edit]

During the Dynasty of Empress Ping, shadow puppetry first emerged as a recognized form of theatre in China[citation needed]. There were two distinct forms of shadow puppetry, Pekingese (northern) and Cantonese (southern). The two styles were differentiated by the method of making the puppets and the positioning of the rods on the puppets, as opposed to the type of play performed by the puppets. Both styles generally performed plays depicting great adventure and fantasy, rarely was this very stylized form of theatre used for political propaganda. Cantonese shadow puppets were the larger of the two. They were built using thick leather which created more substantial shadows. Symbolic color was also very prevalent; a black face represented honesty, a red one bravery. The rods used to control Cantonese puppets were attached perpendicular to the puppets' heads. Thus, they were not seen by the audience when the shadow was created. Pekingese puppets were more delicate and smaller. They were created out of thin, translucent leather (usually taken from the belly of a peacock). They were painted with vibrant paints, thus they cast a very colorful shadow. The thin rods which controlled their movements were attached to a leather collar at the neck of the puppet. The rods ran parallel to the bodies of the puppet then turned at a ninety degree angle to connect to the neck. While these rods were visible when the shadow was cast, they laid outside the shadow of the puppet; thus they did not interfere with the appearance of the figure. The rods attached at the necks to facilitate the use of multiple heads with one body. When the heads were not being used, they were stored in a muslin book or fabric lined box. The heads were always removed at night. This was in keeping with the old superstition that if left intact, the puppets would come to life at night. Some puppeteers went so far as to store the heads in one box and the bodies in another, to further reduce the possibility of reanimating puppets. Shadow puppetry is said to have reached its highest point of artistic development in the seventh century before becoming a tool of the government.[citation needed]


Xiangsheng is a style of traditional Chinese comedic performance in the form of a monologue or dialogue. Chinese performers usually clap with the audience at the end of a performance; the return applause is a sign of appreciation to the audience.[53]

Modern Chinese theatre[edit]

Modern Chinese theatre and drama has changed quite a lot compared to the past. The influences of the modern world affected the form of music/ theatre/ drama the Chinese were having. The rapid development of the country affected theater plays. The current Chinese theater has been developed to a new form: people do not watch plays from theater, they watch it at homes or on their TV. In addition to music theater, the modern world inspired new forms of drama, including what became known as the spoken drama (simplified Chinese: 话剧; traditional Chinese: 話劇; pinyin: Huàjù) of the transatlantic stage.[54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chinese Theatre, p. 1.
  2. ^ Siu and Lovrick, p. 4.
  3. ^ Dolby, p. 8.
  4. ^ Dolby, pp. 8–9.
  5. ^ Dolby, p. 9.
  6. ^ Dolby, pp. 10–11.
  7. ^ Siu and Lovrick, p. 5.
  8. ^ Dolby, p. 11.
  9. ^ Dolby, pp. 9–10.
  10. ^ Dolby, pp. 11–12.
  11. ^ Dolby, p. 12.
  12. ^ a b Ye, p. 3.
  13. ^ "唐代參軍戲". 中國文化研究院.
  14. ^ "Sichuan Opera". Archived from the original on February 24, 2007.
  15. ^ "The Tang Dynasty (618–907)". Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance.
  16. ^ Laurence Picken, ed. (1985). Music from the Tang Court: Volume 5. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–12. ISBN 978-0521347761.
  17. ^ a b c Faye Chunfang Fei, ed. (2002). Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present. University of Michigan Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 978-0472089239.
  18. ^ Ye, p. 336.
  19. ^ "Theatre". China Culture Information Net. Archived from the original on December 25, 2013.
  20. ^ "The Early History of Chinese Theatre". Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance.
  21. ^ Lam, Joseph. Culture, Courtiers, and Competition. p. 275
  22. ^ a b Shen, Grant. “Acting in the Private Theatre of the Ming Dynasty,” in HIEA 124 Life in Ming China, edited by Sarah Schneewind, p. 289-311 (Imprints, 2019, p. 290.
  23. ^ a b c d 王园园, “明代戏曲中女性德行意识” (Female Virtue Consciousness in the Opera of Ming Dynasty), 闽西职业技术学院学报(Journal of Minxi Vocational and Technical College) 2018, 20(04), 80-84 (April 2018).
  24. ^ Lam, Joseph. Culture, Courtiers, and Competition. p. 290
  25. ^ Tian Yuan Tan, “The Sovereign and the Theatre,” in Long Live the Emperor, edited by Sarah Schneewind, p. 149-69 (The United States of America: Society for Ming Studies), p. 150
  26. ^ a b c Tian Yuan Tan, “The Sovereign and the Theatre,” in Long Live the Emperor, edited by Sarah Schneewind, p. 149-69 (The United States of America: Society for Ming Studies), p.151
  27. ^ Tian Yuan Tan, “The Sovereign and the Theatre,” in Long Live the Emperor, edited by Sarah Schneewind, p. 149-69 (The United States of America: Society for Ming Studies), p. 154-62
  28. ^ Leung Li, Siu. Cross Dressing in Chinese Opera. p. 57
  29. ^ a b c Liu Xuan刘轩,《牡丹亭·写真》昆剧舞台演出史考略(On A History of the Performance of Kunqu Opera Portrait in The Peony Pavilion), 中华戏曲(Chinese Traditional Opera) 2017, (02), 197-213 (February 2017)
  30. ^ Shen, pp. 28–29.
  31. ^ Mi Zhao, “Ma Xianglan and Wang Zhideng Onstage and Offstage,” Asian Theatre Journal 34 #1 (Spring 2017).
  32. ^ Shen, pp. 36-40.
  33. ^ Shen, p. 38.
  34. ^ a b c Xu, Peng (2015). "The Music Teacher: The Professionalization of Singing and the Development of Erotic Vocal Style During Late Ming China". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 75 (2): 259–297. doi:10.1353/jas.2015.0016. S2CID 193410120.
  35. ^ Shen, p. 45.
  36. ^ Shen, pp. 38, 45.
  37. ^ Shen, p. 99.
  38. ^ a b Shen, pp. 49–51.
  39. ^ a b Shen, p. 49.
  40. ^ Shen, pp. 129, 132.
  41. ^ Shen, pp. 120–121.
  42. ^ Shen, pp. 140–141.
  43. ^ a b Shen, pp. 59, 63.
  44. ^ Shen, p. 70.
  45. ^ Shen, p. 60.
  46. ^ Shen, p. 72.
  47. ^ Shen, pp. 73–74.
  48. ^ Shen, p. 74.
  49. ^ Shen, p. 65.
  50. ^ Shen, p. 66.
  51. ^ a b Shen, p. 67.
  52. ^ Scott, A.C. (1957). The Classical Theatre Of China. London: Simson Shand LTD. p. 96.
  53. ^ Brown, Ju; Brown, John (2006). China, Japan, Korea Culture and Customs. North Charleston: BookSurge. p. 55. ISBN 1-4196-4893-4.
  54. ^ "Modern Chinese Drama".

External links[edit]