Sensing a Trend …

“I see a red door and I want it painted black…”

from “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones

Black and red, black and grey, black on black. It’s been a trend this year. When customers aren’t ordering blacks and reds, I’m gravitating to that color combination by choice or by habit.

So, here’s a collection of my Gothic color palette from the past few months. Those shown with masks are custom orders that have been shipped. Others are on their way to holiday art shows at Brookfield Gallery, Peters Valley Gallery, and Uncommon Threads — a new (for me) show where you will find me in the Boutique Artist listings.

If you see something here that you might like, give me a shout. I can probably make something similar for you, black and red optional : ) As a reminder, nearly everything you see here has been made from rescued textiles and found objects, with the exception of the two black-on-black hats, whose materials were supplied by my patrons in order to meet their exact specifications.

All Laced Up : )

Now that the triple-digit heat wave has ended in Seattle, and I can once again stand to handle wools and my steam iron, it’s time to get back to work. Towards the end of last week, I made a list of priority tasks I’ve been postponing, and commissions I am stuck on. Lists are a tool that most people use to focus.

I sometimes think I make lists simply to ignore them…

And I’m still in a creative rut. I have a myriad of excuses, most of which I will blame on a pandemic which melded one day into another, and even though I started re-entering the community at large 2 months ago, inspiration and motivation are still both sorely lacking.

I remembered a game I used to play when I found myself in similar circumstances in the past. I would walk into my shop, and take a box off the shelf, and force myself to make something from the contents of that box. Sometimes it was my bowl of buttons, or a tail-end from a bolt of trim, or a bit of brocade that’s been hanging around for years. This time, it was my box of lace remnants, most of which were thrift store finds.

The first hat featured a row of work that edged a pair of tea towels, four panels of what I think is tatting, that I had long feared taking apart for fear of wrecking them. Casting fear aside and picking up the scissors, I found that I could separate the panels after all. I filled the voids with tiny copper beads scavenged from a broken necklace, and finished it with a cuff from a vintage jacket bearing a label of “Canadian Select Beaver,” (sheared and bleached) which was a pretty perfect match.

The second was the most challenging – a beautiful but troublesome piece with scalloping on both edges. I tried to cut the scrolled edge away and use it to cap the leaf-like lozenges, but the more I stitched, the more the lace disintegrated, as lace is wont to do when it is cut apart. The final version, augmented with silver leaves and beads, passed my quality standard. The fact that the spirals on the cuff line up with those three lozenges on the crown was a very happy happenstance…

The last one was another piece of lace, scalloped on both edges and just enough for a single hat. Again, happenstance occurred when I was able to match the pattern all the way around the crown of the hat. You will see purple/plum glass beads imbedded into the base of that white lace. I used some of the same beads to hold down the (new) black lace on the cuff, which allowed me to leave the lower edges to hang loose, giving a bit of swing to the padded cotton pique.

Challenge complete and (at least for today) lifted out of my rut, I’m off to finish one of those commissions and maybe even attend to the rest of that priority projects list…

The Glastonbury Gowns…

It is to this Avalon of the Heart, the pilgrims still go. Some in bands, knowing what they seek. Some alone, with the staff of vision in their hands, awaiting what will come to meet them on this holy ground.

None will go away as they came…

In November 2019, my friend Kate went on pilgrimage to Glastonbury. One of the things she took with her was a set of Viking-inspired wedding clothes I was commissioned to make for her daughter and fiance some twenty years earlier. On the third day of this pilgrimage, an offering was made at the Goddess Temple, and accepted. “They were agog at the clothes,” Kate told me. “They’ll use them to officiate at weddings, and for guided winter walks on the Tor. And they will be used as loaner finery for brides without means. The silk underdress with the sleeveless coat is wonderfully elegant and easy to wear. The cloak will probably hang as a backdrop in the wedding chapel, unless the Winters turn much colder.”

The wedding clothes were designed by Pat, based on 9th century Viking designs. The central feature was his interpretation of the “Kissing Couple,” a Viking relic from the Aska burial mound in Stockholm. On her coat, Pat envisioned the Kissing Couple supported by a Tree of Life, with spirals repeating on the facings of her coat, the hem of her Viking apron, and the sleeves of her gown.

I think Laura and I had about eight months to pull everything together. Laura worked on the red apron while I embellished the bride’s white silk gown, and made her sleeveless coat. I worked an appliqué chalice into the hem of her coat to tie it in with her father’s clothing. Because the silk of her gown was very fine, I opted for paint rather than embroidery for the scrollwork on the bodice, and at the edges of the sleeves so it would be double-sided. The rest of the work was wool appliqué with perl cotton detailing; the Tree of Life was gold and silver cord, held down with couching.

For the groom, I made a rectangular coat with the Kissing Couple covering most of the back, and a border of 9th century Norse knotwork with silver interlacing at the bottom. I duplicated the knotwork on the hem of his wool tunic.

Dublin, the father of the bride, wore tunics I had made for him earlier. The blue linen had gryphons in dimensional appliqué that were detailed with hand dyed yarns, jewels and beads. The gryphons supported a chalice on the front and a triskelion on the back. The sleeves and neckline were predominantly gold paint with some embroidery for texture. His white linen under tunic was embroidered at hem, cuff and neck with designs that complimented the blue tunic. I designed the pair so they could be worn together, or as stand alone garments.

But I didn’t get anything made for Kate…

Another 20 years pass. Kate goes to Glastonbury and plans to go to Greece the following year. I offered to make her a dress for Greece. At that point, Mea and Anni devise a cunning plan. Mea is getting married in the spring, and wants Kate to officiate, and wants to gift her with the dress. Anni wants to co-conspire. We decide that instead of a dress, it should be a small wardrobe of interchangeable pieces. And so, plans hatched, I am commissioned for the work, and the Glastonbury Gown Project begins.

November 2019The Concept

Mea, Anni, and I start a series of long conversations on Facebook while Kate is in Glastonbury. We decide that Kate’s wardrobe should mirror her daughter’s wedding clothes which she has just donated there. I suggest a linen kirtle with full gussets, a keyhole neckline, and straight sleeves as Kate has requested for her gown for Greece. Perhaps with a large hood like the gowns I was seeing in Glastonbury. A sleeveless coat with similar design elements to Sarah’s. We start plotting on how to get Kate’s measurements.

I research Gaelic dyes and come up with a list of about ten colors which includes green, purple, claret, orange and yellow. Mea and Anni share notes on appropriate stones for a Pict – garnets, amethyst, glass. Dublin’s personal colors were green, black and white. so to honor him, I suggest green for Kate’s kirtle. For accent colors, we rule out orange and yellow because those are the colors of Dublin’s “Evil Twin Jagar” and inviting the spirit of Jagar would be bad : ) But I cannot source a suitable green linen, so I suggest purple instead – the color a widow wears after her year of black. I offer a redesign in purple with green facings and black embroidery.

I am following Kate’s Glastonbury journal and start collecting designs to incorporate into this project. One of the elements I see at the Chalice Well is two interlocking rings entwined with vines. In sacred geometry, this double ring is called a vesica piscis, a symbol of harmonic proportions, the visible and invisible worlds interlocked, and a source of strength and power. I sketch a preliminary design of a hooded coat that incorporates this symbol supported by a Tree of Life with its roots in a chalice, and a purple kirtle, cut short in front to expose the painted hem of a sleeveless chemise.

I use the pattern pieces from Sarah’s coat to calculate yardage for Kate’s kirtle. I send linen swatches to Anni so she can match the weight and weave, and she takes on the linen procurement. Anni is also buying pounds of jet for me to use as the predominate stone.

December 2019 – The First Redesign

I start going back and forth on adding the hood to the gown instead of the coat. Should it be a sleeveless coat? Or box sleeves? Or half sleeves to show off the kirtle? So many decisions… I revise my quote for the kirtle and a heavily embellished coat and submit it for payment. The chemise will be my gift.

Anni wins the auction for the jets and sends me photos. I start to play with their placement on a paper pattern for the vesica. I pick through the stones left over from Anni’s last hat order and add those to the project pile.

Several yards of unbleached cotton in a nubby gauze weave arrives from another friend who is thinning out her sewing stash. It’s perfect for the chemise. Yay!

January 2020 – Taking Her Measure

Kate comes to Seattle for Chinese New Year, and we talk about ‘her gown for Greece.” I take her measurements and verify her preferences for necklines and sleeves. When she pops into the shower, I grab the fleece dress that she says is her ultimate favorite, make a sketch of it and take additional measurements. My timeline is “a gown” for an event that Kate plans to go to in May, with the rest deliverable by Mea’s wedding in September. Kate will have the full ensemble for her trip to Greece in October.

February 2020 – The Next Redesign

Kate cancels her plans for May. Postponement gives me time to redesign. I’m not happy with the profile, so I start to design tippets, a 14th century feature which would echo the profile of the angel-wing sleeves from Sarah’s gown. I could load them with jet and attach them with ties to bands already sewn to the upper arm of the kirtle, so they could detach for laundering the gown. But my design is not gelling.

Anni has procured the proper weight of linen for the kirtle and is dying it purple today.

March 11, 2020 – Project Interrupted

The pandemic lockdown begins. My galleries close and my hat business comes to a screeching halt. I put the Glastonbury Gown Project aside and join the Masks4Millions Project, for which I would ultimately make 800 masks between now and next spring.

May 2020 – The Chemise

Mea’s wedding is now postponed. With every postponement I redesign the purple gown. Now it will have shorter but wider sleeves which will allow more space for embroidery and beadwork. I discard the tippets as being too fussy, and the facings as being unnecessary. The chemise will now need sleeves.

I test ivy patterns in both green and blue. Blue wins my patron’s vote for the chemise, which I paint over the Memorial Day weekend. I contemplate the neckline for the chemise, and decide to replenish my vodka before proceeding…

June 1, 2020 A Brave Day

I have a brave day and cut and paint the neckline on the chemise. And I didn’t even eff it up! I add spirals to the top of the gores because I did eff those up, to hide the mismatched points and to reinforce that stress point. The chemise is now finished.

The purple linen has arrived from Anni. I cut out the gown and embroider the first sleeve with black continuous spirals, set with amethysts and jets. I’m now thinking the hood should be a separate detachable piece. The first rendition of the hood begins but I abandon it by the end of the month. I also go back and forth on embroidering the hem, but ultimately the hem wins, sans the beads.

September-October 2020

I put the dress aside to work on hat commissions, and couture masks for a customer giveaway to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my hat business.

December 2020 – On to Phase 3

I finish the purple gown, and mail it and the chemise to Kate, as a Winter Solstice gift from Mea and Anni.

Work begins on the grey coat, whose design would morph considerably from my original sketch. I am running out of time and forgo the embroidered scrollwork on the outer facings. I choose instead, a beautiful piece of purple-green-gold silk to use as inner facings, which would flash color as she walked.

Mea, Anni and I deliberate on the hood, and whether it should be detachable or not. We discuss the chalice, which I ultimately cut from a piece of moss-green suede. I plan to cover the back of the coat with silver spirals like I did on Sarah’s coat, to tie the vesica and the chalice together. But the “Tree of Life” would not be symmetrical like Sarah’s, and I would not repeat the interlaced center trunk that supported the Kissing Couple, because that’s a thing I only wanted to do once.

The winter holidays come and go, and at the turn of the year I develop one of the worst creative blocks I have ever had, which would last for weeks…

March-April 2021 – The Vesica

I force myself to work on hats for commissions and an upcoming show. I wrap up the Mask4Millions project and turn my attention to the vesica. I cut it from a piece of purple suede and place the larger jet pieces. I abandon my plan to weave the strands of tiny jet beads into knotwork, in favor of black leather leaves which will be more dynamic and less fraying on my nerves. I incorporate those strands of jets as veining for the leaves, and braid perl cotton for the stems.

May 2021 – The Chalice and the Tree of Life

The chalice is reworked a few times before I find a broken bracelet in Anni’s shipment of jets that perfectly fits along its brim. Once the vesica and the chalice are stitched in place, work on the Tree of Life begins. I freehand the scrollwork onto the wool with tailor’s chalk and, in a sudden bolt of foresight, photograph it. I would end up retracing the scrollwork every 15 minutes when the chalk wore off, using the photo as my guide. I finish the back of the coat a week later, at midnight.

The front panels have become the new stumbling block. I start to simplify the design and eliminate the swans and some other design elements. The coat goes back onto the hangar for the next few weeks.

June 2021 – The Stole

I turn to the hood, now a separate piece entirely, which now evolves into a stole. The sand-washed silk isn’t working, so I resort to linen, with a cut velvet scarf across the top, which I edge with strings of jet along the back, and braid and jets along the front. I do my best to repair the beaded fringe on the scarf, and play with ornamentation for the next day or two before settling on a simple jet tassel for the back, and jets for the front, set against metal thread appliqués that I brought home from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul a few years back. I fold the front edge over and over until it stiffens enough to hold its shape. A pair of buttons and an elastic hair tie form the closure for the front.

July 2021 – Finishing Details

My new deadline is August 8. I figure out the scrollwork for the front panels, and tackle the lining. Five lengths of non-workable yardage later, I wonder if it’s me or the project that is actually in charge.

My hands finally land on a brocade curtain that works. I center the design on the back panel so the coat will look pretty on the hangar. I cut a facing from the flashy gold and purple silk, which self destructs under an iron. Argh! I return to my fabric stacks and locate a piece of black pique. It is highly textured and “Needs No Embellishment,” I say to myself, as I cut out more leather leaves for embellishment.

I spend the next few days applying various trims to the inside of the facings, and little details here and there, until the lily was as gilded as the calendar would allow. I finish the coat by the end of the month.

August 8, 2021

The Glastonbury Gown Project is complete and hand delivered to its new home. A chalice filled, a legacy honored, and a deserving friend, newly attired, makes ready to rule her New World…

The One Monkey Show…

You may remember me from certain medieval societies as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.”

Once upon a time I presented a “One Monkey Show” – a seven hour solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” at a medieval event called Ducal War, at a park somewhere in Oregon, on a weekend in August in either 1983 or 1985, depending on how you remember time…

A few months later, I was invited by a couple of friends to recreate my performance for public access TV in Longview. We spent an afternoon taping the first half of the show, but I never returned to tape the second half. As far as I knew, the first set of tapes never aired, and after a few years I had forgotten entirely about that day. Life events prompted me to retire from performing in 1993.

And then, on June 1, 2021, a package arrived in the mail:

Hi Heather,

After watching your interview with The Sisters [a regular feature on Facebook], I was surprised to hear that there were no other films of your storytelling performances. I decided it was past time to see if I could get what I had of the Monkey Tales into readily viewable form. When KJTV converted to digital, Gary saw they were disposing of old VCR tapes. He grabbed what he could find of the tapes from our Monkey sessions and got them to Leslie and I. There was one mix tape that was aired, so it had wear, as well as original camera tapes. I asked Noah if he could use his contacts and film knowledge to save these and put them into a form that will last better.

He had them transferred to digital and did some cleanup…You can tell that there is some age involved, and that we were rookies as far as filming a performance is concerned. Noah did a great job of cleaning up the small technical issues…I wanted to make sure you had copies of some of the fantastic work you did and could let others see a sample of it…

I hope this brings you joy.

Max Slape (Master Cormac of Caermont)

The discovery of these tapes gave me the impetus to shake the dust from the notes I had collected while preparing these stories, which culminated in the solo show which took about a year and a half to prepare. You can read that six-part series here.

Here are a couple of teasers, courtesy of film editor guru, Noah Hale:

And as they say, “without further ado”

I invite you to my August Phoenix Rising Event – 2021

“The Tales of Monkey” – as performed by Heather Daveno

Live Streamed from YouTube starting at 2 PM on Sunday, August 22

If Monkey doesn’t unduly challenge the tech-gods, this production will be simulcast to The Sisters Interview on Facebook, where we will have a 10 minute Q&A after each segment. I will do my best to respond to comments you leave in the chat sidebars on both Facebook and YouTube, both during and after the show.

Click on the YouTubes below, or contact me for the link to my YouTube channel.

Thank you for helping me celebrate this premier!

[Heather] in the persona of Lao Tao-sheng, is a performing artist specializing in the authentic re-creation of the fold tales of medieval China and Mongolia. Years of study and personal training have developed Lao into a historically accurate example of the street storyteller who was the forerunner of the modern day Peking Opera.

Of her repertoire, the Tales of the Monkey King are the most well known and most often requested. The tales are taken from a classic entitled “Journey to the West,” an allegory based on the travels of a 6th century monk. During the performing of these tales, Lao plays many characters — dragons, ogres, generals, patriarchs — and most famously, the Monkey King. Wielding his iron staff, riding upon magic clouds, he wreaks havoc and defies those who would doubt his importance…

“…[She] brings Monkey to life with an authentic Chinese costume, makeup, a big fancy fan and her voice. With a few props and a painted backdrop, [she] plays all the parts. She undulates like a curtain of water, chatters like a passel of monkeys and parries with a ‘golden’ spear.

But mostly she’s the Stone Monkey…

The Daily News – Longview, Washington


Drama in China: The Painted Face….

This is Part VI of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

You will recall from the previous segment that costume was specific to the character rather than the play. Makeup followed the same rules though face paint was used sparingly until the 15th century, at which point it became codified for the Peking (now Beijing) opera.

In the earliest periods, masks were used (possibly stemming from those worn by monks during religious rituals). Warrior-roles might have used wooden masks, beasts and demons might use paper ones. Masks were ‘in harmony’ with the whole character and helped define the actor’s role. Masks followed the same system of color symbolism as the costume, and always matched what the actor was wearing. Some masks emphasized features or expressions of a specific role, others transformed the actor’s face into a symbol, like a cloud to signify ‘the god of the clouds’, or a beast or demon.

Show at left is one of my earliest performances of the Monkey King. I was wearing mostly Tibetan clothing at the time, and a stylized mask instead of face paint.

Makeup was used sparingly in early medieval drama. (I assume that theater makeup evolved from the cosmetics used by women of the period, descriptions of which follow.) Face powder was made from chalk or ground rice (dating to 770-476 BCE) or lead. Rouge was made from extracting the juice from red and blue flowers and mixing it with rice powder (Shang Dynasty). Lips were colored with vermillion mixed with mineral wax and animal fat. Eyebrows were darkened with sticks of charcoal made from willow tree, or dai – a blue mineral that was ground to a powder and mixed with water.

During the T’ang Dynasty, the glittery mendhi-style accent in the middle of the forehead may have been a ‘huadian’ made from foil paper, fish scale or dragonfly wings.

Once face paint gained more common usage for Chinese theater (I believe closer to the 16th-17th centuries), it also became exaggerated and very stylized. Eyebrows were the first part of an actor’s face that were enhanced. Rising to a slant at the outer end gave the impression of firmness, courage and determination. Later on, face paint progressed to to use around the eyes, nostrils and the corners of the mouth.

  • Simple Face used one color predominated and only the eyebrows were augmented.
  • Old Face was painted in grey or a sickly pink, with only the eyebrows augmented, with the ends being drawn down at the temples.
  • Shattered Face was used to denote an evil man, bandit, traitor or someone who was injured. It consisted of colored curves, lines and spirals, with the nose or an eye distorted by an angle of painted lines.
  • Three Brick Mask was one of the oldest styles. A stripe was painted above the eyebrows and across the eyes to divide the face in half horizontally, and then another line was painted vertically down the nose and mouth. This style was made more complicated later by painting designs onto the plain colored backgrounds.
  • Scholars, ministers and young heroes had white faces with a touch of pink in the middle of the brow (which I think was an adaptation of women’s court makeup from the T’ang Dynasty).
  • Women’s roles used pale pink foundation, with peony pink on their cheeks and around their eyes, extending up to their brows. It was further stylized by high arched eyebrows and slanting corners to the eyes. (This style would become a favorite of mine for a few other ‘roles’.)

Color schemes

  • A white face with no other color could denote cruelty, or a dignified villain. A square or oblong painted in the center of the face denoted a comic who was cunning but not necessarily bad.
  • A solid black face could denote an evil person, or one who ruled by the iron law of state rather than by personal interest.
  • A combination of black and white denoted a warrior.
  • A red face denoted a hero, military commander, or other courageous man
  • Brown and purple were incorporated into the faces of educated officials and roles who possessed strength and courage but who could not always outwardly demonstrate it.
  • Blue could indicate a role that was uncultured, rough, or possibly cruel
  • Yellow or gold was often used to depict gods or supernatural characters
  • Green depicted devils and demons

I include beards here because I consider them part of makeup rather than costume. They hung on a wire supported by the actor’s ears and rested on the upper lip. They were never adhered to an actor’s face during the medieval period.

A waist-length beard was a sign of prosperity, wealth, courage and strength. Narrow whiskers hanging in three strands from both ears and the chin signified a married man. A thick, short beard indicated a rough, self-indulgent man.

Although I was presenting a 16th century text, I was doing so as a 13th century storyteller. I patterned my face paint after the Golden Monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellanae, shown below), with its blue face and long red hair, a now endangered species native to the mountain forests of Sichuan province, upon whom I surmised the fabled Monkey King might be based.

By this time in my storytelling career, I was gifted frequently with Monkey King and Chinese Opera related treasures. I even remember decorating a Christmas tree one year in miniature opera masks and trinkets of jade…

Resources I used in the writing of this chapter include:

  • The Classical Theatre of China by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957
  • Chinese Theater by Kalvodova Si s-Vanis, Spring Books, London, 1957
  • China Daily, Cao Chen staff writer, April 21, 2018

There was on top of that very mountain an immortal stone, which measured thirty-six feet and five inches in height and twenty-four feet in circumference… Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant and gave birth to a stone egg, which was transformed into a Stone Monkey…

Drama in China: Music and Dance…

This is Part V of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

Although I did not incorporate music in most of my performances, I include this section because musicians and their instruments played a vital role in Chinese dramas since the earliest of times. Dance would also become an integral part of modern day Chinese opera, and would influence many of its classic movements.

Voice and Song

In European opera, voice and language are treated as an instrument. It is no different in Chinese theater. Spoken language of an ‘every day’ type marked the common characters such as servants and comic characters. Formal Chinese was used for narration, where every word needed to be emotionally distinct. Spoken passages were governed by rhythm and tempo, and pace was maintained by drawing out syllables without regard to conversational norms. Where there were arias, they were sung in verse. Songs and melodies were handed down for generations and were not rewritten for specific plays. A melody might just as easily express love as much as tragedy.

Songs in Northern dramas were accompanied by lute and other stringed instruments. They adopted a 7 tone scale that accompanied dialog that was based on every day speech. Overall vocals and instrumentals were vigorous and lively. In the South, a flute was the instrument of choice, lending soft and gentle tones on a 5 tone scale which accompanied dialog that has been described as “esoteric with scholarly illusions.”

The song that I open my One Monkey Show is text from “The Journey to the West” that (I think) I set to the melody of a Chinese folk song. For the second song, I used a pocket dictionary to translate the English back into Chinese, to see if the rhyme had been maintained. I was thrilled to discover that it had. I set that lyric to a folk song although I cannot remember the name of it, or its exact source. I believe it may have been a video I borrowed from the library, because I remember playing it over and over until I learned the tune.

Dance

Variety acts dating back to the Han Dynasty would continue for several centuries, and by the T’ang Dynasty would include storytelling, puppetry, and wrestling in addition to the early forms of song and dance dramas. Dance was so popular that the distinct forms have been documented through paintings and statuary of the period.

There is a well documented dance from dating to at least the T’ang Dynasty called the “Scarf Dance” which has been preserved in both folk and opera dances. The silk was a strip seven meters long, and at one point the dancer would flick it above the heads of the audience, where it floated while the dancer continued their dance before retrieving the silk. Another dance move that was highly documented was the pirouette, which was considered such a staple that the move was called “wuxuan” which translates to “to dance wheeling.”

Sabre dancers date back to the Han Dynasty and evolved from martial arts into components of some dance dramas. There were also forms of “martial” dance performed by groups of men portraying armies in combat. Flower Drum Dance dates back to the Song Dynasty and remains a popular dance in modern day China. Lion Dance dates back to the T’ang Dynasty, where it cleared the pathway of both physical people, and evil spirits, ahead of a statue of Buddha as it was carried through the streets during religious festivals.

During the T’ang Dynasty, song and dance would continue to meld and become a principal entertainment at court. Simple plot lines would be replaced by the more complex dramas written by poets and would lay the stage for traditional Chinese opera.

By the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, audiences started to demand art forms that showed the harshness of life as well as the poetic ideals of the previous dynasties. As the newly emerging opera forms continued to develop, song and dance continued to be incorporated as ways to further express the plot. Dance movements would become choreography and influence gestures and postures that would become codified in Beijing Opera.

The Instruments

Dance would not be viewed as a separate art form by the Ming Dynasty, but would become part of the training regimen for opera artists. That training would also include instruction in stringed instruments such as zither, pipa, tiqin and zianxi; as well as drums, pipes and other wind instruments. An understanding of music was considered imperative before an actor could learn the dances and acting roles.

In “The T’ang Emperor Ming Huang Tours the Palace on the Moon” …a clap of thinder and the black curtain is suddenl drawn back to reveal the round orbo of a moon, multi-coloured couds of dyed wool everywhere. In the middle sits the white rabbit grinding medicine in a mortar. Veiled in thin silk cloth, several lamps are lit inside as bright as the moon. The colour is bluish like early dawn. Cloth is strung here and there to form hills and caves, a magical realm – you forget it is a play…

Dance in Traditional Opera from “The History of Chinese Dance”

In Chinese dramas, gongs and cymbals would start the overture and signal the beginning of the play. An actor would introduce the play to the audience via a series of four-line stanzas – a thing that evolved from the street storytellers who always began their story with a short rhythm that outlined the coming story. The actor would introduce the most important characters, divulging their names and their stories. And then the play would begin.

Musicians were seated on stage in plain view of the audience, but to one side, so they could see the actors and follow their lead. Instruments such as drums, gongs and clappers provided rhythmic background.

During the play, trumpets heralded happy meetings, victories and good news. Songs were accompanied by flute (in the South) and lute (in the North). There were stringed instrument like a violin, held vertically against the knee. Plucked instruments included guitar. Lyric scenes were played to a background of “cloud” gong chimes. Drums signaled battle scenes and tragic turning points.

Post Script

My interest in Chinese performing arts continued long after I stopped performing in the 1990s. In 2002, Yo Yo Ma brought his “Silk Road Project” to Benaroya Hall in Seattle. The program was extensive and I only saw small portions of it, which unfortunately did not include any of the concerts. Ma brought together “an array of musicians from several countries to explore not only their traditional music, but also ideals for future collaborations.”

“…The transfer of such innovations as gunpowder…the printing press, silk…ceramic and lacquer crafts were only part of the story; musical instruments, forms and techniques, too, moved along the Silk Road. Lutes from India and Persia developed as close relatives; cymbals were introduced into China from India, and Chinese gongs journeyed to Europe..”

Materials I referenced for this segment include:

  • The Classical Theatre of China by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957
  • Chinese Theater by Kalvodova Si s-Vanis, Spring Books, London, 1957
  • The History of Chinese Dance by Wang Kefen, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1985
  • Asian Traditional Theater and Dance
  • “The Silk Road Project” by Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times music critic, May 5, 2002

Drama in China: The Costumes…

This is Part IV of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

You will recall from my previous installment that there was as much emphasis on the character roles as the plot of the play. This theme was carried through into the costuming aspects of Chinese dramas.

There were 300 standard items designed to denote a character’s type, age and social status, through a combination of colors, design, ornament and accessories. Materials included silks, satins and brocades, ornamented with motifs that included clouds, fish scale, rippling water, waves, plants, and and animals; costumes for imperial characters were ornamented with phoenixes (feminine) and dragons (masculine). Color was always symbolic. When a costume wore out, it was replaced with a replica in the same style and ornamentation, but never in the same exact shade.

Opera costumes were made for character roles rather than for specific plays. Although they were based on historic models, costumes could be a fusion of historic styles dating between the 7th – 19th centuries. It was not uncommon for robes to be mixed with footwear, hats and accessories from different periods, and costumes did not need to match the time period the play was set in. (It was this reference to anachronism that gave me leave to combine elements from a variety of costumes that I already had, to clothe the Monkey King for my One Monkey Show. Some of those pieces are collected in the photo that introduces this page.)

Between performances, theater costumes were stored in a chest, in a specific order. It became customary to place a patchwork costume called a fu-kuei i (garment of honor and wealth) on top. The patches were multicolored and symbolized uncertainty but with bright hope of the future, and was worn by those playing the roles of poor scholars or distressed women of virtue. It was placed at the top to bring good fortune to the actors who played those roles.

A small sampling of the more recognizable costumes

  • Mang Robe – a long loose formal robe with a round neck and the skirt slit up the sides (Ming Dynasty). White cuffs were sewn onto the sleeves, and a stiff belt inlaid with with jades and small mirrors, worn around the hips like a hoop (Song Dynasty). (I made a belt for a non-Monkey costume from a wooden embroidery/quilting hoop, which I wrapped in black satin ribbon and glued mirror squares to it from a shattered disco ball. It was more comfortable to wear than I expected.)
  • Women actors could also wear a mang robe, knee length and worn over a pleated skirt (Song Dynasty) or a panel skirt (Qing Dynasty). Both male and female roles could also be robed in p’ei or tieh-ts’ – informal flowing robes made from silk or satin and unadorned.
  • Shui hsiu – Water sleeves, shown below (which I believe evolved from T’ang Dynasty court dancers.) They were made of silk and extended 2-3 feet beyond your fingertips. (Mine were attached to my under tunic and only extended about 10″ beyond my fingertips, which was all the sleeve I could manage : )
  • Fa i – a sleeveless flowing cape worn by Taoist magicians. Another sleeveless cape, called a tou p’eng, was often red, with a low collar, worn to indicate the actor was traveling, or out of doors at night or in bitter weather.
  • Chia sha – a red robe decorated with a brick pattern, worn sling across the left shoulder by Buddhist dignitaries.
  • Pei’ hsin – a knee-length sleeveless garment that opened down the front, usually worn over pants or a skirt for women’s roles.
  • K’ai-k’ao (or Ta-k’u-qo) – a stylized versions of armor worn by the Heroic Warrior, usually made from stiff satin that was heavily embroidered in fishscale pattern (the costume at right was my attempt at replicating a warrior’s costume, made from heavy moire with silk facings. The undershirt was cotton with white sleeves and a silk skirt. The jacket was embroidered in gold fishscale by Merrilee Humason, known in medieval society as Baroness Anastasia.
...A cap of the Three Mountain's Phoenix flying crowned his head,
And a pale yellow robe of goose-down he wore on his frame.
His boots of gold threads matched the hoses of coiling dragons,
Eight emblems like flower clusters adorned his belt of jade...

The warrior’s robe evolved in more modern eras to include ‘armor panels’ that hung from the waist to the ground both front and back, and a round collar (like a cangue) at the neck that supported four pennants on the actor’s shoulders (which I believe symbolized the armor he led).

Mandarin patches on formal court robes came into being during the Ming Dynasty and would show up in opera costumes after that period. Horseshoe cuffs date to the Qing Dynasty. There are a number of other items like pants, shirts, vests, turbans and sashes that I do not cover here.

The Colors

Some colors were reserved for specific styles of robes for specific roles. This is a general overview and is not delineated by robe style:

  • Yellow was reserved for the roles of Emperor, Empress, Prince, and Dowager Mother.
  • Red was worn by court officials and army commanders, as well as the wives, daughters and concubines of the Emperor.
  • Crimson was worn by barbarian emperors and sometimes by military advisors.
  • Generals wore green, pink, orange, white or turquoise depending on their age.
  • Black denoted a nobleman with a cruel nature, whose makeup would match.
  • Blue indicated a statesman, sometimes a dishonest one.
  • White was the color of mourning in China from the Yuan Dynasty.

I have written an article for a separate series on Symbolism in Chinese Embroidery, which is accessible here via a downloadable pdf.

There were 100 types of headwear worn on the Chinese stage. You could tell how important the character was by how ornate their hat or headdress was.

Warriors wore k’ui helmets, made from beaten metal and augmented with pearls and colored balls of velvet suspended on wires. (I believe this is fairly modern, but may have been highly stylized versions of actual military helmets from the T’ang and Song Dynasties.)

Barbarian Warrior helmets included a pair of very long pheasant feathers, and also a pair of long animal tails (foxes possibly) that hung down their backs. (I have seen modern Chinese dramas where these pheasant feather helmet were worn by women warriors; I suspect the one at left might be an example.)

Warriors might also wear a soft beret (Monkey is often depicted with one).

Officials and Scholars wore a variety of hat styles, nearly always in black until more recent times, sometimes in stiffened gauze, with or without side flaps or back ribbons, embroidered or not, depending on their degree. Emperors wore a version of the hat listed above, usually with side or back flaps, and ornamented depending on the formality of the role.

Empress headdresses became quite elaborate, made from beaten gold, ornamented with phoenixes and covered with kingfisher feathers (Song Dynasty).

Noblewomen, especially courtesans or dancers, would ornament their hair with elaborate ornaments in lieu of a hat or headdress (T’ang Dynasty). Common people could wear broad straw hats, or head scarves or turbans, depending on their character. Men could also wear their hair in a topknot, women’s hairstyles were generally braids (for a young girl) or buns (for an adult woman).

The Footwear

Military commanders wore a high soled boot called a sueh-ts was developed exclusively for the stage. Made of silk, they were highly embroidered to match their robes. Soldiers and servants wore ankle boots with soft soles called k’uai-sie. The soft, short boots were necessary for the acrobatics that actors depicted as battle scenes.

Women wore soft satin slippers with flat soles, which could be ornamented with silk tassels and embroidery depending upon the social standing of the character. Common people and especially laborers could wear straw sandals.

The Dynasties

The dynasties listed in this text point to the earliest time period that these articles would have been worn. Here is your secret decoder ring:

  • T’ang Dynasty – 608-907 (7th-10th centuries)
  • Song Dynasty – 960-1279 (10th-13th centuries)
  • Liao Dynasty – 916-1125 (not referenced in this article but provided here to fill in the gap)
  • Yuan Dynasty – 1271-1368 (13th-14th centuries, overlapping with the Song Dynasty)
  • Ming Dynasty – 1368-1644 (14th-17th centuries)
  • Qing Dynasty – 1644-1911 (the end of dynastic rule in China)

Materials I have referenced in this segment include:

  • 5,000 Years of Chinese Costumes by Zhou Xun and Gao Chunming, edited by The Chinese Costumes Research Group of the Shanghai School of Traditional Operas, published by China Books & Periodicals, Inc., San Francisco, California 1987 (the English version).
  • The Classical Theatre of China by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957
  • Chinese Theater by Kalvodova Si s-Vanis, Spring Books, London, 1957
  • Color photos in this section courtesy of Cheri Dohm, known in medieval society as Sunjan Temujin.

“What I would learn next, will be explained in the next chapter”

Drama in China: Props and Movement…

This is Part III of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

You may recall from my previous post that Chinese drama evolved from the tales told by street storytellers, into a very stylized art form during the medieval period. Emotional expression was emphasized. Stage movement was related to dance; it was rhythmic and symbolic. Every movement had meaning, and no movement was used that did not further enhance the words spoken by the actor.

Character Roles

Chinese actors trained from the age of 8 or 10, and were taught by masters or older actors, who handed down their roles, choreography and music by tradition. Actors were trained in a certain role type that they would play for the entire career. Once a role was chosen for them, that was the only type of role that actor would study and perform.

Roles fell into four basic categories, each with it’s own signature set of movements and gestures:

  • Men – scholar, statesmen, patriot, warrior, tramp, thief, servant. An old man was identified by his long, slow and deliberate steps, his hand on his back, his body bent slightly forward. A warrior would take long, high, stomping steps.
  • Women – elder noble, coquette, good wife, war heroine, unmarried girl. Women characters walked with tiny steps, barely placing one foot in front of the other, and on the ball of their foot which would cause them to sway a bit, as though their feet were bound. When a female character runs, they do so in curves rather than in a straight line, with body bent slightly towards upraised hands.
  • Painted Face – warrior, bandit, official, and gods, both good and evil. Painted Face roles could be portrayed with swagger and exaggerated strength.
  • Comic – servant, soldier, mother-in-law, matchmaker and other common folk. Comic roles were often the most recognizable as common folk.

Gestures and Movement

There were 7 basic hand movements, 20 pointing gestures, and 12 proscribed leg movements. Gestures and movements were dictated by the role of the character as well as the mood and situation.

  • Pointing was done with your first two fingers held together and pointing, your thumb bent on your ring finger, and your pinkie finger bent.
  • Pointing to a city gate was signified by pointing three times in succession to each of the three characters over a city gate, while repeating the characters outloud, often performed in rhythm to music.
  • You could also point with your closed fan.
  • Of the hand gestures, one of my favorite ways of showing contemplation was to “tap my temple alternately with two fingers and to walk about anxiously” (shown at right) though I often forgot to curl my other hand behind my back at the same time.

Hand gestures also made use of “rippling water sleeves” – the silk sleeves to your undershirt that extended several inches beyond your fingertips:

  • To repulse someone, you literally threw your sleeve towards them with an angry glare before turning your head away.
  • Bending forward slightly and holding your water sleeves at face height, quivering them, is a sign of fear.
  • Water sleeves can also be used as a curtain – suspended between two actors as one turns to the audience or an accomplice to deliver a side comment.
  • Weeping can be indicated by bending your head slightly and holding the tip of a sleeve in the other hand and bringing it near your eye, as though you are dabbing tears with a handkerchief.
  • Holding your hands together at lip level, as though in prayer, with your sleeves hanging to the outside, and then physically moving forward three times (with a drum beat) signifies ‘giving thanks’ or extending an invitation.
  • Standing with your water sleeves hanging straight down at your sides, indicates that you are a ghost. So unless you have died on stage, never do that!

Pantomime also factored in heavily in the absence of stage sets, and included expressions still used by modern day mimes:

  • Extending your hands in front of you to ‘open or close a double door’
  • Raising your foot to step ‘over a threshold,’ or raising your foot repeatedly to indicate ‘climbing stairs or a mountain.’
  • Suicide was played out by jumping off a table and landing on your back.
  • An actor exiting the stage in a long leap might indicate a drowning, or a defeat in battle.
  • A long journey was symbolized by circling the stage.
  • Entering the stage and then standing on a chair at center stage symbolizes riding on a cloud.

Hand props and banners

  • A single banner indicated 1,000 soldiers. A blue cloth painted as a wall could indicate a fort or a mountain pass. A pair of yellow flags painted with wheels served as a chariot or a wagon. A banner painted with fish indicated a river. Streamers carried by an actor who was running, indicated wind.
  • Carrying a whip indicated that the actor was mounted on horseback.
  • In stage fighting, weapons never touched an opponent’s body. War was carried out as acrobatics with weapons made from bamboo, rattan or wood. A spear could be thrown and caught by the actor who was ‘killed’, and both actors would run off the stage. A corpse could be indicated by a paddle wrapped in a garment.
  • Tables and chairs indicated indoor scenes but could also be used to indicate things like a cloud or Monkey’s Iron Bridge. A pair of chairs back to back could indicate a wall, a single chair the door of a prison.
  • A curtain hung from a bamboo pole could symbolize a general’s tent or an emperor’s bedroom.
  • A fan held beside your face showed that you were standing bareheaded in the sun
  • A parasol signaled a monsoon, white paper falling from a parasol indicated snow.
...On two sides were posted scores of celestial sentinels,
Each of whom, standing tall beside the pillars,
Carried bows and clutched banners.
All around were sundry divine beings in golden armor,
Each of them holding halberds and whips,
Or wielding scimitars and swords...

Mimicry and Repetition – my recollections

I was living in Steilacoom, WA at the time, just me and my first husband in a house of many rooms. We converted one of those rooms into a gym, and I covered an entire wall with mirror tile so I could apply my learnings to my rehearsals. I was limited on the amount of staff work I could do for lack of a higher ceiling, but I could work on most other things. Over and over again, 2+ hours a day with more on weekends, practicing hand movements, postures and choreography. All in all, my One Monkey Show took about a year and a half to prepare for.

I remember spending Saturdays watching Chinese costume dramas on the International Channel. They were in Chinese, and rarely had subtitles but the writing was so formulaic you could get the jist of the plot after having seen a dozen or so films. Warrior monks spun sideways through the air and off of impossibly high buildings as they fought their opponents. Generals stomped around with serious facial expressions, growling voices and fierce gestures. Concubines peeked coyly from behind their water sleeves, speaking in lilting high pitched voices and laughing in tones that sounded like falling water. Young scholars walked with determination and a whiff of naivety. Heroes did what heroes do, and fools were downright vaudevillian. Each role had specific vocal intonations, physical movements, gaits, and gestures that defined their characters.

I tuned in to a couple of martial arts competitions, where several of the entrants (both male and female) performed “Monkey-style” kung fu, both with and without staff work. My library would expand over the next several months with booklets that would detail the basic movements of houquan (Monkey-style), zuijiuquan (Drunkard’s Boxing) and hung chia (Double-end staff) which I would practice mid-week with a friend whose name was Draggi, and by myself on weekends, whenever I could find an open field while camping with the medieval society.

“The Dragon King took Wu-k’ung to the sea treasury, where there was a huge pillar, some twenty feet long…Near one end was an inscription which read: “Golden Clasped Wishing Staff: weight 13,500 pounds…” All the inhabitants of the palace watched Monkey display his magic staff, making thrusts and passes as he walked along…

One lucky weekend, the Chinese Peking Opera Company of Chongqing made Seattle their third stop on their first North American tour, and gave four performances at our Opera House which included “Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King, probably the most appealing Peking Opera character for Westerners…” The story they presented was the “Banquet in the Peach Garden” which was one of my favorite tales. The reporter for the Seattle Times wrote: “The Monkey King sounds like W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Shakespeare’s Prospero all wrapped up in one character.” It as a traditional performance, leaning heavily on costume, makeup, stylized movement and acrobatics, against a curtained backdrop and augmented with a few banners and hand props. I would never gain the acrobatic skill and fine-tuned gestures and expressions that this Monkey showcased, but it was pretty wonderful to see a live performance..

Altogether, these resources provided a veritable live-action library that I could learn from through mimicry and repetition.

Materials I referred to in this chapter include:

  • The Journey to the West: Volume I, translated by Anthony C. Yu, University of Chicago Press, 1977
  • The Classical Theatre of China by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957
  • Chinese Theater by Kalvodova Si s-Vanis, Spring Books, London, 1957
  • “The Art of Spectacle” – a review of the Chinese Peking Opera Company at the Seattle Opera House, by Wayne Johnson, Times drama critic, The Seattle Times (date unknown).
  • Various Chinese costume dramas and martial arts competitions aired on International TV (dates unknown)

“What I would learn next along this way, will be explained in the next chapter…”

Drama in China: “The Journey”…

This is Part II of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My additional comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

A Big Gift of a Small Book

You will recall that my introduction to the “Tales of Monkey” took the form of a 5″x7″ book, containing 305 fragile pages of Arthur Waley’s translation of a much larger work attributed to a 16th century poet by name of Wu Ch’eng-en. The Waley book has no copyright or publishing information and my only clue to it’s age is the introduction written by Dr. Hu Shih, dated December 15, 1942.

It began with the following passage:

“There was a rock that since the creation of the world had been worked upon by the pure essences of Heaven and the find savours of Earth, the vigour of sunshine and the grace of moonlight, till at last it became magically pregnant and one day split open, giving birth to a stone egg…”

Excerpts from this first chapter of Waley’s book formed the framework of my first Monkey Tale performance.

A few months later, another gift arrived. It was “The Journey to the West” by Wu Ch’eng-en, translated by Anthony C. Yu. It was the first full translation of the original work, which took Dr. Yu six years to complete, and which filled four volumes and nearly 2,000 pages.

The poetry in the Yu translation, that Waley had eliminated from his, was absolutely enchanting:

...Soaring peaks arise from the Sea of the East. 
There are crimson ridges and portentous rocks.  
Precipitous cliffs and prodigious peaks.
Atop the crimson ridges, Phoenixes sing in pairs;
Before the precipitous cliffs, the unicorn singly rests...
Green pines and cypresses keep eternal their spring...
Within a single gorge the creeping vines are dense;
The grass color of meadows all around is fresh.
This is indeed the pillar of Heaven, where a hundred rivers meet...

The stories were filled with such lyrical text and descriptive poetry, that it would inspire me to start committing them to memory, performing them as single stories at medieval events, and then, eventually, seven stories, back to back, during that day-long One Monkey Show.

About “The Journey to the West

“The Journey to the West” is considered one of the four most famous classic folk novels in Chinese literature. It is a 100 story allegory based on the travels of a monk who traveled west from China to India in search of Buddhist scripture. It is a mix of high fiction and religious doctrine, which some scholars believe was written with the intent of teaching morality and virtue. Although the monk, who would later become known as Tripitaka, was born into a Confucian family and became a Buddhist, many of the allegorical references in Wu Ch’eng-en’s work are based on Taoist philosophies which sometimes wander down mystical paths. Those who are familiar with the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism will not be surprised by this intermingling of doctrines.

As I stated in Part I of this series, authors of Chinese literature often built upon the stories handed down through generations. Keeping the traditions of the Song Dynasty storytellers, authors further embellished these stories with their own prose and poetry, based in lyric styles of rhyming quatrains of 5-7 syllable lines (which is why I also ended up studying Chinese lyricism during my preparation of these stories). “The Journey to the West” combines prose and a great deal of beautiful poetry. Poetry was used as the more descriptive vehicle, while prose tyed the poetry together and supported the narrative.

To get into why a set of fictional animal characters came to be the protectors of a Buddhist monk, and why those characters have become more popular than the real-life person the tales are based on, would take us deeper into the rough than I want to go in this synopsis. For those readers who are interested, I refer you to the 62 page Introduction in the first volume of Yu’s translation.

Putting literary analysis aside, I enjoy the flow of Wu Ch’eng-en’s narrative style and the incredible beauty of his poetry, as well as the touches of magic and alchemy that thread through his tales. I hope that’s what held my audiences to these stories as well.

A column of rising white rainbows,
A thousand fathoms of dancing waves---
Which the sea wind buffets but cannot sever,
On which the river moon shines and reposes.
Its cold breath divides the green ranges;
Its tributaries moisten the blue-green hillsides.
This torrential body, its name a cascade,
Appears truly like a hanging curtain.

About Wu Ch’eng-en

Although there have been several versions of “The Journey to the West” written by multiple authors over a number of centuries, the most famous version (and the version I work from) is attributed by most literary experts to Wu Ch’eng-en.

Wu Ch’eng-en was a novelist and poet, educated as a Confucian. He was born in Jiangsu Province in about 1504, and died there in 1582. He spent some of his life in the lower echelons of civil service, never including as a resident scholar at the University of Nanjing. In addition to “The Journey to the West” he wrote several poems and other works in prose, some of which were critical of society’s corruption. He became dissatisfied with the political climate and lived his later years as a hermit artisan.

About Tripitaka, on whom the work is based

The “Journey to the West” is loosely based on the pilgrimage of Hsuan-tsang, a 7th century monk who disobeyed Emperor T’ai-tsung, and left China in the dead of night to travel West to India in search of Buddhist scripture. He returned to the Chinese city of Chang’an after a trek that took 16 years and covered 10,000 miles.

Hsuan-tsang was 27 years old when he started out from Chang’an, hiding by day and traveling by night on horseback. He crossed the Taklamakan Desert and passed through the Jade Gate that marked the furthest edge of T’ang Dynasty China, and onto the Northern Silk Road, along the base of the T’ien Shan Mountains. He would pass through Samarkand and other cities with his small caravan before crossing the T’en Shan mountains into India. Like Marco Polo would do centuries later, Hsuan-tsang recorded his impressions down to the most minute detail. He spent two years in Kashmir studying Buddhist doctrine under the tutelage of a sage, before spending a dozen or so years circumnavigating the entire Indian continent. He studied Sanskrit at Nalanda Monastery, a famous enclave for Buddhist monks. He met with kings, khans and leaders of his faith, and at times served as an emissary. He became one of the greatest metaphysicians in medieval Buddhist history.

He left India after 14 years, returning to China in 645 CE. He arrived with several statues of Buddha in a variety of sizes and materials, and a library of 657 books. He recorded his travels in the “Record of the Western Region” which took him a year to write. He would leave behind a legacy that included contributions to Indian history, archaeology, Chinese literature, and his translations of Buddhist scripture. His travels would become glorified and handed down as folktale and legend, culminating in one of China’s most famous works, and the evolution of The Monkey King as a national folk hero. His own name would be replaced with “Tripitaka” – which translates into “the three baskets of Buddhist wisdom.”

Gold Cicada was his former divine name.
As heedless he was of the Buddha's talk.
He had to suffer in this world of dust,
To fall in the net by being born a man...
...Declining office, he wished to be a monk,
To seek at Hung-fu Temple the Way of Truth,
A former child of Buddha, nicknamed River Float.
His religious name was Ch'en Hsuan-tsang.

About my own journey with “The Journey”

As the stories in the Yu translation are quite lengthy, I edited them to shorter versions, retaining as much of the poetry as I could, with just enough narrative to tie the poetry together and keep the plot intact, while removing the repetitive phrasing that Wu Ch’eng-en utilized. I also kept audience attention span in mind. I had learned early on that it is better to keep an audience wanting more, than to bore them with a single story that runs too long.

I worked to commit the scripts to memory, 2-3 hours a day, one page at a time, by sheer repetition. I would repeat it over and over on my daily commutes, moving on to the next page only after I could recite the previous page, literally in my sleep. Sleep itself became a secret weapon…I recorded script onto a pocket dictaphone, which had a place on my pillow and which would continue to play even after I had fallen asleep. It’s amazing how much you can memorize when you let your sub-conscious do the heavy lifting…

…While Monkey King was fighting his way out of the city, he was suddenly caught on a clump of grass, and stumbled. Waking up with a start, he realized that it was all a dream…

The Journey to the West,, Chapter Three

Committing each story to memory took 4-6 weeks. Those who attended the One Monkey Show may recall that I read some passages. Wherever the story had a character reading from a book, register, summons or invitation list, I worked that into my performance. So out of those 7 hours, I estimate that I committed just under 6 hours of script to memory.

Materials I referenced in this chapter include:

  • The Journey to the West: Volume I, translated by Anthony C. Yu, University of Chicago Press, 1977
  • Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road, by Sally Hovey Wriggins, Westview Press, 1996
  • China Travel Depot and Wikipedia.com (for the biographical information about Wu Ch’eng-en).

“What I would learn next along the way, will be explained in the next chapter…”

From my library of gifted monkeys…

Drama in China: An Applied History…

In the early 1980’s, Master Payne introduced me to a medieval society known as the SCA. About a year in, and leaning on my strengths in Shakespearean soliloquy from my high school days, I decided to develop a persona as a 13th century storyteller. I began telling Tibetan creation stories at feasts and bardic competitions before my brother Payne gifted me with a copy of “The Adventures of Monkey by Arthur Waley. It whetted my appetite and I started to search for the source material for Waley’s translation, which segued into a deep dive into the study of Chinese street theater and associated art forms that would coalesce in the 16th century into what is know known as “Beijing Opera.”

This is Part I of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I would become known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, at a medieval event called Ducal War, at a park in Oregon, on a weekend in August circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date…). I would continue to present singular stories for “A Winter’s Court” for KCTS TV in Seattle in 1985, and at the World’s Fair in Vancouver BC in 1986, and at a living history demonstration at the “Nomads of Eurasia” exhibit in Los Angeles in 1989. I shelved my actor’s arts in the mid 1990s in favor of other, less arduous pursuits.

Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in (italics) where I need to differentiate them from my research.

An Exceedingly Brief History of Drama in Medieval China, and how it inspired me to tell the Tales of The Monkey King.

Theater in China evolved, as it did in many cultures, from the masked song-dances of religious festivals. The earliest documented examples in China date to about the 3rd century BCE. Dance was always combined with spoken verse and song, and were considered to be inseparable.

During the T’ang Dynasty (7th-10th century) short stories called marvel tales evolved. Often written as one-act dialogs. the marvel tales added to the development of narrative techniques, and later served as the material on which the plots of full dramas were based. The earliest form of what we now identify as drama, is attributed to Emperor Hsuan Hsung, known as Ming Huang (712-54 AD). He founded the “Academy of the Pear Orchard,” in his pear garden in Ch’ang-an, where actors and singers were trained to perform at Court. Ming Huang is regarded as the patron saint of theater in China; it is said that even now, before going on stage, actors burn incense in front of his image that hangs in greenrooms in playhouses across China.

By the Song Dynasty (10th-13th century) the components of full drama were well established. Stories had dramatic plots and included singing with instrumental accompaniment. Dialog, dance, costume and makeup became essential elements of storytelling.

My specific field of study was the Yuan Dynasty (13-14th century) when the Mongols ruled China under the reign of Kublai Khan, and later Tamerlane. By this time, opera was was starting to replace dance as the popular form of performing art. Medieval Chinese Opera was evolving into a composite of drama, music, dance, martial arts and acrobatics which told stories of love, court intrigue, histories and fables.

It was during this time that the “tsa chu drama,” or miscellany play, evolved. These plays were based on well known tales and legends told by the balladeers and storytellers of the streets and marketplaces. Working with the audience’s familiarity of a story, the playwright would elaborate on the plot for dramatic effect. Audiences in turn, would be both highly receptive and demanding (not unlike the audiences who would attend the plays of William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson two centuries later).

Many of the Yuan tsa chu plays were written in and around the Mongolian capital of Khanbalik (modern day Beijing). Scholars theorize that when the Mongols invaded China and Kublai Khan replaced Chinese government officials with his own people, the displaced scholars – now forced into retirement – channeled their time and education into developing the two literary forms that would become the hallmarks of artistic achievement in China during the Yuan Dynasty – the novel and the drama.

The novel developed from the oral traditions (which I assume includes the marvel tales) of the storytellers. Each chapter began with “honored reader, you will recall how…” and ended with “honored reader, if you want to know what happens next, please listen to the explanation in the next installment” (a variant of this is how I ended nearly every Monkey story I told to my audiences.)

The Yuan tsa chu dramas formed the basis of what would become the modern day Beijing Opera. Plots for these dramas were drawn from historical sources both real and legendary. Ancient Chinese history was written with fact and myth combined (a thing held in common with the Arthurian legends of the British Isles). Classic themes were always historical in nature, tended towards the fundamental conflicts in life, and were used as an educational tool to teach both history and virtue (similar to the morality plays of ancient Greece). Plays were not categorized as comedies / tragedies, but fell under two categories: 1) civil themes of love, court family life, with spoken verse interlaced by songs that were accompanied by stringed instruments, and 2) plays devoted to themes of war, with acrobatic dance battles and duels, accompanied by percussion instruments.

Two distinctive styles of drama evolved. Northern dramas were often tragedies, with simple music played predominantly on lute. Southern plays were written in a series of shorter acts which resulted in productions that could be several times longer than their Northern counterparts. Duets and choruses were introduced in the Southern version, and plays had happy endings, with the actors accompanied with soft and melodic music played on flute. These plays presented as a series of fairy tales, and made storytellers prevalent.

Southern style Tsa chu dramas would often take 6-7 hours to perform. Rather than presenting one work in its entirety, a selection of scenes from several plays would be performed. Costumes were based on palace dance costume and court clothing. Makeup included substances such as chalk powder, ink and soot. Stage sets were minimal; action took place on a stage which was dressed with a painted backdrop, and an occasional table or chair. Hand props included fans, banners, fly-whisks and stylized weapons.

Medieval Chinese drama evolved around the skill of the actor, and audiences would often go to a playhouse to see a particular actor rather than a specific story. The most important actors were those who played heroes, generals or imperial officials. Women’s roles were not considered important prior to the 20th century.

Playhouses in China began as simple raised stages, surrounded on three sides by the audience. Beginning in temple courtyards, the theater later fell under the the patronage of the Royal Court (I assume sometime after Emperor Ming Huang’s ‘Pear Orchard Academy’ during the T’ang Dynasty). Traveling troupes (not unlike Europe’s troubadours) would travel from town to town and perform at festivals in the towns, on stages of wood and bamboo that could be disassembled quickly. Permanent theater structures seem to have evolved closer to the 16th century and were born from teahouses, where patrons would eat, drink, and chat with friends while watching the drama of the day. In fact, they weren’t called theaters, but rather ‘tea gardens.’

The theater was attended by both the educated class and the general populace. The starkness of the empty stage served to contrast the makeup, costume and acting style of the performer. Every gesture, facial expression, vocalization and gait, and by extension, costumes and makeup were symbolic. Medieval Chinese drama evolved from the tales of the early street storytellers, into a formal and stylized art form by the 16th century, which is where my brief history ends.

One of the aspects of my One Monkey Show that I tried to impress on attendees, was that they were not expected to stay for the entire production. I encouraged them to bring food and drink, and converse with friends, and come and go as they pleased. I was frankly pretty surprised when just over half of the audience stayed put for the entire performance.

My sources for this installment include:

  • “The Classical Theatre of China” by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957, which I recommend highly to any student of medieval Chinese drama.
  • “The History of Chinese Dance” by Wang Kefen, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing,1985.
  • Personal notes from sources I did not note and which I can no longer remember…

“Honored readers – if you want to know how this story progresses, please patiently wait for the next installment…”

A gift of a papercut executed in foil, cut with a bamboo sliver, by Siobhan Wallace.
It hangs with pride and fond memory on my living room wall.