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.

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