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.


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

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