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…”

2 Comments on “Drama in China: Props and Movement…

  1. Fascinating! Leaves the reader hungry for more!

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