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.
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:
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.
Hand gestures also made use of “rippling water sleeves” – the silk sleeves to your undershirt that extended several inches beyond your fingertips:
Pantomime also factored in heavily in the absence of stage sets, and included expressions still used by modern day mimes:
Hand props and banners
...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:
“What I would learn next along this way, will be explained in the next chapter…”