Chinese Opera: A Brief History

by Thomas A. Wilson

Department of History, Hamilton College

Beijing Opera (jingju �ʼ@) is one of China's most recent theatrical forms, although it draws from a tradition extending back at least as far as the twelfth century, when opera was performed in the huge public theaters of Hangzhou, then capital of the Southern Song dynasty (1179-1276). The most popular theatrical form at the time was the southern play (nanxi �n��) in which the dialogue, written in rhymed verse, was either sung or spoken. The three extant southern play scripts, composed by anonymous writing societies, have no internal divisions, such as acts or scenes, and, according to contemporaneous descriptions, were performed with a string and wind orchestra, and an offstage chorus which accompanied the major arias, evidently along with the audience.

Beginning in the thirteenth century, the Mongol conquerors patronized a northern form of opera called zaju ��@, or "multi-act" play usually divided into four acts. In contrast to southern plays, the main character alone sang a lyric verse, using a single major rhyme scheme throughout the entire act, while the other characters spoke their lines. Zaju typically featured three major roles: a woman (dan ��), an older, usually venerable man (mo ��), and a young man (sheng ��). "Comics" (chou ��) also played a role, providing ironic commentary on the events taking place.

While high society enjoyed zaju in the capital in the north, a folk tradition of opera known as marvelous tales (chuanqi �ǩ_) flourished in the south, particularly in the refined provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. The marvelous tales opera tradition produced one of China's finest operas, Gao Ming's ���� (c. 1301-1370) The Lute Song (Pipa ji �\�]�O), which portrays the irreconcilable tension between filial piety and loyalty to the throne, two cardinal relations in Confucian social thought. The sixteenth century saw fundamental changes in Chinese society. It was a period of relative peace, and sustained economic prosperity. Classical literacy could be translated into social prestige and political power through the civil service examination system. General literacy was growing, reaching heretofore excluded sectors of society, particularly urban merchants and women. This was also a time of the proliferation of the vernacular novel and certainly what is the most elegant form of Chinese opera, Kunqu ��, which originated in Kunshan near Suzhou, Jiangsu. After Wei Liangfu's �Q�}�� (c. 1522-73) innovations, Kunqu was characterized by soft singing and minimal orchestral accompaniment, typically the clapper or drum and a bamboo flute. Kunqu rose to the status of national opera in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even in Beijing, then ruled by foreign rulers from Manchuria. Kunqu playwrights focused on prosody and novelty of expression, producing increasingly ornate operas.

It was precisely this ornate and allusive language that brought on Kunqu's demise. And perhaps it was never quite boisterous enough to suit popular tastes. In the late eighteenth century, a new form of opera was formed in Beijing. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex set of circumstances, Beijing opera as it is known today largely began on the occasion of the Qianlong emperor's (r. 1736-96) seventieth birthday celebration in 1779 which brought, among the throngs of people to the capital, an accomplished clapper opera dramatist named Wei Changsheng �Q��� (1744-1802) from Sichuan, who introduced a number of innovations into the opera of the capital that left an indelible mark that lasts to the present. Clapper opera (bangzi qiang ���l��), came from the province of Shaanxi and moved southward through Hunan into Sichuan. The sound of the wooden clappers sets the rhythm of the music as well as some of the actions of the performers. Clapper opera was one of many local opera traditions, though not all influenced the national opera. By the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) there were several hundred local opera traditions, differing in the dialects of the librettos, stage settings, acting techniques, and music; most drew materials for stories from Kunqu or popular novels.


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