1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - Chinese Dramatic Literature; Abstract of a Play.

(Part 53)


Chinese Dramatic Literature. Abstract of a Play.

Dramatic Literature

It is probably due to this cause that the literature shows no instance of real dramatic poetry. Their dramas abound with short lyrical pieces, which are introduced to break the monotony of the dialogue ; but dramsas in verse are unknown, except in the case of low plays written in vulgar rhythm. As, however, love for the drama is one of the most noticeable feature of the Chinese character, every encouragement has been given to playwrights and this branch of literature is therefore well supplied both as regards matter and bulk. The most celebrated plays are contained in a collection entitled The Hundred Plays of the Yuen Dynasty, many of which have been translated into European languages, and one of which, the Orphan of Chaou, served as the groundwork of Voltaire’s tragedy, L’Orphelin de la Chine. Their dramas are divided in the playbooks into the acts, generally four or five, but as there is an absence, of all scenery, and as the dresses are never changed during the piece, the acting is an a rule continuous throughout without break or interval. The stage directions are given in their books as in ours, but not with the same minuteness. "Enter and "exit" are expressed by "ascend" and "descend," and "aside," by "turn the back and say." By the rules of the Chinese, as was the case also in the Greek drama, only two players are allowed to have possession of the stage at any one time. This, and the absence of all scenery, obliges the dramatists to put in the mouths of the actors long pieces of spoken narrative, much after the manner of the prologues in the plays of Euripides, which appear tame and heavy to a European spectator accustomed to have the plot and locality explained by dialogue and scenery. The plots are for the most part simple and well sustained. The unities, though sometimes observed, are more often disregards, especially that of place, the characters being frequently sent to different parts of the country in the same act, and made to inform the audience of their whereabouts by the simple expedient of waking up and down the stage, and exclaiming, "Now I am at such and such a place," or "at such and such a house." The acting, generally speaking, is good. The Chinese are actors by nature, and are no doubt a good deal improved by their inherent cunning and want of sincerity, which make them quick of observation and fertile in resource, and in every-day life enable them easily to catch the tone of those with whom they associate, and on the stage to assume the characters they wish to represent.

The theatre is in China, as it was in Greece, national and religious. It is under the direct control of the law, and is closed by imperial edict during all periods of public mourning, while at the same time it plays prominent part at all the yearly religious festivals.

Abstract of a Play

In order to give some idea of the substance and plot of a Chinese drama, we will quote from Sir John Davis’ China an abstract of a play, which he has translated and published at full length, entitled The Heir in Old Age. This piece serves, as is observed by the translator, to illustrate the consequence which the Chinese attach to the due performance of the oblations at the tombs of departed ancestors, and also the true relation of the handmaid to the legitimate wife. The dramatis personae are, he says, "made up entirely of the members of a family in the middle class of life, consisting of a rich old man, his wife, a handmaid, his nephew his son-in-law, and his daughter." The old man, having no son to console him in his age, to perform the obsequies at his tomb, had, like the the Jewish patriarch, taken a handmaid, whose pregnancy is announced at the opening of the play, in which the old man commences with saying, "I am a man of Tung-ping Foo," &c. In order to obtain from Heaven a son, instead of a daughter, he makes a sacrifice of sundry debts due to him, by burning the bonds, and this propitiatory holocaust serves at the same time to quiet some scruples of conscience as to the mode in which part of his money had been acquired. He then delivers over his affairs to his wife and his married daughter, dismissing his nephew (a deceased brother’s son) with a hundred pieces of silver to seek his fortune, as he had been subjected at home to the persecution of the wife. This done, the old man sets out for estate in the country, recommending the mothers of his expected son to the humane treatment of the family, and with the hope of receiving from the speedy congratulations on the birth of a son.

The son-in-law now betrays to the daughter his disappointment at the expected birth, sine if it prove a girl, they shall lose half the family property, and if a son, the whole. His wife quiets him by a hint how easily the handmaid may be got rid of, and the old man persuaded that she had suddenly disappeared ; and shortly afterwards both the son-in-law and the audience are left to infer that she had actually contrived to make away with her. In the mean time the old man waits the result in great anxiety ; his family appear in succession to console him for the loss of his hopes. In the bitterness of his disappointment, he burst into tears and expresses his suspicions of foul play. He then attributes his misfortunes to his former thirst for gain, resolves to fast for seven days, and to bestow alms publicly at a neighbouring temple, in the hope that the object of his charity may treat him as a father. Among the beggars at the temple his nephew appears in the most hopeless state of poverty, being reduced to take up his lodgings under the furnace of a pottery ; he is insulted by the son-in-law, and reproached by the old wife, but his uncle, moved with compassion, contrives to give him a little money, and earnestly advises him to be punctual in visiting the tombs of his family at the approaching spring, assuring him that a due attention to those sacred rites ultimately lead to prosperity. It is on the importance attached to the sepulchral ceremonies that the whole drama is made to turn.

The nephew accordingly appears at the tombs, performs his oblations as well as his poverty will admit, and invokes the shades of his ancestors to grant him their protections. He no sooner departs than the old man appears with his wife, expressing their indignation that their own daughter and son-in-law had neglected to come with the customary offerings. They observe, from the appearance at the sepulchre, that their nephew must have been there. The scene at the tombs, and the reflections of the old man thereon, have considerable interest ; he reasons with his wife, and convinces her the nephew is nearer in blood and more worthy the son-in-law ; she relents, and expresses a wish to make him reparation ; he appears, and a reconciliation takes place, and he is received back into the family. The son-in-law and daughter now enter with a great bustle and a procession, to perform the ceremonies, but are received with bitter reproaches for their tardy piety and ingratitude, and forbidden to enter the doors again.

On the old man’s birthday, however, they claim permission to pay their respects, when, to the boundless surprise and joy of the father, his daughter presents him with the long-lost handmaid and child, both of whom, it appears, had been secreted by the daughter, unknown to her jealous husband, who supposed they were otherwise disposed of. The daughter is taken back and the old man divides his money in three equal shares, between her, his nephew, and his newly-found-son,—the play concluding with expressions of joy and gratitude that the venerable hero of the price had obtained an "her in his old age."

This play furnishes us with a very good type of Chinese plays in general. The incidents are true to life, but very have no psychological interest about them. There is no delineation of character in it, and there is nothing in the plot to make it more appropriate for the groundwork of a play than for that of a novel.

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