1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Chinese Drama

(Part 3)

Chinese Drama

Like the Indian drama, the CHINESE arose from the union of the arts of dance and song. To the ballets and pantomimes out of which it developed itself, and which have continued to flourish by the side of its more advanced forms, the Chinese ascribe a primitive antiquity of origin ; many of them originally had a symbolical reference to such subjects as the harvest, and war and peace. A very ancient pantomime is said to have symbolized the conquest of China by Wou-Wang ; others were of a humbler, and often of a very obscure, character. To their music the Chinese likewise attribute a great antiquity of origin.

Though some tradition declare the emperor Wan-Te (fl. About 580 A.D.) to have drama, this honour is more usually given to the emperor Heun-Tsung (720 A.D.), who is likewise remembered as a radical musical reformer. Pantomimes henceforth fell into disrepute ; and the history of the Chinese drama from this date is divided , with an accuracy we cannot profess to control, into four distinct periods, of each of which the plays composed in it are stated to bear thee manifest impress. These are

I. That of the dramas composed under the Tang dynasty, from 720 to 907 A.D. These pieces, called Tchhouen-Khi, were limited to the representation of extraordinary events, and were therefore, in design at least, a species of heroic drama. The ensuing times of civil war interrupted the "pleasures of peace and prosperity" (a Chinese phrase for dramatic performances)—which, however, revived
III. Under the Sung Dynasty, from 960 to 1119.—The plays of this period are called Hi-Khio, and presented what became a standing peculiarity of the Chinese drama, viz, that in them figures a principal personage who sings.
V. The best known age of the Chinese drama was under the Kin and Y’uen dynastics, from 1125 to 1367. The plays of the period are called Yuen-Pen and Tsa-Ki ; the latter seem to have resembled the Hi-Khio, and to have treated very various subjects. The Yuen-Pen are the plays from which our literary knowledge of the Chinese drama is mainly derived ; the short pieces called Yen-Kia were in the same style, but briefer. The list of dramatic authors under the Yuen dynasty is tolerably extensive, comprising 85, among whom four are designated as courtesans ; the number of plays composed by these and by anonymous authors is reckoned at not less than 564. In 1735 the Jesuit missionary Prémare first revealed to Europe the existence of the tragedy Tchao-Chi-Cu-Eul (The Little Orphan of the Houses of Tchao), which was founded upon an earlier piece treating of the fortunes of an heir to the imperial throne, who was preserved in a mysterious box like another Cypselus or Moses. Voltaire seized the theme of the earlier play for a rhetorical tragedy, in which he coolly professes it was his intention "to paint the manners of the Chinese and the Tartars." The later play, which is something less elevated the rank of its characters, and very decidedly less refined in treatment, was afterwards retranslated by Stanislas Julien ; and to the labours of this scholar, of Sir J.F. Davis, and of Bazin, the elder, we owe a series of translated Chinese dramas, among which there can be no hesitation whatever in designating the master-piece. The justly famous Pi-Pa-Ki (The Story of he Lute) belongs to a period rather later than that of the Yuen plays, having been composed towards the close of the 14th century by Kao-Tong-Kia, and reproduced in1404, under the Ming dynasty, with the alterations of Mao-Tseu, a commentator of learning and taste. Pi-Pa-ki, which as a domestic drama of sentiment possesses very high merit, long enjoyed a quite exceptional popularity in China ; it was repeatedly republished with laudatory prefaces, and so late as the 18th century was regarded as a monument of morality, and as the master-piece of the Chinese theatre. It would seem to have remained without any worthy competitors, for although it had been originally designed to produce a reaction against the immortality of the drama then in fashion, especially of Wang-Chi-Fou’s celebrated Si-Siang-Ki (The Story of the Western Pavilion), yet
VII. The period of the Chinese drama under the Ming dynasty, from 1368 to 1644, exhibited no improvement "What" (says the preface to the 1704 edition of Pi-Pa-Ki) "do you find there? Farcical dialogue, a mass of scenes in which one fancies one hears the hubbub of the streets or the ignoble language of the highways, the extravagances of demons and spirits, in addition to love intrigues repugnant to delicacy of manners." Nor would it appear that the Chinese theatre has ever recovered from its decay.
In theory, no drama could be more consistently elevated in purpose and in tone than the Chinese. Every play, we learn, should have both a moral and a meaning. A virtuous aim is imposed upon Chinese dramatists by an article of the penal code of the empire ; and those who write immoral plays are to expect after death a purgatory which will last so long as these plays continue to be performed. In practice, however, the Chinese drama falls far short of its ideal ; indeed, according to the native critic already cited, among ten thousand playwrights not one is to be found intent upon perfecting the education of mankind by means of precepts and examples.

The Chinese are, like the Hindus, unacquainted with the distinction between tragedy and comedy ; they classify their plays according to subjects in twelve categories. It may be doubted whether what seems the highest of these is actually such ; for the religious element in the Chinese drama is often sheer buffoonery. Moreover, Chinese religious life as reflected in the drama seems one in which creed elbows creed, and superstitions are welcome whatever their origin. Of all religious traditions and doctrines, however, those of Buddism (which had reached China long before the known beginnings of its drama) are the most perceptible ; thus, the theme of absolute self-sacrifice is treated in one play,1 that of entire absorption in the religious life in another.2 The historical drama is not unknown to the Chinese ; and although a law prohibits the bringing on the stage of "emperors, empresses, and the famous princes, ministers, and generals of former ages," no such restriction is observed in practice. In Han-Kong-Tseu (The Sorrows of Han), for instance, which treats a national historical legend strangely recalling in parts the story of Esther and the myth of the daughter of Erechtheus, the Emperor Yuen-Ti (the representative, to be sure, of a fallen dynasty) plays a part, and a sufficient sorry one. By far the greater number, however, of the Chinese plays accessible in translations belong to the domestic species, and to that sub-species which may be called the criminal drama. Their favourite virtue is piety, of a formal3 of a practical4 kind, to parents or parents-in-law ; their favourite interest lies in the discovery of long-hidden guilt, and in the vindication of persecuted innocence. In the choicer and elaboration of such subjects they leave little to be desired by the most ardent devotees of the literature of agony. Besides this description of plays, we have at least one love-comedy pure and simple—a piece of a nature not "tolerably mild," but ineffably harmless.6

Free in its choice of themes, the Chinese is likewise remarkably unrestricted in its range of characters. Chinese society, it is well known, in not based, like Indian, upon the principle of caste ; rank is in China determined by office, and this again depends on the results of examination. These familiar facts are constantly brought home to the reader of Chinese plays. The Tchoang-Yuen, or senior classman on the list of licentiates, is the flower of Chinese society, and the hero of many a drama ;7 and it is a proud boast that for years "one’s ancestors have held high posts, which they owed to their literary successes."8 On the other hand, a person who had failed in his military examination, becomes, as if by a natural transition, a man-eating monster.9 But of mere class the Chinese drama is no respecter, painting with noteworthy freedom the virtues and the vices of nearly every phase of society. The same liberty is taken with regard to the female sex ; it is clear that in earlier times there were few vexatious restrictions in Chinese life upon the social intercourse between men and women. The variety of female characters in the Chinese drama is great, ranging from the heroine who sacrifices herself for the sake of an empire10 to the well brought-up young lady who avers that "woman came into the world to be obedient, to unravel skeins of silk, and to work with her needle"11—from the chambermaid who contrives the most gently sentimental of rendezvous,12 to the reckless courtesan who, like another Millwood, upbraids the partner of her guilt on his sueing for mercy, and bids him die with her in hopes of a re-union after death.13 In marriage the first or legitimate wife is distinguished from the second, who is at times a ci-devant courtesan, and towards whom the feelings of the former vary between bitter jealousy and sisterly kindness.15

The conduct of the plays exhibits much ingenuity, and an aversion from restrictions of time and place ; in fact. The nature of the plot constantly covers a long series of years, and spans wide intervals of local distance. The plays are divided into acts and scenes—the former being usually four in number, at times with an induction or narrative prologue spoken by some of the characters (Sie-Tsen). Favourite plays were, however, allowed to extend to great length ; the Pi-Pa-Ki is divided into 24 sections, and in another recession apparently comprised 42. "I do not wish," says the manager in the prologue, "that this performance should last too long ; finish it to-day, but cut out nothing,"—whence it appears that the performance of some plays occupied more than the single day. The rule was always observed that a separate act should be given up to the dénouement ; while, according to a theory of which it is not always easy to trace the operation, the perfection of construction was sought in the dualism or contrast of scene and some, just as the perfection of diction was placed in the parallelism or antithesis of phrase and phrase. Being subject to no restrictions as to what might, or might be represented on the stage, the conduct of the plots allowed of the introduced of almost every variety of incidents Death takes place, in sight of the audience, by starvation,16 by drowning17 by poison, by execution ;19 flogging and torture are inflicted on the stage ;20 wonders are wrought ;21 and magic is brought into play;22 the ghost of an innocently executed daughter calls upon her father to revenge her foul murder, and assists in person at the subsequent judicial enquiry.23 Certain peculiarities in the conduct of the business are due to the usages of society rather than to dramatic laws. Marriages are generally managed—at least in the higher spheres of society—by ladies professionally employed as matrimonial agents. The happy resolution of the nodus of the action is usually brought about by the direct interposition of superior official authority25—a tribute to the paternal system of government, which is the characteristic Chinese variety of the dues ex machine. This naturally tends to the favourite close of a glorification of the emperor,26 resembling that of Louis XIV. At the end of Tartuffe, or in spirit, at all events, those of the Virgin Queen in more than one Elizabethan play. It should be added that the characters save the necessity for a bill of the play by persistently announcing and re-announcing their names and genealogies, and the necessity for a book by frequently recapitulating the previous course of the plot.

One peculiarity of the Chinese drama remains to be noticed. The chief character of a play represents the author as well as the personage ; he or she is hero or heroine and chorus in one. Thus is brought about by the hero’s (or heroine’s) singing the poetical passages, or those containing maxims of wisdom and morality, or reminiscences and examples drawn from legend or history. Arising out of the dialogue, these passages at the same time diversify it, and give to it such elevation and brilliancy as it can boast. The singing character must be the principal personage in the action, but may be taken from any class of society. If this personage dies in the course of the play, another sings in his place. From the mention of this distinctive feature of the Chinese drama it will be obvious how unfair it would be to judge of any of its productions without a due appreciation of the lyric passages, which do not appear to be altogether restricted to the singing of the principal personage, for other characters frequently "recite verses." In these lyrical or didactic passages are to be sought those flowers of diction which, as Julian has shown, consist partly in the use of a metaphorical phraseology of infinite nicety in its variations—such as a long series of phrases compounded with the word signifying jet and expressing severally the ideas of rarity, distinction, beauty, &c., or as others derived from the names of colours, birds, beasts, precious metals, elements, constellations, &c., or alluding to favourite legends or anecdotes. These features constitute the literary element par excellent of Chinese dramatic composition. At the same time, though it is impossible for the untrained reader to be alive to the charms of so unfamiliar a phraseology, it may be questioned whether even in its diction the Chinese drama can claim to be regarded as really poetic. It may abound in poetic ornamented ; it is not, like the Indian, bathed in poetry.

On the other hand, the merits of this dramatic literature are by no means restricted to ingenuity of construction and variety of character—merits, in themselves important, which no candid criticism will deny to it. Its master-piece is not only truly pathetic in the conception and the main situation of its action, but includes of singular grace and delicacy of treatment—such as that where the re-married husband of the deserted heroine in vain essays in the presence of his second wife to sing his new lute, now that he has cast aside the old.1 In the last act of a tragedy appealing at once to patriotism and to pity, there is true imaginative power in the picture of the emperor, when aware of the departure but not of the death of his beloved, sitting in solitude broken only by the ominous shriek of the wild fowl.2 Nor is the Chinese drama devoid of humour. The lively Abigail who has to persuade her mistress into confessing herself in love by arguing (almost like Beatrice) that "humanity bids us love men";3 the corrupt judge (a standing type of the Chinese plays) who falls on his knees before prosecuting parties to a suit as before "the father and mother who give him sustenance,"4 may serve as examples ; and in Pi-Pa-Ki there is a scene of admirable burlesque on the still more characteristic theme of the humours of a competitive examination.5 If such illustrations could not easily be multiplied, they are at least worth citing in order to deprecate a perfunctory criticism on the qualities of a dramatic literature as to which our materials for judgment are still scanty.

While in the north of China houses are temporarily set apart for dramatic performances, in the south these are usually confined to theatres erected in the streets (Hi-Thaï). Thus scenic decorations of any importance must always have been out of question in the Chinese theatre. The costumes, on the other hand, are described as magnificent ; they are traditionally those worn before the 17th century, in accordance wit the historical colouring of most of the plays. The actor’s profession is not a respectable one in China, the managers being in the habit of buying children of slaves and bringing them up as slaves of their own. Women may not appear on the stage, since the emperor Khien-Long admitted an actress among his concubines ; female parts are therefore by lads, occasionally by eunuchs.


FOOTNOTE (p.401)

(1)The Self-Sacrificeof Tchao-Li.

(2) Laï-Seng Tchai (The Debt to be Paid in the Next World).

(3) Lao-Seng-Eul.

(4) Pi-Pa-Ki.

(5) the Circle of Chalk (Hoei-Lan-Ki); The Tunic Matched ; The Revenge of Teou-Ngo.

(6) Tchao-Meï-Hiang (The Intrigues of a Chambermaid).

(7) Ibid. ; Ho-Han-Chan ; Pi-Pa-Ki.

(8) Hoeï-Lan-Ki, Prol.sc.i.

(9) Tchao-Li.

(10) Sorrows of Han.

(11) Pi-Pa-Ki,sc.2.

(12) Tchao-Meï-Hiang.

(13) He-Lang-Tan, act iv ; cf. Hoeï-Lan-Ki, act iv.

(14) Hoeï-Lan-Ki.

(15) Pi-Pa-Ki.

(16) Pi-Pa-Ki, sc.15.

(17) Ho-Han-Chan, act ii.

(18) Hoeï-Lan-Ki, act i.

(19) Teou-Ngo-Yuen, act iii.

(20) Hoeï-Lan-Ki, act ii.

(21) Teou-Ngo-Yuen, act iii.

(22) Pi-Pa-Ki, sc.18.

(23) Teou-Ngo-Yuen, act iv.

(24) Tchao-Meï-Hang ; Pi-Pa-Ki.

(25) Hoeï-Lan-Ki.

(26) Ho-Han-Chan.

FOOTNOTE (p.402)

(1) Pi-Pa-Ki, sc. 14

(2) Sorrows of Han.

(3) Tchao-Meï-Kiang, act ii.; cf. Hoe_-Lan-Ki.

(5) Pi-Pa-Ki, sc.5.

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