Notes on the Chinese theater

Notes on the Chinese theater

The Chinese were extremely fond of theatrical performances. According to their traditions these originated in the time of Emperor Ming Huang of the Tang dynasty, later revered as the patron saint of actors, without whose help it is considered that no actor can perform well.

Most Chinese plays are very lengthy in time, generally lasting from several hours to several days. Except in some large cities there were no theaters as such, and the plays were performed on a simple stage, sometimes next to a temple, and sometimes erected for the performance and dismantled at the end of it.

The main components of a performance were the actors, their costumes and the music. The actors used to recite before the audience their identity and character, the music accompanied the performance, being especially heard in the intermissions and in the moments of maximum tension, the costumes, generally very luxurious and expensive, were the main distinctive of each company.

The actors were a caste apart in Chinese society, always wandering from one place to another, were framed in theatrical companies generally organized by a wealthy person as a means of investment, someone able to provide the necessary capital to acquire the expensive costumes. The actors were divided into classes, the members of each of which were paid according to their category. The main categories were the lao-sheng, who represented first-class historical characters, the hu-sheng, who represented legendary characters, and the xiao-sheng or third category who represented other historical characters. After them were the secondary characters: ladies, officials, etc., the hua-lien, or clowns, representing evil characters, and accompanying characters: soldiers, messengers, etc.  Many of the actors began this profession as apprentices, generally children of poor families, whose parents enrolled them in a company at a young age to guarantee them at least the sustenance for a few years.

In addition to the professional actors, there were amateur companies, the so-called small theaters, which took advantage of the time of scarce agricultural activity to carry out theatrical performances in nearby areas.

In the villages the theater was the only form of public entertainment, apart from the two or three days of annual festivals. That is why people in the villages had such a great fondness for these performances that any pretext or event seemed to be good to organize the corresponding performance. The recovery from an illness by one of the wealthy members of the community, an offering to some divinity by a village that was considered to have been favored by it, the compromise of peace between two feuding families, or simply that the community had money to spare and decided to hire a performance. The great commercial fairs and religious festivals celebrated periodically in larger population centers were invariably accompanied by theatrical performances, some of them with more than 10,000 spectators. In some areas it was such a waste of money that magistrates went so far as to prohibit them in an attempt to get people to spend their money on more productive activities for the common good. 

When the news was known that a theatrical performance was going to be held in a certain village, all the people who in some way could be considered related to it, daughters married in nearby villages, acquaintances living in the vicinity, business and commercial relations, immediately programmed the way to attend the performance, for which they hoped to count on lodging and food at the home of friends who were not always happy.

Many of the most popular plays dealt with matters of general interest, often related to recent events in local history, national current affairs or a series of historical events known in their dramatized version by all Chinese, which lead the spectators to witness live the highlights of their history.  The plot of many of these plays, usually sung on stage in a falsetto not always intelligible to the spectators, was sold printed in small notebooks before the performances.

Perhaps the Chinese found in these performances that aspects of their real and imagined lives took shape by presenting them with a reflection of their own existences, which allowed them to consider them from a certain distance, for as the proverb says, «The world is only a stage, why should people take life as real?»

This information comes mainly from Arthur H. Smith, Village Life in China. Fleming H. Revell. New York. 1899

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Notes on the Chinese theater," in Ethnic China, 2 junio 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/notes-on-the-chinese-theater/.
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