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Chinese Drama


Chinese Drama mainly includes the Chinese modern drama introduced into China in 20th century and the traditional Chinese opera. Traditional Chinese Opera, is an important part of traditional Chinese culture. It also belongs to the three greatest ancient dramas in the world (the other two are the ancient Greek tragicomedy and ancient Indian brahma drama). Thus, the history of China is also the history of Chinese Opera. The origin of the Chinese Opera can be traced back to Qin and Han Dynasties. It takes shape in Song and Yuan Dynasties though. The mature Chinese Opera starts from the Yuan Dynasty. In Ming and Qing Dynasties, it reached the prime times until modern days.


Southern Opera of Song and Yuan Dynasties


It appeared approximately in Wenzhou of Zhejiang province and Quanzhou and Fuzhou of Fujian province in the late Northern Song Dynasty and Early Southern Song Dynasty. As the early form of Chinese Opera, the Southern Opera integrated singing, dancing, and narration to tell a complete story. As the story plot can be quite complicated, the script was usually long, several times longer than the Northern Yuan Drama. Mainly using the southern singing tunes, the Southern Opera can be solo, antiphonal singing, or chorus. The major instrument was clapper board.


Famous Masterpieces: Number One Scholar Zhang Xie, Story of Official Family's Children, Little Sun Tu, The Story of Pipa, The Story of White Rabbit, The Romance of A Hairpin, The Pavilion for Worshiping the Moon, and The Story of Dog Killing.


Yuan Dynasty Drama


Yuan Dynasty Drama, also referred as the Northern Tune Drama, first originated in Zhending of Hebei province and Pingyang of Shanxi province and prevailed in Yuan Dynasty. As the first mature form of Chinese Opera, Yuan Dynasty Drama has high literary value, rich ideological content and great artistic attainment. It's no wonder that Yuan Dynasty Drama is equated with Tang Dynasty Poetry, Song Dynasty Peams and Novels of Ming and Qing Dynasties. Yuan Dynasty Drama has a wide range of themes and topics. To avoid troubles, the dramatists in Yuan Dynasty usually used historical stories to reflect the real matters.


Many of such works vividly demonstrated the life styles of Yuan Dynasty society:

1. Reveal the Darkness of Society.

Works like The Injustice to Dou E, Lu Zhailang, and Selling Rice in Chenzhou boldly fustigated the autocracy and dirty politics of Yuan dynasty, and revealed the dark society and common people's sufferings in the double oppression of Mongolian rulers and privileged class.


2. Manifest the Heroism and Praise People's Resistance

Works like Double Contributions of Li Kui and Li Kui Carrying Rods are mainly to praise the resisting heroes.


3. Describe the love and relationships and reflect the women's issues.

Some works mainly described young people's romance and their struggles of pursuing free love and marriage. The "four great love romances" The Romance of West Chamber, The Pavilion for Worshiping the Moon, Pei Shaojun And Li Qianjun, and Beauty Lost Her Soul have the shared anti-feudal theme and reflected the women's wish and pursuit of free love. Some pieces like Night Rain and Qiuhu Teasing His Wife exposed the men's infidelity and women's struggles. There are also works uncovering the miserable lives and struggles of prostitutes, such as The Rescue of a Courtesan and Golden Thread Pool.


4. Praise the Faithful and the Upright.

Works like Wutian Tower, Dong Chuang Shi Fan, and The Orphan of the Zhao Family are placed with the people's wishes of bad people being punished for their faults.

Yuan Dynasty Drama also has novel forms that show a high level of attainments in story structures, characterization and languages. It marked the maturity of Chinese opera.


Artistic characteristics of Yuan Dynasty Drama:

1.Realism is the mainstream of Yuan Dynasty works, but there are also works of positive romanticism. Many Yuan dramas not only described people's sufferings, but also their resistance. The dramatists usually let people win in those works to express their good wishes. While the arrogant and powerful figures in those works are usually given proper punishment in the end.


2.In terms of story structure, many excellent dramatists can carefully set the suspense, concentrate the conflicts, highlight the main line and plot a compact and ever-changing story. Therefore, many Yuan dramas have strong dramatic effects.


3.A lot of typical characters with distinctive personality were created in the Yuan Dynasty Dramas, which is an important sign for the maturity of Yuan Drama. Excellent scriptwriters like Guan Hanqin, Wang Shifu, Kang Jinzhi and Ji Junxiang were all able to arrange the plot based on the inevitability of characters' personality change, then put those characters in the drastic dramatic conflicts to reveal their full traits in diverse artistic means. Thus, a vivid character is fully presented before audiences’ eyes.


4.Yuan Dynasty Drama used a rich and strongly expressive language. In those works, a large amount of folk languages were used together with the literary language, making the work more popular, straightforward and lively. This is a distinct change of Chinese literature creation changing from classic language to vernacular Chinese. Some dramatists like Guan Hanqing and Kang Jinzhi stressed on the natural languages, while others like Wang Shifu and Ma Zhiyuan stressed on the literary grace.


Legends of Ming and Qing Dynasties


In Ming Dynasty, the opera became very popular among all classes. The most popular operas were Kunshan Tune and Liyang Tunes.

The opera performances in the court were mainly organized by the Jiaofang (imperial musical department) in early Ming Dynasty. Since Wanli Emperor's reign, institutions like "Si Zhai" and "Yuxi Palace" were set to organize and arrange such performances. Sometimes, the folk opera troupes were summoned to perform for emperors and their families. While the aristocracies and minsters also have private troupes in their houses. Some even made their own scripts and personally rehearsed the performance. Their strict requirements had driven the development of Chinese opera at that time.

The commons could only enjoy operas in certain occasions like temple fairs. The water stage and land stages were already existed. Many opera masters came from the folk troupes. The scale of opera performance in Ming Dynasty greatly exceeded that of Song and Yuan Dynasties.


In terms of music, different sound has different features. Kunshan Tune epitomized the melodious, delicate southern tune and the exciting, impassioned northern tune to form its own unique singing style. The collocation of tunes and arrangements were more complete and standardized. The performing skills of the performers became more sophisticated to achieve a high degree of characterization and dramatization. The instruments used in the opera performance and the organizing of the band were richer and more complete, so that the certain piece of opera could be performed rhythmically. It had set an example for the opera performance in later generations.


While the Yiyang Tunes stress more words and less sound. Based on this principle, "vocal accompaniment" and "Gundiao (rolling tunes)" were created. The former one was a vocal music art combining the solo and chorus, it made up for the lack of instrumental accompaniment in Yiyang Tunes and enriched the performing forms, rendering the emotions of the characters and setting the atmosphere. While the latter one mainly sung the plain and easy-to-understand words to increase the rhythm changes and help to express more freely. Most Yiyang Tunes only used gongs and drums as instruments. As many Yiyang Tunes were performed in temple fairs or public squares where many people watch. Thus, the early works of Yiyang Tunes were mainly historical dramas that involved a lot of characters and lively scenes. Thus, the Yiyang Tunes were high-spirited overall. They also had a profound impact on the later operas in high-pitched tunes.


In terms of performing, the character roles were more clearly divided, which was undoubtedly the key to enrich and improve the opera performing. Especially in the Kunshan Tune, the 7 kinds of character roles in southern operas were expanded to 12, making each performers dedicated to focus on one specific kind of character and perform better. Therefore, the performing artists can create many distinctive characters with typical personality.

The Yiyang Tunes were not as refined as the Kunshan Tune, but they also have their own styles and achievements. Yiyang Tunes paid attention to the audience's acceptance ability, they took effort to use the vivid narration to enliven the stage atmosphere. They stressed on the dramatization and action of performance to avoid the solo lyrics in some traditional southern operas. The performers of Yiyang Tunes also valued the character's inner portrayal, which often made viewers sob with the character's suffering. As historical dramas often required martial arts and acrobatics, the scenes of Yiyang Tunes were usually rough and unique.


Local Operas in Qing Dynasty


The Local Operas in Qing Dynasty is the third stage of the classical opera. It has the common art form with the modern opera. In late Kangxi era, all kinds of local operas began to emerge and in Qianlong's age, those local operas could compete with the Kun Tune. In late Qianlong's reign, local operas overwhelmed the Kun Tune and became the dominating operas. Peking Opera is formed during the reigns of Tongzhi and Guangxu.

The Local Operas in Qing Dynasty mainly had a strong and mournful style. Musical systems dominated by the plate-type instruments were created, along with that was the creation of the new literary forms of drama. Meanwhile, the structures of the drama scripts were more rigorous, and easy for audiences to accept. However, the languages used in the local operas were miscellaneous and inaccurate.

There were a large number of local operas. According to the data of national operas in 1965,  there were 51,867 pieces of traditional operas, tens of thousands of them belonged to local operas in Qing Dynasty. As those operas were created by the peasants or rural artisans, they were closely related to people's common life and popular among people. Most of them were created based on the historical events and novels. Some were based on the Yuan dramas, legends, and stories. There were many types of opera works, like historical operas, women's operas, operas of love and marriage, operas of legal cases, mythical operas, witty operas and others that couldn't be classified.


Modern Chinese Drama and Opera


In early 20th century, the western drama was introduced into China. During the May 4th movement, the traditional morality and classical Chinese were criticized, while the democracy and science were advocated. New morality and vernacular writing were the new trend. Along with this trend formed the new drama form "Dian Drama". During this period, the Chinese modern drama absorbed and learned from the western drama and shifted from the inclusiveness of all schools to emphasizing the reality. Driven by the time spirit, the Chinese modern drama performers took the responsibility of arousing Chinese people's sensation and patriotism to save the country by performing grief and resisting dramas. With a dozen years of exploration, the Chinese modern drama finally found its own way and became mature.

Main characteristics: Learning from the western drama and based on the Chinese cultural soil, the modern Chinese drama integrated the drama performing with the needs of Chinese society to create a popular drama form. There were a lot of great dramatists like Cao Yu and Xia Yan. The professional troupes began to appear and the performing art gradually reached the world class.

After the May 4th cultural movement, the traditional operas were severely criticized. Since then, Chinese Opera entered the modern era. The forming of Peking Opera is the result of popularization of local operas in Qing Dynasty. Even after Peking Opera became the representative of national operas, local operas continued to develop. According to incomplete statistics, there are about 360 types of operas in various regions of China and tens of thousands of traditional opera pieces. Among all these operas, Peking Opera, Cantonese Opera, Huangmei Opera, Ping Opera and Yu Opera are regarded as the five major Chinese operas. Each local opera has its own audiences. People far from their hometown relieve their homesickness by listening and watching their hometown opera.


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