Chinese Theater Part II

By | October 26, 2021

20th century – development of spoken theater

The spoken theater only became known at the beginning of the 20th century. One impulse came from the movement of May 4, 1919, with which spoken theater moved into the center of interest alongside prose; it seemed capable of illuminating everyday life, the problems of the individual and his social constraints. “Ibsenism” was the catchphrase for the demand to expose social grievances on stage.

It was not until the 1930s that spoken theater matured into an art form in its own right. Authors such as Cao Yu (Ts’ao Yü, * 1910, † 1996), Tian Han (T’ien Han, * 1898, † 1968), Guo Moruo (Kuo Mo-jo) and Ding Xilin (Ting Hsi-ling, * 1893, † 1974) were successful. Especially the dramas of Cao Yu distinguished themselves by their dramaturgical qualities. His play »Das Gewitter« (premiered in 1934, »Leiyu«; German) about the ruin of the Zhou family was China’s most popular spoken theater play until the 1960s. “The Sunrise” (premiered in 1935, “Richu”) about the brutality and mendacity of some of the pillars of urban society was staged for decades. His most mature drama is “Der Pekingmensch” (premiered in 1940, “Beijingren”; German) with an illustration of the crisis of traditional norms using the example of an old Beijing family.

The spoken theater emerged in China as a medium of social and political criticism. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the theater was given the opportunity to develop through much greater economic resources. But it was also faced with a communist party that no longer fought for power, but wielded it. The narrow spaces for expressing criticism were completely withdrawn from spoken theater.

Many well-known dramatists were barely productive after 1949 and instead took up posts in the cultural bureaucracy. Cao Yu, for example, became the artistic director of Beijing renmin yishu juyuan (Beijing renmin yishu juyuan) and made it the most important spoken theater stage in China, a country located in Asia according to Some playwrights dodged on historical subjects through which criticism was indirectly expressed; Tian Han, for example, wrote “Guan Hanqing” (first performance 1958; German).

Up until the Hundred Flower Movement in 1957, the theater was still able to perform its function as a critical mirror of society to a certain extent. Among other things, Lao She produced the drama »Das Teehaus« (first performance 1957; German), which shows the rise and fall of a Beijing tea house in the years 1898–1948 and shows a panopticon of society over the course of time with masterful characterizations. Much was hoped for, but mostly disappointed. With the end of the Hundred Flowers Movement, spoken theater as a living and independent art was largely silenced, until the Cultural Revolution.

Recent developments

After the Cultural Revolution, a new generation of dramatists emerged, including Gao Xingjian (Kao Hsing-chien). He wrote, inter alia. with »Die Busstation« (world premiere 1983; German) a drama about the futility of human action and the impossibility of meaningful communication. His play “Die Wilden” (world premiere 1985; German) is one of the few Chinese literary works about the exploitation of nature by civilization. Gao Xingjian’s main concern is to expand the performance possibilities of spoken theater. According to his criticism, this should make greater use of other (physical) means of expression in addition to spoken language. Gao Xingjian has lived in exile in Paris since 1988.

Also Sha Yexin (Sha-hsin Yeh, born 1939) is one of the most influential playwrights, with pieces such as “If I really would,” (premiered in 1979; German) and stage-effective elements of farce and satire. In addition, in recent years successfully Li Longyun (Li Lung-yun, * 1948; “wasteland and humans,” premiered in 1989, German) and Jin Yun (Chin Hsun, * 1938; “The nirvana of the dog’s” premiere in 1986, German).

Peking Opera

Peking | opera [Chinese jingxi »capital city theater«], the best-known and most widespread form of Chinese theater. In the western world, Peking Opera is often equated with this, but it is only one of the more than 300 forms of Chinese theater.

Peking Opera began around 1790, when many theater groups came to the capital for performances on the 80th birthday of Emperor Qianlong and the training of the Peking style began. The Peking Opera does not classify the characters according to voices, but according to types of representation with four basic roles: Sheng (male leading actor), Dan (female roles), Jing (warriors, bandits, statesmen, all with painted faces), Chou (clowns). Economical props are juxtaposed with complex, stylized sequences of movements with fixed meanings. The two-string string lute Er-hu (Erh-hu; corresponds to today’s violin Er-hu), the three-string plucked San-xian (San-hsien), lute, bamboo flute, oboe, drums, rattles, gongs and pairs of cymbals accompany the singers.

The several hundred pieces in the repertoire belong to either the Wen (civil) or Wu (military) category, depending on their plot. They mainly use fabrics from the time of the Yuan (1271–1368) and Ming dynasties (1368–1644). From 1949 the communists used the Peking Opera for their revolutionary propaganda. During the Cultural Revolution only contemporary pieces were performed; today the traditional repertoire is popular again. In 2010 the Peking Opera was declared an Intangible World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Peking Opera