Theater in China
Chinese theater dates back to the dynastic period and has a long history. While there are many different types of dramatic arts in China, the bulk of the art is now referred to as Chinese opera. Other categories of Chinese theater, all of which date back to the Shang Dynasty, are shadow plays, mimes, and acrobatics.
Shadow puppetry first became popular during the Ling Dynasty. There were two different schools of shadow plays at the time, Pekingese (northern) and Cantonese (southern). What differentiated the styles were not the stories they told or the content of the play, but how the puppets were crafted. The Cantonese puppets were large and were made of leather. Color was used to symbolize character traits, for example, red stood for bravery, while black stood for honesty. The Pekingese puppets were smaller and were painted with rich colors. All of the puppets had detachable heads, which were stored in fabric-lined boxes. This was practiced due to an old superstition that if the heads were left on the puppets, they would come to life during the night.
The operatic tradition began during the Three Kingdoms era in China, but was not an organized entity until the Tang Dynasty, where Emperor Xuanzong (712-755) started the first opera troupe in China. The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) brought a new form of opera called Zaju that implemented rhyme schemes and the use of stereotyped characters. The most popular form of opera is Beijing opera, where traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments accompany the acting. Actors in Beijing operas are highly trained and rely on stereotyped motions. Their gestures, foot movements and other body language are as exact as speaking, and can express anything from riding a horse to opening a door.
During the early 1900s, many young Chinese came home from studying abroad and brought with them strong influences from Western theater. Cao Yu was one of the major playwrights of this time, in which the strict motions of Beijing opera were cast aside. The beginnings of the People’s Republic of China brought on much disillusionment for the theater. The Cultural Revolution brought on the persecution of many playwrights and the disbanding of most opera troupes. All operas were blacklisted except for eight “model operas”, and all Western-style plays were condemned.
After the Cultural Revolution, plays that had been banned were revived and new works were written and performed. A large amount of these plays dealt with the controversial issues of the Communist Party’s misuse of power.