For many centuries Chinese drama has enthralled all types of people. Drawing on the East Asian Collection of the University Library, this exhibition showcases rare books on the history of Chinese theatre.
The exhibition consists of three parts: the actor’s stagecraft in Chinese drama, the history of Chinese drama, and a comparative study between Chinese and Western drama. Familiarity with Chinese stage conventions is the key to appreciating Chinese drama. Understanding the historical roots of Chinese drama in comparison with Western drama provides new insights into the vicissitudes of theatrical studies.
Chinese drama continues to be a quintessential element of Chinese culture. The curtain of the stage is now raised!
In Chinese drama, theatrical conventions made up of movement, costumes, face-painting and props all convey meaning in abstract ways.
The fake beard is a distinctive part of the costume for many characters in Chinese drama. “Beard work” in Chinese drama refers to the skilful manipulation of the beard, tossing it in the air, grabbing it in a dramatic pose, and even flicking it outwards to indicate various emotions.
A horsewhip is a flexible cane with several tassels and a finder loop. It is used to indicate mounting, dismounting, riding and leading a horse.
Flags are usually used to convey a battlefield scene. Four triangular flags are inserted on the back of the performer and it is used to exaggerate the heroic demeanour of the character.
Pheasant tails are tools that the actor manipulates to express a wide range of emotions. The actors use two fingers on each hand to hold and bend the tails in various poses both in front of and behind themselves. They even clench the feathers in their teeth.
Actors use long sleeves, long tresses and handkerchiefs to convey internal emotional states from joy to anger in order to punctuate a scene with dramatic action.
The traditional Chinese opera stage is normally bare. A plain stage with only a table and two chairs can represent a courtroom, household, palace or even mountaintop.
Cloud whisks are used primarily by supernatural beings like Taoist immortals and religious characters.
Walking in circles means making a journey.
The stagecraft of Chinese theatre is to suggest rather than to completely present. The suggestion is enough to evoke the entire reality.
Chinese drama is a genre capable of treating any topics in great depth – love, war, religious conversion, political struggles and criminal investigations to name a few. Famous plays include:
- The Injustice to Dou E by Guan Hanqing
- Autumn in the Han Palace by Ma Zhiyuan
- Regency of the Duke of Zhou by Zheng Guangzu
- Rain on the Paulownia Tree by Bai Pu
- The West Chamber by Wang Shifu
- The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu
Comparative studies of Western and Chinese drama
The Orphan of Zhao赵氏孤儿
The Orphan of Zhao赵氏孤儿 was a play written by Ji Junxiang纪君祥in about 1330 AD. The play has revenge and retribution as its central themes. This piece was the first specimen of Chinese dramatic literature translated into a European language. There were five European adaptations in the 18th century: two in English, one in French, German, and Italian, respectively. The play is founded on an event which occurred in the middle of the 7th century BC. A military leader is determined on exterminating the whole Zhao family. A faithful dependent of the family saves the life of the orphan by concealing him and passing off his own child in his stead. The orphan is brought up ignorant of his real descent until he reaches manhood. Once the truth is revealed, he seeks vengeance for the death of his family against the usurpers and ultimately recovers his birthright.
Voltaire adapted the play and he had it acted in the Comédie-Française in August 1755. Voltaire used the play as a didactic tale of morality and he called the play “the morals of Confucius in five acts.”
Arthur Murphy had his adaptation produced at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in April 1759. He includes a letter to Voltaire with suggestions to improve the play.
Chen Shouyi states, “Each adaptation embodies some attempt at Europeanising the Chinese play. Particularly striking are the efforts made in observance of the Three Unities*. Both Voltaire and Murphy simplified the plot element and reduced the stage scenes. Voltaire embodied in the adaptation his admiration for ancient China, his confidence in the triumph of civilization over savagery. Murphy saw in it a fair chance for adapting and improving Voltaire.”
Studies in Chinese-Western Comparative Drama
Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1990
Available at Fisher Library General 895.1 13
Comparative research is a research methodology in social sciences that aims to make comparisons across different countries or cultures. Can you think of other areas of comparative studies?
History of Chinese drama
A History of Chinese Drama
London: Paul Elek Books Limited, 1976
Available at Fisher Library General 792.0951 4
Dr. William Dolby (杜为廉) was a lecturer in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. As one of the foremost experts on Chinese language, culture and history, Dr. Dolby was a leading pioneer in Chinese theatrical studies and published A History of Chinese Drama in 1976. It was one of the first substantial works of Chinese theatrical history in western countries.
Can you draw a timeline of Chinese theatrical developments using the table of contents?
The cover image is originally from China Illustrated drawn by Thomas Allom who was a famous British illustrator for travel books in the 19th century. The image depicts a Chinese drama performance. Full volumes of China Illustrated can be found in the Rare Books Collections at the Fisher Library.
This book is considered as the first monograph of Chinese theatrical studies. Wang Guowei (王国维) is one of the most renowned intellectual luminaries of modern China.
According to Wang’s research:
- The definition of Chinese drama must encompass “speech, action and singing in order to perform stories”.
- Chinese drama originated from witchcraft performances and temple rituals.
- Chinese drama matured in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD) and it embodied the value of “naturalness” which Wang considered as a universal standard for good literature.
Chinese drama is an indispensable part of Chinese folk culture. Rare books on folklore in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) and the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD) recorded some historical developments of Chinese drama.
南村辍耕录 Nan Cun Chuo Geng Lu
陶宗仪Tao Zongyi (1329–1410 AD)
Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 1959
Available at Fisher Library East Asian General EA 2700 3
都城纪胜 Du Cheng Ji Sheng
耐得翁 Nai Deweng (Song Dynasty)
Taibei: Taiwan shang wu yin shu guan, 1979
Available at Fisher Library East Asian General EA 9105 9
There were amusement quarters known as瓦舍washe ‘tile booths’ in the Song Dynasty where 雜劇zaju ‘variety plays’ were performed.
东京梦华录 Dong Jing Meng Hua Lu
孟元老 Meng Yuanlao (Song Dynasty)
Shanghai: Po ku chai, 1922
Available at Fisher Library Rare Books & Special Collections, EA 9100 3
Within瓦舍washe ‘tile booths’ were a number of棚 peng ‘awnings’ which could hold thousands of audience members.
梦粱录 Meng Liang Lu
吴自牧Wu Zimu (Song Dynasty)
Zhejiang: Zhejiang Ren min Chu Ban She, 1980
Available at Fisher Library East Asian General EA 2665.7 8
When you write academic essays, you need to provide primary and secondary sources to support your arguments. Are these books primary or secondary sources?
About the Curator
Jenny Zhijun Yang graduated with a Master of Art Curating with distinction at the University of Sydney in 2018. She graduated from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor of Arts in history and Asian studies in 2017, and was awarded the Summer Research Scholarship of the University of Auckland. Jenny is currently a gallery assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and was previously a gallery assistant at the Auckland Art Gallery. She also works as a collection manager for a private collector. She co-curated the Giuseppe Castiglione Print Exhibition（宫廷画师郎世宁）at the George Fraser Gallery in collaboration with the Auckland Art Gallery Foundation and the National Palace Museum of Taiwan in 2016. In 2018, she curated an exhibition on Thomas Allom, Perspectives of an outsider: Thomas Allom’s fascination with 19th century China with the University Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections, and gave a Rare Bites talk: Orientalism in Thomas Allom’ s engravings. Jenny has a Chinese heritage and her dream is to share Chinese civilization with others.
Fisher Library, level 3
From 29th August 2019
 Chen Shouyi, “The Chinese Orphan: A Yuan Play – Its Influence on European Drama of the Eighteenth Century,” in The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries edited by Adrian Hsia, 1998, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.
* Three Unities require a play to have a single action represented as occurring in a single place and within the course of a day. These principles were called unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time.