This document was written by Kate Buss and originally published in Studies in the Chinese Drama. New York: Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, 1922. pp. 17-21.

The birth year of the Chinese drama is unknown. Dates are variously suggested and disagreed upon and enclose a period of more than twenty-five centuries. The reason for this divergence of opinion is that while one writer considers the pantomimic dances--for religious worship or military jubilation--which were presented to musical accompaniment, a dramatic production, another wants to name the century of the initial stage performance until festival rites unite with speech in dramatic situation and an histrionic dénouement; or, one studies drama from the assumption of the aesthetic, and another, the anthropologist, considers physical trait and language and primitive custom to find in the emotional agreement in ceremony and ritual a dramatic presentation.

Like its other arts, a nation's drama is a development and is incepted, as they are, by civic and national ceremony. It is only the shortlived that is born completely functioning. And the tenacious Chinese drama can have had neither a definitely marked inception nor a conclusion for the early scribe to have noted, even in a country of remarkable literary antiquity and the habit of notation. From the cult of the dead Chinese drama has been developed by assimilation, by the patronage of succeeding emperors, and the corresponding conversion of the Chinese people. Historians say that music existed in China in B.C. 5400. Of China's second dynasty and its "Golden Age" B.C. 2205-1766, we read that religious worship was accompanied by music and dances which represented the occupations of the people--plowing and harvesting, war and peace; and that these dances illustrated the sensations of working, joy, fatigue, and content.

The Chou Ritual classic written several centuries before the time of Confucius states that six ceremonial dances were in vogue at that early period: "In the first, wands with whole feathers were waved--in the worship of the spirits of agriculture; in the second wands with divided feathers were used--in the ancestral temples; in the third feather caps were worn on the head, and the upper garments were adorned with kingfisher feathers--in blessing the four quarters of the realm; in the fourth yak-tails were used--in ceremonial for the promotion of harmony; in the fifth shields were manipulated--to celebrate military merit; in the sixth the bare hands were waved--in homage to the stars and constellations.

But the ceremonial dances chiefly in vogue were to celebrate, and partly to portray, civil and military accomplishment. "Royal music was of two kinds. If civil merit was to be celebrated the posturers grasped feather wands; if martial prowess, they grasped vermilion shields and jade (embossed) battle-axes. The jade signified virtue, and the shields benevolence, to inculcate clemency to those defeated." [1]

Here, without question, is action to an accompaniment of music. Speech and song were a later emanation. Gradually these dances expressed more license than litany and during the Chou dynasty, B.C. 1122-255, were forbidden in association with religious worship; they were then presented under separate ceremonials but continued to give honor to the same symbols. Elaborate and fantastic costumery and an increased ballet were added and pantomime had become a spectacle for popular entertainment, and was presented on a stage built for the purpose instead of in a temple.

Other early Chinese writers mention occurrences which establish the fact of some form of drama: we read of an emperor who lived seventeen hundred years before the Christian era who was commended for having forbidden certain stage conventions; another ruler of a pre-Christian dynasty was deprived of funeral honors because he was thought to have too much enjoyed the theatre; and a third emperor was advised to exclude actors from his court.

Emile Guimet [2] says that a Chinese theatre was established by an emperor about B.C. 700 and that the writers of that century applied themselves to the development of a poetic drama. Any literature which may have existed has been destroyed by succeeding rulers.

We find a more definite drama chronicle of the eighth century. The emperor Hsuan Tsung, or Ming Huang as he is commonly called from a posthumous title, established a school in the gardens of his palace to teach young men and women the arts of dancing and music, and probably chose his court entertainers from this group. Many actors of today associate themselves with this early imperial school and call themselves members of the College of the Pear Orchard. Ming Huang, who is said to have acted upon his own stage, is today's patron saint of all actors, and his statue, with incense burning before it, may be seen in Chinese greenrooms.

Plays during this century, which is sometimes called the first period of Chinese drama, focused on extraordinary themes, and anticipated the present heroic drama. It is probable that interest in the drama did not extend further than the Imperial court until the thirteenth century.

During the Yüan dynasty, founded in 1280 by the Mongol warrior Kublai Khan, drama, as it now exists in China, appears to have slipped into being as quietly as a fall of snow overnight, and as far as most historians are concerned with the subject, is an established fact only from this time. What actually happened in the thirteenth century was that divisions of subject and character were fixed and an enduring literature produced.

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1 W. Arthur Cornaby in "The New China Review" for March, 1919.

2 "Théatre Chinois."

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