This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 103-6.

IT is the opinion of modern scholars that drama was not native to China, but was introduced, probably in rather an advanced state, by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. During the one-hundred and sixty-eight years of the Kin and Yuen dynasties the most celebrated plays were written. A famous collection known as the Hundred Plays of the Yuen Dynasty is preserved, and the titles of about six-hundred others are known, as well as the names of eighty-five playwrights. Three of these authors were women belonging to a class similar to the Greek heteræ. During this period (1200-1368) the style of acting, the subjects to be treated, and the general conduct of the theater were determined. The Chinese stage at the beginning of the twentieth century was practically the same as that of seven hundred years ago.

Theory of Chinese drama. The ideal of the Chinese stage was that every play should have a moral. An article in the penal code of the Empire requires every dramatist to have "a virtuous aim." Both prose and verse are often used in the same play. The best plots satisfy the rule regarding unity of action, and many of them also observe the unities of time and place, although the Chinese knew nothing of Aristotle's theories concerning the elements of structure. Many of the plays are short, a half-hour or so in length; and the longer ones are divided into acts and scenes. It is the custom in many places to give a series of short plays without any intermission, so that a performance sometimes lasts for several hours. In such a case of course there is no attempt at maintaining a single unified action. The second play may take up the career of a new hero after the first one has been killed or defeated, thus carrying the spectator over long distances and through many years. In order to keep the thread of the action clear, each important character pauses occasionally to announce his name and lineage, and perhaps to rehearse the course of the plot. A singular feature of the Chinese play is the singing actor, to whom are given the most poetic and beautiful passages. Like the Greek chorus, he sometimes repeats the chief events of the play, and moralizes upon the conduct of the characters.

Subjects of Chinese Drama. The field of the Chinese playwright is broad, as he has a choice of historical or contemporary affairs from which to draw his plots. He may portray parental or filial goodness, national vices and weaknesses, official corruption, difficulties and delays connected with the law courts, and the absurdities into which religious fanatics are drawn. Love stories are comparatively rare. National customs, such as arranging marriage through an agent and determining official rank by means of examination, are inexhaustible sources of comic action. Avarice is often ridiculed. There are burlesques on Buddhism, a religion to which nearly four-fifths of the nation subscribe. No class or section is exempt from the laughter of the stage. As the gods often intervene in Greek plays, so in a Chinese play the Emperor often saves the heroine from an unfortunate marriage, or an innocent victim from death. It is technically illegal, however, to represent the person of the Emperor on the stage.

One of the most revolting features of Chinese drama is the frequent representation of scenes of violence. Suffering and death by starvation, drowning, poison, flogging, hanging, and torture have been exhibited for centuries, and it is the distinction of many a famous actor that he can most vividly depict the intense sufferings incident to these punishments. Suicide is a custom honored in China, and therefore often seen on the stage. When an actor is about to kill himself, he sings a long chant before committing the deed; but whatever disasters occur, the end must be happy.

In general, Chinese drama is comparatively weak in the logical development of plot and in the delineation of character. Great stress, however, is laid upon verbal decoration and poetical ornament. There are pleasing contrasts between parallel scenes, and parallelism of language, as in the Psalms. In many passages a single word is played with, compounds being made upon the root, so that a speech in praise of a flower or of a royal person becomes an intricate linguistic labyrinth, like an English acrostic or anagram.

The Chinese stage usually has little scenery, no curtain, flies, or wings. The costumes of the actors are gorgeous and costly, of brocade or heavy silk, often embroidered and set with semi-precious stones. If, in the course of a performance, an actor has to travel to another country, he goes through the motions of cantering for a few paces, cracks his whip, dismounts, and announces: "I have now reached the country of So-and-So." A property man in ordinary dress, regarded as "honorably invisible" by everybody, remains on the stage all the time, providing articles needed by the actors. The latter have their tea on the stage; and dead men rise and walk away when their scene is ended.

The player does not stand high in the social scale in China. Neither he nor his descendants for three generations may compete in the public examinations for civil office. Since the eighteenth century women have been forbidden to appear on the stage, and women's parts are taken by young men. [1] Those who would enter the profession of acting must undergo severe discipline from an early age, and must submit to the strictist physical training in respect to diet, acrobatic feats, contortions, and walking with bound feet in imitation of high-born women. There are five classes of actors, each being trained for certain stage types; and each actor is assigned to his own type. The regular companies consist of fifty-six actors, and every member must know from one hundred to two hundred plays. There is no prompter at the performance.

Famous Chinese plays. Not until the eighteenth century did any knowledge of Chinese drama come to Europe. In 1735 a Jesuit priest named Joseph Prémaire brought to France the translation of an old work called The Little Orphan of the House of Tchao. The play from which he had made his translation was of the fourteenth century; and it had been taken, he said, from a still earlier piece. Voltaire, who was writing plays about the time Prémaire brought this translation to Paris, declared The Little Orphan to be a masterpiece, far superior to anything that had been produced in Europe as early as the fourteenth century. Voltaire appropriated the plot for himself, calling his play L'Orphelin de Chine. The action of the piece hinges upon the sacrifice of a mandarin and his wife, who yield their own son to the enemy in order to save the heir to the throne. At the final moment, when the child is about to be beheaded, the mother in her agony of grief rushes upon the scene and tells the conquering invader the truth. He is impressed by her beauty and spirit; tries by immoral means to cajole her; but at last is conquered by her youth and virtue.

A celebrated play, reprinted in countless versions, called The Story of the Magic Lute, is also from the fourteenth century. The Sorrows of Han, whose plot resembles the story of Esther of bibilical fame, is said to date from before the Christian era. The Emperor in this play was a historical character, living about 42 B.C. The story is plainly designed to expose the evil consequences of luxury and self-indulgence, and the worthlessness of monarchs who neglect the welfare of their people. It is in five acts, contains many beautiful songs, and is a great national favorite.

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1 All of the specifics in this paragraph are as of the original publication of this article which first appeared in 1927.

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