|Yuan Dynasty Zaju
|By staff reporter HUO JIANYI
portrait of Guan Hanqing.
|OVER 700 years ago the Mongolian cavalry crossed
the Yangtze River from the northern grasslands and invaded southern
In 1279, the conquerors marched on to the South China Sea
coast and cornered the fleeing Southern Song emperor and his ministers.
On being confronted by certain capture and death, minister Lu Xiufu,
with 7-year-old emperor on his back, jumped from their boat, and
they were soon submerged. The Song Dynasty, founded 320 years ago,
|Born of a Particular Era
The Yuan Dynasty was the first ethnic minority political power to
unify China. Yuan, meaning "broad new horizon," comes from
the Chinese philosophical work, The Book of Changes,and was chosen
by a Han official named Liu Bingzhong by order of the Mongol emperor
Kublai. This task did not, however, denote respect for Han scholars
by the Yuan rulers, and the title itself by no means foretold their
good fortune in the new dynasty. Liu Bingzhong was one of the few
Han officials of the early Yuan Dynasty accorded trust by the new
governance, and this was solely by virtue of his family background.
Liu's forefathers had served as officials in the Liao (Qidan) regime,
and his father was an official in the Mongol regime prior to the founding
of the Yuan Dynasty.
An ancient painting
depicting Yuan Zaju.
In their expeditions, the Mongol rulers found the Southern Song
troops to be weak, and the Han scholars intractable. After the Yuan
Dynasty unified China, therefore, its rulers adopted unprecedentedly
The nomadic Yuan rulers despised the old traditions of the Central
Plains area, and made staggeringly drastic changes, one of which was
institution of a complex social hierarchy in which racial discrimination
dominated. The people were divided into the four categories of Mongol,
Colored Eyes (Uighurs, Turks and other Central Asian allies), Han
(who lived in areas north of the Yangtze River, Sichuan and Yunnan)
and Southerners (the Han who lived in the territory of the Southern
Song). These categories were further subdivided into ten classes:
government officials, functionaries, monks, Taoist priests, doctors,
engineers, artisans, prostitutes, scholars, and beggars. The position
of Han scholars within this hierarchy -- between prostitutes and beggars
-- is self-explanatory. The term "Old ninth" is thus synonymous
with Yuan Dynasty intellectuals.
Rain on the Chinese
Parasol Tree -- the bittersweet tale of Lady Yang and Emperor
Xuanzong and their tragic love affair during the Tang Dynasty
|The Butterfly Dream
tells of Bao Zheng, an upright Prime Minister of the Southern
Song Dynasty, and how he upholds justice by punishing corrupt
tyrants and clearing ordinary citizens of false charges.
shown at a French cinema introducing Chinese traditional dramas.
(sword-and-horse female role) has evolved from the Yuan Zaju
|Beyond the Yuan rulers' expectations, their suppression
of Han intellectuals led to the development and popularity of the
Zaju dramatic art form.
Zaju was popular as early as the Song (960-1279) and Jin (1115-1234)
dynasties, but it was in the Yuan Dynasty that it truly emerged
and brought China's performance art to its zenith.
In the face of their "under-class" social status, Han
scholars of the Yuan Dynasty were forced to adopt new ways of life
in order to survive. Some went to remote mountainous areas to live
as hermits, others became farmers, and some continued to live in
the city on the proceeds of selling their calligraphic works and
paintings. Among them, a particular group -- playwrights or cairen--
appeared. Their legacy of dramatic works has won for them a place
among master dramatists in world history.
Many of these playwrights were forced by the Yuan rulers to work
for theaters and brothels. These talented and learned men were never
known to indulge in wine or women, despite working within an environment
where such vices were a way of life. Observers of social injustice
and human suffering, they served as a mouthpiece for the toiling
masses, evading restrictions imposed by the Yuan rulers to speak
out on behalf of the broad masses of the people through their plays.
|Guan Hanqing, founder of Zaju, was born in Qizhou
(present-day Anguo City), Hebei Province. In his youth he worked as
a doctor, but gave up this profession and chose to write plays that
exposed the dark side of society. He created 67 Zaju works, 18 of
which are still performed.
The Injustice Done to Dou E (also known as Snow in Midsummer)
is one of Guan Hanqing's representative works. It tells of a girl
named Dou E to whom a local tyrant takes a fancy and wishes to marry.
On refusing to be his wife, Dou E is falsely charged with murder,
and sentenced to death. At her execution, she proclaims her innocence,
saying that on being beheaded her blood will spurt high enough to
stain a piece of white gauze hanging overhead, that snow will fall
in midsummer, and that the region will be hit by drought for three
years in succession. All these phenomena occur exactly as she foretells.
Three years later, her father comes back as judge and conducts a
re-trial of this case, and clears Dou E of the false charge.
Since ancient times, emperors had regarded themselves as sons
of heaven and the most honored of mortals, but Guan Hanqing exposed
the injustice of heaven, earth and society through the words uttered
by Dou E: "Those who are kind are poor and die young, while
evil-doers enjoy wealth and longevity. Heaven and earth both bully
the weak and fear the strong, not daring to go against the flow.
Earth, you make no distinction between right and wrong; and Heaven,
you mistake the wise for the foolish."
Guan Hanqing wrote in a biographical melody entitled Do Not Give
in to Old Age: "I am a copper pea that can withstand steaming,
boiling, hammering and stir-frying." He went on: "I will
never stop no matter what misfortunes befall me, whether my teeth
fall out, my mouth turns crooked, my legs are crippled, or my arms
In another drama, The Rescue of a Courtesan, Guan Hanqing celebrated
Zhao Pan'er, a prostitute who was ready to take up cudgels for a
just cause. The woman he depicted was sympathetic, intelligent and
True to his word, Guan Hanqing was like a copper pea the Yuan
rulers could not swallow, and he was not alone in this respect.
A number of playwrights like Guan Hanqing resisted the Yuan rulers
in various ways. They cited past events to disparage the present,
and honored ancient uprisings to demonstrate the strength and determination
of the oppressed. There were dramas depicting comeuppance for evildoers,
encouraging the people to do good deeds, and also those that showed
their yearning for a happy life and true love. Outstanding dramatists
of the time included Bai Pu, Wang Shifu, Ma Zhiyuan, Zheng Guangzu
and Gao Ming.
|A Country Bumpkin Knowing Nothing of the Theater
by Du Renjie portrays street performances of Yuan Zaju. The drama
tells of the Zaju style, technique and costumes through the eyes of
a farmer coming to the city for the first time.
He sees in the
street a mobile theater enclosed by a wooden enclosure. The walls
around the door are adorned with colorful posters. In the street
the sound of gongs and drums can be heard from inside the theater,
whose entrance is crowded with people. The gatekeeper shouts, "Roll
up, roll up! Quick before we sell out! Today's play is Settling
a Love Quarrel, followed by 'Liu Shuahe'."
The farmer pays 200 cash and enters the theater, which has a round
stage surrounded by tiered seats, like a circus. The performance
has not yet started. Several female artisans sit on the stage, beating
drums and gongs.
Before the drama 'Settling a Love Quarrel" starts, a clown
performs. He wears a colorful cloth robe, a black kerchief around
his head, and a long pin through his hair. His face is made up in
black and white. He sings and dances, and does various conjuring
tricks. The drama then begins, to the accompaniment of music played
on traditional stringed and woodwind instruments.
There are three roles in this play: Squire Zhang, Second Younger
Brother, and a young lady. The plot unfolds in the city, where the
elderly Squire Zhang and Second Younger Brother are taking a stroll.
On seeing a pretty young lady a licentious idea comes to Squire
Zhang. He decides he wants to take the young lady as his wife, assuming
his wealth will secure her consent, and asks Second Younger Brother
to act as matchmaker. The young lad ridicules Squire Zhang, who
fails to win the lady, and makes a spectacle of himself in the attempt.
Shamed into anger, Squire Zhang swings a cudgel, making the audience
gasp in fear for the young lad's life, but to everyone's surprise
and relief, the cudgel breaks in two and spins harmlessly out of
sight, arousing gales of laughter.
The farmer is fascinated by the drama, but has to visit the bathroom.
Unable to find one, he leaves in disgust.
Yuan Zaju performances were strictly ordered. Performances proceeded
continuously, with no curtain rise or fall between acts. Dramas
were in four acts -- a beginning, a small climax, a big climax,
and the finale.
Roles comprised mo (male roles), dan (female roles) and jing (clown
or devil), each category further subdivided according to the portrayed
age and prominence of roles.
Zaju performances comprise both singing and talking. Only the
leading actor/actress sings, while the minor characters either speak
or just appear.
|In summarizing the relationship between Yuan Zaju
and the contemporary world it might be said that Zaju is "distant,
yet present," -- distant because it disappeared 600 years ago,
but present because it is as enjoyable today as in 13th century China.
Peking Opera, which is a distillation of various forms of Chinese
drama, has 3,800 titles, but only a small number are actually staged.
Most of the classical pieces, such as The Injustice Done to Dou
E, Zhao Family Orphan, The West Chamber,River-watching Pavilion,
Zhaojun Goes Out of the Pass, and Attending a Meeting Single-handed,
were adapted from Yuan Zaju. Some dramas, such as Zhao Family Orphan
and Chalk Circle, were successfully introduced to Europe centuries
Kunqu, now designated as world cultural heritage, has a repertoire
of more than 400 dramas, one quarter of which came from Yuan Zaju.
It is worth recalling that although the Yuan rulers and the Han
scholars were at opposite ends of the social scale, and waged life-and-death
struggles, they all had the same eventual destination -- the grave.
Yuan Zaju has, however, survived to this day. To date, more than
160 Yuan Zaju titles have been discovered, and more are sought,
as according to historical records a total 450 Zaju were written
in the Yuan Dynasty.
Chinatoday--- February 2003