Yuan Dynasty Zaju
By staff reporter HUO JIANYI
A portrait of Guan Hanqing.
OVER 700 years ago the Mongolian cavalry crossed the Yangtze River from the northern grasslands and invaded southern China.

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, thus ended.

Born of a Particular Era

An ancient painting depicting Yuan Zaju.

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.

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 stringent policies.


Rain on the Chinese Parasol Tree -- the bittersweet tale of Lady Yang and Emperor Xuanzong and their tragic love affair during the Tang Dynasty An-Shi Rebellion.

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.
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. A film shown at a French cinema introducing Chinese traditional dramas. The daomadan (sword-and-horse female role) has evolved from the Yuan Zaju "kehang."
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.

"Wrathful Art"
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 broken."

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 courageous.

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.

Zaju Performances
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.

Shining Eternally
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 ago.

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
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