Chinese theatre boasts a long, rich history with many different theatrical forms scattered across the country’s vast territory. In the middle of twelfth century China saw the emergence of a unique and highly developed form of theatre, characterised by a distinct national style. This has continued to evolve to this day and is the form of traditional Chinese song-dance theatre often referred to as xiqu (lit. theatre [of] sung-verse).
Xiqu incorporates both singing and acting. Wang Guowei defined xiqu as “telling a story through song and dance”. Scripts of xiqu inherited the defining features of sung literature and storytelling from the Tang and Song dynasties. These include the interchangeable use of yun (rhyme) and bai (vernacular), and combining chang (songs) and nian (speeches) to tell stories. In this sense music is the soul of xiqu. While xiqu combines the performance skills of singing, speaking, dance-acting and combat, it lays particular stress on the techniques of xuni (mime-like movements and dance) and chengshihua (conventionalization, i.e. every aspect in this theatre is highly stylized and follows set conventions which evolve through generations of practitioners).
As a term, xiqu appeared in writings in the early fourteenth century. Both Liu Xun (1240-1319) and then Tao Zongyi (1321- Circa 1412) used it to refer to theatrical forms predating Yuan dynasty plays. It was Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) and Wang Guowei (1877-1927) who started using “xiqu” as a generic term to describe indigenous/traditional Chinese theatre including historical theatrical forms from the twelfth century as well as the huge variety of regional song-dance theatres on the contemporary stage.
Xiqu is the most distinctive and representational form of Chinese theatre, and has maintained the same integral aesthetic characteristics since its conception. Among all of the widespread theatre forms in the world, xiqu may be one with the longest history. In comparison to classical Greek theatre and Sanskrit drama in ancient India, xiqu came into being relatively late. Nevertheless, in an area populated by over a sixth of the world’s population xiqu is still being practised. There are numerous performances and thousands of new plays created every year, which just serves to demonstrate the vitality of xiqu.
All theatre performances in the world involve conditionality, which is an understanding that within the conditions of a performance, everything is to be believed and anything can happen. Chinese traditional song-dance theatre is no exception. However, the degree of application of ‘conditionality’ varies between different national theatres. The technique xuni is used heavily in Chinese xiqu, and performers portray characters belonging to specific hangdang (specialized role types). These are classified according to their status, personality and age. When singing, xiqu performers use specific vocal skills and rhyme to conform to the musical rules. Their songs and speeches are also poetically rhythmic, following strict prosodic rules. Typical xiqu performances use the mime-like basis of the style to alter and refine reality, while retaining an essentially emotional and reasonable narrative. The gestures, body movements and expressions of the performers are laden with meaning. The core of this theatre is to express feelings yet it contains a narrative quality.
The xiqu stage is minimal but communicative, often comprising only a table and two chairs, along with some necessary props. The space and scenes where the story takes place are easily adaptable, and conveyed to the audience through acting, speeches and songs. The style of the delivery is versatile and unrestricted. There are certain conventions for characters’ appearance. The style of the costumes has developed and improved upon clothing in the Ming Dynasty. The characters’ face paint uses striking colours and the style of the characters is fixed. Some facial patterns are exaggerated and distinctive. At the end of 19th century and into the early 20th century, modern Western drama was first introduced into China. As a result stage and theatre performances started changing. Realistic sets appeared; costumes and make up began to resemble everyday life. Naturalistic tendencies also emerged to varying degrees in performance.
In Chinese theatre circles the eight hundred years of xiqu history are typically divided into three phrases: Zaju (lit. “miscellaneous drama”) in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), Chuanqi (“marvel tale”) in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and Difangxi (regional song-dance theatres). From the Song dynasty (960-1279) up to present day, xiqu has inherited and evolved its features all the time. Xiwen (lit. “theatre text”), which appeared during the Northern Song Dynasty, was the earliest known mature form of theatre. During the Yuan Dynasty, zaju was popular and hundreds of works from this period are still used. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, kunqu theatre became predominant as the highest standard of literary and performance art. In the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, a trend for using local music to perform theatre emerged, forming into a multitude of local theatrical genres. Examples include, Qinqiang in and around Shaanxi, chuanju in Sichuan, bangzixi in northern China, Cantonese theatre as well as yueju (shaoxingxi in Zhejiang) and pingju (Northeast) etc., which emerged in the twentieth century.
These regional song-dance theatres are well received within relatively small regions, only spreading through the area in which the dialect used in the theatre is spoken. Regional song-dance theatres have an inseparable relationship with local culture, and the regional character of their music and speeches are extremely distinctive, which makes xiqu yet more diverse. Traditionally different genres were named according to the style of music that they incorporated into their repertoires. Since the early twentieth century, more genres have added geographical names of regions before the musical system (such as hunan huaguxi or shangdang bangzi), some theatres use a geographical name plus “drama” (ju) or “theatre” (xi), for example in huju (Shanghai drama) and fuzhou xi (Fuzhou theatre). In those names above, Hunan, Shangdang, Hu (Shanghai’s special abbreviation) and Fuzhou are all names of areas where these genres first emerged. Jingju (Beijing Opera) was born in the era of popularity of regional song-dance theatres, and became the most influential theatrical form of the 20th Century. Jingju incorporated local musical forms and methods of emotional expression from a number of different regions, satisfying the different aesthetic expectations of society. Among more than 200 variants of xiqu, jingju and kunju are two exceptionally good examples.
Xiqu is a rare gem of Chinese traditional culture. It is a brilliant amalgamation of the spiritual quest, emotional expression as well as the values of the Chinese as a nation.