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Chinese Plays

China has a long tradition of opera, dating from the Qin-Han Dynasties. It took around thirteen centuries for it to gradually develop into a popular entertainment in Song Dynasty, giving rise to a major Chinese literary genre: drama.

Though drama scripts had already appeared in Tang Dynasty, the immediate association of the topic of Chinese drama literature is zaju genre (literally meaning “various plays”) which flourished in Yuan Dynasty. Four playwrights emerged as the “Four Great Playwrights of Yuan Dynasty”: Guan Hanqing (1220~1300), Bai Pu (1226~1306), Ma Zhiyuan (1250~1321), and Zheng Guangzu (?~?).

Four Great Yuan Tragedies” are The Midsummer Snow (《窦娥冤(Dou Er Yuan)》by Guan Hanqing), Raindrops on Phoenix Tree (《梧桐雨(Wu Tong Yu) by Bai Pu》), Autumn in the Han Palace (《汉宫秋(Han Gong Qiu)》by Ma Zhiyuan), and The Orphan of the Zhao’s (《赵氏孤儿(Zhao Shi Gu Er)》by Ji JunXiang).

Another playwright worthy of note in the same period is Wang Shifu, whose Romance of the West Chamber (《西厢记(Xi Xiang Ji)》) has remained a most popular Chinese classic drama.

The most notable Chinese classic dramatic playwright is indisputably Tang Xianzu (1550~1616) of the Ming Dynasty, who is sometimes styled as “Shakespeare of the Orient”. The Peony Pavilion (《牡丹亭(Mu Dan Ting)》) by Tang Xianzu is the most frequently piece played in Chinese Kunqu Opera.

Early Qing Dynasty saw the rise of two accomplished playwrights: Hong Sheng (1645~1704) and Kong Shangren (1648~1718). The former spent more than a decade in composing his signature drama The Hall of Everlasting Life (《长生殿(Chang Sheng Dian)》), themed on the great love story between Tang Dynasty emperor Li Longji and his favorite concubine Yang Yuhuan. Kong Shangren is remember for The Peach Blossom Fan (《桃花扇(Tao Hua Shan)》), which, as the author put it, expresses the feeling of vicissitude through the parting and reuniting of two lovers.

Modern Chinese drama featuring more vernacular language styles were introduced in late Qing and early Republican period. It soon won fans for its realistic portrayals of the lives of common folks. The era of the Republic of China (1912~1949) saw the concentration of a multitude of modern playwrights. Cao Yu (1910~1996) is often regarded as the most important playwright of modern Chinese drama. His Thunderstorm (《雷雨(Lei Yu)》)is largely considered a milestone in China’s modern theatrical ascendancy. Teahouse (《茶馆(Cha Guan)》, by Lao She (1899-1966), is another most representative work in the repertory of Beijing People's Art Theater.

Perhaps, for the Chinese generations after the founding the People’s Republic of China (1949~), an indelible memory is the Eight Model Operas during the Cultural Revolution (1966~1976). Themes on revolutionary struggles and proletarian ideology are featured in these dramas of the Maoist, Communist era of China. These dramas were unprecedented popular; they were sung by the entire population of China, and heard and promoted at every school, army unit, official institution, neighborhood organization, etc. – you simply could not escape from them. However, it is hard to identify the specific authors of these plays, as each of them was designated as the “collective work” of a group of writers in an era of collectivism.


Selected Most Famous Chinese Plays


Title: Midsummer Snow, or literally translated as The Grievances of Dou-Er
Original Chinese Title: 《窦娥冤 (Dou Er Yuan)》
Author: Guan Hanqing
Description: A girl named Dou-Er was accused wrongly of a murder crime. She vowed revenge as seen in snowfall in June instead of in winter if she were truly innocent. After her death, the vow came true and her grievances were rightfully addressed by a just judge. The play voices the popular Chinese folk sentiments against corrupt officials and sympathy for the kind-hearted common people.

Title: Romance of the West Chamber
Original Chinese Title: 《西厢记(Xi Xiang Ji)》
Author: Wang Shifu
Description: The story centers on a poor scholar named Chang who falls in love with Yingying, the daughter of a prime minister. After Yinying's mother reneges on a promise (made in exchange for Chang’s efforts in beating off the besieging bandits) to let the two get married, Yinying secretly starts a love affair with Chang.


Title: Peony Pavilion
Original Chinese Title: 《牡丹亭(Mu Dan Ting)》
Author: Tang Xianzu
Description: The premier example of the Kunqu Opera that was popular in the 17th century. The supernatural story centers around a young girl named Du Liniang who dies pining for a lover who she's met only once in a dream. But years later, Liu Mengmei, the object of her dreamed lover, is to come and stay in her town, finds her portrait, and revives her.

Title: The Peach Blossom Fan
Original Chinese Title: 《《桃花扇(Tao Hua Shan)》
Author: Wang Shifu
Description: A legendary love story between two historical characters, Hou Fangyu and Li Xiangjun, through which the dying of Ming Dynasty is reflected. As the author puts it, the play aims to express the feeling of vicissitude of history out of the parting and uniting of people. It is said to be “a painting of social scenes in a dying dynasty”. The premiere of the play caused a great sensation in Beijing in 1699.


Title: Thunderstorm
Original Chinese Title: 《雷雨(Lei Yu)
Author: Cao Yu
Description: A milestone in modern Chinese drama. Cao Yu finished the play before he graduated from university. The plot is entangled in the complex relationship between the members of two households - one upper class and wealthy, the other low class and poor.
Title: Teahouse
Original Chinese Title:《茶馆(Cha Guan)
Author: Lao She
Description: Set in a typical old-time Beijing teahouse where people from all walks of life gather. By portraying the rise and decline of the teahouse and the plights and successes of an array of characters, the play offers a cross-sectional view of Chinese society during three periods: in around 1898, at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and in 1948, on the eve of the fall of the Kuomintang.


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