The History: Over 2,000 Years
Chinese opera originated in ancient song and dance. Around 800 BC, there emerged "优(you)," who were kept by the nobles for their own entertainment. These people, usually males, good at singing, dancing and impersonations, developed into the earliest actors of Chinese opera. According to an age-old and widely spread story about a famous actor, Meng, these people could sometimes exert influence through their performance. Sun Shu'ao, one of the Chu Kingdom's high officials and on whom the king of Chu relied heavily, died and his poverty-stricken children went hungry. Seeing this, actor Meng dressed up as Sun and imitated him. Startled, even the king thought Sun had come back to life. In showing his sentiment for Sun, the king ordered Meng to hold Sun's former position but Meng refused, saying that he could not see any good in being an official because although Sun had been honest during his lifetime in performing his duties and did not seek any private fortune, Sun's family still went hungry. Realizing the actor's true intent, the king sent his solicitude to Sun's family immediately and raised Sun's boy to a high-ranking level. This story might have been the beginning of the stage performance of opera in China, and the phrase "actor Meng in costume" was thereafter used to refer to the performance of opera.
In the Tang Dynasty there came into existence "Canjun opera," Characterized by its humor. "Canjun" was originally a rank for minor officials and there was indeed a certain "canjun" who was punished for being corrupt. In order to use him as an example to the others and to thereby stop all possible corruption, the emperor ordered one "you (actor)" to dress up as "that canjun" and another actor to mock and satirize him. So, two actors were first involved in the performance. Later the number of the actors gradually increased and the performance became more and more complex. The main purpose, however, was still to satirize and reprimand through amusing gestures and remarks.
Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, although a man of daring strategy, had a musical temperament and was very fond of singing and dancing. He established a special institute called "the Pear Garden (Liyuan)" as a place to train actors. Moreover, he selected actors personally, gave them guidance and even performed on stage himself. This theatrical troupe was actually the first opera school in china. Actors in later times referred to this theatrical circle as "the Pear garden" and called themselves students of the garden. In the past, a statue of the founder of the opera could usually be found in theaters where the actors could pay their respects. Guess who the founder was? Emperor Xuanzong!
Along with great development of the urban economy in the Song Dynasty appeared recreational places frequented by city people. The folk songs, dances, the genre of talking and singing, and comic plays showed tendencies of merging, and "a variety play (Zaju)" came into being, which became further refined in the Yuan dynasty; "Yuan Zaju" embodied the peak in Chinese opera history. In the Yuan Dynasty, since scholars were the least respected in society and their social status was no higher than that of beggars, they had no opportunity to become officials through an academic route and had to focus their talents on artistic endeavors. Thanks to their personal misfortune, the Yuan Zaju reached unprecedented heights and from this came a number of master playwrights. Take Guan Hanqing for instance. His tragedy, Dou E Yuan (The Injustice to Dou E), is perhaps the best-known play in China for its stirring effect. Wang Shifu created the well-known "Xi Xiang Ji (The West Chamber Romance)," which provides a vivid description of the intensely sentimental feelings of young love and continues to be a favorite play. Another playwright, Ji Junxiang, though not so well-known in his native land, was widely known in the Western world for his play, Chao's Orphan. This play is perhaps the first to be introduced to the Western audience: in the 18th century, a French priest translated and introduced it to Europe; later the famous French author F.M.A. Voltaire adapted in into The Chinese Orphan and put it on stage in Paris; afterwards, the famous German poet and thinker, J.W. von Goethe adapted it into a tragedy, Elpenor. Therefore, Chao's Orphan is perhaps the only Chinese play to be accepted by 18th century Europe; in addition, it shares a similar plot with Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Variations in the dramatic art occurred in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and "Chuanqi (romance)" replaced "Zaju" as the new, dominant mode of drama. "Chuanqi (传奇)," which taken literally means "strange and odd stories"-complicated and elusive yet moving stories that take place among human beings, ghosts and gods. Chuanqi usually have elegant versed and greater scales, and many masterpieces have been created in this form. The performances became more skillful and were usually conducted in Kunqu opera. Tang Xianzu, one of the greatest playwrights in the Ming Dynasty, wrote the famous drama, The Peony Pavilion. Kong Shangren, a playwright in the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, wrote the famous The Peach Blossom Fan, which is set along the Qinhual River in Nanjing. Located in the most prosperous part of Nanjing, an important city ever since the Three Kingdoms, the Qinhuai River has witnessed many personal joys, sorrows and national fluctuations, and provides a suitable setting for a moving love story between a singing girl and a renowned scholar. Facing a national life-and-death situation, the two lovers cannot control their own fates and are doomed to great sorrow. With fractured families and a collapsing dynasty, the two lovers end up in Taoist temples, greatly disillusioned with life and engaged in religious pursuits. Apart from the theme of love, this play has another theme, the breaking down of a dynasty, which expresses the authour's deep contemplation of history and national destiny. In fact, the combination of entertainment and education, with special emphasis on moral inculcation and cultivating a sense of national duty, is a striking feature of Chinese opera.