Dreams of Splendor

Telling stories is a human characteristic that may be as old as song and dance. Just as music, song, and dance flourished during the T'ang period, dissertation editing so did storytelling. The T'ang dynasty witnessed both the flowering of the short story in the classical language (ch'uan-ch'i; see chapter 33) and the emergence of longer narrative texts in the vernacular, in prose, in rhyme, or in a mixture of both (the prosimetric tales known as pien-wen; see chapter 48). The short stories in the classical language later became extremely important to the development of dramatic literature because they provided the plots of some of the best-loved plays. The emergence of pien-wen stimulated the written use of the spoken language while also contributing to the development of longer narratives. The importance of both elements for the eventual emergence of a dramatic literature needs no elaboration. However, the manuscripts discovered at Tun-huang (see chapter 48) probably already provide us with the text of at least one proper playlet or miniplay, “Ch'a-chiu lun” (Discourse Between Tea and Wine). This text concerns a dispute between Tea and Wine as to their respective merits and their relative ranking. On both sides praise of one's own qualities soon turns into a revilement of the other's faults. Eventually the fight between the two parties has to be settled by the intercession of Water. In some of the preserved manuscripts of this witty little piece the stage directions are clearly distinguished from the main text by being written in smaller characters.

The amount of available information on the performing arts becomes still more plentiful in the Sung dynasty. Tung-ching meng hua lu (Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital), by Meng Yüan-lao (preface dated 1147), is a nostalgic memoir describing the sights and smells of the Sung capital Kaifeng in the first decades of the twelfth century, before the city was captured by the Chin (Jurchen; 1115–1234). It includes a description of the entertainment quarters, detailing the genres available and listing the most famous performers. For Hangchow, the capital of the Southern Sung dynasty, we have four comparable works, dating from the late twelfth to early fourteenth centuries. These works mention more genres, are more elaborate in their descriptions, and list more performers by name. The surveys cover martial arts and acrobatics, song and dance and instrumental music, various classes of professional storytelling, and five different types of puppet plays. Also included are chu-kung-tiao (all keys and modes; medley) and tsa-chü (farce). The “all keys and modes” (see below) was a genre of prosimetric storytelling that derived its name from the fact that the rhymed sections did not have a fixed line length (as, for example, in pienwen and most of the later forms of prosimetric literature of the Ming and Ch'ingdynasties), but were written to tunes or suites of tunes that each stipulated their own verse form, while every tune or suite of tunes was in a different key or mode from the one before. The “all keys and modes” was an important precursor of Yüan dynasty tsa-chü, because the genre developed the organization of individual tunes into modal suites and so prepared the groundwork for the musical organization of the pre-eminent form of drama during the Mongol period.

Sung dynasty tsa-chü, the direct predecessor of Yüan tsa-chü, was a much simpler affair. It was performed both at court and in the capital commercial theaters. From Southern Sung times, there exists a long list of titles of stage routines, farces, and skits (probably also including some more elaborate items), but it is not quite clear whether this list refers to the court repertoire or to the repertoire of the genre in general. A comparable, even longer list of titles emanates from the domain of the Chin dynasty, where the Research Support same genre went by the name of yüan-pen (texts of the [acting] guild). Available Sung dynasty sources point out that roles in tsa-chü were divided among a limited number of role-types, many of which are re-encountered in later genres of drama. They further point out that a full performance was introduced by an eye-catching prelude (yen-tuan) and that the main action consisted of two scenes, whereupon the show might be concluded with a skit featuring country yokels. In Kaifeng, during the seven days preceding the holiday celebrating Buddhist All Souls, the actors also participated in a theatrical version of the story of Mu-lien's rescue of his mother from hell. In Hangchow, the actors participated in the celebration of the end-of-the-year No ceremony, one of them in the role of Chung K'uei.

28.4.11 15:04

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