Commercial Theaters and the Acting Profession
Commercial theaters did eventually develop; actually this happened twice in Chinese history. From the late eleventh to the early fifteenth century, the capitals and other major urban custom writing services centers featured commercial theaters. These offered a varied program of vaudeville and drama that one could watch after having paid an entrance fee—the performers might also make the rounds of the audience collecting donations. These early commercial theaters did not survive beyond the fifteenth century. By the late seventeenth century, large teahouses in the capital and other major cities started to add theater performances to their attractions, and in time these teahouses evolved once again into full-fledged commercial theaters. However, commercial theaters were always restricted to the largest urban centers, and they remained only one of the performance venues for the local actors.
Very rich households might support their own household troupe for the entertainment of the master of the house and his friends. The last century of the Ming was the heyday of such private troupes, when many wealthy theater aficionados instructed their household companies in the performance of plays of their own composition. If a family was as wealthy as the imperial family, it might even provide its private quarters with permanent stages. During the Ch'ing dynasty (1644–1911), the various imperial palaces in Peking and its environs were fitted out with many stages, including three-tiered stages that allowed for the performance of elaborate pageants composed expressly for this format. However, since performances at the palace were meant primarily as private entertainment for the imperial family, these extravaganzas played only a very limited role in the general development of drama. Traditional China did not know a court culture comparable to that of continental Europe during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, which played such an important role in the development of Western theater.
At court, eunuchs might be trained to serve as actors, but the Court Entertainment Bureau could also Accidental Scientist command performances by actors and actresses from outside the palace. In society at large acting usually was a family profession, as sons and daughters followed in the footsteps of their parents. Other new members might be recruited into the profession by purchase of young children. Training was a long and arduous process that could take many years. Occasionally gifted amateurs would “dive into the sea” and join the profession on their own initiative. Professional acting companies were all male, all female, or mixed, depending on local custom, a sponsor's taste, or legal rules. Professional actors and actresses had a very low social status. Until the early eighteenth century, their status was legally that of “base people” (i.e., social outcasts). Until well into the twentieth century, the acting profession had a highly unsavory reputation. In many areas of China, however, plays at local festivals were performed by regular members of the local community. In such cases no stigmawas attached to taking part in the performance. On the contrary, playing one's role in such cases was a duty and an honor. In some villages, specific role(s) in these play(s) were handed down in locally established families for tens of generations.