The Prehistory of Chinese Theater
Although ritual was one source of traditional Chinese theater (and a very important one), it certainly was not the resume writing services only tradition of performance that fed into full-fledged Chinese drama as it emerged into view in the thirteenth century. Song and dance are probably as old as the human race. Documents from the Chou dynasty (c. 1027–256 B.C.E.) inform us not only about the No ceremony but also about many other rituals involving song and dance. Many of these performances had a narrative content, for example, the military dances commemorating the victory of the Chou over the Shang (c. 1600–c. 1027 B.C.E.). From the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) we have extensive descriptions (and pictorial evidence) of the pai-hsi (hundred games), displays of martial and acrobatic skills, ranging from wrestling and mock combat to tightrope walking and fire-spitting. Also included under this term were elaborate and spectacular pageants. Some of these performances had a certain narrative content, one of them being the Old Man of Tung-hai (Eastern Sea): the old man had once been a powerful magician whose charms could dominate tigers, but his advanced age and his drinking habits diminished his powers, and he ended up being eaten by a tiger he had tried to charm. Many of the skills involved in the performance of pai-hsi were elaborated and incorporated in later drama (the skit of the Old Man of Tung-hai also survived into later drama). From the centuries following the Han, we have short descriptions of comical skits involving song and dance (one concerning a woman who reviles her husband for his alcoholism) and references to the use of masks in narrative dance.
Sources from the T'ang dynasty and later become more detailed. At court two forms of theatrical entertainment were most prominent: ko-wu-chü (song and dance plays) and ts'an-chün-hsi (adjutant plays). Song and dance plays could be elaborate affairs in which large numbers of richly costumed dancers danced out one or more stories narrated in choral songs sung to the music accompanying the dances. Emperor Hsüan-tsung (r. 712–756) was a great aficionado of such spectacles and established a conservatory, the Pear Garden, where three hundred singers and dancers were trained. The name Pear Garden (Li-yüan) has been claimed by actors and actresses Letter Writing Guide ever since as a designation of their profession, and in some places Emperor Hsüan-tsung is venerated as the patron god of the acting profession (he shares that honor with some others, including the last emperor of the Later T'ang dynasty [923–936], yet another theater buff). Most of our evidence links the adjutant plays to the court, but some sources prove that they were also performed outside the palace, in thecapital, and throughout the empire, while some of them might involve a large cast and deal with a relatively complicated story. The T'ang dynasty was a cosmopolitan period in Chinese history, and the enriching influences from Central Asia are well documented, at least in the field of music. In many other areas of the performing arts, Central Asian and Indian influences can be seen— a conspicuous example being the lion dance.