When most people, even many Chinese themselves, think of Chinese theatre they imagine brilliantly painted faces topped by red, white or black wigs. They see long, fine-haired beards and bright costumes made from yards of intricately woven silk brocade. They behold highly trained performers manipulating long “water sleeves” or executing acrobatic feats with polished virtuosity. They hear high-pitched falsetto voices singing melodies and enunciating dialogue “from ancient times,” from the Qing or Ming dynasties or earlier. They follow complicated stories about warriors, princesses, villains, clowns, statesmen and students. In a word, they imagine jingju, commonly called Peking (or Beijing) opera.
Indeed, jingju is a paradigm of classic Chinese theatre combining graceful movement, song, carefully crafted dialogue and semiotically precise facial makeup and costumes that tell an educated spectator the gender, character type, social class and rank, and narrative function of each stage figure. Repressed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), jingju and the many Chinese regional operas following roughly the same set of conventions are once again frequently performed before large, appreciative audiences.
But there is much more to traditional Chinese theatre than jingju and its cognates. Nuoxi and dixi—masked ritual folk theatres related to shamanism and tied to seasonal agricultural celebrations—are plentiful, especially in the interior provinces far from Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. It was in Guizhou province that I saw performances of nuoxi and dixi in February of last year. Although some Chinese scholars call nuoxi and dixi “living fossils,” in my opinion they are not atavistic. Indeed, a few younger Chinese artists are using forms like these in their experiments, combining them with “spoken drama” (theatre derived from the West) in order to create a specifically Chinese kind of contemporary theatre.
Guizhou province is in south central China bet ween Hunan and Sichuan provinces. It is said to be among China’s most underdeveloped areas from the perspective of industrialization, transportation, modern housing, per-capita income and other indices of modern life. The Guizhou countryside offers panoramas of terraced rice paddies, steep hills and patches of trees reminiscent of classic Chinese landscape paintings. The farmers live hard lives, but I saw no one hungry, ill-clothed or without housing.
Performances of nuoxi go way back. The Analects of Confucius (5th century B.C.) relate that the philosopher saw in the rural areas of Shangdong province (southeast of Beijing) a ritual drama called “nuo” led by a shaman and performed at the end of the year. According to a leading Chinese scholar of nuoxi, Qu Liu Yi, director of research at Beijing’s Chinese Theatre Association , the nuoxi of Guizhou is “considered to be the earliest and most primitive kind of Chinese nuo drama.”
Traditionally nuoxi is performed in the fields, in a village square or at a patron’s home. But the nuoxi I saw took place at Longren Buddhist temple in the mid-sized city of Tongren. Longren temple functioned actively until it was shut down by the Cultural Revolution. In the early 1980s it reopened—not as a place of worship but as a museum. Nuoxi itself was interdicted by the Cultural Revolution, the ban not being lifted until the early 1980s. The Longren nuoxi troupe of eight performers was led by 75-year-old Xiang Caoxi. Some performers in their thirties and forties were Xiang’s students, others in their sixties and seventies were his longtime colleagues.
Nuoxi begins with ritual procedures drawn from shamanism and Taoism. At the deep end of a 16-by-20-foot wooden makeshift stage Xiang established an altar loaded with incense sticks, folded papers, fruits and other items of worship and sacrifice including a large cooked fish and a roasted pig’s head. To either side of the altar were nearly life-sized masked figures of “ma” and “pa” gods. These parental figures overlooked the performance, their masks being considered by Xiang to be the oldest, most sacred and most powerful in his collection.
For two hours Xiang engaged in a series of ritual actions designed to bring the old sacred wood nuoxi masks used in the evening’s story out from a dark cave, a place beneath the altar. “When I wear the masks,” Xiang told me the next morning, “I become the gods. I am very happy- I invite the gods and they come.”
These introductory rituals, punctuated by the explosions of very loud firecrackers to frighten away evil spirits, involved much chanting, swift whirling dances and the trumpeting of a ram’s horn shofar-style. Meant to bridge the gap between the mythic “them” where the masks and gods resided and the “now” of this particular performance, the rituals usually take tour hours to complete. At Longren temple they were cut in half. It was felt that the visitors—Professor Cao Lusheng of the Shanghai Drama Institute, theatre researcher Huangpu Conqing, local authorities and I—would not want to be out in the cold night for so long. Except for the performers themselves, no villagers were present. Thus the performance was more a demonstration of nuoxi than an effective ritual.
After Xiang or one of his assistants had danced with each of the six masks figuring in the night’s story, the two hour dramatic portion of the performance commenced. The narrative (which was not very clear either to me or to Professor Cao) concerned a warrior who goes to a fortuneteller after losing his ox. He and his student—played by a clown—are sent by the fortuneteller to a priest’s house, but the priest is not home. The clown flirts with the priest’s wife, played by a man, who promptly gives birth to a baby boy. The baby is brought to the home of the sponsor of the nuoxi. Finally, Xiang asked the local gods to visit the sponsor’s home. The gods wish the sponsor a plentiful harvest, good health and long life.
Nuoxi’s final episode, like its opening, was ritual. The story over, Xiang’s son, Xiang Tingzhen, began chanting as he danced around the basket containing the fish and pig’s head. Assistants dismantled the altar as the elder Xiang separated durable props—masks, swords and brass implements—from items that were to be discarded. Then after the whole troupe removed their makeup and costumes, they assembled in the courtyard behind the stage where Xiang burned the disposables, throwing many firecrackers into the pyre while next to him an assistant sounded farewell to the gods on the ram’s horn. The performers, the stage and the props were concretely transported from the world of ritual theatre to the ordinary world.
Nuoxi is connected to a second kind of ritual masked drama, dixi (literally, “theatre performed on the ground”), which I saw in the village of Qilungtun in central-western Guizhou. The troupe of farmers supplemented their income by playing in villages during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and again in August at harvest. Some of their splendidly carved, brightly painted wood masks were from the 1920s, but most, carved by local maskmakers, were of recent vintage. At the end of the performance Professor Cao and I were invited to purchase a few masks, which we did. Although Cao, Huangpu and I were treated as VIPs, the performance would have occurred anyway as part of Qilungtun’s Spring Festival.
The four-hour performance, observed by more than 500 villagers, took place in Qilungtun’s square. There were no preliminary religious rituals. Actors declaimed their speeches loudly, giving their masks different expressions by tilting or rotating their heads. Dixi masks are worn on the top of the head so when two characters face off the performers actually bend their heads forward in almost a butting position. Despite the difficulty of maintaining this position for long periods of time, the performers were able to tilt and otherwise manipulate their masks in ways that made the characters’ faces extremely expressive.
Some of the dixi masks looked Tibetan, Indian and even Japanese. More research is needed to determine the origin and diffusion of the masks—one possibility is they came into China from India via the overland silk route or with the spread of Buddhism. Then the masks were passed on to Japan where they were used in bugaku, a dance form arising in the 6th century. It is intriguing to speculate on the possible relationship between Chines “nuo” and Japanese “noh.”
Unlike Nuoxi, dixi’s ritual functions are immediately apparent. On the surface, dixi is pure entertainment, like certain Indian performances where food and dance are offered to the gods. But dixi is an important part of spring and harvest celebrations, and as such it incorporates themes of fertility.
That afternoon, the troupe played a very popular tale from the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.), Three Times Caught, Three Times Freed. A general’s son defeats an enemy of his father. This enemy has a warrior daughter (played by a man). She fights the general’s son and defeats him. But she loves him so she frees him. His pride, wounded because he has been defeated by a woman, makes him challenge her again. Three times they fight, three times the woman wins, three times she releases her prisoner. Finally, they marry.
This repetitious story has its roots in old exorcistic rituals and spring fertility dances, and reverberates with regenerative energies. Shadows of the old rituals can be felt in the restated victories of the woman, her generosity to the vanquished, and his obstinate hostility ultimately transformed into marriage. Spectators react happily to the masks, the vigor of the performances, the sexual themes implicit in the woman subjugating the man and the basic life-affirming outcome of the story.
Dixi’s function, like nuoxi’s, is to drive away evil and guarantee fertility, longevity and prosperity. It is probable that these ritual theatres are linked not only to Indian and Japanese theatre but to the shamanism of central Asia, Mongolia and Siberia.
In Qilungtun these themes were not much on my mind. As a theatre director I focused on the arena staging, the vigorous style of declaiming lines (so far from the courtliness of jingju), the beauty of the masks and the peculiar way they were used. Also of interest was the troupe’s director, an old man who often anxiously whispered dialogue and stage directions to performers to keep them from slipping off the mark. I was struck also by the precision of the dancing and singing, the integration of music and drama, and the choices individual spectators made in the ways they participated in the performance- from rapt attention to dropping in only for short takes.
This precision of performance makes it possible for younger Chinese directors, writers and actors to integrate elements from some of China’s regional forms into modem theatre. For example, in Beijing I saw The Story of Sangshu Ping, a production combining traditional Chinese performing styles and storytelling with Western techniques. Cleverly using a revolving stage to depict four locales in the village of Sangshu Ping, the action told interlocking stories some of which were very critical of the ways things are in today’s Chinese countryside. Villagers falsely accuse a widower of murder, finally .arranging for his imprisonment so they can possess his land; a young girl is sold into a brutish marriage; there is lots of drunkenness.
Between some of the naturalistically depicted narrative scenes a large chorus of “progressive Chinese youth” fill the whole stage dancing and singing their reaction to the events being portrayed. The lyrics demand an end to small-mindedness, prejudice, in justice and cuelty. The style of this upbeat chorus is closer to 42nd Street than jingju.
The Story of Sangshu Ping draws more on Chinese folk theatre than on the classical “operas.” Within the Chinese theatre community people are eagerly combining the varied languages of the stage available in Chinese traditional genres with the topical urgency and narrative continuity characteristic of spoken (or Western) drama. At a roundtable discussion of young directors, authors and actors—including the creators of The Story of Sangshu Ping—organized for me by the Chinese Theatre Association, artist after artist expressed her or his desire to experiment with Chinese masks, music and dance, storytellers and a highly physical mode of acting.
The experiment in theatre—as in the burgeoning Chinese economy—is now in its eclectic phase, resulting in productions like The Story of Sangshu Ping. The long-range goal is a uniquely Chinese style of modern theatre.
A proclaimed aim of the Cultural Revolution was to smash “reactionary” manifestations of Chinese feudalism, including religious ceremonies, shamanistic ritual and traditional theatre. Today’s Chinese intellectuals, artists and leaders see things differently. These forms are regarded as storehouses of cultural and performative knowledge. There is a deepening interest in recuperating the old forms existing in the interior provinces not only for their own sake but as part of the new Chinese experimental theatre movements.
Richard Schechner, theatre director and author, is professor of performance studies at New York University. He is returning to China in May 1989 to direct Sun Huizhu’s Mingri Jiuyao Chushan (Tomorrow He’ll Be Out of the Mountains) at the Shanghai People’s Art Theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!