“By turns lyrical and earthy, sentimental and ironic, Yuan drama spans a broad emotional, linguistic, and stylistic range. Combining sung arias with declaimed verses and doggerels, dialogues and mime, and jokes and acrobatic feats, Yuan drama formed a vital part of China’s culture of performance and entertainment in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.”
In order to understand Yuan drama we must understand the society in which it developed. Yuan society was unique in Chinese history : the entire nation was ruled by a foreign and militant tribe and its people officially divided into four ethnic groups with the Chinese at the bottom. The Mongols were the ruling class ; next were the se-mu, Moslems, Central Asians, Europeans, and other ethnic groups of the western regions ; third the han tribes of the north such as Tatars and Koreans, and those Chinese who lived in the territory of the former Chin dynasty; and lowest of all the Southerners i.e. the Chinese of the now defunct Southern Sung dynasty. These groups formed the basis for discriminatory policies and the practice of a spoils system.
The rise of the drama during the Yuan period, has been attributed to various causes. Some scholars believe it was a direct result of the examinations which required skill in composing songs. This theory has been challenged by modern scholars, among whom Wang Kuo-wei:
“The abolition of the examination was the real reason for the development of the drama. Since T’ang and Sung competitive scholars had been accustomed to the examinations. When the examinations were suddenly abolished the scholars no longer had an outlet for their talents; hence they turned their energies whole-heartedly to (the composition of) dramatical arias. Moreover, the requirement for the examinations on subjects during the Chin period had been most simple and shallow. These scholars once they lost what they were used to do, were unable to contribute much to other works of scholarship. For serious essays and documentary writings were not what they were familiar with. At this moment, the new style of drama appeared, and many turned their attention to it. When one or two gifted scholars devoted their entire talents to this new style, the writings of Yuan drama became a unique achievement.”
A third theory is advanced by Shionoya On:
“The Chinese people had always held the teachings of Con- fucius in high esteem, and Confucianism had been regarded as the foundation of both government and religion. But neither the Chin (Tatars) nor the Yuan (Mongols), conquerors who arose from the north, were capable of understand- ing and appreciating Confucian teachings and they allowed considerable freedom of thought in all religions, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity alike. The Chinese people, humiliated by the rule of foreign tribes, sought com- fort and consolation in poetry and wine. They took great delight in the newly developed form through which they could express their indignation against their own oppressors by poking fun at characters of the past. They criticised their world with passion and through satire admonished the people. Those who heard generally developed a sense of sympathy and satisfaction.”
In 1995, Grant Shen directed Freed by a Flirt, the world’s first zaju opera in English. In translating the Chinese libretto into English, he preserved as many stylistic features of zaju as possible.
Read more articles by Grant Shen here.
Two English versions of The West Wing. Introduction taken from The Octant.
For a Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) opera, The West Wing (西厢记), written by Wang Shifu, is surprisingly racy, making it the most-performed, as well as the most-banned play in the history of Chinese opera. Now, a group of Yale-NUS College students are staging several scenes from this classic, marking the first time since the mid-Ming dynasty that parts of the original Yuan text are being performed. A separate cast will be performing the English translation of the play.
The West Wing tells the story between two lovers, Oriole and Zhang Sheng, who consummate their love despite parental disapproval. It was deemed immoral, pornographic even, by Confucian scholars and hence was banned for a long period of time in China.
Chinese version of The West Wing