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Traditional drama, often called "Chinese opera," grew out of
the zaju (variety plays) of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and
continues to exist in 368 different forms, the best known of which
is Beijing Opera, which assumed its present form in the midnineteenth century and was extremely popular in the Qing dynasty
(1644-1911) court. In Beijing Opera, traditional Chinese string and
percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to
the acting. The acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork,
and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse,
rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is divided into
recitative and Beijing colloquial speech, the former employed by
serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns.
Character roles are strictly defined. The traditional repertoire of
Beijing Opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from
historical novels about political and military struggles.
In the early years of the People's Republic, the development of
Beijing Opera was encouraged; many new operas on historical and
modern themes were written, and earlier operas continued to be
performed. As a popular art form, opera has usually been the first
of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. In the mid-1950s,
for example, it was the first to benefit under the Hundred Flowers
Campaign. Similarly, the attack in November 1965 on Beijing deputy
mayor Wu Han and his historical play, "Hai Rui's Dismissal from
Office," signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. During
the Cultural Revolution, most opera troupes were disbanded,
performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all operas except
the eight "model operas" approved by Jiang Qing and her associates
were banned. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Beijing
Opera enjoyed a revival and continued to be a very popular form of
entertainment both in theaters and on television.
In traditional Chinese theater, no plays were performed in the
vernacular or without singing. But at the turn of the twentieth
century, Chinese students returning from abroad began to experiment
with Western plays. Following the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a
number of Western plays were staged in China, and Chinese
playwrights began to imitate this form. The most notable of the
new-style playwrights was Cao Yu (b. 1910). His major works--
"Thunderstorm," "Sunrise," "Wilderness," and "Peking Man"--written
between 1934 and 1940, have been widely read in China.
In the 1930s, theatrical productions performed by traveling Red
Army cultural troupes in Communist-controlled areas were
consciously used to promote party goals and political philosophy.
By the 1940s theater was well-established in the Communistcontrolled areas.
In the early years of the People's Republic, Western-style
theater was presented mainly in the form of "socialist realism."
During the Cultural Revolution, however, Western-style plays were
condemned as "dead drama" and "poisonous weeds" and were not
Following the Cultural Revolution, Western-style theater
experienced a revival. Many new works appeared, and revised and
banned plays from China and abroad were reinstated in the national
repertoire. Many of the new plays strained at the limits of
creative freedom and were alternately commended and condemned,
depending on the political atmosphere. One of the most outspoken of
the new breed of playwrights was Sha Yexin. His controversial play
"The Imposter," which dealt harshly with the favoritism and
perquisites accorded party members, was first produced in 1979. In
early 1980 the play was roundly criticized by Secretary General Hu
Yaobang--the first public intervention in the arts since the
Cultural Revolution. In the campaign against bourgeois liberalism
in 1981 and the antispiritual pollution campaign in 1983, Sha and
his works were again criticized. Through it all Sha continued to
write for the stage and to defend himself and his works in the
press. In late 1985 Sha Yexin was accepted into the Chinese
Communist Party and appointed head of the Shanghai People's Art
Theater, where he continued to produce controversial plays.
Data as of July 1987