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Arts and Culture, Theater and Film

Ju Dou, dramatic entertainment, Mei Lanfang, Red Sorghum, West Chamber

Chinese theater varies significantly in different regions of the country, with more than 300 types known. All of these involve a combination of music, singing, speech, and dramatic action. Drama traditionally was performed in urban theaters and teahouses by professional actors for paying customers. However, it was also performed to entertain the gods as part of religious rituals, and in this way it was brought to wide audiences in the countryside. These types of rituals have revived in recent years with the relaxation of prohibitions against them by the Chinese government.

Although there have been forms of dramatic entertainment in China since very early times, Chinese theater reached its first height during the Yuan dynasty, when the form of literary drama known as Yuan zaju (Yuan drama) came to the fore. Zaju plays consisted of four acts and a self-contained scene that usually appeared between acts. Men and women both depicted characters of either sex, and only the lead character sang. Dramas such as The West Chamber, a romantic love story by Wang Shifu, were created during this period and have remained part of the repertoire of the Chinese theater ever since.

The late 18th century brought the rise of jingxi, or “drama of the capital city,” under the patronage of the imperial court. This is the form of theater that is widely known in the West as Peking Opera. It combines various theatrical forms—including speech, music, acrobatics, dance, mime, and martial arts—to tell stories from Chinese history and folklore. Until the mid-20th century, men performed all roles in Peking Opera, using elaborate and stylized costumes and makeup to show the type of character being portrayed. The most famous Peking Opera actor of the 20th century, Mei Lanfang, was particularly successful at playing female roles.

In the 20th century Chinese writers adopted originally Western forms of theater to create the form known as huaju (spoken drama). This form remained restricted to major cities and urban audiences. After 1949 the traditional repertoire of historical and romantic dramas was gradually abandoned in favor of revolutionary operas. Since 1976 government controls have been relaxed and the traditional repertoire reinstated, although it has been losing popularity among younger audiences.

The cinema, imported from the West, has been very successful in China. A vigorous film industry developed in Shanghai in the early 20th century, and after the People’s Republic came to power, film was used as a major form of government propaganda. In recent decades Chinese films have found success with international audiences. Popular works include those by director Zhang Yimou, such as Hong gaoliang (1987, also released as Red Sorghum), Ju Dou (1989), and Dahong denglong gaogao gua (1991, also released as Raise the Red Lantern).

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