Xiqu


Xiqu
(‘theatre [of] sung-verse’/sung-drama/opera)
Xiqu (often called ‘traditional Chinese theatre’, ‘Chinese music-drama’ or ‘Chinese opera’ in English) is the primary genre of indigenous Chinese theatre, and the only major genre in existence prior to the twentieth century (other contemporary genres include Geju, Huaju and Wuju).
Historically, Xiqu has been fundamentally performer-centred, and this remains true today, despite the importance of playwrights and the Western-inspired personnel added to the genre in the early 1950s, including directors, composers and designers. Performers specialize in portraying characters of a specific role type (see Xiqu role types) through the display of four stylized performance skills: song (chang), speech (nian), dance-acting (zuo) and combat (da). The synthesis of these skills in performance, and the presence of both prose and rhymed verse and both comic and serious elements in almost all Xiqu plays, are other defining characteristics of the genre.
Originating as early as the third century BC, Xiqu reached maturity in the ‘Nanxi’ and ‘Zaju’ forms of the tenth to fifteenth centuries. Each form of Xiqu develops in a particular region, and some become sufficiently widespread to be considered national forms. Kunqu Xiqu was the predominant form in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and Jingju has been the leading form nationally since the nineteenth century. The number of individual forms of Xiqu has varied dramatically during the twentieth century, from lows of just over a hundred in the wakes of WWII and the Cultural Revolution, to a high of almost 400 during the peak of government support in the 1950s and 1960s. There have been well over 300 forms since the early 1980s.
Xiqu is highly theatrical, employing conventions that allow for remarkably mutable presentation and use of time and space. Aesthetic emphasis is placed upon beauty, a concept that almost invariably includes the attributes of round and effortless performance. This shared aesthetic makes the hundreds of forms of contemporary Xiqu generally similar to the eye, with each form of Xiqu distinguished primarily by its aural characteristics, including the language of the region in which it arose, and the vocal and instrumental music of the form. Each of the four primary Xiqu musical systems employs one of two styles of characterizing Xiqu musical structure.
Extensive government intervention during the second half of the twentieth century has perhaps forever altered the course of Xiqu. During the 1950s, Xiqu was highly institutionalized under the newly established PRC, leading to the growth of ever-larger companies organized along socialist/ military lines and completely dependent upon the state. Xiqu plays were taxonomized in three categories: ‘traditional plays’ (chuantongxi), created before 1949, and ‘newly written historical plays’ (xinbian lishiju), created after 1949—both set either in pre-twentieth-century or mythological eras; and ‘modern plays’ (xiandaixi), set after the nineteenth century.
During the Cultural Revolution, only modern plays with revolutionary themes were allowed. In the late 1970s first newly written historical and then traditional plays returned to the stage, and since then most new creative work has taken the form of newly written historical plays (though the term itself is often not used). An outstanding example is Cao Cao and Yang Xiu (Cao Cao yü Yang Xiu), first staged in 1988. The modern Xiqu play has seemed inseparably linked to political propaganda, and since the Cultural Revolution has rarely served as a vehicle for creative experimentation. However, several major exceptions could be seen at the Sixth China Art Festival held in autumn 2000, when three modern plays adapted from earlier twentieth-century works won top honours: the Chuanju (Sichuan opera) Mask (Bianlian), from Wei Minglun’s film by the same name; the Chuanju play Jinzi (named for the play’s title role and based on Cao Yu’s Huaju Wilderness (Yuanye)); and the Jingju play Rickshaw Boy (Luotuo Xiangzi), based on Lao She’s novel of the same name. Additionally, some experimental work has transcended these taxonomies. A prime example is Wei Minglun’s Chuanju Pan Jinlian (1985), the eponymous, controversial wife from the traditional novel Tales of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan)—a play that includes historical and fictional characters from the ancient past through the late twentieth century who explore together the ways in which women are, and have been, judged.
In general, since the early 1980s traditional plays have been presented on decorated but essentially bare stages, while a wide range of scenic experimentation inspired primarily by the practices of Huaju has been carried out for newly written historical and modern plays. On the other hand, Huaju, which emerged from the Cultural Revolution confined by Socialist Realism, has repeatedly turned to Xiqu during the same period as a primary source of theatrical, presentational inspiration.
Since the early 1980s, Xiqu has also seen a steady decline in audience numbers due to changing societal attitudes, and a progressive decline in government support. The large companies that developed from the 1950s to the 1970s have been faced with radical reorganization and an emphasis on box-office value and private corporate sponsorships. Though widely regarded as the most representative Chinese performing art, Xiqu continues to face prejudice at home, especially among urban populations—the early twentieth-century perception of the genre as backward, ‘feudal’ and old-fashioned has re-emerged. And modernization (including Westernization) continues to have a wide-ranging and substantial impact upon it.
ELIZABETH WICHMANN-WALCZAK

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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