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Ancient critics stressed the literary nature of traditional Chinese opera

Author  :  SUN MEIJUAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-02-26

Traditional Chinese opera has a long history of development, and the study of its history faces many challenges. 

Traditional Chinese opera is a synthetic art of which many artistic elements were generated as early as the history of primitive society in China. Yu Weimin, a professor of the School of Liberal Arts of Nanjing University, said that from the pre-Qin period (prior to 221 BCE) to the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the artistic elements that constitute Chinese opera including singing and dancing developed while gradually integrating. Therefore, the recordings and comments on opera-related artistic elements by art critics of this period mark the origin of the studies of the history of traditional Chinese opera, Yu said.

The study of the history of opera explores the phenomena, direction and rules of the development of opera. Li Mei, a research fellow from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the recording of the presentation and characteristics of opera art began when opera did. In this sense, studies of the history of opera almost ran parallel to the prosperity of the practices of opera composition. The presentation and dissemination of opera works were carried out through the combined efforts of literary scripts and stage performances. The aesthetic values of traditional Chinese opera are usually also presented through literary scripts and stage performances. Therefore, Li said, from the very beginning, the studies of the history of traditional Chinese opera have targeted the contents of two systems—literary creation and the stage arts.

Exploring the origin of studies of the history of traditional Chinese opera from different perspectives will help one gain a more comprehensive understanding. Xie Bailiang, director of the Department of Opera Literature at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, said that different kinds of opera history studies existed in different periods in China. For example, The Luguibo (meaning the book of ghosts) by Zhong Sicheng (c. 1279–c. 1360) in the late Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) records mostly authors of traditional Chinese opera and Sanqu poetry. The Qinglou Ji (Brothel Collection) by Xia Tingzhi (c. 1300–1375) at this period discusses the performers. The Narration of Southern Ci by Xu Wei (1521–93) is the earliest writing to study Southern Opera. 

Wang Guowei (1877–1927) and Wu Mei (1884–1939) are influential figures in modern studies of traditional Chinese opera. Wang Guowei in his The History of Opera in the Song and Yuan not only conducts a textual analysis of ancient opera material, but also appropriately introduces Western theories on tragedy. Wu Mei’s studies of the history of opera focused more on the traditional opera melody and opera ousia. Furthermore, when writing The History of Chinese Literature, scholars such as Wang Jisi (1906–96) and You Guoen (1899–1978) treated the history of traditional Chinese opera as part of the history of Chinese literature. Hence, literature generally includes the category of opera, which may be referred to as the history of opera literature, Xie said.

Ancient studies of opera history show many differences from modern and contemporary studies. Yu said that ancient scholars discussed the origin and formation of opera mostly from the perspective of literature. From the Yuan Dynasty to modern times, opera theory was mostly proposed by opera critics who were also writers themselves. This contributes to the strong literary characteristics of ancient Chinese opera theory—that is to say, it stresses the study of the literary elements of opera. In contrast, modern studies of the history of traditional Chinese opera tend to focus on the synthetic nature of opera. 

Furthermore, the studies of opera history in ancient times used unsystematic research methods. The macroscopic summarization of the rules of opera’s development was absent. Most of these studies were just records of historical material or brief comments.

Modern scholars of the history of traditional Chinese opera emphasize the studies of individual cases. They also discuss specific topics relating to some important problems and try, from a macroscopic perspective, to discover the rules of the development of traditional Chinese opera, Yu said. 




(edited by CHEN ALONG)

Editor: Yu Hui

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