Drama: East Asian Dance and Theater

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From ancient times, theater and religion have had a close, often symbiotic, relationship in East Asia. Theatrical performance is an integral part of certain animistic, Confucian, and Buddhist rites in China, Korea, and Japan. Priests have been performers, and even today temples and shrines provide places for performance. Play cycles based on religious myth and legend are numerous. Aesthetic systems reflect religious worldviews. Although drama is increasingly secularized in the contemporary world, religious values and beliefs continue to be projected to audiences through masked plays (sandae in Korea, satokagura and nō in Japan), popular dramas (kabuki in Japan and jingxi and other forms of Chinese opera), and puppet plays (gogdu gagsi in Korea and bunraku in Japan).

Shamanism and Animism

Since prehistoric times people in northeast Asia have communicated with animistic spirits for the benefit of the living through songs and dances. In the fourth millennium bce, the inscription on a Chinese oracle bone mentions a dance of sympathetic magic performed to induce the spirits to bring rain. Before the time of Confucius (or Kongsi, c. 551479 bce), songs and dances dedicated to the Eight Deities and supervised by the royal steward constituted an important state ritual of the Chinese court. Performing a masked play is a folk ritual in northwest Korea, intended to repulse evil spirits at the beginning of summer. Dances of demon exorcism (namahage and emburi for example) are central features of lunar New Year festivals in scores of villages in Japan. The Lion Dance, familiar through East Asia, may have derived from totem worship in prehistoric times.

The three-part structure of the rituals of Shintō, containing many animistic elements, reveals one reason performing arts in Japan are naturally linked to the practice of animism: the god (or kami ) is summoned into this world, entertained, and sent away. Because deities had to be entertained, a large number of religious dances developed. In Japan many dances enact, often in attenuated, symbolic form, myths of the islands' founding gods and goddesses. The god remains enshrined in his or her god-house during court or shrine dances (mika-gura ), hence the dancer and the god are separate. At agricultural festivals, village actors wear the costumes and masks of ferocious demons (oni ). In these folkloric dance dramas (satokagura ), the spirit moves freely into the world of humans by possessing the performer.

From these primal traditions has come the concept of a sanctified stage area. A sacred playing space, often on the ground, is set apart from the mundane world by the placement of tree branches at the four corners. This idea, in developed form, can be seen in the Japanese nō stage. A plain square platform is marked off by four pillars and covered by a roof in the style indicating the dwelling of a god. The bridgeway (hashigakari), on which the spirit-protagonist of a nō play enters, mirrors the sacred passageway marked out on a shrine ground along which a god would make his or her journey from the other world to a temporary home at festival time.

In shamanistic traditions, the shaman is a professional communicator with the spirits. Throughout East Asia and from earliest times, dance and song have been essential shamanic skills. The Chinese Li ji (Book of rites; fourth century bce) tells of shamans wearing animal skins who drive out evil spirits, and The Elegies of Chu of the first century bce describes elegantly dressed male and female shamans singing and dancing seductively to woo deities to make the passage down into this world. Contemporary shamans continue the tradition of being skilled singers and dancers. Dances of Japanese shamans are relatively simple, while seances (kut ) of present-day Korean shamans contain complex dances designed to please the god being invoked. The purely theatrical skill of juggling can be part of the shaman's repertory in Korea. In Japan, juggling and acrobatics were associated with Shintō agricultural festivals in medieval times as "field music" (dengaku ), and they are still performed today during Shintō festivals such as the New Year celebration.

The origin of theater in Japan is described in the Kojiki (Records of ancient matters; 712) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan; 720) in a myth that has the shape of a shamanistic performance. The sun goddess, Amaterasu, has withdrawn in anger from the community of fellow deities into a rock cave, thus plunging Japan into darkness. Another goddess, Ame no Uzume, tries to lure her from the cave by showing her breasts, lowering her skirt, and dancing joyfully on an overturned tub. The assembled gods and goddesses cry out and clap with delight. Hearing their laughter, Amaterasu leaves the cave to see what is causing so much merrimentthus light is restored to the world. Like a shaman, Ama no Uzume entices a goddess to leave her private world and join the community on whose behalf she is performing. Like a shaman, she entices the goddess with joyful singing and dancing. And like a shaman, she uses a mirror and holds a sprig of a tree, two favorite shamanic implements.

Links between shaman and performing artist are not difficult to identify. The Chinese ideograph for shaman represents two people practicing a skill, by inference, the skill of performance. The same ideograph is used in Japan for a Shintō priestess (miko ), who serves at a shrine as a kagura dancer. The old Korean term kwangdae meant shaman or popular performer interchangeably. In Korea the husbands of female shamans performed masked plays (sandae ) and puppet plays (gogdu gagsi ). One of the standard roles in plays of both genres is the female shaman, usually depicted as a young and alluring prostitute. It is also believed that pan'sori narrative singing was developed into a Korean national art by these same low-status performers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Confucian and Buddhist teaching equally hold the shaman in contempt.) A Japanese myth says that the spreading pine tree painted on the back wall of a nō stage symbolizes the Yogo Pine, the tree through which the god descended to earth during performance. Stamping at the conclusion of a nō play and the earth-stamping dance sequences in village kagura are contemporary examples of Ama no Uzume's stamping steps described twelve hundred years ago. The four flags worn on the back of a Chinese opera general are averred to derive from the Chinese shaman's flags of exorcism.

It has been theorized that acting originated in East Asia in the shamanic act of possession. There are difficulties with such an argument. The village actor in Japan who wears the mask and costume of a demon may or may not be possessed by the mask's spirit; in neither case, however, is he functioning as a trained shaman. Conversely, the shaman, possessed by a deity and speaking the deity's words, rarely enacts past events in that deity's life as the actor would do. Rather, the shaman's function, at least as we know it today, is to bring the god's knowledge and power into the mundane world in the service of practical needs (curing sickness, assuring prosperity, et al.). The art of mimesis (acting) and especially the enactment of a story about a character (drama) are not essential to this function. Similarly, the action of a nō drama has been likened to a shamanistic seance because in the typical play an intermediary, usually a Shintō priest, summons a dead spirit or deity to enter this world. But the parallel is inexact: the enticed spirit does not possess the intermediary but becomes independently manifest on stage. Finally, and in a more general sense, the performing arts may have had their origin in shamanism. If so, we must imagine ancient man waiting for a shaman professional to create the first songs and dances. What is more likely is that after song and dance existed, shamans utilized these theatrical arts for religious purposes.


While less influential perhaps than primal traditions, Confucianism has affected the performing arts in three main ways. First, according to Confucian doctrine, the performance of appropriate music and dance helped assure the harmonious working of the universe. Confucian rulers supported court performance as a ritual function, often co-opting preexisting animistic rituals. During the Tang dynasty (618907) in China, the Koryŏ dynasty in Korea (from c. the eleventh century), and at the Japanese imperial court during the Nara and Heian periods (7101185), rulers patronized large contingents of palace performers, and they established official schools to preserve the ritually correct forms. The Pear Garden school, founded by the emperor Xuanzong (712754), was the most famous of these in China. The Japanese form of court dance, bugaku, continues to be patronized by the emperor in modern Japan and thus represents an unbroken tradition of some thirteen hundred years. Second, Confucian ideals of proportion, moderation, and symmetry set the aesthetic tone of court performance. Bugaku is an excellent reflection of Confucian ideals in its sedateness, repeated patterns, and geometric symmetry of form.

Third, the ethical norms of Confucianismsocial duties as expressed in the "five human relationships"set the standards of morality for dramatic characters, especially in popular theater. Filial piety is celebrated in Chinese operas such as The Lute Song (c. 1358), and duty to one's lord in scores of Japanese kabuki and bunraku plays such as The Forty-seven Loyal Retainers (1749) and The Subscription List (1841). Korean sandae present a peasant's view of Confucian morality: unfilial sons and unfaithful wives are mockingly satirized. Domestic plays (sewamono ) in eighteenth-century kabuki and bunraku use the conflict between human feelings (ninjo ) and social duties (giri ) as a major plot device. Chikamatsu Monzaemon (16531724) wrote a score of domestic plays in which young lovers, unable to meet the heavy demands of dutyto spouse, parents, children, employerchoose to die together rather than live under Confucian restrictions.


Between the seventh and the eleventh centuries, Buddhism was widely propagandized in East Asia by popular forms of masked drama. Giak, the Buddhist masked dance drama of Korea, was brought to Japan in 612 by the Korean immigrant, Mimaji (Jpn., Mimashi), who had learned the art in China. Called gigaku ("elegant entertainment") in Japan, it was supported by the imperial court as a means to spread the new state religion. Gigaku is described in a fourteenth-century book on music, A Short Manual of Instruction, as a procession that passed through the city streets in which masked performers enacted comic scenes ridiculing the evils of drunkenness, lechery, and lewdness. Court-supported performances died out, but village masked plays, such as the widespread sandae in Korea, and the Lion Dance (Jpn., shishimai ) that is seen everywhere in East Asia, are believed to be their descendants. Remnants can also be seen in contemporary gyōdō processions in Japan, in which monks wearing masks of bodhisattva s circle a statue of the Buddha. Popular, anticlerical views of Buddhism can be seen in contemporary Korean sandae. Buddhist monks are ridiculed for being venal and lustful.

The origin of nō in Japan can be traced back to ninthcentury performances of sorcerers (jushi or noroji ) who would impersonate a guardian deity of Buddhism such as Bishamon at the New Year exorcism ceremony, and of temple sextons who would play his oni (demon) antagonists. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Buddhist priests enacted teachings and legends of Buddha in ennen nō and sarugaku nō. Even after professional actors took over in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, troupes lived at Buddhist temples. The troupe organized by Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (13331384), the nominal founder of nō, was attached to the Kofukuji in Nara, and most of Kan'ami's life was spent performing at Buddhist temple festivals around the country. A dozen nō plays out of the repertory of 240 concern Shintō deities. Ōkina, a ceremonial piece commemorating felicitous longevity, is the most ancient and sacred. The majority, however, are deeply imbued with Buddhist teachings. By the time of the great actor Zeami Motokiyo (13631443), the protagonist (shite ) of a typical nō play was the ghost of a famous man or woman who was suffering torment in Buddhist hell. At the conclusion of such a play, the spirit abandons the sinful human ties binding him or her to this world and, through the mercy of Amida Buddha, attains salvation in Western Paradise. While Zen philosophy is expressed by characters in some nō plays, the Pure Land salvation of Amida is far more pervasive (as it is in kabuki and bunraku plays).

Early puppet plays in Japan emphasized Buddhist miracles and legends. The Chest-Splitting of Amida, showing the Buddha saving a dying girl by placing his heart in her chest, was a sixteenth-century favorite. Buddhist ghosts of the dead and reincarnated spirits are standard characters in Chinese opera, nō, bunraku, and kabuki, becoming, in the latter, objects of parody in the nineteenth century. Buddhist concepts underlie several features of playwriting. Coincidence abounds, not because playwrights were careless, but because of the belief in reincarnation: people whose paths had crossed in previous lives were fated to meet again in later incarnations. The Buddhist idea that the world is transient and in constant flux finds its parallel in the episodic structure of Chinese operas, Korean sandae, and Japanese kabuki and bunraku dramas. The relative unimportance of climax, so noticeable to the Western theatergoer, is a reflection of the belief that each moment is equal to any other, that life is a stream constantly flowing. Zen concepts of intuitive apprehensionas opposed to explicit statementunderlie the nō aesthetics of restraint, suggestion, and abhorrence of realistic detail in staging. A practical man of theater, Zeami nonetheless formulated a particularly Buddhist vision of the ideal nō performance. It should express yūgen, a quiet beauty tinged with dark, melancholy emotion. The nō actor and theoretician Komparu Zenchiku (d. between 1468 and 1471) carried Zen aesthetics to its furthest when he spoke of the art of nō passing through "six wheels," an image relating to the Buddhist duality of illusion-reality, and leading to ultimate enlightenment, symbolized by the wheel of emptiness and the sword.

For the sake of convenience, the contribution of each religion to the performing arts has been discussed separately here. Yet such a division is necessarily arbitrary and perhaps misleading. One aspect of dance or theater may reflect several East Asian religions. To cite but one example, the annual cycle of full-moon festivals that is celebrated by performances in all parts of East Asia relates to local traditions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and, indeed, Daoism as well.

See Also

Music, articles on Music and Religion in China, Korea, and Tibet, Music and Religion in Japan.


No single book adequately addresses the topic of this article. Halla Pai Huhm describes the unique role of shamanism in the performing arts of one country in Kut: Korean Shamanist Rituals (Elizabeth, N.J., and Seoul, 1980), while the classic study of shamanism in East Asia remains Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, rev. & enl. ed. (Princeton, 1964). There are interesting chapters on Shintō ritual and myth in performance in Fred Mayer and Thomas Immoos's Japanese Theatre (New York, 1977). Buddhist contributions to nō are covered in detail in Inoura Yoshinobu's A History of Japanese Theater, vol. 1, Noh and Kyogen (Tokyo, 1971), and in Patrick Geoffrey O'Neill's Early No Drama (London, 1958). Oh Kon Cho's Korean Puppet Theatre: Kkoktu Kaksi (East Lansing, Mich., 1979) discusses Buddhism and shamanism as butts of satire. In Major Plays of Chikamatsu (New York, 1961), Donald Keene offers an analysis of Confucian and Buddhist values in Japanese popular drama. The most complete accounts of early religious influences on Chinese theater are still those of A. E. Zucker, The Chinese Theatre (Boston, 1925), and Cecilia S. L. Zung, Secrets of Chinese Drama (1937; New York, 1964).

James R. Brandon (1987)

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