Theater Arts: The Genre Show

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Theater Arts: The Genre Show


The Tang and Song Genre Show. The quyi (genre show) is a folk-art performance including elements such as ballad singing, storytelling, comic dialogues, and clapper talks. The genre show originated during the Tang dynasty (618-907) when Buddhists discovered that they were more successful with the masses when they sang Buddhist texts, using music to attract audiences. This earliest form of genre show is called zhuanbian, which means “singing Buddhist texts”; bian refers to the murals in Buddhist temples, and bianwen (Buddhist scripts) initially referred to the all-genre shows from Dunhuang literature in Gansu Province. A thorough study of Dunhuang literature, however, revealed that another form of folk drama, the shuohua (storytelling show), existed during the Tang era and was already quite advanced. It differed from the early zhuanbian mostly in having secular rather than religious content. In the early zhuanbian the singer used Buddhist paintings to illustrate his subject. Later, there emerged subian (secularized Buddhist texts)—mainly telling historical, folk, and contemporary tales—and improved acting skills made the use of Buddhist paintings unnecessary. King Geshaer is a Tibetan epic without written text that has been told and passed on by genre-show actors from generation to generation. It includes more than sixty stories and more than a million lines of song lyrics, which is the longest among the world’s epics. All its song tunes are derived from one melody.

Song Genre Shows. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), genre shows gradually moved from the court to urban areas, following the development of the spontaneous market, an urban amusement area with stages and entertainment tents. The subjects of Song genre shows could be secular, military, religious, or historic. Several forms of genre-show performances developed during the Song era. Guzici (poetic drum) was singing with or without spoken

lines, accompanied by the drum and including only one kind of melody. Zhang Wuniu, an actor of the Southern Song era (1227-1279), developed the changzhuan (singing show) from fa& guban (wooden drums) performances of the Northern Song (960-1125). The singing show was accompanied by metal and wooden drums as well as flutes. It had two forms: chanting (winding lyrics), which had an introduction and a coda and could use several melodies, and chanda (winding expression), which had an introduction but no coda and used only two alternating melodies. The singing show required advanced performance skills because its music was complex and hard to play. Kong Sanchuan, an actor of the Northern Song era, invented the zhugongdlao (multiple palace tunes), a large-scale genre show that included some spoken lines with the singing. This style of genre show could tell a long story with a complicated plot and had a profound influence on the later development of Chinese drama. The huolanger (peddler) show was derived from the hawking of peddlers in the streets. It always began and ended with a tune called “peddler,” with other tunes in between. Urbanites were fond of yaci (boundless lyrics), which were relatively graceful. Taozhen (real selection), whose form and content appealed to the common folk, was popular among peasants. Sanqu (loose melody) mostly depicted love affairs and sentiments such as disappointment, sorrow at parting, and world-weary pessimism. The loose melody usually had no plot. It could be long or short and was accompanied by string and wind instruments but no drums. It had three forms: a xiao/ing (minor songs), or yeer (leaves), has a single, short, and vigorous melody; a daiguoqu (take along tune) has two or three melodies in sequence; and a santao (loose set) combines from three to thirty palace tunes and melodies into one set. Rewafu kexiake is a Uighur genre show that originated during the Song dynasty and is still popular in northwest China. One to three actors sing stories with short rhyming lyrics in the Uighur language to the accompaniment of a Uighur musical instrument called the rewafu.

Jin and Yuan Genre Shows. In the North during the Jin (1115-1234) and Yuan dynasties (1279-1368) genre-show forms became much more diverse, expanding to include various kinds of narrative storytelling. Manasi, one of three national epics performed as a genre show during the Jin and Yuan periods, depicted the life of the Aerkezi people, who lived in northwest China. How this drama was originally performed is undocumented, but it may have been similar in style to the Manasi that is still popular in the northwestern areas of Xinjiang Province.

Ming Genre Shows. By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) many kinds of genre shows had developed into their final forms. In the northern Gugu (drum melody) show a single actor told a story while accompanying himself with drum-beats. The paiziqu (well-known melody) show combined various popular songs. The instruments used for the show also varied according to which songs were sung. The qinshu (string talking) show was performed with a yangqin, which is similar to a zither with several sets of strings that are struck rather than plucked. In the late Ming period there were two kinds of cihua (lyric storytelling). In the North, mupi guci (wood-and-skin-drum lyrics) shows were nar-rated by actors such as the popular Jia Fuxi (1590-1674), who told stories about Chinese history from prehistoric times to the days of the last Ming emperor. In the South, tanci (singing lyrics), which had evolved from the taozhen (real selection) of the Song era, was popular. It had various forms and was performed by blind singers accompanied by a small drum and string instruments. Yugu daoqing (fish-drum singing) evolved from Daoist songs sung a capella during the Tang and Song eras; by the Ming era they were accompanied by the rhythmic beating of a fish-shaped bamboo drum and a wooden clapper. Shefuqian, or shibuqian (busy show), quite popular in the South during the late Ming period, was performed by a single actor, who used his hands and one foot to play many gongs and drums while he sang. Lianhuayue (lotus music), or lianhualuo (lotus falling), was originally Buddhist “spreading flower” music, which was sung and widely disseminated by beggars. It was sung by one person—or occasionally two people—who accompanied himself with percussion instruments. The taoli (epic) and haolaibao (linked songs) were popular Mongolian genre shows. The taoli originated during the seventh century and reached its present form early in the thirteenth century. Still popular in Inner Mongolia, it is spoken or sung or a combination of both, and it is accompanied by string music. The epic is usually extremely long. In fact, each actor plays in only part of the epic and none can remember the entire epic from beginning to end. Haolaibao originated during the Yuan dynasty and became popular during the Ming period. It is performed by one person, or several people, who sit and sing to string accompaniment. Liu Jingting (circa 1587 - 1670), a student of the well-known genre-show master Mo Houhuang (flourished 1600), was the most popular late-Ming genre-show actor.

Publications on the Genre Show. Five documents that appeared during the Song era include important information relating to the genre show. Volumes two and five of Dongjing menghualu (The Record of the Splendid Dream in the East Capital), written in 1147 by Meng Yuanlao, recorded the locations of spontaneous markets and information about various performers and genre shows from 1102 to 1125. Parts 1, 7, and 8 of Ducheng jisheng (The Record of the Prosperity of the Capital City), written in 1235 by Nai Dewong, provided similar information. Xihu Laoren fanshenglu (The Record of an Old Man from the Western Lake), written between 1241 and 1252 by Xihu Laoren, covered much of the same ground but in more detail. Volumes nineteen and twenty of Menglianglu (The Record of a Dream), written in 1274 by Wu Zimu, are about genre shows. Written early in the Yuan era, volumes three and six of Wulin jiushi (The Old Story of Martial Arts Masters), by Zhou Mi, includes much information about genre shows. During the Jin and Yuan dynasties there appeared many works of Song genre-show scripts— including Xinbian uoudaish pinghua (The New History of Storytelling) and Xinkan da Song Xuanhe yishi (The New Legacies of the Great Song)—as well as a collection of Yuan scripts, Quanxiangpinghua uouzhong (The Complete Five Storytelling Scripts). Theoretical works on the genre show were also written during the Yuan period. In his twenty-volume Zuiwong tanlu (The Conversation of a Drinker), Luo Ye discussed the genre show and the performing arts in general and established new training and technical standards for actors and actresses. Hu Zhijue listed nine standards for actresses in his Zishan daquanji (Complete Collection of Purple Hill).


Cai Yuanli and Wu Wenke, Zhongguo Quyishi (Beijing: Culture and Arts Press, 1998).

Ma Wenqi, Xie Yongjun, and Song Bo, Zhongguo Xiqushi (Beijing: Culture and Arts Press, 1998).

Colin Mackerras, Chinese Drama: A Historical Survey (Beijing: New World Press, 1990).

Mackerras, ed., Chinese Theater: From Its Origins to the Present Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983).

Xu Muyun, Zhongguo Xiqushi (The History of Chinese Drama), edited and translated by Duo Zai (Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Books, 2001).

Zang Yibing, Zhongguo yinyueshi (Wehan, China: University Press of Survey Drawing and Science Technology, 1999).