In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Traditional Chinese Drama (Xiqu 戏曲) Performance Arts

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • The Late Ming and Qing Periods
  • Traditional Theatre Since 1949
  • Music
  • Stagecraft
  • Guangdong Yueju 广东粤剧
  • Chuanju 川剧
  • Other Regional Opera Genres

Chinese Studies Traditional Chinese Drama (Xiqu 戏曲) Performance Arts
Colin Mackerras, Zhen Hai
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0111


China has a rich tradition of theater, dating back well over one thousand years and by some accounts even longer. We are defining the term as performance art that narrates a story in which individual actors impersonate specific characters. Until the 20th century, Chinese drama, or xiqu (戏曲) was more or less entirely musically accompanied. Some important traditional styles are no longer performed, because their Music or performance style is lost, and this bibliography includes only works in Chinese or English on those styles that are still extant. It does not include scripts or translations of scripts, and focuses on performance rather than literary aspects of the topic. Despite their rich traditions, some topics are therefore excluded, namely (i) theater not in one of the many Chinese dialects;(ii) dance, circus or acrobatics detached from theater; (iii) traditions without live actors such as puppetry; (iv) Yuan-dynasty zaju (杂剧), the music of which is no longer preserved; and (v) the modern theater forms, such as huaju (话剧), for which there is a separate bibliography. It is only from the Ming dynasty (1368 CE–1644 CE) that we have dramas for which both scripts and music survive. From the 16th century on there is clear evidence of a divide between elite and popular theater, the former being represented mainly by the Kunqu (昆曲), also designated as chuanqi (傳奇) (or “marvel tales”), the latter by the various regional styles. The elite, who wrote the literature and controlled taste, valued the Yuan zaju as literature, but despised everything connected with the popular regional theater. Early Western writers shared this contempt. By the early decades of the 20th century, Kunqu was all but defunct, while Jingju (Peking Opera) was becoming regarded as a national theater (guoju 国剧). This was largely through the efforts of the famous actor Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳 (b. 1894–d. 1961), who not only raised the profile of Jingju and Chinese theater enormously but even internationalized it through overseas trips. Scholarship on Chinese theater, both within China and outside, began to assume a higher status. For some years after 1949, research relevant to Chinese theater conducted in the West or Taiwan tended strongly to focus attention on the past and on those aspects that belonged to the study of literature rather than of performance.

General Overviews

The People’s Republic promoted the regional theater as a type of mass art created by ordinary people, not the elite, thus raising its status as an art form and as a major area of Chinese culture. The authorities set up many drama troupes and encouraged scholarship relating to theater, especially regional theater. At the same time, the West and China became strongly isolated from each other. The majority of the most eminent actors remained on the Chinese mainland, and it was very difficult for Westerners to see Chinese theater and to visit the mainland for research purposes. The result was that scholarship in European languages was initially quite sparse. The Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976 not only put a stop to all public theater performances other than of the model revolutionary dramas (considered in the section Mao Zedong and the Model Dramas (Yangban xi 样板戏)) but suspended more or less all serious scholarship on the subject. However, with the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution, performances of traditional theater resumed and scholarship blossomed in China to an unprecedented extent. Meanwhile, China’s opening to the West allowed researchers incomparably greater access both to field research and to performers and theater scholars than had ever been possible before. The result was an enhanced interest in Chinese theater in the West, spawning a whole new generation of scholars willing and able to undertake first-rate research. Also, Chinese scholars were able to go overseas, some carrying out research in English, mostly through having first done postgraduate degrees. Although the most important country for this research was the United States, it was certainly not the only one, with good work being carried out in Britain, Hong Kong, Australia, and elsewhere. Zucker 1925 is a pioneering work with largely equal attention to history and performance, which benefited from the raised profile of Chinese theater due to the career of Mei Lanfang during the Republican period. Fu 2000 takes a general but very useful look at xiqu. Siu and Lovrick 1997 is like a coffee-table book in its focus on color illustrations and its fine paper; Siu expresses the fear that the art may die out (p. ix), leading to a wish to leave a record of it.

  • Fu Jin 傅谨. Zhongguo xiju yishu lun (中国戏剧艺术论). Taiyuan, China: Shanxi jiaoyu chubanshe, 2000.

    Topics relating to the art of Chinese theater encompass traditional operatic artistic form, including actor centrality. There is analysis of the expressive nature of the traditional theater, followed by interpretation of its artistic patterns and stage expression techniques. Finally there is material on appreciation of traditional opera among Chinese people.

  • Siu, Wang-Ngai, and Peter Lovrick. Chinese Opera, Images and Stories. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

    With many color illustrations, this book describes the history of Chinese drama, the regional styles, the conventions, and the stories. These last are categorized into topics like “Generals and Warriors” (chapter 6, pp. 83–111), “The Religious” (chapter 10, pp. 169–177), and outlaws, with discussions of individual regional items.

  • Zucker, A. E. The Chinese Theatre. Boston: Little, Brown, 1925.

    An early and wide-ranging work by a longtime resident of Beijing, this covers history as well as Stagecraft conventions and theaters. Includes material on Mei Lanfang, a long chapter on comparisons between European and Chinese theater, and illustrations.

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