Fu Jin*

Abstract: Chinese traditional theatre matured in the twelfth century. In modern times, its accepted name is Xiqu, which refers to Chinese traditional theatre after 1950. The present article focuses on the status quo of Xiqu in contemporary China and tries to analyze the reasons behind its emergence and development.

Keywords: Xiqu, politics, Jiao Yulu, The Peony Pavilion, tradition, globalization

Chinese traditional theatre came to maturity around the twelfth century. Between the North Song Dynasty and the South Song Dynasty, a new theatre genre emerged, in which actors sang in verse and spoke in prose. Characters were divided into certain types of role, and actors performed in their own formulaic gestures and movements according to their role. This special theatre genre has lasted for nearly a thousand years. Its narrative structure, stage mode and acting techniques have been retained completely up to the present day. In China, it is now called Xiqu, a term generally accepted as referring to Chinese traditional theatre after 1950. Many variations, which exist in different regions of China, are included in this general term.

Jingju The Drunken Concubine, starring FU Jia. Produced by the National Jingju Theatre Company, Aug. 2014. Venue: Beijing Mei Lanfang Grand Theatre. Photo: SUN Feijue

A recent survey (2017), by the national cultural administration, has found 348 theatre variations. Some of them are very close to worship ceremonies, with only a few theatrical elements, and do not resemble theatre functionally or formally. Some are different from the culture of the Han ethnic group and their forms are different from Xiqu, too. However, we usually include them all in the Xiqu category.

As a theatre art with a history of one thousand years, today’s Xiqu still enjoys a rich development. Besides hundreds of classical plays still alive on stage, many new ones are created every year. In China, Xiqu still occupies the leading position in the theatre market. People may have the impression that Xiqu has faded away from mainstream society since 1990; a wrong impression arising from the long-time neglect of the media, whose practitioners were brought up under a more Western educational system. Growing up in an environment in which many traditions were despised, they were imbued with the idea that all the traditional arts were at low ebb. As a result, these media practitioners have shown no enthusiasm for live Xiqu performances, which exist not only in major cities but widely in countryside areas.

There are at present nearly 1,500 national Xiqu companies in China, some of which have 2-3 performance groups. Alongside these, thousands of active independent theatre companies exist. Half of these are registered in the government’s cultural offices, another half have never been registered. These Xiqu companies operate in different ways. For example, more than 300 of the national companies give 300 and more performances a year; 500 give less than 50 performances a year.

The situation is much more varied among the independent Xiqu companies: a survey shows that the best 20 percent can give 600 performances per year. In country areas, performances will be given twice a day, afternoon and evening. For well run companies, the performance season could be more than 300 days per year. Even poorly run companies usually give more than 100 performances per year; otherwise they could not keep running. Therefore, the overall number of Xiqu performances per year has reached one million, attracting at least five hundred million attendances. Though an amazing number, it is still low considering the total population of 14 hundred million. But compared with other theatre genres in China, Xiqu can be proud of its audience size.

Kunqu The Peony Pavillion, starring WANG Xiaoyan. Artistic director: SHEN Shihua. Produced by the National Academy of Chinese Theatre, Sept.2016, Venue: Beijing Mei Lanfang Grand Theatre Photo: SUN Feijue

Among the 348 variations of Xiqu, 60-80 have rather large numbers of plays in their repertory. Each has inherited some classical plays with a history of dozens or hundreds of years. Alongside these, many new plays are created every year. The National Art Foundation has sponsored nearly 300 Xiqu plays since its establishment in 2013 (where only 75 spoken dramas have been sponsored). In national or regional theatre events, Xiqu performances usually occupy more than two thirds of the overall programme.

However, most Xiqu performances are not presented in the major cities of China. They are presented in the country areas, especially in areas where the traditional social structure has not yet been destroyed. The residents there still keep the tradition of inviting Xiqu performances during important religious or family events. Hence, they become the main means to keep Xiqu alive in contemporary society.

The situation has improved in the twenty-first century. More and more Xiqu performances have appeared in major cities. The quantity and quality of Xiqu performances has developed enormously, not only in the theatre houses of Bejing and Shanghai, but also in other middle-sized and comparatively small cities in China. Xiqu has begun to resume its mainstream position in the Chinese theatre market. This is a notable tendency of the last 5 years, which has been led by the well-developed cities along the Southeastern seaboard. A new surge of creativity in Xiqu has been motivated in this context. Local governments have invested a lot to encourage the creation of new Xiqu plays, which has greatly affected the direction of Xiqu development.

The social structure of China means that theatres are closely connected with the current political situation. Funding for the creation of new plays comes from the local governments, and they will allocate their financial support with more attention to the function of ideological propaganda and less to artistic level. Therefore, many new Xiqu plays have been written to cater to the governments’ intentions. This kind of performance takes up a great proportion of the new creativity. How to achieve a delicate balance between politics and art is still a challenging question for all Xiqu artists. Even the most avant- garde artists will carefully avoid conflict with the official ideologies in their work.

Jingju General GUAN Yu’s Defeating in Maicheng City, starring LI Yushen. Produced by Shandong Jingju Theatre Company, July,2017. Venue: Kuiqing Theatre, Hongkong Photo: SUN Feijue

Under the circumstances, the wars of the first half of the twentieth century have become very popular materials for the new creativity of Xiqu, because while they are full of movements and conflict, they are easy to handle ideologically. For example, many new plays took the Japanese War of Aggregation against China in the 1930s and 1940s as their subject. These plays chimed with the patriotism of the Chinese people, expressing the resistance and revenge of Chinese armies and the Chinese people to the greatest extent, even when describing China’s defeat under Japanese invasion. In most cases, their emotional expression is much more important than objective narration and introspection about the war.

Another popular concern of new Xiqu writing is Chinese contemporary society. This type of performance has kept increasing in recent years. Its heroes are usually officially-approved real life characters. The artists seek to put across official ideology by describing the heroes’ life. Since one of the main concerns of Chinese governments is the relief of poverty, it has become a focus of Xiqu new writing. The Mountain-carrying Woman (produced by Shanghai Baoshan Huju Group),[1] written by Li Li, is one of the most effective Xiqu plays of this type. It is based on a real story: Meihong was an ordinary female farmer in the mountain area. After her husband accidentally died, the whole family was trapped in desperation. In order to raise her three children, Meihong shouldered the heavy burden of the family bravely and chose to work as a porter, a job which was unendurable even to men. In this play, some wrong policies, which were deliberately avoided by the media, are discussed and some sensitive social events behind the poverty in the Chinese countryside are mentioned. It mirrored Chinese contemporary society, just like another Xiqu performance, Jiao Yulu, a Yuju[2] play written by Yao Jincheng, produced by the He Nan Yuju 3rd Group. Jiao Yulu tells the true story of an upright Chinese official, Jiao Yulu (1922-64). Like other similar works, it expresses the concentration of Xiqu artists on Chinese contemporary history.

Yao Jincheng, the writer of Jiao Yulu. Photo: Web

Historical plays are seen as the highest level of Xiqu, carrying forward Xiqu’s aesthetic characteristics. Cao Cao and Yang Xiu,[3] produced by the Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company, took its material from Chinese history. The story was about two historical characters, Minister Cao Cao and the famous scholar Yang Xiu. Yang Xiu, as the representative of Chinese intellectuals, was finally killed by Cao Cao. The play reflects the tragic destiny of Chinese contemporary intellectuals in political struggles. These new historical Xiqu plays renew the style of traditional ones, which were mainly about heroes’ legends. They were staged much more traditionally than those which took contemporary social life as their material. Compared with the latter, the new historical Xiqu plays offered more freedom for Xiqu artists to express their reflections on history.

Cao Cao and Yang Xiu, produced by the Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company

Although there are many new Xiqu plays, the classics are staged more often and are better received by the public The classical Kunqu The Peony Pavilion[4] has been produced by almost every Kunqu company in China.[5] The play, written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), in the Ming dynasty, and taken as a Chinese Romeo and Juliet, narrates the romance between Du Liniang, a girl from an aristocratic family, and Liu Mengmei, a young scholar. A famous stage version is called the “youth version,” performed by the young actors and actresses of Su Zhou Kunqu Company. It gained such a wide reputation in society that many young audiences have become big fans of the show. Another classic Kunqu play of high artistic level is Changsheng Palace.[6] Written by Hong Sheng, in 1688, it takes the true story of Emperor Li Longji of the Tang Dynasty and his concubine Yang Yuhuan as its main theme, while describing the devastating catastrophe brought on the country by Emperor’s fatuity and political corruption. The play condemns the Emperor’s extravagance, as well as showing sympathy to the tragic love between LI Longji and his concubine. It is profoundly meaningful even when read today.

The Peony Pavilion, one of the most popular Xiqu plays

Traditional Xiqu plays provide moral comfort for ordinary audiences. The fascinating stage acting is another attraction. Xiqu’s stylized acting needs long and hard training. It is generally considered that the present Xiqu actors’ training and stage experience are not as adequate as those of renowned actors in history. Undoubtedly, the artistic level of Xiqu performances has declined; a problem that has demanded close attention in Chinese Xiqu circles. The Academy of Chinese Theatre, the major institution for Xiqu actor training, has started to tackle it and, in recent years, the problem has been reduced to some extent, but it still needs time to be solved completely.

As previously mentioned, Xiqu has hundreds of different variations, and even these different variations have different characteristics in different areas. After 1950, a number of local Xiqu variations were in crisis, for all kinds of complicated reasons. How to protect these endangered variations is still a great challenge for Chinese contemporary Xiqu practitioners. Many traditional plays disappeared after the Reform of Xiqu in the 1950s, following political criticism and artistic questioning on Xiqu. However, the remaining ones have still kept a high artistic level.

As people’s opinions about tradition are changing nowadays concerns about the disappearance of traditional plays, as well as worries about the decrease of Xiqu performances have become the rule. Local governments are active in collecting, recovering and staging traditional Xiqu plays. After Kunqu became an intangible cultural heritage authorized by UNESCO, the staging of traditional Kunqu plays has been the main task of all Kunqu theatre companies. Jingju is another major Xiqu variation, which was less influential after 1950. Since 1990, many old records of traditional performances have been lip-synchronized by young actors and then videoed. This measure has helped with the preservation of traditional Jingju plays and promoted the preservation of the traditional Xiqu heritage.

Jingju A Battle in Wancheng City, with ZHAO Yongwei. Produced by the National Jingju Theatre Company, Oct.2012. Venue: Beijing Mei Lanfang Grand Theatre. Photo: SUN Feijue

In recent years, the recovery and collection of traditional Kunqu and Jingju plays has not only expanded the repertory but also increased the acting level of Xiqu. Traditional plays re-appeared on the stage, and were so well accepted that they even became box-office blockbusters. Under the influence of Jingju and Kunqu, some Xiqu variations, which have small audiences, have also received a lot of attention. The most effective protection for these endangered variations is to recover and collect traditional productions of them. Recently, many demonstration performances of traditional Xiqu plays have been produced, from Southeast seaboard provinces, such as Fujian and Zhejiang, to inland ones, such as Hubei and Shanxi. Many traditional plays, which had been absent from the stage for a long time, gained rebirth.

In brief, as we move into the twenty-first century, people’s general understanding of traditional values has changed completely. On the other hand, since the certification of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, a lot of endangered Xiqu variations have been recognized and protected. However, their inheritance and development are not yet ripe for optimism.

Confronted with the challenge of popular culture in the context of globalization, Chinese traditional theatre does not seem to have any better solutions for its future development, having moved from self-isolation, since the middle of the Ming Dynastym to another extreme, the unquestioning imitation of Western art. Although this tendency has been contained to some extent, it is still present. The cultural consciousness of China, which is the most important theoretical basis for the continuing development of Xiqu, has been rebuilt step by step. We still need to take time and effort to get Xiqu’s development back on track—neither an easy nor a short-term job.


[1] 沪剧《挑山女人》
[2] 焦裕禄》豫剧
[3] 曹操与杨修》
[4] 牡丹亭》
[5] Kungu is a major Xiqu variation originating from the City Kunstan along Yangtze river. It appeared in the fourteenth century and very soon swept the whole country. Because of its fine, delicate  aesthetic, it is also known as “tone of water outflow”(Shuimoqiang水磨腔).
[6] 《长生殿》

*Fu Jin is a Doctor of Letters, Professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, Vice Chairman of China Literature and Art Critics Association, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the National Academy of Theatre Arts. Fu has published writings on Contemporary Theatre studies, Chinese Theatre theory and criticism, including dozens of monographs and literary essays, such as A History of Chinese Theatre in the Twentieth Century (volume I and II), Passing the Torch: The Theory and Practice of Protecting Non-material Cultural Heritage, The Vitality of Grassroots: The Fieldwork and Research of Taizhou’s Troupes, etc. Fu Jin has won multiple academic and literary awards from the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China and the Municipal Government of Beijing. He has been invited to Harvard University, the University of Chicago and numerous academic institutions in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan, as a visiting scholar, and has had a significant academic influence internationally.

Copyright © 2018 Fu Jin
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Traditional Chinese Theatre Today
Tagged on: