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Title: The Chinese theater
Author: Zucker, Adolf Eduard
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Chinese theater" ***



                     _Seven hundred and fifty copies
                       of THE CHINESE THEATER have
                      been printed from type and the
                    type distributed. Of this Limited
                        Edition, seven hundred and
                      twenty copies are for sale, of
                              which this is_

                               _Number 16_

[Illustration: A GENERAL

Chinese Character Type]

                             CHINESE THEATER

                               A. E. ZUCKER
       _Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Maryland
                Formerly, Assistant Professor of English,
                      Peking Union Medical College_

                            WITH ILLUSTRATIONS


                        LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY

                            _Copyright, 1925_,
                      BY LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.

                          _All rights reserved_

                         Published November, 1925






The genial Reverend Arthur Smith in his “Village Life in China” says
that the Chinese sometimes finds it hard to understand the Westerner.
As an instance he cites the case of a tired traveler who stops at an
inn for the night and is told that there will be theatricals in the
evening. Instead of sharing the glee of the natives, he gathers his
tired self together and hurries on to the next village that he may enjoy
his sleep far away from sounding brass and clanging[1] cymbal. Possibly
this explains why among all the books written on China comparatively
few concern themselves with the theater. One might add too that the
drama stands on a relatively lower level than some other Chinese arts,
for example, landscape painting and lyric poetry. Yet though his dramas
are poor the Chinese actor has at his command consummate skill to hold
the mirror up to life; he is no less of an artist than his Occidental

Still, the subject has attracted a fair number of Occidental writers.
Du Halde was the first; in his monumental description of China published
in 1735 he printed a translation by a Jesuit missionary of the Yuan
Dynasty drama, “The Orphan of the Chao Family.” It was this translation
that inspired Voltaire’s “L’Orphelin de la Chine.” Other translations
followed in the nineteenth century, together with some critical material
and various descriptions of Chinese staging. In the last few years the
interest in the Chinese stage has evidently become greater than ever,
both in China and in Western lands. A history of the Chinese drama,
however, has never been written; largely because the Chinese themselves
have no such work. Only a few present-day innovators among Celestial
scholars consider the drama as literature. Thus the information we
possess on this vast subject is very meager, and much of it is also
out of print. This book is an attempt to gather together what is known
on the subject, as well as to present in a volume supplied with vivid
illustrations the results of five years’ experience with the Peking
theater by a student of comparative literature possessed of a modest
knowledge of the Peking dialect.

Those who have so far written on the subject have always spoken of a
decadence of the drama which set in immediately after the first period of
bloom in the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368). In the course of the revaluation
of values now going on in China this opinion is being changed. Mr. Wang
Kuo-wei has recently compiled a dramatical catalogue which shows that
numerically, at least, there is no decrease in the production of dramas.
A trenchant critic, Doctor Hu Shih, holds that only technically can the
drama of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) be said to be inferior, because
the compact and unified plays of the Yuan period become diffuse and of
serpentine length; but that in the matter of characterization, poetic
diction, and content they are far superior. Furthermore, modern Chinese
criticism considers the very highest point of the drama to have been
reached in two historical tragedies of the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911).
As can readily be seen, there is an enormous amount of work to be done
in this field; and if the gaps and errors in this book shall impel a
competent scholar to write the long overdue history of the Chinese drama
this work will have served its purpose.

In general the Chinese drama is like ours. It is divided into acts, often
corresponding in number to our customary four or five. It is presented in
a manner strikingly similar to that employed during our greatest period
of the drama—Shakespeare’s day. It can be classified according to content
into our usual divisions. Historical drama prevails perhaps; because of
the great love of the Chinese for his long tradition contemporaries of
the Romans or even earlier heroes are favorites on the stage. Family
drama is extremely popular, with subdivisions such as the drama of
the court room and criminal drama. The magic or mythological drama,
recalling perhaps “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, is also very important;
among this group the very best plays are those that treat superstitious
beliefs satirically. Then there are dramas of character, among which can
be found a good counterpart to “The Miser” of Plautus or Molière. Dramas
of intrigue abound on every program. Even the monodrama can be found
among modern innovations. And last, but by no means least, there is the
religious drama in some ways analogous to our miracle and mystery plays.

The three chief religions of China have exerted their influence on the
stage. Confucianism supplies the general moral background of the majority
of plays. The veneration of the scholar rather than of the warrior makes
the former the chief hero on the Chinese stage, while filial piety is
the most outstanding virtue which the hero displays. Taoism, generally
described as the religion of superstitions, is responsible for the many
mythological and ghostly figures that fill Chinese plays. Rational
Confucianism is not conducive to imaginative writing, but under the
influence of Taoism the Chinese allowed his fancy to roam to the end
that innumerable delightful fairy and ghost stories were invented. The
keen sense of humor of the Chinese often comes to the fore in plays
dealing with Buddhist monks. These monks are the exact counterpart of
the lazy, ignorant, sensual, superstitious brethren who people the
pages of Boccaccio, Chaucer, Hans Sachs, and many other tellers of droll
tales. In fact when Père Prémave first came to China (around 1700) and
saw the monasteries with the celibate monks, who abstained from meat,
chanted offices, burned incense, shaved their heads, prayed with beads,
and gathered money from the pious, he decided that this was an invention
of the Evil One for the sole purpose of exasperating the Jesuits. With
the exception of some satire on the migration of souls the doctrine of
Sakyamouni has had little influence, but whenever chanting priests or
monks are brought on the stage they are burlesqued. The Chinese are
extremely tolerant in regard to religion and never fanatical; their
attitude toward the supernatural has been aptly defined as “politeness
toward possibilities.”

But the main theme of the Chinese drama, as of all drama, is the human
side of life. The stage is naturally enough a mirror in which we can see
the Chinese as they see themselves. They present themselves not as the
wise men of the East that some idealizing travelers would like to make
them, nor as the bloodthirsty monsters of the “Limehouse Nights” brand;
but as human beings, neither white nor black. We see the corruption of
officials, the callousness toward suffering, the selfishness of parents,
the eagerness for compromise, and the lack of physical or moral courage;
on the other hand the polite civilization with its long tradition, the
respect for the past and for learning, the love of poetry and art, the
general kindliness and honesty of the people, the love of humor, the
extreme democracy in social relations, and the reasonableness and lack of
fanaticism. He who would know the Chinese ought to know their stage; and
furthermore, he who loves our Middle Ages will derive endless pleasure
from its counterpart, the pageant of Chinese life.

In my years in the East I received helpful suggestions from many friends
in the course of hundreds of visits to the theater. Professor Soong
Tsung-faung first introduced me to this fascinating spectacle. Doctor Hu
Shih discussed it illuminatingly in conversation and by correspondence.
Lucius Porter, Professor of Chinese, Columbia University, 1922-1924,
offered helpful suggestions on the manuscript, which he read in part,
as did likewise Professor Ferdinand Lessing, formerly of the National
University, Peking. Two of my students, Huang Ke-k’ung and Jung Tu-shan,
who learned from me about Sophocles and Shakespeare, introduced me in
turn to many fine things on the Chinese stage. And finally, I wish to
express my appreciation to Mr. Chang Ziang-ling and the many other
_p’iao-yu_ (amateurs) for acquainting me with the nonprofessional stage.
Thanks are due to the editors of _La Revue de Littérature Comparée_ and
of _Asia_ for permission to reprint a number of chapters.

                                                              A. E. ZUCKER

RIVERDALE, MARYLAND, December 7, 1924




    Preface                                                            vii


    1 Early History                                                      3

    2 Formal Development—Yuan Dynasty, 1206-1368 A.D.                   19

    3 The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644 A.D. The Pi-Pa-Chi                    43

    4 The Drama under the Manchus and the Republic—1644 to the
        Present Day                                                     69

    5 Modern Tendencies                                                108

    6 External Aspects of the Chinese Theater                          129

    7 The Conventions                                                  161

    8 Mei Lan-fang—China’s Greatest Actor                              171

    9 Analogies Between East and West                                  190

    Chronological Table                                                221

    Bibliography                                                       223

    Index                                                              231



For the purpose of giving a vivid impression of the colorfulness of the
Chinese stage, the publishers have imported from China four thousand
paintings on silk, done by students of the Peking School of Fine Arts.
They represent four of the standing character type of the Chinese stage,
in their traditional make-ups.

    A General                                                _Frontispiece_

                                                               FACING PAGE

    A Scholar                                                           52

    A Demi-Mondaine                                                    152

    A Clown                                                            206

    Illustration by a Chinese artist for “The Chalk Circle”             28

    Illustration by a Chinese artist for “The Chalk Circle”             32

    Illustration by a Chinese artist. Tou-E before the judge            38

    Illustration by a Chinese artist. Tou-E about to be beheaded        40

    A Chinese artist’s conception of two pious souls                    48

    Warrior-acrobats                                                    80

    Amateur actors in an old-style Chinese play                        110

    Hu Shih                                                            118

    A typical Peking audience with the inevitable teapots              130

    Orchestral instruments                                             146

    Orchestral instruments                                             148

    The actress Kin Feng-Kui in a male rôle                            164

    Mei Lan-fang in European dress, and in parts                       176

    “Burying the Blossoms”                                             180

    The Fortune Theater                                                198

    A typical Peking theater                                           198

    The orchestra seated in a corner of the stage                      202






“Students of the Pear Garden” (Li Yuan Tzu Ti) is the name by which
actors in China are called in elegant literary style. This appellation
was given them in memory of the traditional origin of the Chinese theater
in the imperial palace gardens of a T’ang Dynasty emperor, Ming Huang
(Yuen Tsung, 713-756 A.D.), who was a generous patron of the arts in his
splendid capital Ch’ang An. This ruler established a college called the
Pear Garden for the training in music and dramatics of young actors of
both sexes. His plan for court entertainment the emperor had derived,
according to legend, from a visit to the moon where he had seen a troupe
of performers in the Jade Palace of the lunar emperor. In the annals of
the T’ang Dynasty the following is told about the art-loving ruler:

“Ming Huang was not only passionately fond of music, but he also had a
thorough knowledge of its essential principles. He established an academy
of music with three hundred students. Ming Huang himself gave them
lessons in the Pear Garden; if any of the students sang in poor taste
or incorrectly the emperor noted the fault immediately and corrected it
sharply. The young girls of the harem, several hundred in number, were
later also attached to the academy as students.... On the occasion of
the emperor’s birthday the empress ordered them to perform some musical
numbers in the Palace of Eternal Life.”

The French scholar Bazin in the introduction to his translation of four
Chinese plays comments upon this as follows: “Surely it is a great
thing that, at a time when the Chinese had as yet no idea of dramatic
performances, a man who had founded the institution of the Han-Lin
(literally ‘The Forest of Pencils’, i.e., The Imperial Academy of
Scholars), and who could justly call himself ‘the teacher of his nation’,
conceived and carried out single-handed a work of art, in which we find
for the first time with all its marvelous charm the union of lyric
poetry with the drama. This work, fitted to arouse in the souls of the
spectators the sentiment of the sublime, could be the product only of a

In “The Chinese Drama”, William Stanton writes on the origin of the drama
as follows:

    The long reign of Yuen Tsung, styled the Illustrious Emperor
    (Ming Huang) owing to its splendid beginning and disastrous
    close, is one of the most remarkable in Chinese history.

    On ascending the throne, the young emperor zealously strove to
    purge the empire of the extravagance and debauchery that was
    ruining it; and in his austerity went so far as to prohibit
    the wearing of the then fashionable costly apparel, and, as an
    example to his subjects, he made a large bonfire in his palace
    of an immense quantity of embroidered garments and jewellery.
    Under the wise administration of this stern ruler and his able
    ministers the state attained a great height of prosperity.
    But unexpectedly the emperor’s character underwent a change;
    he developed a love of sensuality and himself indulged in the
    luxuries he had formerly so strongly condemned.

    In A.D. 734 he obtained a sight of his daughter-in-law, the
    beautiful Yang Kuei-fei, and became so violently enamoured
    with her that he took her into his own seraglio. She speedily
    obtained a complete ascendency over him and succeeded in
    getting raised to the highest position next the throne.

    According to legendary stories the Herdsman and Spinning Damsel
    are two lovers who each inhabit a star separated by the Silver
    River (the Milky Way) and are unable to meet except on the
    seventh night of the seventh moon, when magpies from all parts
    of the world assemble, and with their linked bodies form a
    bridge to enable the damsel to cross to her lover. Consequently
    this is one of the great festive occasions of China. On the
    said evening of A.D. 735, Yuen Tsung and his celebrated
    consort stood gazing into the starlit sky. Remembering the
    occasion Yang Kuei-fei burst into protestations of affection
    and assured the monarch that she was more faithful than the
    Spinning Damsel, for that she would never leave him, but,
    inseparably with him, tread the spiritual walks of eternity.
    In order to reward such love the emperor sought to discover a
    novel amusement for her. After consideration he summoned his
    prime minister and commanded him to select a number of young
    children, and, after carefully instructing and handsomely
    dressing them, to bring them before the beautiful Yang
    Kuei-fei, to recite for her delectation the heroic achievements
    of his ancestors. That was the origin of the drama in China.
    The first performances were generally held in a pavilion in
    the open air, among fruit trees, and Yuen Tsung subsequently
    established an Imperial Dramatic College in a pear garden,
    where hundreds of male and female performers were trained to
    afford him pleasure. From the site of the college the actors
    become known as the “Young Folks of the Pear Garden”, a title
    they claim to the present day.

The Pear Garden origin of the Chinese drama is a fine legend and heroic
history, but it is typical of Chinese who have come in touch with
Occidental science that they should search for a more realistic, if less
picturesque, account of the beginning of their theater. The first, and
so far the only, systematic and scientific work on this subject is “The
History of the Drama under the Sung and Yuan Dynasties”, by Mr. Wang
Kuo-wei.[2] This author has taken great pains in collecting all evidences
of pantomimes, dramatic dances, satirical buffoonery, or anything else to
which the roots of a theater might be traced. While he is not yet able
on the basis of his evidence to lead us back step by step to the genesis
of the theater—as could for example a scholar dealing with the Greek
drama—yet the evidence he adduces is most interesting.

About 2000 B.C. there were found mediums called _wu_ when they were women
or _hsien_ when men, who performed dances and sang songs in the worship
of the gods, to exorcise evil spirits, to induce the gods to send rain,
or to act as mourners in times of calamity. It was believed that the gods
descended to earth and communicated with men through these mysterious
beings, especially in the course of violent dances. This form of worship
designed for the pleasure of the gods was evidently much according to
the taste of men, for we find it such a widespread form of popular
amusement that I-Yin, famous minister of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122
B.C.), issued an edict prohibiting it. “The late sovereign instituted
punishments for the officers, and warned the men in authority, saying,
‘If you dare to have constant dancing in your mansions, and drunken
singing in your houses, I call it wu-fashion’.”[3] During the classical
Chou Dynasty, beginning 1122 B.C. with Wu Wang, everything in Chinese
life was cast into the fetters of a strict ritual. There were regulations
governing the dress to be worn, the speeches to be made, and the
postures to be assumed on all possible occasions, whether at the court
or in private life; in fact, these rules were the prototypes of most of
the characteristic features governing Chinese public and social life
down to the present day. It can be seen readily that the more or less
spontaneous and popular mimicry of the _wu_ (mediums) would naturally
enough be suppressed at this time; but in later dynasties we find again
many references to the beauty, the splendid costumes, the singing and
dancing, and in general the charm of these actors in popular religious

These performances of the early Chinese centered about the divine
worship, as everything of æsthetic nature in the life of primitive man
seems to do. Even to-day all of the theatrical performances in China
outside the large cities are a form of divine worship, usually harvest
festivals staged by way of thanksgiving for good crops. That there
is in the minds of the Chinese a definite religious association with
theatricals performed in the villages is shown by the fact that the
Christian converts always receive a dispensation for their share of
the sum demanded by the traveling company. Sometimes missionaries hear
complaints from the village elders that some thrifty members of their
flocks save the tax for theatricals and yet go to look on at the shows;
however, thanks to the reasonable and unfanatic character of the Chinese
such quarrels are usually easily adjusted.

Because of this close association of the theater with temple worship,[4]
it seems reasonable to seek for another possible origin of the drama
in the early ancestor worship in which the deceased forefather of the
family was impersonated by one of his descendants. A ceremony of honoring
a revered ancestor could easily be expanded into a representation of
his great deeds. It is also known that not only men but also gods were
impersonated by the actors; as Mr. Wang puts it, they dressed in the
attire of the gods and imitated their gestures. However, in regard to
these representations of the gods our author feels that it is impossible
to give any definite details. Yet in the verse of the time there are
allusions to these performances referring to extravagance in dress and in
articles of toilet, such as perfume; to a change in the style of music;
to the employment of themes of love or of sadness in parting—all of which
indicates the great popularity of these entertainments of singing or
dancing. Hence our Chinese scholar believes that out of these beginnings
the drama has grown.

In this connection it would seem proper to mention the work of the
Cambridge University scholar, Professor William Ridgeway. He holds
that Greek tragedy proper did not arise in the worship of the Thracian
god Dionysus; but that it sprang out of the indigenous worship of the
dead, especially dead chiefs who in some cases are later deified.[5]
In dramatic dances in honor of ancestors or deceased heroes in Asiatic
countries Professor Ridgeway finds support for his theory of the origin
of the Greek theater. Speaking of the Chinese theater, he says that
already in the time of Confucius certain solemn dances were held in the
ancestral temples; at the present time in the temples of local deities,
who were once heroes or heroines of the immediate neighborhood, dramatic
performances are held in which these deified heroes are supposed to take
an interest for the reason that they are themselves frequently the object
of the worship; and that these modern theatricals seem to be descended
directly from the ancient cult practiced five hundred years before
Christ. It would seem from the foregoing that Mr. Wang’s evidence gives
support to Professor Ridgeway’s theories of the origin of tragedy out of
the worship of deified heroes.

Doctor Berthold Laufer, curator of the Field Museum, Chicago, has stated
to me that in his opinion a discussion of the origin of the Chinese drama
ought to differentiate between the beginnings of the “military plays” and
the “civil plays.” The latter are, as will be explained more fully in a
later chapter, plays in our sense of the word, while the “military plays”
consist of acrobatics that symbolize fighting. Doctor Laufer believes
that these last-named take their origin from ancient ceremonials in
which the use of weapons was the chief feature. Doctor Laufer has had
considerable experience with the Chinese theater, and his museum is
the only one in the world, so far as I know, which possesses life-size
figures of Chinese actors in correct costume.

So much for ancestor worship as the source of the drama with the _wu_
or _hsien_. Mr. Wang adduces records also of other types of actors. As
early as 1818 B.C., according to a none too reliable Han Dynasty (206
B.C.-221 A.D.) record, a ruler is said to have abolished the temple rites
and ceremonies and to have collected about his court clowns, dwarfs, and
actors to perform amusing plays. In the more historic period of “Spring
and Autumn” (770-544 B.C.) there are records of dwarfs in rôles similar
to those of our court fools. They attempted to gain the favor of the
rulers by their witty sayings which were often full of satire. Confucius
in his capacity of prime minister saw himself forced to put to death one
of these wits[6] because of his disrespectful allusions to the ruler—an
action, incidentally, that seems most characteristic of the noble sage,
who with all his virtues certainly was not endowed with a sense of humor.
The function of these dancing, singing, play-acting dwarfs was not a
religious one; “they were to amuse men, not to amuse the gods.”

In a review[7] of Mr. Wang’s “History of the Drama under the Sung
and Yuan Dynasties” Professor Soong calls attention to the following
interesting analogies between Orient and Occident:

    The influence of the court fools was considerable, and on the
    whole salutary in China. Shih Huang-ti (255-206 B.C.), the
    builder of the Great Wall, was so addicted to great building
    enterprises that the people suffered in consequence. It was Yu
    Sze, the court fool, who caused the emperor to treat the people
    with more consideration. The successor of this mighty ruler
    conceived the plan of having the Great Wall painted—perhaps
    just a caprice on his part, perhaps in order to render the
    Wall less subject to the influence of the weather. Again Yu
    Sze dissuaded the emperor from carrying out such a costly
    and wasteful project. The history of Yu Meng is even more
    interesting. In the kingdom of Chou the family of Suen Lo
    Ngao had become extremely impoverished because the king had
    forgotten the merits of the chief of the house, a famous
    general. Yu Meng, the court fool, donned the armor of the
    defunct military leader and sang of his exploits before the
    royal palace; now the king could no longer refuse to recognize
    and recompense the merits of the family. This touching episode
    told by the historian in the “Biography of Court Fools” cannot
    but recall Will Sommer to whom “The King would ever grant what
    he would crave.”

During the Han Dynasty records show the existence of jugglers, magicians,
rope-walkers, sword-swallowers, and also of plays in which masked actors
disguised as gods, fearful leopards, cruel tigers, white bears, and gray
dragons had their parts. Dwarfs and giants were made to play together in
humorous pieces. Singing girls in costumes of feathers executed artful
dances. Some of these performances are said to have been so indecent that
passers-by covered their eyes. However, such performances were sharply
censored at the time, just as they would be in present-day China.

All of these performances were very much favored by the rulers, but they
consisted mostly of singing and dancing, while there was very little
that might be called drama. In the northern Ch’i Dynasty (550-570 A.D.)
however, there arose what might be called a historical play based on an
episode in the life of a heroic warrior, Duke Lan Lu. This warrior had
a somewhat effeminate aspect, and therefore he wore a mask in battle to
inspire fear in the hearts of his enemies. His story was dramatized and
became a very popular play, probably similar to the present-day “military
plays” in which the play with swords and spears forms the _pièce de
résistance_. There is a record about the same time of a comedy also
based on an actual occurrence, called “The Drunkard.” A certain man,
Su Pao-pi (a name alluding to red spots on his nose) was a very heavy
drinker and after each spree would beat his wife in the village street
until she wept pitifully. Two actors, one dressed as a woman and the
other as a man, would amuse the people by a popular farce portraying
this quarrel between husband and wife. The playlet must have been one of
extraordinary vitality, for there are records of it in the Chi, Chou, and
Sui dynasties—to be sure, three short dynasties that followed one closely
upon the other. Music and dancing also played a part in these two early
dramatic presentations, so that they were probably of the melodramatic
(in the etymological sense of the term) variety, such as is most of the
Chinese drama of to-day.

The dramas in China are classified according to the style of music they
employ. Another play of the same, or perhaps a little earlier period,
called “The Tiger,” is thought by Mr. Wang, because of the music of
foreign tribes employed in it, to have been brought into China from “The
Western Regions” (central Asia).[8] It is the story of a man who was
killed by a tiger and whose son then set out on a search for the wild
beast, fought with it and avenged his father by killing it in turn. Mr.
Wang even hazards the suggestion that the two plays mentioned above, “The
Mask” and “The Drunkard,” were in their music and manner of presentation
imitations of “The Tiger,” in which case this form of drama would be a
borrowing from a foreign country and not indigenous to China.

Two other early plays which Mr. Wang mentions deal with historical
episodes. From the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-221 A.D.) dates the story of an
unjust mandarin who had “squeezed” as they say in China, ten thousand
rolls of silk and was put in jail. Later on the emperor moderated this
punishment, because of the mandarin’s great learning, into the following:
the culprit had to appear at court dressed in a white robe while for the
period of one year the court fools were at liberty to make sport of him.
This became the basis of a play shown by a number of records to have
been acted frequently before the T’ang Dynasty. The plot seems, indeed,
to have been a comedy made to order for the court fools to display
their wit. There is evidence to show that this play was enacted in the
imperial palace in the middle of the eighth century. A group of actors
from Chekiang in presenting this play were said to have had voices so
loud that they penetrated to the clouds—a circumstance that would win the
favor of the devotees of certain types of modern Chinese drama. The other
historical play has for a hero Fan Kuai, a noble who saved the emperor’s
life by his prompt action against rebels. It is said to have been written
by the T’ang Dynasty emperor, Chao Tsung himself, and to have been acted
in the imperial palace in Ch’ang An.

It was during the T’ang Dynasty especially that a nonmusical type of
drama flourished in the form of extemporized comedies. The plots hinged
on local occurrences and differed with practically each presentation.
However, much as in the Italian _commedia dell’ arte_, with its
Arlecchino, Pantalone, Dottore, Scapino, etc., certain characters or
character types seem to have arisen. The very same extortionate mandarin,
mentioned above as the central figure of a play, became such a type who
figured in almost all of these comedies—in fact he is a stock character
on the Chinese stage even to-day—while opposite him there appeared as his
regular companion a fool wearing a green cap. Thus dialogue between two
actors—in other words rudimentary drama—became firmly established. Since
the satirizing of current events and of local characters was the avowed
purpose of these comedies, it will be readily understood by all familiar
with life in the East that the dishonest official came in for his fair

A topical comedy with a purpose from the Sung Dynasty (960-1126 A.D.)
played before the emperor attained all that might have been desired.
Through the efforts of an unpopular official a system of coinage had
been introduced in which the smallest coin had a value of ten cash.
Naturally enough this caused great inconvenience to very many poor
people. Therefore some actors called upon to play before the emperor
in the course of a feast proceeded to give him a lesson in rudimentary
economics. A vendor of syrups appeared and shortly afterwards a thirsty
customer. The latter paid one coin and demanded one drink. The merchant
explained that he had no change for the coin and asked his patron
therefore to take a number of drinks. The buyer does his best, but after
the fifth or sixth cup taps his bulging stomach and exclaims, “Well, I’ve
done it at last. But if the gentlemen in the government were to make us
use hundred-cash coins I should surely burst!” The emperor was moved to
gay laughter and smaller coins were at once issued. However, the efforts
of these actors were not always so fortunate in outcome. The story is
told, for example, of actors who had dressed up to represent Confucius,
Mencius, and other sages for the purpose of giving the emperor some very
pertinent advice on the division of land in the very words of the great
moral teachers. The advice proved to be so inconvenient that the emperor
had the actors whipped for their pains.

From the Sung Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.) Mr. Wang reports the names of 280
plays and from the Chin Dynasty (1115-1234 A.D.) 690 plays, but fails to
state how many are extant. Of the so-called Ancient Drama it is known
that a certain kind of free metrical form adapted to music (_ch’ü_) was
employed; that as a rule only two actors appeared in each play; and that
theatricals, though still very primitive, were quite popular, as they
were presented both to the general public in shabby mat-sheds and to
the court at magnificent feasts. Our knowledge of the Ancient Drama is
very meager to be sure, yet the work of Mr. Wang has made it possible to
go beyond what Mr. Giles says in his “History of Chinese Literature”[9]
after having mentioned the Pear Garden myth: “Nothing, however, which can
be truly identified with the actor’s art seems to have been known until
the thirteenth century, when suddenly the Drama, as seen in the modern
Chinese stage play, sprang into being.” Owing to the great interest in
Western drama in China at the present time it is very likely that other
Chinese scholars will make researches in this interesting field and that
more light will soon be shed on the origin of the Chinese drama.




The rise of the Chinese drama was due to a national disaster that broke
the sway of the ruling literary class. In 1264 Kublai Khan with his
Mongols fixed his capital at Peking and for the first time in their
history the sons of Han passed under the rule of an alien sovereign.
The barbarians naturally enough abolished the literary examinations for
government posts, consisting of competitions in the writing of essays and
poetry in the language of the classics, for they did not care to appoint
as viceroys and justices members of the subject race. The Mongol language
had absolutely no literature and, indeed, not even an alphabet until
1279, when a Tibetan priest constructed one by imperial order. Chinese
scholars were thrust out of their high offices and could find employment
only as writers of petitions or as lowly clerks. There was no longer any
call for the exercise of their talents in the writing of descriptive
essays or lyrical poetry such as had been demanded in the examinations
formerly leading to the highest offices; they found, however, a fruitful
outlet for their literary powers in a genre previously greatly despised
by the literati—the drama.

The cause of the scholar’s disdain for the drama and the novel was
the great chasm that yawned between the classical language and the
spoken language of the day in which, perforce, popular literature of
entertainment or of the stage had to be written. For over a thousand
years the literary language had been a dead language, so dead that a
learned scholar could comprehend it only if he saw the text in black and
white before his eyes—to hear it read did not by any means enable him to
understand it. Everything that had been considered literature up to that
time was composed in this language, and anything composed in the vulgar
tongue was considered beneath the dignity of a scholar. Now, however,
clever writers turned to the drama and the novel with the result that the
written language was to a certain extent democratized in the works that
appealed to the broad masses of readers or hearers. But let it be noted,
_to a certain extent only_; for, as vanquished Greece in turn conquered
Rome by her superior culture, so Chinese culture conquered the Mongols.
After having been abolished for practically eighty years the literary
examinations were reinstated and the drama too was gradually caught
in pedantic fetters of formalism. Yet in spite of the fact that the
Yuan dramatists moved away from the spoken language to one presupposing
considerable erudition on the part of the reader, there are many scholars
even to-day who regard the novel and drama as beneath their notice,
just as a medieval scholar would have despised any work not written in

In fact these works have been recognized at their true worth only as
late as 1917, when Hu Shih, Columbia University doctor of philosophy
and professor at the National University in Peking, began to lecture on
the Chinese drama as drama and to publish the best of the novels with
historical introductions. Professor Hu Shih finds in the language of
these works a compromise which he hopes will be an aid in inducing the
Chinese of to-day finally to adopt the vernacular as the language of
science and belles-lettres. For, in spite of the concessions made to
the firmly rooted conventions of the conservative class of scholars for
the sake of lending dignity to their works and securing the approval of
the literati, the novel and the drama, owing to their popular appeal,
deviated largely from the dead language and approached the vernacular of
the day.

The dramatists are as a rule men who are not otherwise famous as writers.
Biographical material concerning the authors of the “One Hundred Yuan
Dramas”, the collection of plays considered classical in China, is so
meager that it does not seem worth while to mention names about whose
bearers little more can be said than that they “flourished.” About five
hundred plays were extant at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, while
to-day there exist but one hundred and sixteen. Modern Celestial scholars
are proud of the fact that an overwhelming percentage of the authors
were real Chinese, practically all from the territory now covered by the
provinces of Chihli, Shantung and Shansi, about a third of them born in
Peking (called Yenching at the time). Nine tenths of the authors lived
in what is called the first period of the Yuan drama (1235-1280) with
its center in Peking; while the much smaller Southern School developed
later (1280-1335) around Hangchow. Most of the authors were from among
the common people, and only one among the whole ninety odd was a Tartar.
Chinese critics regard Kuan Han-ching (the author of “The Sufferings of
Tou-E”, a play discussed below) as the greatest of all these writers,
because his manner is true and natural. Others are spoken of as having a
style that is lofty and magnificent, or pure and beautiful, or biting and

The historian of the Chinese drama, Mr. Wang Kuo-wei, quoted above,
states that the Yuan drama is a natural growth out of the previously
existing forms and the traditional plots. More than thirty Yuan plots,
he points out, had been used before in plays of the Sung Dynasty. He
finds the chief advance of the Yuan drama to consist in the employment
of more flexible verse forms for the poetic sections and the use of more
dialogue in the place of narration and description. Thus the essence of
drama, action, takes the place of narration. Moreover, the drama rose to
the dignity of an art. Previous to this the plays, generally dialogues
by clowns, had been mostly interlarded in entertainments of acrobatics,
dancing, and music. Such performances took place frequently at the royal
court and are described also in the writings of the Italian Ma-Ke-Po-Lo
(Marco Polo) when he tells about the feast of the Grand Khan: “When the
repast is finished, and the tables have been removed, persons of various
descriptions enter the hall and amongst these a troop of comedians
and performers on various instruments, as also tumblers and jugglers,
who exhibit their skill in the presence of the Grand Khan to the high
amusement and gratification of all the spectators.”[11]

As has been stated above, the dramas soon took on certain formal aspects.
In general they have four acts, with a prologue, epilogue, or interlude,
which makes them in appearance and length quite similar to our five-act
plays. Some plays—analogous to our trilogies—have acts of a number that
is a multiple of four and each group of four acts forms a unity by
itself. For example, “The Western Chamber”, has twenty acts and forms
really five plays. According to Chinese critics the drama is composed
of three elements: (1) action; (2) speech; (3) singing. Speech may be
divided into monologue and dialogue; the purpose of the latter is to
advance the action and of the former to arouse emotions—a function that
very properly invites comparison with the rôle of the chorus in the Greek
drama. No longer are there only two characters in these plays, but we
now find four chief rôles along with various minor parts. In very rigid
manner only one character is made to sing in each act, which means that
each of the four characters has one act in which he or she plays the
main rôle. This arrangement has had its peculiar effect which can be
witnessed in present-day Peking, where plays of this type are staged,
inasmuch as a famous actor who plays, let us say, the rôle of the lover,
will not present entire dramas, but only such of the acts as give him
the principal part. In the new plays of to-day, of course, a different
practice is followed but the old repertoire of the average Chinese
theater is so well known that it makes very little difference whether a
drama is presented as a whole or in part. The character types of the Yuan
drama, the _Mei_ (male) and _Tan_ (female), with their many variations,
are in general quite similar to the types of present-day drama, a
discussion of which is given in a later chapter. In the printed texts of
the play characters are designated not by their names, but by the rôles
which they play.

The classical drama of China offers many interesting parallels to
different stages in the development of our drama, though it nowhere
equals the plays of our great masters. Its greatest height reaches the
level of perhaps the pre-Shakespearean drama in content, construction,
and manner of presentation. The presentation of Chinese plays with
the projecting platform stage, the lack of scenery and the emphasis
on gorgeous costume, the playing of female parts by male actors, the
extemporizing of clowns, and the use of music in “flourish” and “alarums”
offers a strikingly close parallel to Elizabethan staging. But that is a
chapter by itself.

In the consideration of Chinese drama a few facts of Chinese life
must be borne in mind. The beau ideal in the Middle Kingdom is not the
warrior, but the scholar. There is no hereditary aristocracy, but wealth
and power falls to him who distinguishes himself in the competitive
examinations and thus becomes viceroy of a province or some other type
of high official. The passing of the examination therefore serves as the
_deus ex machina_ in many plays, solving all knotty problems accumulated
by the fifth act. Marriages are arranged by the parents, and the romance
of courtship is a rare and forbidden fruit. The religious and ethical
background consists chiefly of a respect for the minute moral precepts of
Confucius, with some Buddhistic notions of reincarnation and some Taoist
superstitions impartially admixed.

To examine a few of the acknowledged masterpieces of the Yuan drama is
to invite fascinating comparisons. In “Chao Mei Hsiang” (Intrigue of a
Lady’s Maid) we have a young servant girl uniting two lovers, a sort of
Dorine of Molière’s “Tartuffe” in a Chinese setting. The destiny of the
young man and the girl have been settled beforehand by their parents,
much as Orgon in “Tartuffe” disposes of his daughter’s future:

    _Enfin, ma fille, il faut payer d’obeissance,_
    _Et montrer pour mon choix entière déférence._

The lovers in both plays revolt against parental authority, and in both
cases a happy ending is brought about indirectly through fortunate
intervention on the part of the monarch himself. The meat contained in
the Chinese play is about what “Tartuffe” would be with Tartuffe left out.

Two generals arrange, shortly before they die in battle, that their
children are to marry. The son of the one, therefore, while on his
journey to the capital to take his examination, visits at the home of the
widow of his father’s friend. The widow invites him to take up his abode
in a pleasant pavilion in the garden, but she meets with icy silence
every reference on the part of the young man to marriage. This is because
she wishes to observe the very strictest code of conduct, which ordains
that when a girl has lost her father she dare not marry until three years
afterward. The young people fall in love at first sight; the young man
so desperately that the yearning for the girl he is not permitted to
see after their first accidental meeting causes him to become violently
ill. The quick-witted, impertinent maid sent to look after the wants of
the patient carries messages between him and the young girl and finally
arranges a meeting on a moonlit night. The lovers have exchanged but a
few words when the mother discovers them. She punishes the maid and sends
the young man away in disgrace. He goes to the capital and passes such a
brilliant examination that he attracts the attention of the emperor. The
latter becomes interested in the young man’s future and decides to carry
out the wish of his two faithful generals. The marriage is arranged by
imperial command. Both lovers are in ignorance as to who their selected
mates are to be, and at first are very much dejected; but when they meet
as bride and groom their happiness is all the greater when they realize
that the choice of their elders is also the choice of their hearts.


This, together with three similar illustrations, has been taken from the
standard edition of the Yuan Dynasty classics]

The play moves in an atmosphere of strictly prescribed etiquette of which
the mother is a stony-eyed incarnation. The facetious little maid is
a breaker of rules in the interest of more human considerations, and,
like the servant in all our comedies from the time of Menander downward,
she tells her mistress some frank home-truths. Not only is the young
man a scholar, but the heroine with her maid-companion also have been
ardent students of the classics. Quotations from Confucius, Mencius,
Laotze, and the Buddhist writings lend their sparkle to the dialogue.
The lovers exchange poems exhibiting that charming impressionism of
delicately sketched moonlight on the lotus or snowfall on pine trees so
characteristic of Chinese verse. Allusions to myths abound; for example,
to the moonlit cloud that wooed the mother of Huang Ti as Jupiter did
Io. As in the plays of Bernard Shaw and of his predecessor Shakespeare,
the heroine takes the initiative by tossing into the room of the rather
passive hero a bag embroidered with characters revealing her love. A
wistful note is sounded by the young scholar when the wedding commanded
by the emperor is, as he believes, about to unite him to a woman other
than the one he loves: “Musicians, please do not now play the air of the
teals meeting in chaste pleasure who lament and yet feel no sorrow.” This
speech gives the same blending of the emotions so often spoken of by
our poets in analyzing the mystery of love, perhaps most strikingly in
Goethe’s lines:

    _Freudvoll und leidvoll,_
    _Gedankenvoll sein,_
    _Langen und bangen_
    _In schwebender Pein,_
    _Himmelhoch jauchzend_,
      _Zum Tode betrübt,_
    _Glücklich allein ist_
    _Die Seele die liebt._

The play “Ho Lang Tan” (The Singing Girl) portrays the punishment of vice
and the triumph of virtue. A rich merchant decides to take into his house
a second wife, a certain singing girl. He finds himself desperately in
love with this lady of easy virtue, while the girl herself is planning to
get his money in order to run off with her real lover. There is a scene
between husband and wife in which the latter bitterly resents the plan
of bringing a concubine into the house and pronounces grave warnings of
the evils that will befall her husband in consequence. But the merchant
persists in his plan and brings the singing girl to salute his wife as
mistress of the house. The former is required by etiquette to make
four bows, of which the last two must be returned by the wife. The wife
refuses to greet the interloper, and after a short but violent quarrel
she dies of anger. The next scene shows the singing girl stealing the
merchant’s money and setting his house on fire. Her lover, disguised as
a boatman, throws the husband into a stream and tries to strangle the
latter’s son and his nurse. But passers-by prevent the cowardly murder,
and one of the strangers buys from the nurse the seven-year-old boy for
one ounce of silver. The poor nurse faces starvation and decides to
adopt the profession of a singing girl. While traveling about in this
capacity she meets the merchant who has had a miraculous escape from
drowning and has sunk to the position of swineherd in a far country. His
lowly state eloquently points the moral. At first he upbraids the nurse
for having adopted her dishonorable calling, but afterward he accepts
her invitation to quit his miserable post and to be supported by her.
Thirteen years have passed and the young son has become a famous judge
by virtue of having passed a brilliant examination. He happens to arrive
in the same city where his relatives are and calls on the keeper of his
inn to provide some singers for his entertainment. The host leads in his
childhood nurse and his father. The young judge wipes his teacup with a
piece of paper which he throws on the floor. As this paper happens to be
the contract of his sale by the nurse to the kind-hearted stranger who
later made him his heir and as it happens to be picked up by the father,
a recognition is effected. At the same time two thieves are brought
before the judge, who turn out to be the erstwhile second wife and her
scoundrel lover. They meet their just punishment; the judge puts them to
death with his own hand as a pious offering to the spirit of his deceased
mother. The father praises the justice of Heaven and asks his son to
order a feast that they may celebrate in due form this remarkable meeting.

The chief interest of this clumsy play lies in the light it throws on
Chinese life. The indignation and subsequent death of the wife show how
even in countries where “they are used to it” women resent bitterly the
advent of a concubine into the house. During my stay in Peking there
occurred several weddings that were marred by violent quarrels between
the first wife and the new bride. The husband in our play vainly exhorts
his wife to be good, to observe the three obediences and the four virtues
of a wife.[12]

Yet he cannot exile her, because she has borne him a son. All of the
characters are drawn with great realism in their ignoble conduct. The
sale of the child by the nurse is followed by a tearful monologue on the
part of the sailor who had come to the rescue: “Poor child, your lot
is to be pitied. This woman who was just about to be strangled by the
brigands finds herself reduced to the necessity of selling her child.
Could one find a sadder and more heart-rending situation? Who would not
shed tears of pity for her?”

The author sets out with a realistic portrayal of a phase of life, but
he yields to the force of convention which required a moral and happy
ending—an influence not unknown in the drama of Western countries.

Our plays, from “The Merchant of Venice” to “Madam X”, abound in court
scenes, but the Chinese theater makes use of this effective device even
more frequently. A play called “The Chalk Circle” presents in a trial
scene a story almost identical with a Biblical one. Two women appearing
before a judge with a child each claim it as their own. The judge orders
the child placed in a circle drawn on the floor, while the women are to
decide who is the mother by pulling at the child in a sort of tug-of-war.
One woman refuses to hurt the child by pulling at his arm, and the judge
decides with Solomonic wisdom that she must be the true mother. Very
frequently these plays are satirical in character, making sport of the
notoriously corrupt judges. In one of the naively primitive speeches of
introduction, required by the theatrical convention of every character
on entering the stage, a judge is made to say, “I am the governor of
Ching-Chou. My name is Sou Shen. Although I fulfill the functions of a
judge, yet I do not know a single article of the code. I like only one
thing and that is money. By means of the bright metal every plaintiff can
always make sure the winning of his suit.”


“The Transmigration of You Hsin” is a play dealing with the popular
superstitions regarding the reincarnation of souls in much the same
spirit in which Voltaire in “Candide” treats the belief that this is the
best of all possible worlds. As in Gogol’s “Revizor” the government sends
an inspector to a certain village where the officials of the law court
are said to be corrupt. The rumor of the coming inspection reaches town
before the inspector; and most of the judges flee. Only You Hsin remains,
together with the clerks and minor officials. One of these expresses his
surprise at the fact that You Hsin is going to meet the inspector so
calmly, especially since he had recently accepted a scandalously large
bribe. You Hsin answers, “Yes, to be sure, I’ve accepted presents. But my
friend, you certainly are simple! Isn’t it necessary that we fulfill our
destiny? No one can die before his time has come. Have the courts ever
prolonged by one minute the life of a man? If it were otherwise people
would no longer believe in lucky and unlucky fates; they would no longer
call Heaven and Earth the arbiters of life and death.” A famous anchorite
appears prophesying that You Hsin will die within two hours. Then the
inspector enters the village and begins immediately his examination of
the court records. However, since he is an extremely stupid and incapable
man, the clerks succeed in persuading him that everything is in order.
But You Hsin in his home has fallen ill. He implores his beautiful wife
never to show her face in public and to remain a widow forever. He dies
at the very hour the holy man had foretold—even though his death is not
due to a sentence imposed on him because of his corrupt practices.

You Hsin’s soul appears before the judge of the lower world. As he had
been very avaricious in life his punishment is to consist in having to
gather coppers tossed into a deep kettle of boiling oil. But the holy
man appears and obtains forgiveness for You Hsin, because he allows
himself to be quickly converted to Taoism and makes the vows of poverty
and chastity. The judge will even grant him the boon of a speedy return
to earth. He cannot reënter his own body, because his wife has been a
bit precipitate in cremating it; but he is allowed to enter that of a
butcher who has just died, a blue-eyed, lame, and otherwise ugly man. The
butcher’s parents, wife, and neighbors are engaged in mourning, when the
dead man suddenly rises from his coffin. You Hsin wants, first of all, to
see his pretty wife, but when he tries to walk he stumbles with his lame
leg. As they hand him the crutch he reflects, “Ah, yes, in my former life
I had a crooked conscience and in this life I have a crooked and useless
leg. I realize only too well the heavenly justice!” The butcher’s
relatives follow him to his former home, where his wife had been happy
to receive him after he had fully explained his miraculous return. A
violent quarrel breaks out between the two women, each of whom claims
her husband. The case is taken before the stupid imperial inspector,
who is in great perplexity before the question as to whether the body
or the soul constitutes the husband. The case and the play end when the
anchorite arrives to remind You Hsin of his vows and to take him into the
unworldly wilderness.

Plautus’ and Molière’s subject for a comedy of character, the miser,
has been employed by a Chinese playwright with strong local color to
his humor. One of the many scenes of his play describes how the miser
comes to feel that he must have a son to pray at his grave and therefore
decides to buy one from an unlucky scholar reduced by poverty to selling
his children. He offers the parents one ounce of silver. The mother
exclaims in her disappointment, “Why, for that sum you couldn’t buy a boy
modeled in clay.” Perhaps this is a bit unmotherly in sentiment, but the
retort is truly miserly, “Yes, but a boy of clay does not eat or cause
other expenses.” When this sum is refused the miser instructs his servant
to go once more to the man, to hold the silver high, very high, above his
head and to say, “There, you poor scholar, His Excellency Lord Kou deigns
to give you one precious ounce of silver.” His servant replies that no
matter how high he holds it an ounce will be only an ounce; and finally
he pays the father more out of his own wages!

When the son has reached the age of twenty the miser scolds him one day
because he seems to think that money is for the purpose of buying food
and clothes! By way of instruction he tells how one can live economically:

“One day I felt inclined to eat roast duck and therefore I went to the
market to that shop which you know. They were just roasting a fine duck
and the delicious juice was running down. Under the pretext of bargaining
I handled it and soaked my fingers thoroughly in the gravy. Then I went
home without having bought it and called for a plate of boiled rice.
With each spoonful of rice I sucked one finger. At the fourth spoonful I
became tired and fell asleep. During my nap a treacherous dog came and
licked my last finger. When on awakening I noticed this theft, I became
so angry that I have been ill ever since.”

The house is in need of a picture of the god of luck, and the miser
instructs his son to order the artist to paint a rear view, because to
paint the face costs most. When he is about to die he orders his son to
bury him not in a coffin of pine, nor even of willow wood, but to use the
old watering trough standing in the back yard. The son objects that it
is too short, but the father instructs him to chop his body in two to
make it fit. “And there is one more important thing I wish to say to you
before I die; don’t use my good ax to cut me in two, but borrow one from
the neighbor.”

“Since we have an ax, why should I bother the neighbor?”

“Perhaps you don’t know that my bones are extremely hard, and that if
you’d use my good cutting edge you’d have to spend some coppers to get it

The miser’s last words are inaudible, but he persists in holding up two
fingers. All the relatives assembled in the death chamber are very much
puzzled and try to please him by doing this or that, but the dying man’s
discomfort increases. Finally his old servant enters and he understands.
There are two candles burning where one might do; and after one of them
has been extinguished the miser dies in peace.

Tragedy is not found in the Chinese drama. The plays abound in sad
situations, but there is none that by its nobility or sublimity would
deserve to be called tragic. The closest approach to it is found perhaps
in “The Orphan of the Chao Family”,[13] made familiar to Western readers
by Voltaire; or in “The Sorrows of Han.” This latter play, in the
Chinese literally “Autumn in the House of Han”, is full of poetical
touches. North of the Great Wall there is the Tartar Khan who sees in
the weakness of the Han emperor his opportunity for further conquest.
This young emperor is addicted to a life of dissipation, and through his
minister Mao he gathers beauties for his harem from the four corners of
his realm. As a true Oriental, Mao demands a heavy bribe from the family
of every girl whose portrait he submits to the emperor. But the family of
the most beautiful girl of all is so poor as to be unable to pay a bribe,
and therefore the minister causes the artist to distort the portrait.
Naturally the emperor does not summon this lady into his presence. But
one evening, when in a melancholy mood he walks in an unfrequented part
of his palace grounds, he comes by chance upon this girl as she is
singing to her lute. Her beauty enchants him. “The very lantern shines
brighter in the presence of this maid,” he exclaims, and falls violently
in love with her. Of course, he orders the grasping minister to be
beheaded; but the latter flees to the Tartar Khan to show him a truthful
picture of the favorite and to incite him to war against China.

The Khan sends an ultimatum: “Either give me this beauty for a wife or
I will make war on China.” The emperor is aghast with fear of a Tartar
invasion, but the princess is willing to be sacrificed. “In return for
your bounties it is your handmaiden’s duty to brave death for you,” she
says and adds that surpassing beauty has always been coupled with great
sorrow, but that she will leave a name ever green in history. After a sad
farewell she departs for the country of the Tartars and meets the Khan
on the banks of the Amur. She drinks a last cup of wine to her lover:
“Emperor of Han, this life is ended. I await thee in the next.” With
these words the princess casts herself into the swift current and drowns
in spite of the Khan’s valiant effort to save her. He erects for her a
tomb on the bank of the river, which tradition says is green both summer
and winter. Moved by her noble character, the Tartar decides to live in
peace with China.


A play that is even to-day a favorite in Peking playhouses under the
title of “Snow in June” was called by its Yuan dynasty author “The
Sufferings of Tou-E.” It is the record of the endless sufferings at the
hands of a pitch-black, wicked world of an innocent girl and her final
vindication through a triple miracle from Heaven. In her childhood she
was sold by her own father into a family where she became the son’s
wife and the drudge of her mother-in-law. For thirteen years she was a
dutiful wife and when her husband died she hoped to remain faithful to
his memory, as every widow in China is expected to do. But two cowardly
ruffians, father and son, force themselves into the house where she
is living with her likewise widowed mother-in-law and demand that the
women marry them, endowing them at the same time with all their worldly
goods. The two women refuse to yield to these insolent demands. Then
the younger intruder, or rather bandit, places some poison in a bowl of
soup, intending to murder the older woman, but his father drains the
cup by mistake. Hereupon he tries once more to coerce the heroine into
marriage by threatening to fasten the murder upon her. She feels quite
secure in her innocence and dares him to bring the case to court, very
certain in the belief that justice will prevail. But the wicked judge
begins by having the accused tortured, and this so brutally that the girl
is at last forced into a false confession merely to escape the unbearable
pain. Upon this she is promptly condemned to death. As she is kneeling
to be beheaded she announces that three things will prove her innocence;
her blood will not fall on the ground but on a banner ten feet above her
head; snow will fall although the season is summer; and there will be a
drought of three years’ duration. All of this comes true as it had been
foretold, and the strange tale is noised abroad in the land. Finally, a
just judge—her very father who as a poor scholar had been forced to sell
his child!—hears of the case and decides to investigate it. The spirit
of his daughter comes to enlighten him in regard to the true state of
affairs, and the real murderer is punished by being nailed to a wooden
ass and cut into a hundred and twenty pieces.


This obtrusively moral ending is a _sine qua non_ in Chinese plays;
likewise the crude plot as well as the rôle played by accident rather mar
one’s enjoyment of the play. Yet the courage of the girl in the face of
her persecutors, her firm belief that justice will prevail in the end,
and her stoical manner of meeting death are elements not without their
charm. The scene of the execution is rather impressive in its simplicity.

    Tou-E: (sings) Ye clouds that float in the air on my account,
    make dark the sky! Ye winds that sigh because of my fate, come
    down in storms! Oh, that Heaven would make my three predictions
    come true!

    Mother-in-law: Rest assured that snow will fall for six months,
    and that a drought will afflict the country for three years.

    Now, Tou-E, let your soul reveal clearly the great injustice
    which is about to cause your death.

    (The executioner strikes off Tou-E’s head).

    The Judge (seized with terror): O Heavens! The snow is
    beginning to fall! This is surely a miracle!

    Executioner: I behead criminals every day and their blood
    always flows on the ground, but the blood of Tou-E has spotted
    the two banners of white silk and not a drop has fallen on the
    ground. There is something supernatural about this catastrophe.

    The Judge: This woman was truly innocent!

The plays discussed in this chapter are sufficient to show that in the
thirteenth century the Chinese possessed a theater of fair merit. To
be sure, the technique is extremely crude; characters on their first
appearance on the stage tell the audience their names followed by a
conscientious account of their past lives and the part to be played by
them in the drama; the motivation of the actions is very poor; many plays
seem to be dramatized narratives rather than real dramas; there is a
great paucity of invention as shown by the rather frequent repetition
of dramatic devices and motives; the necessity of having a moral ending
leads to numerous absurdities; and chance rules the playwright’s world
from beginning to end, always in the interest of the good. Furthermore,
there is lacking a real sense of the tragic; there are no sublime heroes
overcome by the universal human limitations which they challenge, nor
are there moral conflicts of an elevating nature in which poetic justice
triumphs. The characters are in general types rather than individuals,
and there is very little deep psychological insight displayed. And on the
whole it must be said, the plays do not rise to a very high spiritual
level. Yet there is great charm in this drama which brings on the stage
characters of all sorts from emperors down to coolies, and displays in
full the rich life in the Middle Kingdom of the days when Marco Polo
described it.




The Yuan Dynasty of Mongol rulers was a very powerful one and extended
the Chinese frontiers to include Korea, Yünnan, Annam, and Burma.
The rulers proved themselves very tolerant of Chinese religions and
institutions; the emperor Jen Tsung even reëstablished the Hanlin Academy
and the official examinations. But though the government of these
foreigners was fairly efficient yet it was by no means popular, and
frequent rebellions occurred. Finally, the Chinese under the leadership
of a former Buddhist monk, Chu Yuan-chang, drove the Mongols beyond the
Great Wall and founded the Ming Dynasty. The ex-monk ascended the throne
in 1368 and is known in history as Emperor Hung Wu.

The Ming Dynasty is known as a period of prosperity in which industry
and commerce, as well as the arts of poetry and painting, flourished.
It was also a great period for the drama. Over six hundred Ming dramas
are still extant or are at least known by title, and many of them were
written by well-known authors of high literary standing and great
scholarship. The drama was so much appreciated at this time that many
high officials and wealthy families had private troupes of actors, a
large number of the dramas being specially written for these troupes.
Since the audiences were composed of the élite, the language of the
dramas could be of a highly literary character.

A development took place at this time that altered considerably the
form of the drama. Instead of the compact and unified three, four, or
five-act plays of the Yuan period, playwrights began to produce dramas of
thirty-two, forty, or even forty-eight acts. The name of this new form
is _ch’an ch’i_ (literally “novel”) in distinction to the _tsa ch’i_ of
the Yuan Dynasty. Doctor Hu Shih, writing to me about these two forms,
suggests that one might call the former “play” and the latter “drama.”
“Technically the new form seems to be a degradation,” he says, “but aside
from the aspect of literary economy the Ming dramas were superior to the
Yuan plays in many respects, viz. (1) profounder conception, (2) far
better characterization, (3) more even distribution of parts among the
characters. In the Yuan plays only one character had a ‘singing’ part
and the others were completely subordinated; while in Ming dramas the
rôles are more evenly balanced. In many cases the same theme was treated
by Yuan and Ming dramatists, and in most cases the Ming version is far

In this chapter I am presenting an example of this new variety of drama,
a 24-act piece called “Pi-Pa-Chi” (The Story of a Lute). Except for the
fact that dialogue and stage directions are used the work might well be
called a novel. Aside from the technical interest of the drama it is most
significant as a presentation of Confucian ideals, a revival of which
was typical likewise of the Ming Dynasty. Such ideals are embodied in
the family system with the selfishness—as it appears to us—of old age.
After reading about the adventures of the hero, Tsai Yung, the Westerner
can understand why in Confucian writings along with widows and orphans
there are enumerated “son-less fathers.” The conflict in the drama
centers about the “higher” and the “lower” obedience—service to the state
or to the family. But the problem is not a clear-cut one, as the son
is to serve the state in the interest of the greater prosperity of his
own family; nor can it be said that it is solved in any way. The drama,
however, is full of Chinese moralizing along lines far removed from the
thinking of the “practical” Westerner.

Indeed, much of the famous mystery of the East or the inscrutability
of the Orientals might be less baffling to the average American if he
were better acquainted with the literature of China. I have known, for
example, a young Chinese politician who was none too scrupulous in the
manner in which he went about earning his living, who drank, supported a
number of concubines, and in fact was what might be called by the vulgar
a “rounder.” In the course of a dinner one evening he told me between
the sharks’ fins and the Peking duck that he had been offered a post in
Washington, but, lucrative though it was, he could not accept it because
of “filial piety”—his very words. Now piety in any sense of the word was
the last thing I associated with this youth, and therefore his statement
seemed to me surprising. There was another Chinese, the owner of an
excellent stable, with whom I went riding frequently in the Temple of
Heaven. He was a vigorous young man, educated in Paris, very businesslike
and progressive in all his ideas. One day I received an invitation to
his wedding, and, on going, found a merry throng in the gaily decorated
courtyard, with dancing in European fashion going on in full blast. I
noted the groom among the dancers, congratulated him and remarked, “Well,
I’m sure you’re very happy to-day!” But he shook his head and, as tears
came into his eyes, he told me that the bride was not of his choice but
had been selected and forced on him by his elder brother, the head of
the family. Again, in speaking one day with a progressive young student
who talked a great deal about reforms in politics and who participated
eagerly in parades and other demonstrations staged for that end, I
mentioned a certain official who had flagrantly stolen funds collected
for the famine sufferers. The student expressed perfunctory disapproval
of the official’s conduct, but added, “Still, if I were in his position,
I’d probably do the same.” Such is the manner in which the Chinese act
and as such they show themselves in their literature.

“Pi Pa Chi” was written by an otherwise unknown author, Kao Tsi-ch’ing,
about the end of the fourteenth century. The first performance of the
play is known to have taken place in 1404, in the reign of Yung Loh,
the ruler who, as every tourist knows, has the most prominent monument
among the Tombs of the Ming Emperors north of Peking. The play is
typically Chinese inasmuch as the hero is not a warrior or a prince, but
a poor scholar who rises to fame through his knowledge of literature.
It abounds in sad situations and is praised by Chinese critics because
it makes the spectators or readers weep. Furthermore, it conforms to
the demand made on all Chinese dramas by being strictly ethical in its
tendency. The moral lesson inculcated is that of the chief virtue of the
Chinese—veneration of parents. This is done with such devotion and force
that the play might well be called the Song of Songs of Filial Piety.

The first scene introduces a young scholar, Tsai-yung, face to face with
the alternatives of remaining in his village to take care of his aged
parents or of going to the capital in search of honors and lucrative
posts. His own wishes are to remain at home, less for his parents’ sake
than because of the beautiful wife whom he has married but two months
ago. But his father urges him to go to Ch’ang An, to use his talents,
and to gain fame and wealth. “At fifteen one must study, at thirty a man
must act.” A friend of the family, an elderly gentleman called Chang,
sides with the father against the mother, who wishes to keep her son at
home. She tells the story of a young man who had left his family to take
the examination at the capital, but who, when at last his learning had
gained him a post as superintendent of an almshouse, found his parents
as inmates in the very institution. The young wife takes no part in
the discussion at all; in fact, the elderly gentlemen seem to consider
affection for her an unmanly weakness on the son’s part. “He thinks of
nothing but love and the sweet pleasures of the nuptial couch,” says his
father. “Here it’s two months that he is married, and yet one cannot tear
him away from this place.” This represents a very common attitude in
China—I remember reading in a Peking paper in 1917 in an attack on the
vice-president of Tsing Hua College that one of his faults was that he
occasionally went walking with his wife! One of my students from Shansi
told me one day that he had been married during the summer vacation.
I asked whether his wife was with him in Peking, and when he answered
in the negative, whether he was writing to her. “Oh, no,” he said
shamefacedly, “I wouldn’t do such a thing.”


The father calls on the son to state what he understands by filial piety.
The son answers by quoting the “Book of Rites,” “It is the duty of the
son to take every care that in summer as well as in winter his parents
should enjoy all comforts of life. He must every evening himself arrange
the bed on which they are to sleep; every morning at the first crowning
of the cock he must inquire in affectionate terms about the state of
their health; then, in the course of the day, he must ask repeatedly
whether they are suffering from the cold or whether the heat incommodes
them. The duty of the son is to watch over his parents wherever they go,
to love those whom they love, honor those whom they honor; he must even
love the horses and dogs whom his father loves.” And he adds from the
“Sayings of Confucius”: “A son should not leave the home of his father
and his mother so long as they are still living.”

To this the father retorts with a quotation from “The Book of Filial
Piety”; “The first degree of filial piety consists in serving one’s
parents; the second in serving one’s prince, and the third in seeking
after honors.” The father persuades the son to go. His son will soon be a
mandarin, he says, and then, “The three kinds of meat (beef, mutton and
pork) and the rare foods which are offered up in the great sacrifices
will be served to me three times a day in tripods of elegant form or
in dishes of fine porcelain. That will be better than eating beans and
drinking water.”

But the mother gives expression to her grief in a metaphor praised by
Chinese commentators: “In a moment they will tear away the pearl I was
holding in my hand.” Forebodings of evil fill her heart. “Go then, my
son, but if during your absence your father and mother should die of
hunger and cold, your honor will not therefore be smirched when you
return in an embroidered robe.”

The second scene of the play transfers the action to Ch’ang An, the
old capital. With the symmetry so characteristic of all Chinese art
the action of the drama is divided almost equally between the scenes
in Tsai-yung’s native village, and those in the imperial city. We are
introduced into the palace of an imperial minister, a certain Niu,
and here through the words of a maidservant we learn of the dull,
tedious, joyless life in the women’s apartments. The author pictures
the minister’s daughter, Niu-hsi, as the model young woman who prefers
working at embroidery to playing in the open air. The servant girl on
the other hand is sad because spring (used symbolically for love) is
passing her by. In a beautiful allegory on spring and its manifestations
she gives expression to her feelings, while her mistress cites in reply
the ancient Chinese rule of conduct: “Women must not leave the interior
apartments.” The scene seems to be a protest on the author’s part against
this cruel stunting of the lives of his countrywomen.

Into Minister Niu’s house come two rival go-betweens who make offers
of marriage for Niu’s daughter in the interest of two fathers of
distinguished sons. But Niu refuses; he will accept for his daughter none
but the scholar who has won the very highest honors at the examinations.
The two women begin to quarrel and are driven off with blows by Niu’s
orders, because by fighting in his house they offend against the rites.
A marriage arranged by such wrangling old hags between young people who
meet for the first time on the day of their wedding certainly does not
offer much in the way of romance. An even more depressing picture of
the life of the young girl one gains from the manner in which Niu takes
his daughter to task for having walked in the garden. “Don’t you know
of what the principal merit of a young woman consists? I have told you
before, men are looking for women who don’t like to leave the women’s
apartments.” Everywhere the ghost of Confucius giving precepts for the
regulation of the private life down to the minutest details!

The play returns to Tsai-yung, who is now on the road to the capital in
the company of three other candidates for the examination. Each in turn
tells of the purpose of his studies. Tsai-yung outlines his principles as

“Here is the method I have adopted. When I was seated I read, when
I walked I recited from memory what I had learned. I have studied
thoroughly ten thousand chapters; I have carried on difficult studies
and researches. But as there are two things in life that one must never
lose sight of—loyalty to the prince and filial piety—I have always tried
to show myself grateful for the emperor’s benefits and to return with
thankfulness the kindness of my parents.” This speech is applauded by the
other scholars and they in turn give their answers, some of which are of
rather satirical turn, especially the one of the student who explains
that with him the essential is correct pronunciation and beautiful

The next scene presents a burlesque on the literary examinations. It
recalls somewhat an entrance examination given in a “prep” school I once
attended, where the older students, dressed up in frock coats and with
false beards on their faces, took the part of faculty. The examination
of freshmen consisted of the singing of hymns, the shining of shoes, and
a guessing contest as to which of the “professors” had paddled them in
the rear. The imperial examiner announces solemnly to the five hundred
candidates that the present test would not be like last year’s, when they
had been asked to write essays, one on literature, another on morals,
and a third on politics, but that he was going to ask them first, to
compose a rhyme; second, to guess a riddle; and third, to sing a song.
Needless to state, Tsai-yung passes with flying colors in this test full
of humorous puns which are, of course, untranslatable. The examiner is
made to say at the end, “Tsai-yung, I recognize the superiority of your
talents, your learning is indeed profound; you rise far above the others;
your merit is most extraordinary. Immediately I am going to apprise the
emperor of the outcome of the examinations!” This scene leads one to
suspect that the author of the play had good reasons for venting his
satire on the inane literary competitions—probably he had failed and was
therefore forced to waste his talents in a life of retirement.

[Illustration: A SCHOLAR

Chinese Character Type]

The real hero, or rather heroine, of the play now appears for the first
time, namely Tsai-yung’s young wife Wu-niang. No news has come from
the capital as to her husband’s success, a famine is ravishing the
district, and the old parents of Tsai-yung are making one trip to the
pawnshop after the other. But Wu-niang is determined to do her duty
as daughter-in-law; she is going to show filial piety to the last in
conformity with precepts such as the following, quoted from the “Book of
Rewards and Punishments”, a work which is not for sale in bookshops but
is distributed in the temples to the pious: “A daughter-in-law must serve
the father and mother of her husband as a daughter serves her father and
mother. She must show filial piety and complete obedience. If she lacks
in her duty toward them she lacks at the same time filial piety. This
crime always becomes known to Heaven, as the following story illustrates.
In the territory of Chang-Chu there were three sisters-in-law entirely
lacking in filial piety. One day they heard a clap of thunder and at the
same time they were changed: one into a cow, the second into a lamb, and
the third into a dog; their heads alone preserved the original form....
Chin-ing, the governor of that district, had an engraving made showing
the metamorphoses and had it distributed among the people to teach them a
lesson. That is how Heaven punishes!”

Wu-niang’s immediate duty is to try to make peace between her aged
parents-in-law. Tsai’s wife is not slow in telling her husband “I told
you so” in regard to the evils that have followed their son’s departure,
while Tsai naturally enough does not become any calmer for being told
what a fool he is. To appease their wrath and to supply a bit of food
Wu-niang pawns the few hairpins and other ornaments that she possesses.

While his parents are slowly dying of hunger, Tsai-yung, by his brilliant
record, has attracted the attention of the emperor himself. The latter
orders that the daughter of Minister Niu, who has been refused to many a
deserving suitor, should be given to him. Niu is overjoyed to receive as
a son-in-law the candidate accorded the highest honors and immediately
sends a go-between to arrange the affair. However, she returns to
announce that Tsai-yung refuses, because he is married and has various
obligations toward his parents. But the real reason, she whispers, is
that the bride’s feet are too long. Minister Niu flies into a rage; he
says that no one would any longer respect his position if he were to
accept this refusal. He is going to speak to the emperor about it. Small
wonder that under the circumstances Tsai-yung’s petition to the emperor
to be allowed to return home is refused; instead he is again ordered to
marry Niu-hsi in a mandate beginning with the words, “If filial piety is
the basis of all virtues, then the perfection of all morals consists in
serving one’s prince.” With tears he leaves the imperial palace and must
submit to being married against his wishes to a second wife. He regrets
that he cannot return to his parents (does not seem to feel any regrets
about Wu-niang) and breaks out into a lamentation: “High reputation is a
tie that binds; good fortune is an iron chain. Fortune and reputation are
the instruments used by Heaven to inflict tortures on mankind!”

The scene again shifts to the famine-stricken province. A mandarin
finds that a corrupt official has stolen the little grain that is to be
distributed to the poor. This commissioner is caught in the very act,
yet in typical Chinese fashion he has a ready but translucent excuse
to offer; however, when he is threatened with torture he is willing
to confess that he is a robber. This wicked official is then made to
sign a written confession of his guilt and is led off to jail. His kind
appears in hundreds of plays; in fact, he is probably the very favorite
type on the Chinese stage. The mandarin asks Wu-niang why she had come
to the court herself instead of sending a male member of the family;
a woman, he says, should not leave the inner apartments of the house.
It is interesting to note that a Chinese commentator considers this an
erroneous interpretation of the passage in the “Book of Rites”; it is
only the young girl who is not to leave the inner apartments; once a
woman is married she may do so. When the mandarin learns of Wu-niang’s
sad situation, he commands an attendant to give her three portions of the
rice embezzled by the official. Another official, who seems to be hand
in glove with the embezzler, follows Wu-niang and in a lonely place on
the road demands that she return the rice, lest he kill her on the spot.
Wu-niang offers him her clothes; if he will only not demand the food that
is to save the lives of the old people. The black-hearted villain says
that he wants the rice and does not care to expose her limbs to the fury
of the elements. Then comes the young woman’s touching answer, which
reaches perhaps the highest level of a daughter’s devotion: “What matters
it if my body be exposed to the fury of the elements, so long as I can
save the lives of my father-in-law and my mother-in-law!” The cowardly
wretch pretends to be touched and bids her go her way in peace, but as
soon as she is off her guard he snatches from the defenseless woman her
bag of rice. Fearing the reproaches of her parents-in-law Wu-niang plans
suicide, but the memory of her husband’s admonition that she watch over
his parents decides her to continue in the thankless task.

The next scenes show just how ungrateful her parents-in-law are for
her unlimited devotion. Wu-niang herself is eating roots, buds, the
bark of trees, and other things classified as material containing some
slight food values in so-called “famine food books”—a type of literature
enjoying a wide circulation in China. But her suspicious mother-in-law
fears that the young woman is eating better food than she is serving to
her, because Wu-niang eats her miserable stew in private. At one of her
meals the author, by a strange realism, has her say, “When I have eaten
this mess my hunger ceases, but then there begin pains in the intestines
much more violent than the hunger had been.” When the mother-in-law
surprises her she finds that Wu-niang had been extremely self-sacrificing
instead of selfish as she had supposed, and the shock is too much for her
weakened body; she dies.

The husband too is very much enfeebled, and when the friend of the
family, Chang, comes to call, he is mortified that he cannot rise to meet
his guest. Throughout the play there is in the speeches of practically
all the characters an urbanity and a politeness which show how deeply the
lessons of Confucius to do or say always the fitting thing have gone over
into the flesh and blood of his nationals. Wu-niang tells Chang of their
greatest cause for anguish—they have not the means to give the deceased a
proper burial. Chang then shows himself an ideal friend from the Chinese
point of view by saying, “I shall order a servant to prepare a wooden
coffin in which we shall place the body of your wife. I myself shall then
select a lucky day for the funeral, and after having had a grave dug on
the hill in the south, I shall accompany the procession.”

The scene that gives the title to the play is one in which Tsai-yung
gives expression to his tenderest emotion by playing on the lute. This
instrument is regarded by the Chinese as the noblest and æsthetically
the highest musical instrument in existence. A Chinese lover of music
cannot find words to express the delight the lute can provide.[14] As
a general thing the Chinese are ashamed to display emotion, and the
Westerner is often shocked by apparent callousness, as for example when
a person who has just lost a dear relative gives vent to a nervous
laugh instead of yielding to tears when the subject is alluded to.
Therefore it is by means of the lute that Tsai-yung gives expression to
his repressed feelings. He does this with the delicate touch employed
by Chinese painters in their impressionistic pictures and by the poets
in their suggestive verses in which, as some one has said, the i’s are
never dotted, but a definite mood is nevertheless conveyed all the more
forcefully.[15] While Tsai-yung touches the strings of his instrument
one servant fans him with an ivory fan, and a second burns incense, and
a third places his books before him. Under such ideal conditions the
Chinese scholar is quietly singing to his lute.

At this point his newly wedded wife, Niu-hsi, enters. Evidently the
relation between the two is still an extremely distant one, for his wife,
in asking Tsai-yung to sing a ballad for her, remarks that every time
she comes to listen to his music, he stops. She too has her grief which
she would like to have dispelled by sweet music. Tsai-yung begins to
play, “The pheasant in the morning begins his long flight”, and “The wild
duck separated from the companion he loves.” But these songs do not suit
Niu-hsi’s mood. She wants not a song of a disappointed lover, but one to
fit the present situation where husband and wife are together.

“My lord, in the calm of this lovely evening, in full view of this
ravishingly beautiful scenery, sing me the ballad, ‘When the storm wind
moves the pine trees.’” Tsai-yung starts to play it, but alas! as Niu-hsi
discovers, he gradually slips into the air, “When I think of returning to
my native land.”

Niu-hsi is disappointed because she cannot penetrate her husband’s
melancholy mood. He explains that he cannot play better because he has
his old lute no longer. In answer to his wife’s questions Tsai-yung
speaks of his lute with evident symbolism, telling her that he has thrown
his old lute aside but that at the bottom of his heart he loves it still.
Niu-hsi guesses the cause of her husband’s grief, but she cannot persuade
him to confide it to her. The two drink wine together and recite verses,
but when the hour becomes late Tsai-yung asks his wife to retire and
calls for his servant. Before the latter appears Tsai-yung sings to notes
of his lute about a dream in which Wu-niang had appeared to him; but, in
the words of Heine, “Es war ein Traum.”

He asks the servant to find him a trustworthy messenger whom he may send
to his native village to inquire about his parents. But before this
plan is put into operation an impostor appears, bringing an alleged
letter from Tsai-yung’s father, according to which all the family are
enjoying the very best of health. The letter gives the young scholar
great pleasure and earns its bearer a rich reward; Tsai-yung gives the
impostor some pearls and some gold for his father in addition to a letter
in which he states that he is detained at the capital, but that he hopes
to return home soon. Meanwhile, he very humbly begs forgiveness for
the long delay. The false messenger is portrayed in a monologue as the
most cowardly and the direst of villains. That it is so easy for him to
deceive Tsai-yung is not so far-fetched as it may seem to the Westerner,
for the employment of professional letter-writers is a very common
practice in China where the percentage of illiteracy is high.

Of course, the father never receives his son’s letter; on the contrary,
the next scene shows him dying of hunger. His faithful daughter-in-law
watches over him to the last. For three years Tsai-yung has been absent
without so much as sending a letter; therefore the father asks his
daughter-in-law to marry again as soon as he has died. Wu-niang replies
with a Chinese proverb, “No one can serve two masters”, and affirms her
resolve to remain faithful to her husband. He is so grateful to her that
he hopes, according to Buddhist beliefs, to be her daughter-in-law in
his next life while she is to be his father-in-law. He curses the day he
asked his son to leave home and gives to his friend Chang the injunction:
“I leave you my cane. When this ungrateful and disobedient son of mine
returns home, beat him for me with my stick and chase him out of the
house.” With these fatherly words he breathes his last.

In order to earn the money for her father-in-law’s funeral Wu-niang cuts
her hair and tries to sell it in the street. Her bald head gives her the
appearance of a nun, although she feels scarcely worthy of becoming one.
In the anguish of her poverty she runs through the streets, imploring
people not to bargain with a wretched woman in her position, but to help
her by buying the very last thing of value she possesses. The faithful
Chang meets her in the street, and, on learning her story, promises to
send to her house enough money to enable her to bury her father-in-law
properly according to the rites. She in return gives him her hair,
asking him to sell it. He accepts it, but not in order to sell it; far
from that, he is going to keep it until Tsai-yung’s return, in order to
prove to him the full extent of Wu-niang’s filial piety. This piety is
so great that when Wu-niang goes to the cemetery to erect a monument
over the grave of the deceased, a genie, touched by her devotion, comes
to her aid by calling the white monkey of the south and the black tiger
of the north to help him erect this tomb with the well-known speed and
skill that genii possess. He also advises Wu-niang through the medium of
a dream to assume the garb of a nun and to search for her husband in the
capital. Wu-niang decides to follow this advice. She plans to earn her
subsistence by taking with her Tsai-yung’s lute, in order to sing in the
villages songs in praise of filial piety. In order to be able to accord
the spirits of her parents-in-law their proper worship she paints their
portraits and carries them with her. The Octogenarian Chang totters with
Wu-niang to the edge of the village and bids her godspeed on her long

Meanwhile Tsai-yung has been acting all this time like a man in a stupor,
his wife says. Niu-hsi is pictured as a kindly young woman watching over
her husband with loving care. “What ails you?” she asks. “You have the
finest delicacies served you. You eat boiled tongues of orang-outang and
roasted leopard embryos. You wear robes of violet silk; your belt is a
belt of jade. When you go out or when you return your horse crushes under
foot all manner of flowers which people spread on your path. Your head
is shaded by an umbrella with three layers of silk. Formerly you were
only a poor scholar living in a thatched hut; now you fulfill the highest
functions in the emperor’s palace. You swim in wealth, but this wealth
is not sufficient for you; you do nothing but wrinkle your forehead and
heave sighs.”

Niu-hsi asks many more questions, but her husband refuses to reveal the
cause of his grief. But when she leaves the room Tsai-yung relieves
his feelings in a monologue which she overhears. When he has finished
lamenting his separation from his parents and his wife (the latter is
always mentioned after father and mother), Niu-hsi comes in to say
simply that she will travel with him to his native village, if that is
what he is longing for. He retorts, with the timidity found in most
scholar-heroes in Chinese plays, that he is afraid to let her father
hear of the matter and that he therefore forbids her to mention it. But
the otherwise docile and obedient wife simply overrides his wishes and
takes the matter to her father. The latter is quite willing to give his
permission for the journey; only suggests that it might be better to send
a faithful servant to bring Tsai-yung’s parents and wife to the capital.
This plan is agreed to by all except the servant who, in a somewhat
humorous scene, speaks of the evils that are sure to follow when two
wives are living under one roof. But at last he agrees to go, even though
he feels his mistress will never thank him for having obeyed on this

Wu-niang has meanwhile reached the capital. She enters a Buddhist temple
where she is asked to sing by two clowns who pretend to be mandarins.
The long series of misfortunes that has followed her consistently does
not forsake her at this point—the two clowns simply make sport of her
and pay her nothing. After her disappointment she unrolls the pictures
of her parents-in-law to render homage before them and to pray to Heaven
that she may find her husband. At this very moment Tsai-yung enters to
pray for a safe journey for his parents. The bonze asks Wu-niang to
leave and to make room for the great man. She forgets the pictures in
her haste, and Tsai-yung carries off the scroll without having looked at
it closely. But Wu-niang recognizes him and makes inquiries in regard to
his residence. In this whole scene there is, as in many Chinese plays,
a great deal of satire on Buddhist priests. One priest while saying a
prayer is corrected by the abbot for mispronouncing one of the Sanskrit
names for Buddha, Po-lo-t’ang instead of Po-lo-mi. The ignorant priest
retorts, “Well, ‘_t’ang_’ is sugar and ‘_mi_’ is honey; both are sweet,
so what difference does it make?” An Occidental parallel for this scene
would be the medieval priest who baptized, “In nomine patriae, filiae, et
spiritus sanctae.”

Wu-niang goes to her husband’s house as a mendicant nun and meets
Niu-hsi. In a scene which the Chinese commentators consider the best
in the play she gradually tells her story and reveals her identity to
her husband’s second wife. Niu-hsi is touched by the filial piety of
Wu-niang, calls her sister, and asks her to live with them. First she
advises her how to reveal herself to her husband, namely by writing
him a letter and placing it on his table in the library where he will
be sure to find it. When Tsai-yung comes home he reads in the “Book of
Annals”, a collection of historical illustrations selected by Confucius
to give point to his moral teachings. In every passage he finds a rebuke
for his lack of filial piety, and when he finds Wu-niang’s letter with
the picture of his parents in their famished condition this means to
him a greater reproof still. He begins to suspect that the messenger
with the letter from his father had been an impostor. His wife’s letter
contains nothing but hidden allusions to his actions. Among ancient
examples quoted there is mention of one man to whom an emperor had
offered his daughter but who had refused to degrade his wife to the
rank of a concubine, and of another who had under similar circumstances
repudiated his wife. Niu-hsi asks him whose conduct he approves of and he
says the former’s, of course. Then she asks whether, if his first wife
were to step before him now clad in rags, he would not blush with shame
and repudiate her? He answers that he would not, that he considers his
marriage indissoluble. When Wu-niang appears and tells him her story he
feels deep shame because an ironic fate had led him to serve his emperor
but to neglect his parents. Since his parents have died Chinese etiquette
demands that he give up his office for a number of years and mourn for
the death of his father and mother. Tsai-yung with his two wives sets out
to make a pilgrimage to the ancestral tomb to offer proper worship to the
deceased. The emperor is going to give posthumous honors to his parents
because of Wu-niang’s faithfulness, and the historians will keep ever
fresh the memory of the daughter-in-law’s filial piety.

Even after the death of his parents the son must put their interests (or
supposed interests) above his own by a three-year period of mourning,
a space of time which is simply lost out of his life. In his “Chinese
Characteristics”, Doctor Arthur H. Smith points out the one-sidedness of
the matter of filial piety—the Chinese ethical code mentions no duties
of the parents toward their children. His summary of the subject, given
in the chapter on Filial Piety, seems most apropos of the action of this

“Every son has performed his filial duties to his father, and demands the
same from his own son. That is what children are for. Upon this point
the popular mind is explicit. ‘Trees are raised for shade, children are
reared for old age.’ Neither parents nor children are under any illusions
upon this subject. ‘If you have no children to foul the bed, you will
have no one to burn paper at the grave.’ Each generation pays the debt
which is exacted of it by the generation which preceded it, and in turn
requires from the generation which comes after full payment to the
uttermost farthing. Thus is filial piety perpetuated from generation to
generation, and from age to age.”

Of course, this is as the matter appears to the Occidental from the
outside. But for the Chinese, who has grown up in a deep veneration of
Confucius, filial piety is the most laudable institution in existence.
Confucius laid it down as a principle that in the relations of ruler and
subject, husband and wife, father and son, elder brother and younger
brother, there must be rule on one side and submission on the other.
Moreover, the “Book of Filial Piety” condemns sharply “selfish attachment
to wife and children”; in other words, if the claims of father and
wife clash, the son must neglect his wife to serve his father. These
things are among the bases of Chinese society on which it has outlived
the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman and other civilizations; it
is small wonder therefore that they seem good to the Chinese. The
other extreme perhaps is found in Anglo-Saxon countries where a son,
on becoming of age, goes where he likes and does what he likes without
feeling any responsibility toward his parents. To quote Doctor Smith
once more, “To the Chinese such customs must appear like the behaviour
of a well-grown calf or colt to the cow and the mare, suitable enough
for animals, but by no means conformable to _li_ (ethical standards)
as applied to human beings. An attentive consideration of the matter
from a Chinese standpoint will show that there is abundant room in our
own social practice for improvement, and that most of us really live in
glass houses, and would do well not to throw stones recklessly.” To both
the Westerner and the Chinese the practice of the other seems inferior,
and neither can express an impartial opinion as to which is the better
system. But the Westerner who wishes to understand the Chinese point of
view can gain an insight into many things from reading “The Story of a




In 1644 the last of the Ming emperors committed suicide when a rebel army
entered his capital. But the rebel did not become the next emperor; the
throne went to a Manchu leader who, in characteristically Chinese manner,
had been called in by the Ming ruler to help put down the rebellion. The
Manchus soon established themselves as firm rulers of the land and forced
all Chinese to adopt the queue. China became under their rule a strong
and united empire; in fact, many writers believe that the reigns of K’ang
Hsi (1662-1723) and of Ch’ien Lung (1736-1795) were the most glorious
in all Chinese history. Both of these rulers were great warriors and
administrators, as well as patrons of literature and the arts. The drama,
too, flourished; a recently published catalogue of Chinese dramas records
eight hundred and fifteen plays of some literary merit from the Ch’ing

Among these the critics assign the first places to two historical
tragedies written about the beginning of the eighteenth century: “The
Blood-Stained Fan” (T’ao Hua Shan) by Kung Shang-jen and “The Palace of
Eternal Life” (Ch’ang Shan Tien) by Hung Sen. The former deals with the
last days of the Ming Dynasty. The author presents the struggles of the
various parties and the dissensions among the generals in the face of
a tottering throne. In the foreground of the revolutionary scene stand
two lovers. The hero, a courageous young literary man, is forced to flee
before his political enemies, and the heroine is likewise threatened.
Since she prefers death to disgrace she attempts suicide. The play
takes its name from the fact that some of her blood stained the fan her
lover had presented to her. An artist, coming across this fan, painted
the bloodstains into peach blossoms so cleverly as to deceive every
one. After years of civil war, in the course of which the dynasty is
overthrown, the lovers meet again. They feel that love has no place in
a broken and disrupted fatherland; patriotism is higher than love—such
seems to be the author’s meaning.

The other play, “The Palace of Eternal Life”, goes back to a much earlier
period, that of the T’ang Dynasty. It has for hero and heroine the
emperor Ming Huang, traditional founder of the Chinese theater, and his
capricious concubine, Yang Kuei-fei. The Palace of Eternal Life was the
name they had given to the pleasure dome where the famous lovers gave
themselves up to idyllic and voluptuous amusements.[16] This story is
full of romantic and dramatic elements; there are said to be more than
fifty plays that have Yang Kuei-fei for heroine. Versions by ballad
singers have been well translated by George Carter Stent,[17] a Britisher
who secured unprinted popular ballads by having street singers come to
his house to recite them while his teacher wrote them down verbatim.
Since Yang Kuei-fei and her lover play such an important part in the
Chinese drama, it might be well to quote two of the numerous ballads
about her.


    Tang Ming-kuang loved Yang Kuei-fei—
    Living for her, in her, with her,—
    Walking by her, hither, thither—
    In the pleasant summer weather,
    Strolling hand in hand together.
    Side by side with Yang Kuei-fei,
    Listening to the play of fountains—
    Climbing up the mimic mountains—
    Through romantic scenery
    Of hill and lake, rock, dell and tree.

      “If I had not Yang Kuei-fei,
        What were all my Empire worth?
      With her, earth is heaven to me,—
        This is paradise on earth.”

    Mid-day in the lakelet found them,
    Lotus leaves and blossoms round them;
    Disporting gaily in the water,
    (Daily to this place he brought her).
    Now an avenue they tread,
    Where the trees arch overhead,—
    Saving just enough of space
    To catch a glimpse of heaven’s face,
    Showing its intensest blue,
    Peering down upon the two.

      “If I had not Yang Kuei-fei,
        What were all this lovely scene?
      With her, walking thus by me,—
        This is heaven, and she its queen.”

    On the sward beneath their feet,
      Flowers of every hue were springing;
    Bright plumed birds with voices sweet
      Their passage here and there were winging.
    Sheltered here from mid-day heat,
      She taught to them the art of singing.[18]
    Now is heard from every tree
      Leafy voices, softly uttering
    Whispers, which sound mysteriously—
      Like wings of angels, gently fluttering.

      “If I had not Yang Kuei-fei,
        What were all my empire worth?
      With her, sitting thus by me,—
        This is paradise on earth.”

    Streaks of light through foliage glancing—
    Mixing, blending, interlacing—
    Now retreating—now advancing—
    Sunbeams after shadows racing,
    Flinging on the sward a net-work
    Of embroidered golden fret-work—
    Quaintly beautifully grotesque,
    As of _flickering_ arabesque
    Sculpt’d from sunbeams, light and shade,
    Its ground the green enameled glade.

      “If I had not Yang Kuei-fei,
        What were all this lovely scene?
      With her, sitting thus by me,—
        This is heaven, and she its queen.”


          In silence unbroken,
            They sat side by side;
          Not a word had been spoken:—
            They both of them tried
          The dread that was o’er them
          Of what lay before them
            In their bosoms to hide.

    What is that? In the distance a murmur is heard,
    Is’t the wail of the night wind—the surge of the sea?
    As nearer it floats it takes form in a word—
    And that word, Oh, God! is the name Yang Kuei-fei!
    They listen, but speak not—though _both_ know full well
    Those murmuring sounds are for _one_ a death-knell.

    Nearer,—still nearer
    Those hoarse murmurs came:
    Now they sound clearer,
    They shout out a name.
    ’Tis Yang-fei’s name they call!

    Break her accursed thrall!
    Too long we have borne it—
    This night, we have sworn it—
    Her life pays for all!

    Where is she,—your minion,—frail Yang Kuei-fei?
    Drag her forth—the vile traitress! our daggers would see
    If in her fair body the blood flows more pure
    Than in those of your subjects who have had to endure
    Wrongs, which her arts have heaped on them for years:[19]
    Whose bread has been moistened by blood, sweat and tears!
    Whose sons have been slaughtered—whose daughters defiled!
    Whose homes have been pillaged—whose fields made a wild!
    ’Tis she is the cause of rebellion and strife,[20]
    We fight not your foes till we’ve taken her life!

                  “Nought but the blood
                    Of Yang Kuei-fei
                  Can stem this flood
                    Of anarchy!”

                  “Oh! bitter destiny!
                  Oh! dire necessity!
              Must I pronounce your doom?
              Consign you to the tomb?

              “Alas! my Yang Kuei-fei,
                I’m powerless to save!
        My life—throne—empire—all I’d give
        Had I the power to bid you live—
                To snatch you from the grave.
              Yet they have willed it thus—and I
              Who’d die to save you, bid you die.”

    “See I am calm,—it is not death I fear,
      It is their savage mode of death I dread;
    Say could you bear to see me lying here,
      Weltering in blood, by ruthless butchers shed?

    “Fancy their bloody hands wreathed in my hair—
      That silken hair you used so much to prize;
    Dragged—struck—faint—bleeding!—could you bear
      To see all this before your very eyes?

    “Pierced by a hundred knives, my life-blood flows
      In purple streams—could you look on and see,
    Unmoved—my murderers watch my dying throes—
      With hungry eyes gloat on my agony?

    “I have been vile, but let my penitence
      In these last moments that to me are given,
    Make some atonement for my great offence,
      And Oh! ‘forgive me as you’d be forgiven!’

    “One last entreaty—let me die alone—
      Let no one enter—none but you stand by
    To watch my death;—the act, too, be my own;
      Let not the ignoble rabble see me die.

    “The means are here; I have but to unloose
      This silken girdle from my slender waist;
    I knot it thus, and thus, and form a noose,
      This by my own hand round my neck is placed.

    “With my own hands the ends are tightly drawn,
      And I die thus”—scarce had the words been said—
    A few brief struggles, and Yang-fei had gone
      “With all her inperfections on her head.”

              “Hide her from my sight!
                Let me not see
              That face so ghastly white—
              Those eyes so wildly bright
                Glaring at me!

              “They follow mine everywhere,
                Look where I may—
              On the earth—in the air,
              Still the same glassy stare.
                Take them away!

              “Place her gently in the grave
                E’en as she fell;
              Here, where the willows wave,
                Near this old well.

              “Lightly cover her with earth—
                Oh! Yang Kuei-fei!
              What is all my empire worth
                Now I’ve lost thee!”

During the Ch’ing Dynasty the native music was gradually superseded by a
much cruder, less melodious product imported from barbarian lands. With
the old style of music went many of the better plays; in many cases they
were replaced by the so-called “military plays”, that is to say acrobatic
exhibitions of stage fighting to the accompaniment of crashing orchestral
pandemonium. Toward the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty the Yuan drama had
almost entirely vanished from the Peking stage. In a later chapter will
be found a fuller discussion of the newer types of music.

But the chief innovation in the drama under the Manchu rule came through
the influence of popular novels. Episodes from the famous novels read
by everybody were brought on the stage in ever-increasing numbers. The
novel, like the drama, is a literary form despised by the pundits and
it too began to flourish during the Mongol Dynasty when the literary
examinations were suppressed. Many novels are of unknown authorship,
because their authors considered such works as beneath their dignity.
But for the very reason that the authors did not employ the literary
language the great masses of the people were able to enjoy these stories.
Let it be remarked in passing that the novel is now coming into its own
and is receiving its just share of attention from scholars, at least
from the progressive ones. Doctor Hu Shih, of the National University,
Peking, has pointed out that it is the novel written in the vernacular
that has given to spoken Chinese such unity as it possesses, and that it
is through works in the popular language that a common speech for all
China may ultimately be achieved. To-day, of course, natives of Peking,
Shanghai, and Canton speak languages differing as widely as do those of
Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, or Rome, Paris, and Madrid. Due to the
crystallization of the written language, however, students from the three
Chinese centers can read one another’s letters, although, as I have often
observed in laboratories or on the playground, when they converse they
have recourse to English. It is due to their linguistic and literary
importance that Doctor Hu Shih has edited critical editions of about a
dozen famous Chinese novels.

Among the novels, “The Story of the Three Kingdoms” (San Kuo Ch’i) is
by far the most popular. It was written in the Yuan Dynasty and deals
with the period of romantic chivalry, 221-265 A.D., when three dynasties
ruled in three separate capitals. In it appear the cruel Tsao Tsao and
the resourceful Chu Ko-liang, together with many another brave warrior.
Every educated Chinese has read it, and the illiterate coolies have hired
readers, that they too may learn of the stirring adventures of their
more or less mythical heroes. The enthusiasm for this book is simply
unbounded, as the following instance may serve to illustrate. Friends
of mine in Peking, a young architect and his wife, were continually
annoyed during hot August evenings by a fairly loud voice with a
monotonous rising and falling inflection that kept coming over the wall
of the adjoining courtyard from eight o’clock until midnight. It cast a
shadow over conversation, it distracted attention from reading, and it
effectually prevented peaceful sleep. My friends began by setting their
victrola on their side of the wall to playing “Over There!” for an hour
or two on end; next they sent out the house boy to buy firecrackers
and ordered him to set off package after package under a tin pail; and
finally they allowed a bottle of asafetida to trickle over the wall—but
all to no avail. They recovered neither their peace of mind nor their
slumber until the _shuo-shu-te_ had read to his coolie audience the last
chapter of “The Three Kingdoms”, a novel as long as the whole Bible.

An endless number of plays are based on this book of romantic history,
which deserves to be called the national epic of the Chinese. A long list
of “military plays” derive their plots from the “Shui Hu Chuan” (Story
of the River Bank), a novel based upon the doings of a band of brigands
who terrorized a number of provinces early in the twelfth century. Some
of the swashbucklers in this story had Robin Hood’s habit of giving to
the poor what they had stolen from the rich and corrupt officials. From
the “Liao Chai” (translated by Mr. Giles, “Strange Stories from a Chinese
Studio”) come many plays dealing with fairies and other supernatural
beings. The novel that might be considered a possible rival in popularity
to the story of “The Three Kingdoms”, is “The Dream of the Red Chamber”
(Hung Lou Meng), the story of the love of a young idler for his two
pretty cousins, and the decay of an old and wealthy family. Poetic love
stories from this novel were brought on the stage only in recent years by
Mei Lan-fang, the actor who is responsible for many innovations in the
Peking theater. The play, “Burying the Flowers”, mentioned in the chapter
on Mei Lan-fang, is one example of a dramatization of an episode from
this book.

In his “Geschichte der chinesischen Litteratur” the German scholar
Wilhelm Grube, who knew the Chinese character well, remarks in discussing
the novel that a ruse or a sly calculation on the part of a warrior seems
to appeal to the Chinese much more than actual bravery on the battle
field. A number of plays taken from the story of “The Three Kingdoms”
bear out this point by reason of their perennial popularity. No play
perhaps is oftener acted than “The Ruse of the Empty City” (Kung Chuan
Chi). The famous hero Chu Ko-liang is in a city stripped of all its
defenders when suddenly a strong enemy force arrives. He orders the
gates to be opened wide as though peace were reigning throughout the
country, and seats himself on the wall above the gate. When the advance
guard of the enemy arrives it finds the commander, who more than any
other is known for his resourcefulness and his stratagems, calmly reading
a book in the face of the threatening attack. Naturally enough the enemy
fears an ambush of some sort and withdraws. By his calm Chu Ko-liang has
saved a city; his bluff has won.

[Illustration: WARRIOR ACROBATS]

Another “peculiar” (as Bret Harte would put it) play from the same
source is “Hsü Mu Ma Tsao” (Hsü’s Mother Curses Tsao Tsao). The famous
general Tsao Tsao found that he was being defeated continually through
the clever stratagems suggested to his opponent by a certain Hsü Su. He
therefore plotted to get this clever adviser into his hands in order
that he might profit by his knowledge of strategy. For this purpose he
kidnaped Hsü Su’s mother and sent a forged letter asking the son to
come to her. Filial piety demanded that Hsü Su obey and therefore he
came into Tsao Tsao’s camp only to be forced into the service of his
enemy. When Hsü Su’s mother heard how her son had been tricked she went
to Tsao Tsao’s tent, called him a man without honor, a traitor, and a
wretched deceiver. This scene, when the tottering old lady scolds in a
shrill voice, as only a Chinese woman can ma, is of course the _pièce de
résistance_ of the play. When she has spoken out her mind she returns to
her own tent and commits suicide. Although Tsao Tsao continued to hold
Hsü Su, yet the latter never offered a single stratagem to the general,
an outstanding piece of bravery according to the Chinese view. The very
favorite play from this novel is “Ch’un Yin Hui” (The Meeting of Many
Heroes). When this play is staged with the parts of the great heroes of
the novel filled by stars, the Chinese theater lovers feel that such an
ensemble offers about the finest thing possible. The plot again turns
chiefly upon a ruse by Chu Ko-liang. His side is facing tremendous odds
in the huge fleet of wooden vessels under the control of the enemy, and
therefore his commander decides to attack them with fiery arrows. Chu
Ko-liang is commissioned to procure 100,000 arrows, and is given for
this task five days, which he himself cuts down to three. Two and a half
days he spends in calm meditation, doing nothing about the arrows. When
one of his comrades discovers him sitting under a tree he is very much
alarmed at the waste of time and suggests that the only thing left for
his friend is to commit suicide. But our hero is undaunted. He places
a number of straw men in the prows of a few boats and sails toward the
position of the enemy. Owing to the dense fog the enemy commander is
unable to ascertain the size of the attacking force, but he orders his
archers to shoot as fast as they can. The arrows strike the straw men and
pierce them without doing any harm. When 100,000 arrows have been caught
up in his decoys, Chu Ko-liang orders his boats to retreat, and thus is
able to deliver the required number of arrows to his commander on time.
The manner in which the play is staged, with two or three arrows flitting
across the scene, provides, at least for the Westerner, a distinct

Another play in which three stars play together to good effect is “The
Three Strange Meetings” (Ch’i San Hui) or, as it is popularly nicknamed,
“The Three Pulls.” It is a popular comedy written during the time of
the Manchu Dynasty, and is one of the favorite plays of Mei Lan-fang.
Through his great prestige he is able to induce other stars to play with
him, and when he presents the rôle of the wife supported by Chü Su-yün
as husband and Li Shou-shan as father, the Chinese consider it a perfect
performance. The play is rich in glimpses of Chinese life and also full
of excellent opportunities for the actors to show their mettle. The
opening of the play is also most unusual, for, like Goethe’s “Faust” and
some of our other famous plays, it has a prologue in heaven. There is as
a general thing no curtain used in the Chinese theater, a rule to which
a scene in heaven forms an exception. Stage hands bring on a curtain
about eight feet high and twelve feet wide, supported by bamboo poles and
painted with clouds and bats to symbolize the sky. Behind this the stage
is set for the divine scene. When the curtain is removed the spectator
sees a god seated on a high throne. Four spirits bearing tall shields
painted with the conventionalized cloud pattern stand by his side. The
horns of the orchestra are blown mightily and fireworks are set off
until finally the god begins to speak in a slow, impressive bass. Like a
Homeric Zeus he sends a messenger to earth to free a certain innocent man
who is languishing in prison. The messenger is ordered to find the man’s
daughter and to conduct her to the prison. The divine herald departs,
carrying a horsehair switch, the conventional symbol by which a spirit
may be recognized on the Chinese stage.

The next scene begins the first of the four acts on earth: 1. The Weeping
in Prison; 2. Writing the Petition; 3. The Three Pulls; 4. The Family

Li Kuei-chih (played by Mei Lan-fang), newly married to a young
magistrate, visits the prison, inspired by the divine messenger. There
she sees the jailer mistreating an old man, in whom, to her surprise and
grief, she recognizes her father, from whom she had been separated in
childhood at the time of his unjust condemnation. The jailer is willing
to relent after the daughter, without disclosing her identity, has paid
him a good-sized bribe. Li Kuei-chih then asks her husband to make an
effort to free her father by writing an appeal to a higher court. The
husband complies very willingly, but, in order to write the petition
he must know his wife’s “little name”, a sort of family nickname of
the little girls, which, according to Chinese custom, is never revealed
to the husband. There ensues a fine comedy scene in which the wife at
first withholds and then shamefacedly tells her “little name”, to the
great triumph of her husband. In presenting the petition to the judge of
the higher court, the wife is recognized by the judge as his long-lost
sister. He rises from his seat, and discarding the stiff formality of
the courtroom, pulls Li Kuei-chih out of the room in order to reveal
his identity to her in the privacy of his home. The husband is told
of this by the servant, and rushes to the court in a rage, because he
fears that the judge has been induced by his wife’s beauty to make her
his concubine. The judge is not in the courtroom, but he sends out two
officers to bring the husband also into his home. The second of the three
pulls comes when the messengers drag the husband off-stage in a state of
comical terror; for, like a true Oriental, he fears sudden death,—a fear
that caused Abraham to lie to the Pharaoh of Egypt about his relationship
to the beautiful Sarah. In the next scene brother, sister, and husband
are happily reunited. The father is summoned from the prison into the
court. He recognizes his son, the presiding judge, and gratefully bows
toward the audience (that is, toward heaven) for, according to Chinese
custom, a father dare never bow toward his son, no matter what position
the latter may hold. Thereupon the father is also pulled off-stage to
complete the happy family reunion. The jailer, knowing full well what
manner of unpleasant death may be in store for him, ends his life by
jumping down a well.

This last-named action is accomplished by the jailer’s making a quick
leap and running off-stage, the conventional expression for suicide by
drowning. The court scenes, especially when the play is given by Mei
Lan-fang, abound in gorgeous costumes of richly embroidered silk. The
various characters wear historically correct dress, the Manchu robes
with wide sleeves. So far as my own observation goes, I have found that
for Manchu or Ming Dynasty events the styles of the respective periods
are followed, but that beyond this no attempt is made at providing
historically correct costume. Characters in plays taking place before the
Ming Dynasty wear Ming costume; it is the style worn before the coming of
the Manchus and therefore serves for all ancient settings.

The actor who plays the part of the husband in this play is Chu Su-yün.
He is nearly fifty years old, but he continues to play the rôle of the
lover opposite Mei Lan-fang, because there is no younger man who can
do it half so well. He is really as good as any Occidental comedian in
assuming the expressions of surprise, anger, or terror; he stutters
admirably whenever necessary, and in laughing gets a comical effect by
means of his faulty teeth, blackened by opium smoking. In another play,
“Ngoh Chia Chuan” (The Ngoh Family Village), he plays the part of a
young boy who has prodigious strength; in fact, he, though a mere child,
protects his family’s home by killing two generals. In one of the first
scenes the parents forbid their abnormally strong offspring to handle
dangerous weapons, whereupon this actor in the costume of a child goes
into tantrums of weeping that convulse the audience by their realistic
imitation of the overgrown baby. Li Shou-shan, in the rôle of the father,
is made up as a fine, dignified old Chinese gentleman. He brings out
very poignantly the tragic situation of the helpless old man unjustly
imprisoned; though perhaps by some of his pitiful wails he somewhat
overdoes his part.

Another very popular domestic drama is “Ta Chih Shang Wen” (Beating the
Nephew and Worshiping at the Grave). The Chinese prodigal son is Ta Kuan,
an orphan boy raised by his uncle. Wicked companions taught him gambling
and other ways of squandering money, and as he needed funds for these
pursuits he insisted that his uncle give him his paternal heritage. In
a short time, of course, all his substance has been wasted with riotous
living and Ta Kuan is forced to beg for his food. His uncle at that
time is distributing alms among the poor and the nephew is not ashamed
to appear among the beggars at his uncle’s door. Naturally, the uncle’s
“loss of face” is tremendous; he becomes extremely angry and chases Ta
Kuan off with blows. But his aunt, in the kindness of her heart, gives
him some money and urges him to avoid his angered uncle. But in China too
there is a destiny that shapes our ends: Ta Kuan’s money is stolen from
him, and with no prospects whatever before him, he suddenly becomes pious
and worships at his father’s grave. While he is busy burning paper money
(i.e. paper imitations of silver ingots) for the spirits of his ancestors
his uncle and aunt happen also to visit the family graveyard. The moment
Ta Kuan sees them, remembering his uncle’s blows and curses, he runs
away. His foster-father is very much surprised that some one should have
been burning paper money at his brother’s tomb. He never would have
suspected his nephew of such an action, but when he finds that it really
was Ta Kuan, his heart is touched by such a display of filial piety that
he sends for the nephew, inviting him to return to his house, and then
persuades him to study under the direction of a teacher. There has been a
real change of heart in the youth, for he applies himself diligently to
his task. And virtue is not without its reward; for when Ta Kuan takes
the examination he passes with the very highest honors.

A play similar to the previous one in that it is much more moral than
probable is “Chu Sha Chü” (A Cinnabar Spot). A certain elderly gentleman
by the name of Han was very unhappy because he had no son. To remedy this
condition he bought himself a concubine; but when the marriage was about
to be consummated, the bride wept bitterly. Han asked the cause of the
tears at such an inappropriate time, and learned that his new spouse was
in reality a married woman who had allowed herself to be sold to aid her
sick husband. The old man took pity on her, burned the marriage contract,
and presented her with more money for her unfortunate husband. A noble
and unusual action, to be sure, which merited and received an unusual
reward! The woman returned to her husband and the latter recovered at
once. Returned once more to health, he went about his business which
carried him to Sze-chuan province. He brought with him a present for his
benefactor, a young boy whom he had bought in a district afflicted by
famine. Han was very much pleased with the bright boy and devoted himself
eagerly to his education. He gradually remarked that the boy resembled
him a great deal and began to wonder if it might not be possible that
it was his own son, who had been carried off a few years before in the
course of a rebellion. One day it occurred to him to examine the sole of
the boy’s foot, and there he found the very same cinnabar spot that had
always been his own distinguishing mark. This proved conclusively that it
was his own son, and both were very happy over the reunion that had been
brought about through Han’s kindness to a poor woman!

The moral Chinese stage sets forth not only the reward of virtue, but
also the punishment of vice. There can be seen on the Peking stage
almost any day a warning to cruel husbands called “Pang Ta Pao Ch’ing
Lang” (Beating the Heartless Husband). Mu Chi was a scholar holding
the first degree (_Hsiu Tsai_, corresponding somewhat to our A.B.),
but he was very poor because his parents had not left him any property
whatsoever. When a famine struck the country he was forced to beg for
his bread. In his half-starved condition he was one day caught in a
snowstorm, in the course of which he fell to the ground more dead than
alive. In this condition the daughter of the head of the beggar’s guild
found him lying before the door of her home. She took pity on him and
nursed him back to health. At first her father was none too pleased
with his daughter’s action; but when the daughter represented that the
gods would surely reward her good deed, he became reconciled to the
presence of the young man in the house. The daughter fell in love with
her protégé and was very proud of his rank as a _Hsiu Tsai_. The father
also became quite fond of the young man and gave him his daughter in
marriage. Then it was arranged that Mu Chi was to go to Peking to take
the examination, while his wife and father-in-law were to go along to
beg and thus furnish the young man with a living until such time as he
should have secured a profitable post. Mu Chi passed the examination and
was appointed the magistrate of a town. The moment he had received his
appointment he became extremely disdainful of his new relatives and in
the course of the journey by boat to the town where he was to become
magistrate he pushed his wife overboard into the stream and drove off his
father-in-law. However, a certain high official saved the life of the
beggar chief’s daughter and adopted her as his child. When he had learned
from her the story of her husband’s ingratitude he decided to punish the
wretch properly. He called on him in his magistracy and offered him his
daughter in marriage. Mu Chi, the cad, naturally was glad to marry into
the family of such an influential man, and accepted eagerly. But what was
his chagrin and fright when on the evening of his marriage he raised the
bride’s veil to find under it the beggar’s daughter! The official then
entered the bridal chamber with a powerful stick and ordered the beggar’s
daughter to give Mu Chi a sound thrashing. This she did with a great deal
of “heart”, as the Chinese say, for which no one can blame her. But Mu
Chi decided to become a wiser and a better man; he sent out men to find
his father-in-law, and the three lived happy ever after.

But the very crowning piece of righteous moral indignation in all the
Flowery Kingdom is found in a story connected with Yo Fei, deified as
the god of war and worshiped as a special patron of the theater. In
his lifetime Yo Fei was a faithful general of the Sung emperors, a
great fighter against the Mongols. In fact, he had almost succeeded in
capturing the Mongol emperor with his entire army when the enemy bribed
some high Chinese officials, chief among them Ch’in Kuei, to do away with
their great patriotic leader. Yo Fei was summoned before a court for
trial, but was cleared of all charges. Then he was tried again before
Ch’in Kuei and two other judges, this time being condemned to death by
strangling. Before the sentence was carried out, his cruel executioners
tore the skin off his back where his mother had tattooed the famous
inscription, “I repay the state with integrity and loyalty.”

At Hangchow is found the tomb of this great Chinese patriot. Before it,
as every tourist sees to his surprise, are four statues in a kneeling
position and bound with chains, while an inscription invites the wanderer
to urinate on them.[21] These villains, who are literally in very bad
odor, are Ch’in Kuei, his wife, and the two other judges who condemned
Yo Fei to death. This drastic, posthumous punishment seems to have had
very little effect in furthering patriotism in China, for in recent
decades neither the Russians nor the Japanese seem ever to have had any
trouble in finding Chinese statesmen willing to accept bribes for the
betrayal of their country. The story is also told that in 1678, fully 500
years after Yo Fei’s death, this play was performed in a certain town,
when suddenly an excited spectator rushed on the stage and stabbed to
death the unfortunate actor who was playing the part of Ch’in Kuei, the
traitor. In the course of the trial this fervent patriot told that in all
his books he had carefully cut out the name of Ch’in Kuei wherever it
occurred. The man was not put to death, as would have been the case had
he been a Britisher, nor was he celebrated as a hero, as would have been
the case had he been a Frenchman, but in characteristic Chinese manner he
was dismissed as an idiot.

Though as a general thing there is very little courtship on the part
of young people in China, yet there are on the stage quite a number of
romantic love stories. In the chapter on Mei Lan-fang I have mentioned
some taken from the novel, “Dream of the Red Chamber.” The same actor
frequently presents “Yü Chan Chih” (A Precious Hairpin), the plot of
which might be an Occidental love story. In a certain convent the
abbess had living with her the daughter of her deceased brother, a very
attractive young girl by the name of Ch’en Miao. In the vicinity there
lived also the abbess’ nephew, with whom, because of his personal charm
and great learning, the young lady fell in love. One day the nephew
became ill and Ch’en Miao asked permission to assist in taking care
of the patient. Under the tender care of such an attractive nurse the
young man recovered speedily, but he too had lost his heart. He found
means to visit Ch’en Miao in her room one day as she was reading poetry,
whereupon, like Paolo and Francesca, that day they read no more. In
the village there lived an elderly magistrate who wished to marry Ch’en
Miao, but when the generous judge learned that she loved a younger rival,
he did not show any signs of jealousy; on the contrary, he went to the
abbess to urge her to join in marriage the young lovers.

Peking theaters have very few properties, as has been stated, but behind
practically every stage one finds a pair of plaster-of-Paris lions in
imitation of the marble lions that guard the gateways of Chinese palaces
and temples. They are used in a very popular play called “Chü T’eng Kuan
Hua” (Trial of Strength and Viewing the Ancestral Portraits). The play
seems to be a modern imitation of the Yuan Dynasty drama “The Orphan
of the Chao Family.” A wicked minister persuades the emperor that an
entire family, one of whose members he hates, must be exterminated root
and branch. A friend decides to save the family name by substituting
just before the execution his own young son for a child of the condemned
family. His wife absolutely refuses to enter upon his plan, but when he
kneels before her she is compelled to yield to his wishes to sacrifice
her child; this is typical of the Chinese, inasmuch as they seem to think
that when some one humbles himself unduly he must gain his end and other
people must grant him whatever he asks. The man and his wife then bring
up the orphan as their own son. The child they sacrificed was chopped
into three pieces by the wicked minister himself, because he feared that
it might some day revenge on him the slaughter of his relatives.

The play as given in Peking theaters opens at the time when the orphan
has attained the age of fifteen. He and his servant are playing in the
courtyard of his foster-father’s house. The boy proposes that they make
a test of their strength by moving the stone lions standing at the door
of the house. The servant tries in vain to move them, while the boy, a
prodigy of strength, picks up the massive stones and moves them with
ease. Soon afterward the master of the house returns and asks angrily
who is responsible for displacing the stone lions. The good-natured
servant, who has the rôle of the clown in this play, says that he did
it. His master then orders him to return them to their proper place, and
thus in a comedy scene he is soon proved a liar. Then the adopted son
is called; like George Washington he acknowledges what he has done, and
returns the lions to their proper places without the slightest trouble.
His foster-father now perceives that although but fifteen years of age,
the boy is strong enough to avenge the cruel injustice done his family.
Therefore he conducts him into the ancestral temple where he shows him
the portraits of his ancestors down to the ones put to death by the
wicked minister. No sooner has the orphan boy heard the story than he
puts on his armor and sets out on his mission of revenge on the enemy of
his family. Incidentally there is often a bit of comedy of a simple kind
thrown in by the stage hands when they remove the stone lions, which they
pretend to find very heavy.

On one occasion when I saw this play I was surprised to hear the audience
break out into peals of laughter at the point when the boy set out on his
errand of revenge. I inquired the cause of this from a Chinese friend.
Amid sobs of mirth he told me that the orphan boy had left the temple
on horseback! As usual, there was no scenery, the stage was bare, only
a picture suspended from a chair set on a table marked the locality as
an ancestral temple. The actor dressed for war had absent-mindedly acted
as though he were on the battle field and had made with his leg the
conventional sign for mounting a horse. I had not noticed the gesture at
all, as it was a rather inconspicuous one. The humor of the episode is of
about the same variety as that engendered years ago in the Philadelphia
Little Theater when, in the course of the action, a cat wandered on the
stage and in her haste to remove him an actress thrust him into the
glowing stage fireplace—in reality, of course, off-stage into the wings.

In this imitation of a Yuan drama, in fact of the drama that several
Western writers have called the nearest approach to true tragedy among
all Chinese plays, practically all that is presented to modern audiences
is the farcical element. Of farces the Chinese stage possesses many, some
good and some less so. A certain Liu Yen-ming, in a farce by that name,
lends money to a magistrate for a journey to the capital. The loan is
arranged, like most things in China, through a third party—in this case
an abbess of a convent. When a year has elapsed and the magistrate has
not returned, Liu demands his money, or, in case the abbess cannot repay
him, the hand of Yu Ying, the magistrate’s pretty daughter. He brings
such pressure to bear by means of threats that the abbess finally agrees
to arrange a rendezvous at midnight in the Convent of Great Purity. Yu
Ying naturally enough refuses to marry a man just because her father
owes him money, but when the abbess pictures the old miser as a dashing
youth of twenty-three she gradually changes her tone and at last gives
her consent. At midnight, therefore, Liu Yen-ming stealthily approaches
the convent, but unfortunately he meets with a patrol of police who
arrest the nocturnal prowler as he is unable to account for his presence
near the convent at such an unseemly hour. Instead of in the arms of
his beloved the money-lender spends the night in jail. But much more
disagreeable for him is another development of the story. A young scholar
on his way to the capital is on the same road when he observes that the
police have arrested Liu Yen-ming. He decides that the police must be
very strict in these parts and so demands hospitality at the very next
house, which is of course the convent. The door is opened by a novice who
has been told by the abbess what to do; the young scholar is asked to
enter and to await the young lady. The youth, though somewhat surprised,
is wise enough to hold his tongue and to follow instructions. Soon Yu
Ying enters and finds that the young man possesses all the charms the
abbess had falsely attributed to her father’s creditor. Love at first
sight, then follow mutual explanations, and before morning an engagement
sealed by pledges.

A rather good scene follows when on the next day the abbess calls on the
miser to felicitate him on the pleasant night he has spent! There are
delightful misunderstandings, but at the end of the scene Liu Yen-ming
is in a towering rage, and determined to have revenge. He forces the
daughter of his debtor to become a maid in his tavern, where she must
perform the most menial tasks. In the end, of course, the young scholar
returns from the capital as a magistrate; he enters the very inn where
his beloved is serving the guests, recognizes and rescues her, giving the
miser the punishment he so richly deserves.

One evening when I had gone to see Mei Lan-fang at the Chen Kwang
Theater, there was performed as the last play among the curtain raisers
another farce, “San Yao Hui” (Shaking Dice). This farce is much less
presentable in every way, but is, I believe, more typical of the
present-day drama, because of its episodic nature and lack of real plot.
On the eve of the husband’s return the wife and the concubine are
quarreling as to which is to share his first night at home. The dispute
waxes hot and violent; herewith follows a prize specimen of the dialogue:

    Wife: He has no right to have a concubine.

    Concubine: He would not have one, if you were able to bear him
    a son.

    Wife: Don’t say that, for before I was married I had several

Two neighbors, the clowns in the piece, enter and after much discussion
suggest that the women settle the disagreement by shaking dice. Three
dice are used, and the wife throws a score of seventeen. The concubine
then prostrates herself before the house god and when her dice are
counted it is found that she has eighteen points. She is victorious!

Probably about as much as one fourth of the drama played in China at the
present time deals with religious or mythological subjects. Kuan-yin,
the goddess of mercy, the Buddhist madonna, very frequently figures in
these plays, releasing unfortunates from punishments and otherwise doing
deeds of kindness. A direct contrast to her is found in the cruel judge
of the lower world. In the Field Museum, Chicago, there are exhibits
portraying a number of Chinese religious plays and the curator, Doctor
Berthold Laufer, has written an excellent guidebook dealing with these
theatrical representations having for their aim the inculcation of better
morals through the fear of punishments in the hereafter. I cannot resist
quoting from Doctor Laufer on the typically Chinese attitude toward this
form of religious drama:

    It must not be supposed, however, that the Chinese have ever in
    reality practiced the tortures demonstrated in the ten courts
    of Purgatory. This lore is not their own, they adopted it from
    India. It is the visual illustration of what is described in
    the sacred books of the Buddhists. On the stage, moreover,
    everything is mitigated and permeated by a willful, grotesque
    humor which makes it difficult for the spectator to take
    these punishments too seriously. Skeptical and rationalistic
    as many of the Chinese are, they will be moved to smile at
    this performance, or to entertain doubt as to its reality.
    The baroque features and semi-comic gestures of the devils
    contribute to the relief and exhilaration of the audience.
    The visitor should bear in mind that he is witnessing a fine
    piece of scenic illusion, which, while moralistic at its root
    and ethical in its tendency, is far from being calculated to
    shock the nerves or frighten the conscience, but which, on the
    contrary, will encourage and elevate by pointing the way to
    ultimate salvation. The keynote of this drama is not misery and
    despair, but hope and the possibility of self-perfection.

A favorite example of the mythological drama is the story of “The White
and the Black Snake” (Po She Chuan), taken from a novel of the same
name. Two snake demons took on the form of lovely virgins. One day they
quarreled and the White Snake said to the black, “If you can defeat me
in a fight I’ll serve you, but if you are beaten you shall be my slave.”
The White Snake won and according to the agreement the other became
her servant. In a former incarnation a certain young man had saved the
life of the White Snake and she decided to reward him by becoming his
beautiful and loving wife. Their marriage was indeed a very happy one
for a time. It is a Chinese custom on the fifth day of the fifth month
to drink a cup of wine containing a certain blossom which acts as a
charm against venomous animals. Hsü Hsuan, the husband, followed this
custom and gave some also to his unsuspecting wife. The White Snake felt
uncomfortable after this draught and retired early. Hardly had she gone
to sleep when she lost her human form and was changed into a snake. When
her husband later on parted the curtains of their bed, he saw a huge
white snake lying there, raising her head toward him and spewing fire.
Hsü Hsuan was so frightened that he fell to the ground dead. Aroused by
the noise, the Black Snake came on the scene and awoke her mistress, who
on awakening once more took on human form. When she realized what she had
unwittingly done, she burst into tears; but she soon recalled that on the
mountain dominated by the God of Long Life there grew an herb capable of
restoring the dead to life. She hurried to this mountain to steal a bit
of the herb. But the God of Long Life saw her and in great anger pursued
her. By means of enveloping her in the fumes of a charm against snakes he
captured her; but on learning for what purpose she had come to steal he
not only released her, but presented her with the herb. By means of it
the dead man was soon restored to life.

The two demons wished to please Hsü Hsuan in every way, but in doing
him favors they harmed the community. They robbed the state treasury to
enrich their favorite; but the treasurer was beheaded in consequence.
Thereupon they opened a drug store and in order to make the business
prosper they spread various diseases in the village. But the abbot of a
nearby monastery discovered their tricks. He visited Hsü Hsuan under the
pretense of collecting alms and warned him that he had better come for
a time to the monastery to be freed from the influence of evil demons
that were besetting him. Hsü Hsuan, who remembered only too well his
experience on the fifth day of the fifth month, was glad to go. He told
his wife that he was going to the temple to worship.

But when her husband failed to return, the White Snake decided to go
to the monastery to seek him. On the way she confessed to her servant
that she was soon going to give birth to a child, an event which she
hoped would give great pleasure to Hsü Hsuan. The two snakes in human
form rode in a boat to the monastery which was located on an island.
The abbot met them and sternly ordered them off lest he destroy them
utterly by means of his magic power. Full of anger the two demons drew
their magic swords against the abbot, but the latter tossed into the
air his cane with a dragon’s head, which was changed immediately into
a living dragon and attacked the two snakes so savagely that they were
forced to flee for their lives. But by means of their magic they sent a
flood which threatened to destroy the island. The abbot, surrounded by
all his priests, spread his garment at the edge of the water, thereby
causing the island to rise in the same degree as the water. At this point
K’uei Shing, god of the literati, arrived like the _deus ex machina_ of
a Euripidean play. He had been sent by Wen Chang, the god of science and
literature, to put an end to the quarrel because the son of Hsü Hsuan and
the White Snake was destined to obtain the highest degree in the literary
examinations. Thus the island was saved and the snakes returned home

Hsü Hsuan, on the abbot’s advice, also set out for home, and met his wife
with her servant on a bridge. The Black Snake drew her sword to avenge
on him the humiliation done her mistress, but the White Snake protected
him from the fury of her servant. Both were overcome by their emotions;
they wept in silence, unable to put their feelings into words, in this
struggle between love and fear. Soon afterward the son was born; but
three days later the god Wen Chang abducted the two demons to his magic
pagoda, while Hsü Hsuan was left in wistful happiness with his promising
son, the greatest boon in the life of a Chinese.

This charming story, by the way, forms the basis of Grimm’s tale, “The
White and the Black Snake.”

I have never seen the first part of this play, but on several occasions
I saw the visit of the snakes to the island monastery called “Chin
Shan-tze.” One of these performances was at the annual benefit for the
poor riksha-runners of Peking organized by that widely beloved American
missionary, Mrs. Goodrich. As the play was given at the theater of the
foreign community, many of the crudities and incongruities of the Chinese
stage were absent. The orchestra was not sitting on the stage and was
muffled somewhat. Back and side drops with good lighting effects served
to set off well the colorful robes of the shaven-headed monks praying
before an immense image of Buddha. The fighting staged by the demon
warriors was an exhibition of graceful and acrobatic movements that would
do credit to a Russian ballet. The story with all its pathos was very
well acted, so that the whole formed a memorable performance such as
would, I am sure, delight American audiences if a theatrical manager were
to engage Mei Lan-fang with his troupe for a tour.

In Chapter Six are mentioned the many seasonal plays of the Chinese
theater which make of this institution a true folk theater. In concluding
this chapter I shall quote a synopsis of the libretto of “Ch’ang-O Pin
Yüeh” (Ch’ang-O’s Flight to the Moon). This playlet is one of those into
which Mei Lan-fang has woven his graceful dances, an innovation on his
part on the Chinese stage. I follow the translation given on the program
at a performance before the American College Club on November 17, 1917.


The youthful Emperor Ho Yi of the Hsia Dynasty (about 2,000 B.C.) being
of divine origin, as a child played with fairies. When he grew to
manhood, he was in a dream led by fairies to the palace of the Heavenly
Queen, Hsi Wang Mu, who gave the young Emperor the Elixir of Life.
Ch’ang-O, the Imperial Concubine of Ho Yi, famed for her grace and
beauty, learned of this precious gift and in childish innocence drank
it, scarcely realizing what she had done. Filled with remorse and shame,
upon being apprised of the gravity of her offence, she flew to the moon,
where because of her wonderful beauty she was elected by the moon fairies
as their queen. The scene of the play is laid in the moon and has to do
with the preparations for and the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival
with Ch’ang-O, the Queen of the Moon, as the central figure and the moon
fairies and their invited guests as participants.


    FIRST ACT.—The scene depicts a garden blossoming in celestial
    flowers, with Ch’ang-O plucking the flowers to be used in
    making the wines for the Mid-Autumn Festival Banquet.

CH’ANG-O opens with a song in praise of the beautiful surroundings in
which she is about to pick flowers. (_Speaks_) Since arriving in the
Moon, I have had a very pleasant time. The hot summer is now past and
Mid-Autumn is come. In preparation for the celebration of the Festival,
I look forward with delight to the making of wine for the entertainment
of the fairies whom I am inviting to my feast. (_Sings_) Deftly though I
roll up my sleeves and lightly though I pluck the flowers, I cannot help
brushing off the bees and butterflies. This sprig is full of fragrance
and is weighed down with abundance and splendor. That one is yet in bud.
And when I lift up my eyes I behold above me a tree that reaches to the
clouds. Lifting my hand I begin to pluck the flowers. (_Speaking_) Ah!
How beautiful! I have so soon filled my basket with flowers, and now I
must carry them home to make my wine. (_Singing_) How thickly do the
butterflies follow in my trail!

    SECOND ACT.—The Moon Fairies invite other fairies to the

    THIRD ACT.—The invited guests proceed to the Banquet Hall.

    FOURTH ACT.—The Moon Palace. The Moon Fairies dust the Palace
    and make preparations for the coming Banquet and the receiving
    of their guests.

    FIFTH ACT.—The Banquet. Ch’ang-O, under the influence of wine,
    soliloquises on the lonesomeness of her life amid her present
    surroundings and yearns for the companionship of mortals and
    more particularly of Ho Yi.

CH’ANG-O (_singing_). Forsaking the mortal world, I have come to the Moon
to be Queen of the Fairies. My time has passed so pleasantly and fast
that I have lost all count of time. I have gathered flowers and made
wine, and have invited other fairies to join me on this festive occasion.
(_Sitting in meditation_) Spring and autumn come and go, as the evening
follows the morn. My time has flown by pleasantly amidst these beautiful
surroundings. Once a year the moon is fullest on this night. Heaven
and earth are happy in mutual enjoyment. (_Speaking_) This day is the
Mid-Autumn Festival. I have directed the Palace to be dusted and cleaned.
The attendants have conveyed the invitations to the fairies to share with
me in my happiness. You, attendants, await their arrival. (_The fairies
arrive and sit down to feast._)

FAIRIES. O Queen! behold the mortal world! See how every family on earth
prepares its delicious food and wine to offer to thee as sacrifice?
(_Ch’ang-O speaking_) Let me look. (_Ch’ang-O is moved and the fairies

FAIRIES. Why, Queen, dost thou feel so sad?

CH’ANG-O. Look at the mortals and see how they celebrate in couples. A
hundred times better are they than we who lead a lonesome life.

FAIRIES. Do not speak thus, O Queen! But partake more of this beautiful
wine and drown thy sorrow.

CH’ANG-O. Then let us drink. (_Lifts her cup._)

(_Ch’ang-O is overcome with wine and the fairies take their leave._)

CH’ANG-O. When we were feasting I perceived how mortals celebrated this
happy occasion in couples and enjoyed each other’s company. The thought
of my lonely life fills me with sorrow. (_Singing_) I go down by marble
steps and part the crystal curtains to see how mortal couples live and
prepare fresh fruits and delicious wines to celebrate the Festival.
Here I see a family feasting and chatting, there a group walking hand
in hand, and others while away their time in their modest homes, while
I sit in my Palace, lonely and companionless. Ah! who is there to pity
me? (_Speaking_) Deeply do I regret my offence of stealing the Elixir of
Life. As punishment I am now destined to spend my nights in sorrow.

(_Fairies reappear to escort Ch’ang-O to visit the Heavenly Queen, Hsi
Wang Mu._)

(_Exeunt all._)




During the last decades of the Ch’ing Dynasty, that is to say about forty
years ago, many of the idle and rich members of the ruling class, the
Manchus, developed an interest in the theater. The government provided
these men with an income but imposed no duties on them; and while a large
number filled the time that hung heavy on their hands by smoking opium,
others imitated the work of the socially disinherited actor. Sometimes
princes of the royal family appeared on the stage in much the same spirit
of a search for new sensations in which others impersonated beggars on
the streets. Naturally enough, such undignified behavior was highly
disapproved of in government circles, and therefore the idlers who spent
most of their time in the theaters found it more expedient to perform in
private when their artistic natures felt the itch for self-expression.
For this purpose clubs were formed called _p’iao yu_, friends of the
theater or amateurs. It is interesting to note that many of the palaces
of the princes of the Manchu Dynasty in the vicinity of Peking are
provided with stages where the theater lovers could perform in private.
Many wealthy merchants followed this fashion set by the princes, and in
recent years also a large number of students have devoted their leisure
time to the study of acting. To-day the number of amateurs in Peking is
enormous; there is such a craze for acting that every photographer’s
shop is provided with costumes and other theatrical paraphernalia in
order that the _p’iao yu_ may have his picture taken in the rôle of his
favorite character.

Among this class of amateurs the tendency is to be very conservative.
When a club is formed the members hire an old and experienced actor who
teaches them to sing and to act in the traditional manner. Once a month
performances are given at which the amateurs show what they have learned.
Frequently, too, these tyros are given opportunities to act at weddings,
funerals, or other festivities held in private homes or in restaurants.
To belong to such a club is within the reach of even the ordinary clerks,
for the dues are about four dollars a year. I have known former members
of the diplomatic corps who had spent many years abroad as well as
ten-dollar-a-month clerks among the ranks of the amateurs.

When an amateur goes over to the professional stage the Chinese call
it “_hsia hai_”, going down to the bottom of the sea, an expression
that indicates the low esteem in which the professional actor is held.
However, in these days of the Republic, when the social disqualification
of the actor counts for very little, and what is more important, a good
actor can command the equivalent of a princely income of the days of the
Empire, the actor is no longer despised so thoroughly as in former days.
Formerly an actor who could read and write was a notable exception, while
now occasionally a fairly well-educated man goes on the stage.

I know, for example, a youth of twenty who had been carefully trained
by a devout American lady in the Christian way in which he was to go.
She had taught him stenography and typing, and Percy, as all Americans
called him, worked in an office in a modest but useful capacity. Suddenly
rumor had it that he was going to go on the stage and, to be sure, an
enterprising manager had offered him about forty times the sum the office
was paying him. Many of the pious folk felt grieved when Percy accepted.


The face painting of the actor on the right shows him to be a wicked man,
probably a robber. The other is the hero of the piece, a young warrior.]

Percy’s going on the stage was perhaps more of a surprise to some other
people than to me, for I had not only seen him perform several times with
other amateurs at weddings, but I had also observed him during office
hours studying Mei Lan-fang’s acting in the Market Theater. One hot
summer night I went to a feast where Percy had told me that he was going
to play. In the first courtyard of the host’s large residence a score of
guests were eating delicious Chinese food and drinking cool beer, while a
temporary stage had been erected in the second courtyard. Accompanied by
loud music from the orchestra an indifferent play was going on; therefore
I set out to find my hero of the evening. I found Percy seated at a table
back of the stage busy with his make-up. On his head he was wearing a
wig, his eyebrows were penciled, his cheeks rouged, and he was busy
painting his eyeballs.

“Good heavens, Percy,” I said. “What are you doing to your eyes?”

“I have to put Chinese ink into them to make my pupils large and black.”

“Doesn’t it hurt like the very Satan?”

“Oh, yes, it hurts pretty badly, but when it’s done it looks lovely.”

How I wished that Percy’s missionary sponsors might have seen the
show! As imitator of Mei Lan-fang he played the rôle of the maid, and
he certainly looked beautiful. The maid in this particular farce (“Yi
Tsai Hua”, one of the plays forbidden by the police!) is sent by her
mistress—who is minded to improve her husband’s absence—to induce a
handsome young man to come to the lady’s boudoir. But the maid prefers,
unlike John Alden, to speak for herself! So she sets about destroying
the young man’s virtue, while the efforts of the youth to escape her
coquettish wiles supply the comic element. It was a bedroom farce, and
I noticed with pride the effects of Percy’s Christian training—he used
sheets on his bed!

But in recent years other groups of amateurs have arisen with the
definite purpose of reforming the Chinese theater. In 1915 a group of
returned students from Japan who had derived their inspiration from
modern European dramas they had seen in Tokyo founded a dramatic club in
Shanghai called “The Spring Willow Dramatic Society.” Their aim was to
educate the taste of the public both as regards modern drama and modern
staging. They introduced non-musical, spoken drama acted on a stage with
footlights and scenery. “La Dame aux Camélias” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
formed part of their repertoire. But they found only a small following
composed of students and people who had been abroad, and therefore
this effort was discontinued after one year. Shanghai is the logical
spot for such modern theaters—there have been quite a number of others
since—because Occidental influence is stronger in this city than anywhere
else in China, and the Southerners on the whole are less conservative
than the Northerners.

One of the idealists of the “Spring Willow Society”, on finding that
the audiences were not yet ready for drama in the European style, began
to act in the Chinese theater the rôle of the ingénue (_Ch’ing-I_ and
_Hua-tan_). However, he made the reform of avoiding all plays that taught
superstitions and of turning to social plays with a purpose. But this
experiment did not succeed very well either, and therefore in 1920 he
accepted the position of director of the dramatic club in Nantun, in the
province of Kiangsi, endowed by Mr. Chang Chien, one of the wealthiest
business men in China. This gentleman believes that the theater is an
instrument of great potential force in making over society and that
through the proper kind of theater his fellow countrymen can be made
honest and patriotic. Nantun is an industrial city and an educational
center with ten middle schools and three colleges, and therefore a
favorable location for an experimental theater. Moreover, through Mr.
Chang Chien’s influence, a course in dramatics has been made a part of
the curriculum in all the schools, in order that every student may learn
to act. The students, Mr. Chang Chien hopes, will spread the message of
the modern drama far and wide by giving performances in their native
towns and villages.

Such a tour of student actors, from quite another educational center, to
be sure, was described to me by one of my students, Mr. Jung Tu-shan.
The lad undoubtedly had considerable talent as an actor—I remember
particularly a performance of “Maître Patelin” given at the Peking
Union Medical College in which he played the leading part with great
success. In the year 1917, thirty-six students, all from the vicinity
of Wusih, set out to perform plays in all the villages in the district.
They carried with them some painted scenery and each student supplied
his costumes and traveling expenses. The families of different students
acted as hosts to the whole company in the various villages visited.
Performances were given in the afternoon. In the course of the morning
the stage was gotten ready—usually the stage at the village temple. Four
coppers admission fee was charged to pay for the cost of transporting the
scenery, and the surplus was given to various charitable enterprises.
The audiences numbered from two hundred to eight hundred spectators.
The plays were propaganda against opium smoking and foot binding or—as
this was the time of the patriotic fervor of the students—anti-Japanese
agitation. The most popular play was “The Sorrowful Korean”, in which
the maltreatment of Koreans by the Japanese was graphically portrayed,
together with the warning that the same thing would happen to the Chinese
if they did not show more patriotism. After the representation of the
pulling out of finger nails or other tortures, the cry of “boycott the
Japanese” would arise among the spectators, and those who had had the
forethought to provide themselves with Japanese-made umbrellas would
start a bonfire with them. Next, everybody would swear never again to
buy Japanese goods. At times, too, improvised plays would be given in
which the foibles or crimes of certain natives of the village would
be castigated. Some professional blackmailers whose machinations were
publicly exposed became very angry at the students, but since they were
sons of wealthy and influential men they could not harm them. It is quite
a favorable testimonial for the native ability of the Chinese as actors
that such plays could be gotten up at a moment’s notice; the method of
the students was for one of the members to tell the story in the morning,
while in the afternoon those who had been awarded the various parts would
act it out. Mr. Jung Tu-shan is of the opinion that for his illiterate
countrymen such performances are of vast educational value, especially
since newspapers are few and travel is rather restricted.

It would lead too far afield to enumerate even a small number of the
professional companies and student clubs now presenting “modern drama”,
i.e. drama in imitation of the present-day drama of the West. Moreover
most of these undertakings are very short-lived. The professional
companies are generally found in Shanghai where many a modern European
or American drama has been presented for better or for worse. The best
work among the student dramatic clubs has been done by the one at Nankai
College, Tientsin. In the _Quarterly_ of that institution many plays have
been published dealing with Chinese life in imitation of the manner of
Ibsen, Tolstoy, Shaw, and other moderns. One play from this school, “The
New Mayor”, was singled out for particular praise by a revolutionary
critic, because it overthrew one of the ancient traditions of the Chinese
drama—the villain is not punished at the end of the play. This play too
is quite realistic and “peculiarly” Chinese.

Mr. Tsao, the mayor of a village, together with three other unscrupulous
men, agrees to sell to a European company the land around the village
temple on which are situated the huts of many poor people. The agents of
the foreign company begin to drive off the poor people and cause untold
suffering among them. At this point a nephew of the mayor appears on
the scene. He has been studying in a “modern” school in Shanghai and
has acquired some conceptions of honesty and pity. He takes the matter
of the illegal sale to court and when he appears followed by a mob of
the poor the court annuls the contract of sale. There is even some talk
of punishing the four guilty scoundrels. In this crisis the son of the
mayor rushes to one of the three other villains, named Hou, in order to
plan for his father’s safety. Mr. Hou tells him that the only thing to
do is to bring him $4000 for bribes, with which he says he can save the
situation. The family of the mayor sell all their property in order to
raise this large sum, so that only the hope of future extortions stands
between them and absolute poverty. After what has passed the mayor is
forced to resign, but Mr. Hou promises to do all he can to influence the
election to the effect that the son succeed his father as mayor and the
office remain in the family. With this understanding the mayor’s family
pay out the $4000. But when the votes are counted it is found that the
new mayor is none other than Mr. Hou!

It may be worth while briefly to summarize the views of two critics on
how to reform the Chinese theater. Professor Soong Tsung-faung of the
National University, Peking, for many years a student in France, Germany
and Switzerland, in his book “La Littérature Chinoise Contemporaine”
makes suggestions as follows: 1. Music and drama should be separated,
performances of operas and plays should be made as distinct genres; 2.
An approach should be made to the Aristotelian unities; 3. The false
morality of the stage should be replaced by a realistic presentation of
life; 4. More attention should be paid to effective dialogue; 5. Male and
female rôles should be played by actors of the two sexes respectively;
6. The stage and auditorium of the Chinese theater should be reformed to
resemble that of the modern European theater.

“Europeanize the theater” is, in short, what Professor Soong suggests.
Much the same thing, from a somewhat different angle, is said by Doctor
Hu Shih, professor of philosophy in the same university. He argues that
literature is constantly changing and that such a change is a gradual
progress from low origins to classical perfection. The history of Chinese
drama represents a continuous struggle against formal restrictions which
have been gradually overcome. But in the course of this advance useless
survivals remained intact owing to the conservatism of the Chinese. As
such survivals he mentions ballad singing, military plays (acrobatics), a
conventional manner of walking on the stage, facial painting in a highly
unnatural manner, use of falsetto speech, and musical accompaniment.
These ought to be eliminated, just as the chorus, the mask, and the aside
have long gone out of style in the Western theater. Furthermore, since
progress in literature generally comes about through contact with foreign
literatures (he quotes here the influence of Ibsen on the English stage),
China ought to learn from the Occidental drama. Two things especially
China is in need of: first, the conception of tragedy to take the place
of the eternal happy ending; and second, a conception of dramatic economy.

This same critic has himself written a play, which he modestly calls a
farce. It has been acted very successfully by student dramatic societies
in Peking and other cities. Doctor Hu Shih does not pride himself
particularly on this effort of his, yet, in my opinion, it is by far
the best “modern” play written by a Chinese under the influence of the
Western drama, including some published in American magazines. I shall
reprint it here as an index, showing the direction the Chinese drama of
the future may take. The influence of Mei Lan-fang, as Professor Soong
notes in his book, is in the direction of art for art’s sake, while the
drama of the students and reformers is the play with a purpose.

[Illustration: HU SHIH

Doctor of Philosophy, Columbia University. Professor of Philosophy,
National University, Peking. Author of first critical history of Chinese
philosophy, giving a new evaluation of the ancient sages. Editor, poet,
and author of play reprinted in chapter five. His most important work
was his campaign for the introduction of the vernacular in place of the
dead language of the scholars, a reform that will be of inestimable
consequence in democratizing knowledge among China’s four hundred


A Farce in One Act by Doctor Hu Shih

    _CHARACTERS_—Mr. Tien, a gentleman and scholar.
    Mrs. Tien, his wife.
    Miss Tien Ah-may, their daughter.
    Lee Fuh, their old servant.
    A fortune-teller (blind).

    _SCENE—A parlor in Mr. Tien’s home. A door on the right leading
    to the hall; a door on the left leading to the dining room.
    Sofa at the back end. Armchairs. A round table in the center
    with flower-vase and writing materials on it. Two chairs beside
    the table. A writing desk at the left side of the stage._

    _On the walls are hanging rolls of Chinese painting and
    writing, together with framed Dutch landscapes, bespeaking the
    complexity of taste in a partially modernized Chinese family._

    _As the curtain slowly goes up, there is heard the voice of the
    fortune-teller, who is seated by the table, and the final notes
    of his accompanying string instrument are still audible. Mrs.
    Tien is seated on one of the armchairs._

MRS. TIEN—I don’t quite understand what you say. Tell me, what do you
think of this match.

FORTUNE-TELLER—I only speak the truth, Mrs. Tien. We all speak the truth.
You see—

MRS. TIEN—But what is the truth?

FORTUNE-TELLER—I am sorry to say that this match is undesirable. It would
be a very unhappy marriage if your daughter should marry this young man.

MRS. TIEN—Why so?

FORTUNE-TELLER—Well, you see, I only speak the truth. This young man was
born in the year of the Tiger and your daughter was born in the year of
the Rabbit. In the books of fortune-telling, this is called “conquering
the rabbit by the tiger.”

The wife would live in constant fear of being swallowed up. And, as the
conquest is complete, the wife will probably die long before her husband.
I have examined the Month and the Day and the Hour, and found no way to
escape it. Of course I am only telling the truth: please don’t blame my

MRS. TIEN—Not at all. I like truth spoken in frankness. I know what you
said is true. For the Goddess of Mercy said the same thing yesterday.

FORTUNE-TELLER—So the Goddess of Mercy also disapproved of this union?

MRS. TIEN—Yes, she said that this couple, if married, will not live long

FORTUNE-TELLER—That’s exactly what I said.

MRS. TIEN—What the Goddess said must be true. But you see, this is a very
important matter; it is the greatest event in my daughter’s life. We
parents cannot take too much care in selecting the best possible mates
for our children. So, having known the Goddess’s opinion, I sent for you
to see if there is any possible escape. You know the words of the gods
are always very brief: one may not be sure of their exact meaning.

FORTUNE-TELLER—Quite so, quite so.

MRS. TIEN—I am glad that you have confirmed the Goddess’s judgment.
(_Rises and hands him some money_) Thank you; here is your pay.

FORTUNE-TELLER—(_Groping for the money_) No, no, that is not necessary.
Thanks, thanks. I am glad that the Goddess has confirmed my truth.

MRS. TIEN—Lee Fuh! (_Enter Lee Fuh from the right-hand door_) Show him
out. (_The fortune-teller goes out led by Lee Fuh_)

MRS. TIEN—(_Taking up the red paper on which are written the dates of
the young couple, folds it and puts it back into a drawer of the writing
desk_) It’s a pity!—it’s a pity!—

(_Miss Ah-may Tien enters by the right-hand door. She is a young woman of
about twenty-four, tastefully dressed and wearing a rather anxious look
on her face_)

MISS TIEN—Mother, are you consulting fortune-tellers again? I met one at
the gate. Have you forgotten that father had forbidden fortune-telling in
our house?

MRS. TIEN—Just once more, my dear.

MISS TIEN—But you have promised father never to call fortune-tellers into
our house.

MRS. TIEN—I know that. But you see I can’t help doing it just once more.
I have sent for him to see if you and Mr. Chen—


MRS. TIEN—You see this is the greatest event in your life, and you are my
only child. I can’t let you marry a man with whom you can’t live long.

MISS TIEN—But we _can_!

MRS. TIEN—No, you can’t. The fortune-teller says so.

MISS TIEN—What does he know about us?

MRS. TIEN—And the Goddess of Mercy says so, too.

MISS TIEN—So you have asked the Goddess too? What would father say to

MRS. TIEN—I know your father would object to this, as he always objects
to everything I do. But how can we old folks decide a matter which
concerns your entire life? We are liable to make grave mistakes. But the
gods cannot deceive us. Moreover, the fortune-teller has confirmed what
the goddess said. (_Going to the desk and opening the drawer_) Let me
show you what the goddess said.

MISS TIEN—Oh, no! I don’t want to see it!

MRS. TIEN—(_Closing the door reluctantly_) My dear, don’t be too
obstinate. I like your young man whom you have known during your stay in
Japan. He seems to be a fine fellow. You say you know him well. But you
are young and inexperienced. Even we old folks dare not trust our own
judgment in such important matters. That’s why I went to the Goddess of
Mercy and sent for the fortune-teller. They both said that this match
would be undesirable. It must be true. The fortune-teller said that this
is a case of conquering the rabbit by the tiger, because you were born in
the year of—

MISS TIEN—Please don’t say any more of it. (_Sobbing_) I don’t want to
hear it. I know father will not agree with you. I know he will not.

MRS. TIEN—I will tell him what I have done. He must not give away my
daughter against my wish. (_Approaching her daughter and trying to dry
her tears with a handkerchief_) Now, don’t cry. I’ll leave you to think
it over. Your father will be back soon; I go to see if dinner is ready.
Be a good child and cry no more. (_Goes by the door leading to the dining

_A pause. As Miss Tien looks up, Lee Fuh appears at the door. She beckons
him to come near_)

MISS TIEN—Lee Fuh, I need your help. (_Lee Fuh bows amicably_) My mother
does not want to let me marry Mr. Chen.

LEE FUH—It’s a pity, a great pity. He is such a fine gentleman. He even
bowed to me when I met him this morning at the street corner.

MISS TIEN—Yes, he saw you bring in the fortune-teller and he was afraid
of any sudden change. So he telephoned to me at the school and followed
me back in his motor-car. He may still be waiting at the street corner.
Go and tell him that my mother has made up her mind not to let us marry.
Of course father will help us. Tell Mr. Chen to move his car to the next
street and wait for further news. Go quickly. (_Lee Fuh bows to go_) Come
back. Tell him—tell him—not to be anxious. (_Lee Fuh bows smilingly and
goes by the right-hand door_)

MISS TIEN—(_Goes to the desk and opens the drawer; looks at its contents
without taking it out. Then looks at her watch_) Father ought to be back
now; it is almost twelve. (_Mr. Tien, a man of about fifty, enters by the
right-hand door_)

MISS TIEN—(_Quickly closes the drawer and rises to meet him_) Oh, father,
you are back! Mother was—(hesitates) mother has something to say to
you,—something very important.

MR. TIEN—What’s that? Tell me first what it is.

MISS TIEN—Mother will tell you. (_Runs to the dining-room door and
calls_) Mother, mother, father is back.

MR. TIEN—What’s in this now? (_Sits down in the armchair. Mrs. Tien
enters_) Ah-may told me that you have something very important to say to

MRS. TIEN—Yes, something very important. Now don’t contradict me.
(_Sitting down by the table_) It is about Mr. Chen’s proposal to marry

MR. TIEN—Yes, I have been thinking about it too.

MRS. TIEN—Good, we all ought to be thinking about it. It is the greatest
event in her life. I was simply overawed at the idea of its importance.
It is true that Ah-may has known this young man for some years during
their stay in Japan. But we don’t know him. How can we be sure of his
character? He is wealthy, but many wealthy young men are simply awful. He
is well-educated, but I have heard many returned students abandon their

MR. TIEN—What are you driving at?

MRS. TIEN—My point is this. We should not trust our own poor judgments.
At least I can’t, I dare not trust myself in this matter. So I went
yesterday to the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy.

MR. TIEN—What! Have you forgotten what you promised me?

MRS. TIEN—I can’t help it. I did it merely for the sake of our daughter.

MR. TIEN—Pooh, pooh! Go on.

MRS. TIEN—I went there and asked for a Divine Stick. It says that this
match is undesirable. Let me show you the poem on the Stick. (_Going to
the desk_)

MR. TIEN—Pooh, pooh! I don’t want to see it. I’ll have nothing of this
stuff! If you don’t trust yourself, how can you trust such an important
matter to wooden images and clay idols?

MISS TIEN—(_Cheering up_) I know father doesn’t believe in all this.
(_Going to him_) Thank you, father. We should trust our own judgment,
should we not?

MRS. TIEN—But it isn’t the Goddess alone that says no.

MR. TIEN—Who else then?

MRS. TIEN—I still had my doubts, so I sent for the best fortune-teller in
this city.

MR. TIEN—Ahem! You have broken another promise to me.

MRS. TIEN—I know it, but you see this is the greatest event in Ah-may’s
life, and I want to clear up every little doubt in my mind.

MR. TIEN—But, for heaven’s sake, why did you create the doubt by going to
the Goddess? Why didn’t you come to me?

MRS. TIEN—Don’t be blasphemous. Well, the fortune-teller said exactly the
same thing as the Goddess of Mercy. Wasn’t that wonderful?

MR. TIEN—Oh, come. Don’t be foolish. You have no confidence in your own
eyes, so you go and put complete confidence in those who have no eyes at

MISS TIEN—I quite agree with you, father. I knew you would be on our side.

MRS. TIEN—(_To her daughter_) How dare you talk in that manner about
your own marriage? “Our” side? Whose side is “our” side? For shame! You
all conspire against me! (_Putting her face into her handkerchief and
sobbing_) Have I no right to decide my own daughter’s greatest event in

MR. TIEN—Just because this is our daughter’s greatest event in life,
we must go about it in a sane and intelligent manner. We must not be
deceived by wooden images and clay idols,—and blind fortune-tellers. Am I
not right, Ah-may?

MISS TIEN—You are quite right, father. I knew you would not believe in
all this.

MR. TIEN—Now, let us talk seriously. (_To Mrs. Tien_) Don’t cry. No
more childish superstitions! (_To Miss Tien_) Sit down and we’ll have a
serious talk. (_She seats herself on the sofa. A pause_)

MR. TIEN—Ah-may, I don’t want you to marry Mr. Chen.

MISS TIEN—(_Greatly agitated_) Oh, father, you don’t mean it!

MR. TIEN—Yes, I do mean it. This union is impossible. I am sorry.

MISS TIEN—Have you found anything against him?

MR. TIEN—No, I like him very much. I could not possibly choose a better
son-in-law. So much the more I am sorry.

MISS TIEN—(_Puzzled and grieved_) And you don’t believe in the gods and

MR. TIEN—Oh, no.

MRS. TIEN AND MISS TIEN—(_At the same time_) What is it then?

MR. TIEN—(_To Miss Tien_) My child, you have been abroad for so long that
you have forgotten our own custom and etiquette. You have even forgotten
the law of our ancestors.

MISS TIEN—What is the law of our ancestors that forbids our marriage?

MR. TIEN—Let me show you. (_Goes out by the dining-room door_)

MRS. TIEN—What could it be? But I am glad that he is opposed to this

MISS TIEN—(_Reflecting, then suddenly showing determination_) I know what
to do.

MR. TIEN—(_Enters with a set of big folio volumes_) Here is our
genealogy. (_Turning over the leaves_) Look at this long line of our
ancestors and see if there has been any marriage between the Chens (陈)
and the Tiens (田).

MISS TIEN—Why couldn’t there be any marriage between the two families?

MR. TIEN—Because it is the custom of the country to forbid intermarriage
between persons bearing the same family name.

MISS TIEN—But our family is Tien and Mr. Chen’s family name is Chen: we
are not of the same family name.

MR. TIEN—Yes, we are of the same family name. About two thousand five
hundred years ago, these two words, Tien and Chen, were pronounced in the
same way, and our family name was sometimes written in the form of Chen
and sometimes in the form of Tien. As the ages passed by, these two words
came to be pronounced quite differently, and the two branches of our
family had all the appearances of a separate origin. But the philologists
know it, and our family records show that the two families have sprung
from one and the same stock. The law of both the Chen family and the Tien
family forbids intermarriage between them.

MISS TIEN—Does this prohibition apply to persons whose relationship dates
back two thousand five hundred years?

MR. TIEN—Unfortunately it does.

MISS TIEN—Oh, father, surely you don’t believe in the reasonableness of
such a custom.

MR. TIEN—I don’t, but society does and the old scholars do. A story was
told of a peasant woman of the Tien family who married a Mr. Chen by
mistake. But after her death, she was not allowed to occupy a seat in the
ancestral temple until her name was changed into Shen (申) by prolonging
the middle stroke of the word Tien (田).

MISS TIEN—I am willing to prolong the middle stroke of my family name, if
that is the only objection.

MR. TIEN—You are willing, but I am not. I don’t want to be criticized by
the old scholars of our clan on your account.

MISS TIEN—(_Sobbing_) But we are _not_ of the same family!

MR. TIEN—Our genealogy says we _are_, and the old scholars say we _are_.
I have consulted a number of scholars on this point, and they all oppose
this union. You see, in a matter of such importance, although one must
not be deceived by the wooden gods and blind fortune-tellers, one must
respect the opinion of old scholars. And then, your young man is from
a very wealthy family. I don’t want people to think that I sold my
daughter to a rich man at the cost of sacrificing my family name.

MISS TIEN—(_In despair_) Oh, oh! Father! You have destroyed the idols of
superstition, but you bow to the idols of tradition!

MR. TIEN—You are angry with me? Well, I don’t blame you. I understand
your feelings. (_Lee Fuh enters_)

LEE FUH—Dinner is ready. (_All rise except Miss Tien_)

MR. TIEN—Let us talk it over after dinner. Come, I am hungry. (_Goes into
the dining room_)

MRS. TIEN—(_Going to her daughter_) Don’t cry now. We all wish for your
best. Compose yourself and come to dinner.

MISS TIEN—I don’t want dinner.

MRS. TIEN—Don’t be obstinate. We’ll wait for you. (_Goes into the dining
room. Lee Fuh closes the door after her_)

MISS TIEN—(_Looks up and sees Lee Fuh standing_) Is Mr. Chen still
waiting in his car?

LEE FUH—(_In a low voice_) Yes, here is a note for you. (_Hands her a

MISS TIEN—(_Reads_) “This concerns us alone. Decide for yourself.”
(_Repeating the last sentence_) “Decide for yourself.” Yes. I must decide
for myself. I must! (_To Lee Fuh_) Tell father and mother not to wait for
me. I’ll join them after dinner. (_Lee Fuh bows knowingly and retires.
Miss Tien rises and puts on the cloak which she had taken off when she
first entered. Goes to the desk and writes a note which she leaves under
the flower vase; then she hurries out by the right-hand door. A pause_)

MRS. TIEN—(_From within_) Ah-may, you must come and have dinner with us.
(_Enters_) Where are you? Ah-may!

MR. TIEN—(_From within_) Leave her alone for a while: she is angry with
us. (_Enters_) Where is she?

MRS. TIEN—Where is she? She has gone with her cloak on.

MR. TIEN—(_Seeing the note under the vase, takes it and reads_) “This is
the greatest event in my life. I must decide for myself. I am gone with
Mr. Chen in his car. Good-by!”

(_Mrs. Tien sinks into the armchair. Mr. Tien rushes to the door and then
hesitates. Curtain._)




Foreigners in general regard the Chinese theater as noisy, dirty, and
dull, and therefore as a most unattractive spot; yet the Chinese must
think differently about it, for the houses are always crowded. When still
at a great distance from the theater one can hear a horrible racket
of drums, cymbals, and screeching string instruments. On entering the
building one is struck by the lack in the Chinese of the sense of how
to make things attractive, for, just as one enters a Chinese restaurant
through a dirty kitchen, so one often enters a theater through the
laundry; four or five men are seen in the “foyer” bending over steaming
tubs, washing towels, essentials in a Chinese theater the use of which
the spectator is soon to learn. On entering one finds the house—which,
by the way, is arranged like a beer garden with the spectators seated at
little tables—packed to the last seat. But the usher says nothing about
S. R. O.; he leads you somewhere and as the other spectators seem to
telescope you are asked to sit down either at a table or on a bench which
has before it a board to hold the teapot and watermelon seeds that arrive
the minute you have taken your seat.

As you settle down and look about, you find yourself in the usual kindly,
dirty, ill-smelling, smoking, talking, shouting, eating crowd that
one finds everywhere in China. Everybody is glad to give the newcomer
information or a match; the inimitable, gentle Peking old men with their
pairs of walnuts in their right hands which they roll around to keep
their fingers supple for writing Chinese characters, drink tea, and smoke
pewter water pipes, smiling the carefree smile that old age has graven
on their faces. Waiters are continually walking around, jostling the
spectators and shouting the merits of their tobacco, candy, fruit or what
not, and depositing teapots and steaming dishes of food wherever they
are wanted. The most spectacular thing is the manner in which the towels
arrive. One waiter throws them to the other in tightly wrapped bundles,
the pitcher standing near the entrance and the catcher near the stage
or wherever people need to wipe their hands and faces. In hurling these
bundles they show an unfailing aim and in catching they never miss. Even
though one of these soggy masses of steaming cloth seems headed straight
for your face, you need not dodge, for without fail a waiter’s hand will
always be stretched out to catch it and all that the drama lover will
ever suffer is to have a fine mist sprinkled over his face. Needless to
say for this he neither expects nor receives any sympathy—not even a
passing notice. A great many soldiers—about whom the Chinese says the
worst thing he can think of, that they are “rough”—are admitted free, not
because the manager is exceedingly patriotic, but because he thinks that
discretion is better than having the door kicked in. In the gallery are
seated the women, also eating, drinking, smoking and chattering. How much
attention does this audience pay to the play? About as much as we do to
the music in a restaurant. They don’t come for a few hours’ excitement,
they come to pass the day that hangs heavy on their hands. As one French
returned student put it, “In Europe one works during the day and amuses
oneself at night; in China one amuses oneself during the day and sleeps
at night.”


From Jacovleff, “Le Théâtre Chinois”]

The returned student finds the Chinese theater very little to his taste,
but yet he goes because Chinese social life is so dull that there is
nothing better to do. Comforts in our sense are lacking absolutely in
these theaters. You sit on stools without backs, your feet rest on stone
slabs when the thermometer is hovering about zero and the cold wind is
blowing down on Peking from Mongolia; there is absolutely no effort
at heating or ventilation—it is Chinese animal heat that keeps the
spectators comfortable and in a frame of mind to enjoy the performance.
Yet these discomforts are felt only by those used to Western standards of
life, for nine out of ten who leave the theater after the last villain
has been duly punished go to houses that are likewise unheated and have
no light, no agreeable company, and of course no play to charm the soul
away from reality.

Peking is the real center of Chinese drama, the city that sets the
style for the rest of the country so far as native drama is concerned.
Innovations of Occidental nature generally have their origin in
Shanghai and are adopted later on in Peking; such imitations of Western
institutions are, for example, the amusement arcades called in both
cities “The New World”; boxes in the theaters in which men and women
sit together; and, of course, motion pictures, at first imported from
Europe and America, but in recent years manufactured by Chinese firms in
China. But as regards the native theater, Shanghai learns from Peking.
The language of the theater, in general, is the Peking dialect spoken
by actors all over China. Famous actors from Peking regularly visit
Shanghai. It is only in Peking and the treaty ports that regular theaters
exist. The vast majority of the four hundred million also have their
plays, but they are dependent for them on traveling companies, that set
up their mat-shed theaters wherever the citizens are willing to pay them
for acting. Thus the political capital Peking is also the leading city
for Chinese drama.

The eight hundred thousand residents of Peking have, according to Mr.
Gamble’s recently published social survey, twenty-two regular theaters
and eight mat-shed theaters; that is, portable buildings covered with
matting. Furthermore, there are some nine restaurants, provincial
halls, and temples where theatrical performances are regularly given.
It is customary to mark all big weddings, funerals, banquets, charity
events, and other festivities by theatricals for which the services of
professionals are engaged or in which the many eager amateurs are given
opportunities to appear in public. Most of the large buildings,—temples,
guildhalls, palaces, etc.—are equipped with the simple projecting stages,
either inside a large hall or out of doors in a courtyard. If you happen
to live near a restaurant or a temple you will be able to speak feelingly
of the love of the Chinese for theatricals!

The business organization of the Chinese theater is the same as that
which obtained in Elizabethan playhouses. Our theater owner-manager
of to-day who selects a play, determines the manner in which it is to
be staged and played, and then engages actors to do what he pays them
for—this enemy of real art and _bête noire_ of the theater uplifters can
be found neither in Elizabethan England nor in the Chinese theater. In
staging and acting the company of players has entire freedom in China,
just as it had in London. The theater-owner (quite like the “housekeeper”
of Shakespeare’s day) engages a troupe to play in his theater, but he
never dreams of interfering with the actor’s art. The Chinese call him
the “behind-the-curtain” while the actors are the “before-the-curtain.”
The former receives thirty per cent. of the income, while seventy per
cent, goes to the manager of the company, who then pays the salaries
of his actors. Some of these troupes or actors’ clubs are of a rather
democratic nature, because all the actors belong to their guild. The
actors’ guild has its special temple just outside the Hata Gate, for the
actors are religious folk—much as are the members of most guilds in China.

In this temple the actors worship three deities, or rather deified men.
The first of these is Kuan Yu (Yo Fei), the god of war, during his
lifetime a great fighter against the Chin Tartars in the course of the
twelfth century. There is a well-known play that sets forth the high
qualities of this hero. Though he had been dismissed by the emperor as
the result of a court intrigue, yet he refused to join the rebels, no
matter how tempting the offers they made him, but remained loyal to his
emperor. His mother was so pleased at this that she tattooed on his back:
“He repays the state with loyalty and integrity.” Later on the emperor
reinstated him in his high honors and placed his mother’s inscription on
the banner of the army.[22]

The second deity is the T’ang Dynasty emperor mentioned in the first
chapter as the traditional founder of the theater, T’ang Ming Huang. In
his “Pear Garden” school for actors he is said himself to have acted the
rôle of the clown. It is for this reason that the clown enjoys special
privileges; for example, he is the first one to receive the attention of
the make-up artist, while other actors must wait until the clown has had
his turn; and he may sit on any actor’s box in the greenroom. It is the
clown, furthermore, who burns the incense before the idols found in every
theater on the rear wall just opposite the stage and in the dressing
room. Such a little religious ceremony is carried out before and after
every performance to ward off bad luck. Another feature of the theater
that impresses us as being typically Chinese is found in the boards
placed at the rear of the stage and on the two supporting columns on
which are found inscriptions, generally in gilt characters, setting forth
the high moral purpose of the stage. In comparing these mottoes with what
is being presented on the stage one is often reminded of the saying of
the Reverend Arthur Smith, that no one _knows_ so well as the Chinese
what is fitting and proper.

The third deity is Lin Ming-ju, generally pictured as a little boy. This
noble youth was a pupil in the “Pear Garden”, and all who were friendly
to him made rapid progress in their art. Hence they realized gradually
that he was a god. Like other well-known gods he afterwards disappeared
in a sudden and miraculous manner. Because the second part of this god’s
name is the word for dream, actors never speak of their dreams in the

But religion does not mean to the actors merely the burning of incense or
the making of an annual pilgrimage to Miao Feng Shan, two days’ journey
from Peking. There is a definite tradition that an actor must show filial
piety. Whenever he undertakes something out of the ordinary, such as
perhaps accepting a contract to act in Shanghai, he must first ask his
mother’s permission. I asked repeatedly about this custom, and learned
not a reason for it, but simply the fact that if an actor did not ask his
mother’s permission he would be laughed at. Often it is the mother who
makes the contract and receives most of the money. Of a certain rising
actor it is said that his mother never allows him to act unless he is to
receive twenty dollars for each performance.

In the fairly democratic China of the imperial times the son of the
poorest man could rise to the position of viceroy of a province by virtue
of passing a brilliant literary examination—and if we are to believe
Chinese playwrights he often did. However, the actor, together with
the son of the prostitute, and one or two other despised classes, was
debarred from these examinations. Of course, with the discontinuance of
the examinations in 1907 and the establishment of the republic in 1912,
these disqualifications dropped away. Socially the position of the actor
is improving rapidly nowadays. For example, in July, 1922, the son of
a high official of Shantung Province married the actress Li Feng-yün.
Far from being ashamed of her profession, she acted several plays on her
wedding day as part of the festivities of the occasion. However, she
abandoned her professional career on becoming the wife of this wealthy
man. The fact that she was the first wife was the remarkable thing to
the Chinese who spoke to me of the event; for that an actress becomes
the concubine of a rich official is almost an everyday occurrence in
Peking. Progress along such lines is not a unique or surprising thing in
China; to mention but one example, coeducation has come into being since
1919, almost overnight, so to speak, with surprisingly little opposition.
Actresses were forbidden on Chinese stages during the days of the Manchu
Dynasty, but since 1912 their number has increased rapidly so that
they are appearing now on eleven stages in Peking. Only in the foreign
concessions of such treaty ports as Tientsin and Shanghai do men and
women appear together on the stage, however; in Peking, Chinese prudery
still forbids this.

There is a current notion that Chinese plays last a week or a lunar
month, but as a matter of fact about a dozen plays, or separate acts
taken from different plays, are given in one performance. Toward the end
of the afternoon’s or evening’s entertainment the spectator may observe
that some long strips of red paper covered with Chinese characters in
black ink are removed from the two side railings of the balcony and
others substituted in their place. In this manner the program of the
following day is announced. The performances generally last from noon
to about six and from seven in the evening until midnight. The best
plays with the stars are reserved until the last, while dull, long plays
with inferior actors generally begin the program. These poor actors are
often retained merely for charity’s sake; often, too, famous actors give
benefits for their less fortunate colleagues. In Shanghai actors get
monthly contracts; but in Peking the minor actors are hired by the day,
and some of them must play in several theaters in one afternoon in order
to eke out a meager living at about twenty coppers a day.

Men of this type, of course, are hardly more than “supers.” Regular
actors on the average earn about one dollar a day, while some of a higher
grade receive five dollars to ten dollars. To receive twenty-five dollars
for a regular performance a man must be quite prominent in the theatrical
world. A few stars, like Mei Lan-fang and Yang Hsiao-lo, receive one
hundred dollars for each regular performance, and considerably more when
they act at banquets or on other special occasions.

The charges in the theaters depend on the type of theater and even more
on the actors. Theaters where women or boys appear as actors are lower in
price. There is no ticket or money demanded as one enters the theater,
but the price is collected by the usher when he seats the spectator.
In the ordinary theater one can sit at a comfortable table for forty
cents or in a box for a dollar and a half. There are two large theaters
in Peking built in Occidental style with receding stages, in which the
prices are somewhat higher: eighty cents for a first-class seat and nine
dollars for a box seating eight persons. When a star is playing, these
prices are augmented somewhat. The poorer classes can enjoy theatrical
performances for five coppers by going to the mat-shed theaters. The
average seating capacity of a Peking theater is about a thousand, and the
average attendance is very near this figure, if not above it.

The course of an actor’s training is an extremely hard one. For
seven years he is instructed in singing and acrobatics, and then he
begins to play in some of the boys’ theaters, institutions connected
with the training schools for actors. During the longest part of his
apprenticeship he receives no wages, he has long hours, menial tasks, and
severe taskmasters. Actresses are trained by special private teachers
and their courses have not yet become so uniform as have those for the
men. The police have very strict regulations to prevent actresses from
becoming prostitutes, but according to Mr. Gamble, in some theaters
women from the licensed quarter appear, make engagements after giving
their acts, and do some other soliciting. The connection between the
lower-grade theaters and the segregated district is rather close.

In order to give an idea of the different kinds of theaters one
encounters in Peking, I can do no better than to describe several typical
entertainments from my notes stretching over five years. There is in the
Southern City, for example, the Tung Lo Yuan, a fine specimen of the
old-style Chinese theater. No women are allowed to visit this theater—not
because of immoralities, but simply because the place is conservative.
The seats run at right angles to the stage, along tables, showing that
people come to hear the music rather than to observe the action on the
stage. I paid twenty-four coppers for my seat in the balcony; the usual
price in this theater is eighteen coppers, but because Han Hsi-ch’ang was
going to act, the price was raised on that particular day. After a series
of plays dealing with murders and robberies, in the course of which the
audience gloated over the shuddering and weeping of the victims, there
came the chief play of the day—a Yuan Dynasty drama revived in this

The play deals with a poor woodcutter and his wife. The hero takes no
interest in his humble calling; in fact, he neglects it for the study of
literature. Since he does not support his wife, she deserts him for a
smith. Finally the husband goes to Peking for the literary examination
and passes with honors. When the wife learns that her first husband is
to become a mandarin she is filled with joy; she sits down at a table,
falls asleep, and has a wonderful dream. The dream is portrayed just as
it would be in our moving pictures; a conventional symbol, a short pause
in the action and the tapping of the drum, indicates to the audience
that there is going to be a dream, and then the dream action continues
in the same way in which the rest of the play had gone on. A number of
men—recalling the Wise Men of the East—enter, bringing all manner of
silk robes, headdresses, and other rich gifts for the lady. In her dream
the faithless wife sees all this; she tries on her robes, shows them off
to the neighbors, and glories in her riches. Then she returns to her
sleeping position at the table and awakens to find that all had been a
dream. In the fourth act the husband returns, dressed in embroidered
robes, a prosperous mandarin. He pours a cup of water on the ground,
saying that he will take his wife back provided she can gather up the
water again. From this play comes the proverbial expression, “Water once
spilled cannot be gathered up again”, which means, of course, that a wife
who has been unfaithful cannot be taken back by the husband.

According to the custom of Chinese theaters only one act was presented;
it was the third act, the dream, that I saw. The too-severe strain on
the chief actor who must sing very long arias is generally given as
the reason why plays are not presented in their entirety. Sometimes
when an entire play is presented—this is frequently done at guildhalls
and other private theatricals—three or four actors in turn play the
leading rôle. The actor portrayed exceedingly well the wife’s emotions
of joy, surprise, and pride. He wore a black dress, because this is
the conventional color for the poor, although it was made of fine silk
instead of the cotton which is actually worn by the masses. In the
old-style Chinese music (called _kuan-ch’ang_) the flute is the leading
instrument and the strains are melodious and sweet, not at all offensive
to the foreigner’s ear as is a great deal of the modern music.

One evening I was the guest of Mr. Chang Ziang-ling, the present Chinese
Consul-General in New York, at a performance by Mei Lan-fang in the
so-called First Theater, a large playhouse built in European style.
The usher took us to two good seats near the stage occupied by two
ragamuffins, and asked the latter to give up their seats to us. Mr. Chang
then paid him two dollars for two seventy-cent seats and explained that
it is a little graft on the part of the ushers to place vagabonds in good
seats until people who they know will tip them come to the theater.

The play again was a Yuan drama called “Snow in June”; a play discussed
in a previous chapter under the title, “The Sufferings of Tou-E.” Mei
Lan-fang is introducing many innovations into the manner of producing
plays, turning the stage into a veritable riot of colors selected
with exquisite taste. The rear of the stage is covered by a curtain
painted with plum blossoms and chrysanthemums in allusion to two of the
characters of his name. The executioners, dressed in rich red trousers
lined with white, come on the stage leading in their midst the victim
wearing a long robe of a delicate shade of light blue. Some of the
executioners have their faces painted in vivid reds and blacks; I find
that this adds a great deal to the spectacle, even though it is the
very opposite of realism. To illustrate the sort of gagging constantly
practiced by Chinese actors I might quote what the judge says to the
prisoner: “What! One so young as you is accused of having committed a
murder? For this you will be beheaded. Let that be a lesson to you not
to do it again.” Such a feeble joke in the face of the innocent young
victim is, of course, just as fitting as many calembours in Shakespeare’s
tragedies. After the execution snow falls; that is, bits of paper are
tossed down from above. All in all the staging of the play is most
agreeable and Mei Lan-fang’s acting is extremely good.

Quite a different performance can be observed in one of the “new”
theaters, a blight which has come to Peking via Shanghai. One evening I
went to the one in the “New World”, a four-story concrete building, an
amusement palace offering for the single admission fee of thirty cents,
old-style plays, “new” drama, story-tellers, singsong girls, moving
pictures, performances by acrobats, jugglers, and sword-swallowers,
restaurants both for foreign and Chinese food, tea room, billiard tables,
and bowling alleys, convex and concave mirrors, and penny slotmachines
showing pictures of various sorts. (“A number of these pictures were
of rather coarse nature,” observes Mr. Sidney Gamble in his “Peking, A
Social Survey”, “but none of them could be called immoral.”) My goal was
the “new” theater, namely plays staged in what the Chinese fondly believe
to be the manner of the Occidental theaters. Before a very crowded
auditorium a play was being performed by actors dressed in European
style, or perhaps better, the style of the mail-order-house type of
clothing. The play was in spoken Chinese, and no music accompanied the
action. Only in the intermissions between the rather short scenes the
band from the Boys’ Industrial School, sitting in a corner in the rear of
the hall, played “John Brown’s Body” and other appropriate dirges.

The play dealt with a woman who had lured men into her house in order to
have them robbed there by her accomplices. This woman was dressed in a
red silk waist and a lavender skirt; she no doubt seemed very Western to
the audience, because she wore a corset and allowed the contour of her
body to show instead of being bound so as to look flat-chested like the
Chinese women. The part, however, was acted by a man who spoke in a high
falsetto. There was a great deal of love-making of a kind unknown to the
Chinese stage—the men kissed the woman’s hand and even put their arms
about her. At times the vampire left the stage for a short time with
one of the victims, in a significant manner. Most applause was accorded
the actor who played the ruffian, when he strode “toughly” across the
stage with his coat collar turned up and his cap pulled down over his
eyes. By way of giving a good imitation of the manners of Europeans the
actors, when speaking to the lady, consistently took off their coats,
held them on their arms, and displayed brand-new red suspenders! The
scenery was changed with every act and showed crude imitations of our
painted interiors or street scenes with lamp posts. The play was endless
and the action extremely slow. This heart-breaking imitation of our worst
melodramas is, I am glad to say, not making the rapid progress it has
made in India, where it has driven out completely the native drama, at
least in Calcutta and Bombay.

As I have stated above, the Chinese stage lacks scenery almost
altogether. Practically the only ornate—and to a certain extent the
most realistic—part of the Chinese theater is found in the costumes. In
regard to the dress of the actors, historical truth, as has been stated,
is observed to a certain extent. The magistrates, the courtiers, the
yamen-runners, the merchants, the doctors, the students, the priests,
the monks and nuns, the matchmakers, and similar characters appear in
appropriate costumes, but usually much more elaborate than they would
be in real life. In the troupe of Mei Lan-fang, Peking’s most famous
actor, the men carrying banners in processions are dressed in silk of
the same color as the cotton gowns which these ragamuffins wear in the
streets of Chinese cities. Honorable personages appear in silk robes in
solid colors: purple, yellow, orange, or red. In the dress of common
soldiers the spectator finds the styles of the various periods followed
with historical accuracy, but the dress of great warriors is fanciful and
highly ornamented. These peacocks of the Chinese stage with their feather
headdress, their painted faces, and their richly embroidered gowns
studded with little mirrors, are the most colorful sights in the theater.
Such warriors wear shoes with thick soles, thus adding about three or
four inches to their natural height, a touch recalling the _soccus_ of
the classical theater. The peculiarly slit-eyed expression of the warrior
is achieved by binding a strip of silk tightly about the head, pulling up
the eyebrows.

A conception of the immense popularity on the Chinese stage of the
warrior performing acrobatics signifying tremendous battles can be gained
from the Chinese classification of plays. One of the two main divisions
is the _wu-hsi_ or fighting play, involving very little plot and almost
continuous acrobatics or “fighting.” The other main division is the
_wen-hsi_ or civil play, which is practically the same thing we mean
by the term drama. In general, the two kinds of plays alternate in the
course of the performances so that each division makes up about fifty per
cent. of the plays presented. Westerners are frequently surprised that
the Chinese do not make the division into comedy and tragedy, but it may
be well to recall that even with us this differentiation is a floating
conception. Practically all the divisions mentioned in “Hamlet” could be
matched on the Chinese stage; historical, comical, tragical, pastoral,
and so on. The Chinese have farces called _nao-hsi_ (noise plays) and
_fen-hsi_ (painted, make-up plays), both full of comical and burlesque
elements. The only difference between them is, an old Peking resident has
observed, that the latter excel the former in obscenity.[23]


1—_Shou._ 2—_Ti-tze._ 3—_Peng-ku._ 4—_Hu-ch’in._ 5—_Ch’a._ 6—_La-pa._]

A cross division of the above classification is found in the distinction
drawn between plays according to the style of music employed;
_kuan-ch’ü_, _er-huang_, _hsi-p’i_, and _pan-tzu_. Among them only the
first mentioned has an appeal to literary men, while the other three
are considered fit for the mob only. The _kuan-ch’ü_ music is a real
Chinese product descended from the classical plays of the Yuan Dynasty.
It flourished during the Ming Dynasty, but during the Ch’ing rule it
fell into desuetude until at the time of the late Dowager Empress it
had entirely passed out of fashion. In the last decades there have been
made fairly successful efforts to revive it, especially on the part of
Mei Lan-fang. The chief instrument in this style of music is the flute.
_Er-huang_ and _hsi-p’i_ are very similar. Both styles came to Peking
from the province of Hupeh at the beginning of the Ch’ing Dynasty,
and in both the _hu-ch’in_, a string instrument with a sounding-box
played by a bow, gives the characteristic touch to the music. These two
styles, together with the _pan-tzu_, are considered rather vulgar music,
especially the _pan-tzu_. This latter style came to Peking from the
province of Shansi, where the barbarian Mongol blood predominates in the
population over the purer Chinese strain. The _hu-ch’in_ is also played
in _pan-tzu_; but the instrument that gives the name as well as the
character to this style is a wooden board held in one hand by a member of
the orchestra and beaten with the other to indicate the rhythm. As can be
gathered from this fact, the music is very simple and primitive.

In addition to the instruments mentioned above there are various others
employed by the orchestra sitting on the stage. On the whole the
instruments are practically the same for all kinds of music. They are
shown in the accompanying illustrations drawn for me by a Chinese artist.
The _hsien-tzu_ is a sort of three-stringed banjo, the sounding box
of which is covered with a snake skin. The _yüeh-ch’in_ (moon guitar)
has four strings and a wooden sounding-box. Other wind instruments in
addition to the _ti-tzu_ (flute) are the _shou_, resembling somewhat a
bagpipe, and the _la-pa_, a brass horn used to announce the entry of
great military personages. Instruments of percussion outnumber those of
other varieties. The _ch’iao-pan_ are two flat boards tied together
with a string, used by the leader of the orchestra to indicate the time.
The _t’ang-ku_ is a brass plate beaten furiously in battle scenes, as
are also the _lo_ and the _ch’a_ (cymbals). The _peng-ku_ is a drum
made of a solid block of wood which gives piercing, high notes when
beaten in a whirlwind tattoo by means of two thin sticks. The _ku_ has
a leather drumhead and resembles somewhat our kettledrum. It should be
noted that the size of the orchestra and the kind of instruments employed
vary a great deal. However, the above may serve to give an approximate
conception of the Chinese theater music. Just as in much of our own
earlier drama, emotional or poetic passages are sung by the actors on the
Peking stage.


1—_Hsien-tze._ 2—_Ku._ 3—_Yüeh-ch’in._ 4—_Chiao-pan_ or _pan-tze_.

Another striking similarity to the European medieval theater is the fact
that the Chinese stage has its fixed character types. The four most
important among these, called the _t’ai chih_ or pillars of the stage,
are: 1, the _cheng-sheng_; 2, the _wu-sheng_; 3, the _ching-i_; 4, the
_hua-tan_. Each company must always have its best actors among these
four, because one of them is sure to be the star in the play.

The _cheng-sheng_ is an elderly man wearing a long beard. The great
actor T’an Shen-pei, who died about five years ago, but whose fame lives
on in his many imitators, played this part. It comprises the rôles of
emperors, generals, and also old faithful servants, the latter generally
characters oppressed by grief. T’an Shen-pei, who became the founder
of a tradition called the _t’an-p’ai_, was famous for his skill in
acting, his fine singing, and his distinct, measured pronunciation.
Among his most famous followers are Yü Ssu-yen and T’an Hsiao-sheng,
the latter one of his sons. A related type is the _hsiao-sheng_, a
youthful civilian or military character, frequently the young scholar
who plays the part of the lover. The young military hero is called the
_ch’ü-fei-sheng_ (wearing pheasant feathers) and the young scholar and
lover _shan-tze-sheng_ (carrying a fan). Chu Su-yung is the most famous
_hsiao-sheng_ in Peking at present. He has been nicknamed the “living
Chou Yü”, after a hero from the ancient tale of “The Three Kingdoms”
whom he frequently impersonates upon the stage. Mei Lan-fang has found
in the handsome Chang Miao-shang a very satisfactory partner for his
romantic plays. This young man, who acts the part of the ardent lover to
perfection, has the probably unique distinction among actors of being
the product of a Christian missionary school, the Peking Methodist
Academy. The Chinese criticize the weakness of his voice and say that his
reputation is due only to the fact that he plays opposite the greatest
actor of the present day in China.

The _wu-sheng_ is the military hero. To impersonate this rôle properly
an actor must be very skillful in the art of stage fighting, which means
that he must possess great acrobatic skill. He must understand how to
fence with wooden stage swords or spears, and furthermore how to box.
Chinese boxing has nothing whatever to do with the bloodthirsty Boxers of
1900, for the latter received their name through a misunderstanding. It
is, on the other hand, a most inoffensive art, consisting of a series of
poses rapidly and skillfully executed. I believe that formerly it was a
method of fighting, but that it has become thoroughly conventionalized at
present into a system of posturing and rapid movements.

For a gorgeous riot of color one might recommend a play acted by Yang
Hsiao-lou, Peking’s most famous actor of military plays, who is beginning
to command the same salary as Mei Lan-fang. He is known not only for his
ability in fighting, but also because he can sing well and enunciate
very clearly. The tourist can tell the home folks that he has seen
something if he has watched Yang Hsiao-lou with a face painted in heavy
reds and blues, wearing tall feathers on his head, dressed in a garment
embroidered in rich colors and studded with little mirrors, mounted
on shoes with very thick soles, strutting about the stage in martial
attitude, and finally engaging in combat a similarly dressed hero to
the end that both whirl about the stage with lightning speed, while the
orchestra supplies the excitement by means of a terrific noise which
threatens to take the roof off the building. It makes a truly exciting
spectacle of which even an untrained Westerner can feel the thrill.

The two types of _ching-i_ and _hua-tan_ are both young women characters.
The difference made between them is that the former represents an honest
and simple girl generally playing a sad part in which great emphasis is
placed on the singing, while the _hua-tan_ represents a woman of doubtful
reputation or a maid servant in a comedy part, requiring great skill in
acting. It is one of the merits of Mei Lan-fang that he acts both types
and thus breaks down one of the stiff rules of the Chinese theater in
the interest of developing it into a freer art. Indeed, for over ten
years he has been the supreme artist in both types. It is said of him by
Peking critics that he sings as beautifully as a nightingale, that he
has a pretty face, that he dances gracefully, and that his acting, in
the Chinese simile, is like quicksilver which fills up every crevice and
crack of a hole into which it is poured—that is to say, satisfying to
the last detail. Teh Hing, a man over sixty years old, is another famous
_ching-i_; however, he scorns to play the rôle of the _hua-tan_, the
flowery maiden who treads the primrose path. Still another type in which
Mei Lan-fang appears at times is that of _wu-tan_, or warrior maiden, a
rôle comparatively rarely seen.

[Illustration: A DEMI-MONDAINE

Chinese Character Type]

For some of the best make-ups and the most natural action on the Chinese
stage one ought to see men playing the part of _lao-tan_, or old
woman. I have frequently found it difficult to believe that it was a
man who appeared with the sorrowful, lined face, the black headdress,
tottering along with the stiff walk engendered by bound feet, leaning
on a tall staff with a carved handle, and all in all giving a perfect
representation of a _lao-t’ai-t’ai_ (old lady). Very touching bits often
appear in plays in which an old woman in her broken voice bewails the
loss of a son, her only support in life. Among other minor types are
found the _lao-sheng_ (old man), the _ta-ching_ (male part, either wicked
or honest—his character is indicated by the style of face-painting he
wears), and the _er-hua-mien_ (usually a robber). In addition to these
there are an infinite number of other possible parts; for example one
sees not infrequently various wild and domestic animals interpreted in
very droll make-ups that recall Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

A very important type is the _ch’ou_, the clown, as much an institution
on the Chinese stage as he was on that of our Middle Ages. It is very
difficult, Chinese critics say, to become a famous clown. The part of the
clown consists largely of improvisation, but it is quite risky for him
to be as funny as he can. He is permitted topical allusions, but he must
gauge carefully the mood of the audience. I remember one quite successful
hit. In a certain play a husband returns after an absence of ten years
and finds his wife and son in good health, but with an added blessing
of Heaven in the shape of a one-year-old boy. He berates his wife for
her infidelity and exclaims, “Who could have done me such a turn?” At
that moment the clown leaped to the edge of the stage shouting, “It was
he!” and allowed his pointing finger to sweep slowly across the sleek,
blushing faces of the row of rich merchants in the front seats.

It may seem surprising that I speak so glibly of the “best” actors among
the various types, but I should hasten to state that this is a matter in
which I do not give my own judgment but the result of popular balloting.
A Peking newspaper holds an annual vote for the best actors among each
rubric, and the judgment of the readers of this journal is generally
accepted among theatergoers. Although the daily papers are an innovation
in Peking, perhaps less than twenty years old, yet many of them have
their theatrical critics who “puff” actors and more often actresses for
other reasons than for art’s sake. Press-agenting is far from being
an unknown art in the Middle Kingdom. Much of the writing is done by
students of the National University who earn a little extra money by this
means. The most picturesque among the Peking critics is a Japanese called
by his Chinese name, T’ing Hua. For the last twenty years he has devoted
himself to the Chinese theater heart and soul, and shows his devotion
by adopting orphans whom he gives a schooling as actors. T’ing Hua has
over twenty such “sons”, one of whom is becoming very famous, especially
in the _Shun T’ien Shih Pao_, the paper for which father writes. Yet in
spite of all touting the vote reflects the popular feeling, especially
as regards Mei Lan-fang and Yang Hsiao-lou, the most famous interpreters
of the rôles of young girl and military hero respectively.

Theaters on a commercial basis are also practically a new thing in China;
that is to say something that has developed on a large scale only within
the last twenty years. Before that time theatrical performances were
given mostly at temples or harvest festivals, at the houses of rich men,
and, most elaborately, at the imperial court. As a sign of the times I
should like to quote an item clipped from the _Peking Daily News_ of
June 28, 1922. The article tells of a meeting of the representatives
of Peking’s five thousand blind men held in a temple. The end of the
paragraph I shall quote verbatim in the English of the Chinese translator:

    Among the business matters discussed was the organization of a
    blind man’s association for the purpose of carrying on their
    trade effectively. The usual crafts of the blind men in Peking
    are singing and fortune telling, but conditions have gradually
    changed, whereby theaters are established everywhere, popular
    education has paralyzed superstition, so now their crafts are
    generally getting out of date, and thereby need reformation.

But the Peking police force, perhaps the best in the world, has drawn
up full regulations, which are adequate for preserving order in the
playhouses that have multiplied so rapidly in the capital. Each company
must be registered, must pay a tax of five dollars for each performance,
must reserve certain seats for policemen who keep order, must not crowd
extra seats into the aisles, must avoid immoral plays, must submit all
new plays to the police, and must apprise the police beforehand of
every performance to be held. The ordinance requiring the separation of
the sexes in the theater is an Eastern touch that is sure to impress
Occidentals—who have forgotten that in Shakespeare’s day also women were
confined to the gallery. Peking police rules demand that the ushers and
tea-venders in the galleries must also be women and that these galleries
must have their separate exits. The rule that spectators are forbidden to
sit on the stage also recalls Elizabethan manners. One can read in these
police regulations:

    If the program has been changed and the spectators start a
    protest by throwing teacups at the actors, these disturbers of
    the peace must be arrested and conducted to the nearest police

There is, however, very little disturbance in the theaters; at least
I have never seen the least sign of a fight or quarrel among the
spectators. Actors on the stage are forbidden to curse and are fined if
they do so. The hours for the performances are fixed from twelve noon
to five in winter and spring, and from noon to six in summer and fall,
while all evening performances must end at midnight. The latter are an
innovation at Peking and are taxed more heavily than the regular daytime
performances. There is also a ruling aimed against “claques” which
forbids too boisterous applause.

On one occasion when I took some New Yorkers to see Mei Lan-fang in the
rôle of “Yang Kuei-fei on a Spree”, one of my guests exclaimed, “If this
play is permitted, I wonder what kind of plays the police forbid!” The
obliging Chinese police have supplied me not only with the regulations
for theaters, but also with the list of forbidden plays. Naturally enough
gross immorality realistically presented is forbidden. There is no
question of the display of nudity; it never occurs and, I believe, would
hold little appeal for a Chinese audience. Some of the plays forbidden
are rather interesting.

There is the “Shang Ting Chi” (Ruse of the Nail). A wife killed her
husband because she was in love with another man. The police were
unable to learn the cause of the man’s sudden death, but the examining
magistrate was told by his superior that he must fathom the mystery or
be himself beheaded. When he went home sorrowfully to tell his wife of
his plight, the latter asked whether he had examined the part of the head
covered with hair. The officer hastened to investigate the back of the
victim’s head and found that a nail had been driven into it. When the
superior learned of this he ordered the officer’s wife to be arrested.
She confessed that she had known of the ruse because she had put her
former husband to death by driving a nail into his head and braiding the
queue over the wound. Thereupon both women were put to death. The play
is forbidden lest women learn how to rid themselves of their husbands!

Another forbidden play is “Sha Tze Pao”, the story of a young woman who
loved a monk. One day her young son discovered them _in flagranti_. The
mother feared that the boy would tell of her shame and therefore she
killed him. His sister suspected a crime, told the boy’s teacher about
it, and he in turn reported it to the authorities. As a result, both the
woman and the monk were put to death. The play is based on an actual
incident that happened in the province of Hunan about forty years ago.
The sister, later in life, at one time visited a theater where this very
play was being staged and received a shock comparable to the one an
honest son of a famous murderer might receive if he went to visit Madame
Tussaud’s Waxworks and suddenly beheld his own father reënacting his
crime in wax. The Chinese authorities forbid the play because the killing
of the child by the mother is realistically acted out. The mother’s face
is covered with blood as she cuts the body into many pieces and places
them in a wine vat. It is a curious thing that on the Chinese stage where
fixed conventions leave so much to the imagination one finds occasionally
the most revolting realism in plays of the “shuddering” variety. I have
seen, for example, the victim of an assault dragging his entrails across
the stage—a nauseating imitation of the real thing. The Chinese love
their “horrors” just as much as our medieval ancestors did.

It is a custom on the Chinese stage to play on the occasion of various
seasonal festivals pieces pertaining to the holiday in question. The best
known of the seasonal plays is perhaps the “Ta Yin Ho” (Crossing the
Milky Way), played on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese
calendar, that is to say, generally some time during our month of July.
This story is an old legend, varying somewhat in different versions,
related in the quotation from William Stanton in Chapter One, where Yang
Kuei-fei in the T’ang Dynasty makes allusion to it. It can be seen on a
number of stages in Peking at the time of this festival, and is staged in
an especially colorful manner by Mei Lan-fang.

The same actor plays another mythological fancy on the occasion of the
mid-autumn festival, “Ch’ang-O Pin Yüeh” (Ch’ang-O’s Flight to the
Moon).[24] This custom of seasonal plays shows a very close connection
existing between the popular beliefs and the theater which recalls in a
manner the medieval mysteries of the Easter and Christmas seasons. The
fact that some of the plays have been written within recent years only
indicates that the Chinese theater is in no way declining as a typical
Chinese institution, as is, for example, the popular theater of India.
What the visitor sees in the native theaters of Calcutta or Bombay, as
has been stated above, is a diluted imitation of our weakest and worst
melodrama with all its mannerisms. In contrast to this the Chinese
theater of Peking is continuing as a living popular art, introducing some
external features from our stage, but on the whole remaining true to its
own genius.




To the average Occidental the Chinese stage appears a very queer
institution with ridiculous customs. This is due largely to the fact
that in the Chinese make-believe world the conventions differ from those
employed by us on the stages where we mock life. We accept our own stage
conventions as something so natural that habit permits us to forget the
strangeness of the devices employed. How many Americans among those who
have been under the spell of the realistic action of “The Bat” have
thought of the fact that the characters were at all times moving about
in rooms with only three walls, that darkness was symbolized by lights
carried by the actors, that the attic in the country home of the astute
spinster was lighted by footlights, and that an actor who had been killed
appeared a moment later for a curtain call? And if in a play that has
been pushed approximately to the extreme of realism, an unsophisticated
rustic on his first visit to New York might discover the above-mentioned
ridiculous customs, what might his comments be on the fact that
Mephistopheles sings melodiously in encouraging Faust to fight for his
life, that stage whispers are heard by every one in the house except the
one person most in need of hearing them, that a flimsy canvas door can
shut out a stout villain, or that the last words of a dying man reach to
the very highest seat in the top gallery?

Thus it would seem that any one who laughs at the conventions of the
Chinese stage simply displays his provincialism. Our forefathers
tolerated almost the identical conventions on the medieval stage, as I
have shown at length in Chapter Nine. Moreover, it is a very striking
fact that there is in many of our theaters at present an extreme reaction
against a minute and pedantic imitation on the stage of the realities of
everyday life. Because it is felt that too much attention to external
things deadens the imagination of the spectators, stage managers of
to-day are beginning to prefer once more a conventional presentation.

As a Westerner learns to recognize the conventions of the Chinese stage
he quickly becomes used to them, and soon he is as little disturbed by
the make-believe of the Oriental theater as he had been before by that
of the Occidental. He is then ready to appreciate the art of the Chinese
actor, which runs the gamut of human emotions quite as fully as that of
the great actors of the West. He must know, however, that the rug on
the floor of the projecting, curtainless stage is a magic carpet which
carries the actors without change of scenery from Mongolia to Tibet,
from the market place to the audience hall in the palace, or from the
forest to the prison by the simple device on the actor’s part of walking
once or twice about the stage or of exiting and reappearing immediately
afterward. The stage has two doors; the one at the spectators’ left is
generally used for entrances and the one at the right for exits. However,
at times the door at the left is also used for exits, if the actor wishes
to indicate that he is not leaving the house or is otherwise remaining
in the immediate vicinity. The crossing of a doorsill is presented by
raising the feet about eight inches off the floor in making the steps. To
open or close a door the actor raises both hands and makes the pantomime
of drawing a bolt and moving a door. Slow steps in which the feet are
raised well off the floor show that the actor is walking up a stairway.
When a general ascends a hill to review a battle he mounts on a chair or
table. If a mountain is to be crossed, a similar pantomime is performed.
That a man is on horseback is shown by the fact that he carries a riding
whip. When he mounts he takes the whip and raises one leg in a movement
intended to imitate the action of leaping into the saddle, and when he
dismounts he hands the whip to an attendant with a similarly appropriate
movement. When the groom leads off the horse he pulls after him the
seemingly refractory whip. Sometimes these actions attain a touch of
realism, but generally they are—in better taste—confined to quite
conventionalized movements. Frequently they escape the newcomer entirely.

A mandarin arriving in a chair walks on the stage surrounded by four
attendants, who make a stooping movement such as chair-bearers might
make by way of setting down the imaginary palanquin. A lady traveling in
a carriage carries with the aid of a servant two pieces of canvas about
three feet square, on each of which is painted a wheel; the squares of
cloth are supported on bamboo rods, the lady holding the rear ends and
the servant the front ends of the rods as they walk across the stage.
When she descends she makes an appropriate movement, while the servant
folds up and carries off the two painted wheels. Characters who wish to
show that they are riding in a boat indicate this by carrying oars with
which they paddle in the air. If some one is to enter the boat an oar
is stretched out, the new arrival grips it and takes a long step, as
though he were boarding a vessel. A man committing suicide by drowning
performs a leap as though he were jumping into a well and then quickly
runs off the stage. Some commit suicide by throwing themselves down from
a wall, indicating this by leaping off a table or a chair placed on top
of a table, at times falling on their backs in a manner that requires
great acrobatic skill. However, many of the somersaults and similar
feats performed on the stage are simply ornamental, with no symbolic
significance whatever.


The long feathers and the headdress mark the warrior, while the
riding-whip signifies that the general is on horseback]

Stage fighting has been developed in China into an intricate art with
many cut-and-dried conventions and a minimum of realism. The warriors
fly at one another, but they never hit with their swords or spears. The
art consists simply in making quick passes at the opponent, whirling
about rapidly, throwing a weapon into the air and catching it again,
or spinning a spear about much as a drum major does his baton. All the
while the orchestra is playing wild and loud music, the kind that Thomas
Moore’s Mr. Fudge would call the music of the spears, for every tone
seems to go right through you. As neither of the contestants is wounded
or falls down, the spectator learns the issue of the battle from the fact
that the defeated warrior exits first, while his victorious opponent
makes a sort of bow to the audience and then struts off with a dignified
step. Sometimes a spear is thrown at a soldier who catches it and sinks
to the ground clutching it to his breast, denoting that he has been
pierced; then he runs off quickly, a dead man. In stage armies one man
carrying a banner signifies one thousand men.

The stage in Peking theaters is lighted by daylight or by means of huge
arc lamps that illumine the auditorium and the stage alike. Therefore
darkness must be indicated by a conventional symbol, and the same one is
chosen that we have selected in the West, namely, a lighted (sometimes
unlighted) candle, lamp, or lantern. It is hardly necessary to recall
here that even in our most realistically staged plays the darkness on
the stage is only relative and never, except for very brief moments,
absolute. The passing of time at night is indicated by the drummer of the
orchestra, who beats the hours on his kettledrum while otherwise there is
silence on the stage. As the Chinese divide their day into twelve periods
of two hours each, this can be done more quickly than would be the case
if our divisions of time were used and the entire gesture is fairly

High military officers can be recognized readily by the four pheasant
feathers, sometimes as long as six feet, which form part of their
headdress. The Chinese call them “back-protecting feathers”, because they
are supposed to ward off the blows of the enemy swords. In the same way
the painted faces of the warriors can be traced to originally utilitarian
purposes; about a thousand years ago a famous Chinese warrior whose
scholarly face had a very unmartial appearance painted his face in a
gruesome manner in order to inspire fear in the hearts of his enemies.

The manner in which the faces of traditional heroes of war are painted is
an attempt at a conventionalized reproduction of the facial expression of
these terror-inspiring men as they are described in the books of history
or in novels. Therefore it is not possible to give a definite color or
color scheme for warriors. But in some other respects there is a definite
custom. A face painted pure white denotes a wicked person, while no color
on the face means a good character. Pure red designates an honest and
faithful man, gold a heavenly being, and several colors applied unevenly
a robber. The white nose is the mark of the clown. It is interesting to
note that in Chinese clown has likewise the three connotations given for
the word in Webster’s dictionary: rustic, ill-bred, and buffoonish.

Gods and spirits can be recognized by the horsehair switch they carry
whenever they appear and by the slight tapping of the gong as they
enter the stage. The ghosts of the deceased wear black veils over their
heads, or bundles of strips of paper under their right ears. Whenever
any character from the world beyond, god or ghost, appears, fireworks
are set off by a stage hand; usually this takes the form of large flames
emitted repeatedly from an oil lamp. Monks and nuns carry the same
horsehair switch, perhaps because of their “spiritual” lives. A bride can
be recognized by the red veil she wears on her head. Good officials wear
square hats, while wicked officials wear round ones. The wicked jailer in
his round hat is a frequent figure on the Chinese stage.

A strong wind is indicated by the waving of flags, which recalls the fact
that the flags used in our operatic performances are not made of silk as
are ordinary banners, but of stiff material, giving them the appearance
of banners flying in the wind. A snowstorm is produced by flakes of paper
tossed into the air by a stage hand in full view of the audience. A sick
person is designated by a yellow cloth which covers his face. When a
character has died his face is covered with a red cloth. The head of a
decapitated person is symbolized by some object about the size of a human
head, wrapped in red cloth. Sometimes an execution is portrayed by making
a sword thrust at the victim who then runs off the stage, after which his
head is brought on.

For new or exceptional situations new symbols must be invented. There
is a play called “Chu Fang Ts’ao” taken from the novel “The Three
Kingdoms.” It is the story of a guest who hears his host sharpening a
butcher knife and, as he fears the worst, runs off under somewhat amusing
circumstances. However, his host was the very reverse of a robber; he
was in fact slaughtering the fatted pig in honor of the visitor. The
business of slaughtering the pig is done in the following manner: an
actor with a black cloth thrown over his head and back walks on the
stage in a stooping posture, driven forward by another actor’s stick
and making the various deviations from the right path by which a pig in
real life exasperates the swineherd. The actor-pig finally walks up to a
chair on which he can rest his hands in comfort, while the business of
slaughtering is given in pantomime. After this has been done the cloth
is removed and the man, now neither pig nor actor, walks off the stage

The above conventions, which have come under my observation in the
course of my attendance in Chinese theaters, do not by any means
exhaust the list, nor do they represent anything permanent. Changes
are continually occurring. One that I have been observing is that the
long conventionalized beards no longer hang down from the upper lip,
covering the mouth; probably because this was found to be inconvenient
for purposes of speaking or drinking tea, and some one hit upon the idea
of having the beard only below the mouth and of painting in the moustache
to match. Incidentally, only good characters have a moustache, while the
villains of the Chinese stage have no hair on the upper lip. One ought
to note, too, that these conventions are not so arbitrary as they might
seem at first glance, but are generally founded on some real element in
Chinese life. The yellow dress denoting the emperor, the red veil marking
the bride, and the black costume signifying the poor man have their basis
in everyday Chinese custom. A mourner on the Chinese stage appears in
white, and the long beards of old men naturally enough have the same
color, both quite as in real life. The symbols are an imitation of real
life more or less stiffened into conventions. Of course, the origins of
the conventional signs are sometimes a bit difficult to trace, especially
in the case of ghosts and gods.

From the instances cited above it is plain that the Chinese theater
contains much that from our point of view tends to “destroy the
illusion.” Another factor in this process is the “property man”—made
known to Americans through “The Yellow Jacket”—who is ever on the stage
in the midst of all action. When the heroine must kneel before the judge
a coolie in a dirty blue cotton gown rushes forward to place a pillow
on the floor lest the actor’s costly embroidered gown be soiled. An
actor is frequently handed a cup of tea by another such attendant; some
actors to-day even equip their servants with thermos bottles for these
occasions. A general preparing for combat by removing his outer coat is
aided in this operation by ordinary stage hands, not by servants forming
part of the _dramatis personae_. From all the above it would seem that
human nature does not demand any particular kind of realism on the stage,
but is quite able to adapt itself to any illusion whatsoever.




Every traveler who comes to China hears of the fame of Mei Lan-fang. He
is told that in his visit to Peking he ought not to miss the opportunity
of seeing this male actor of female rôles interpret the gay or tragic
events of the lives of coy Chinese maidens. When the Chinese Government
entertains a distinguished foreign visitor, General Joffre or Secretary
of the Navy Denby, for example, Mei Lan-fang gives a performance which
forms the _pièce de résistance_ of the Oriental splendors shown to the
visitor by way of hospitality. Americans who in turn entertain Chinese
friends in Peking generally resort also to a play by this actor. In 1919
a group of American bankers paid Mei Lan-fang four thousand dollars (I
have the information from the man who wrote out the check) for half an
hour of acting and singing; it is true that in this case an especially
large price was paid by way of gaining that imponderable Oriental asset
known as “face”, because shortly before this a group of Japanese bankers
had tried to impress their Chinese guests by paying Mei Lan-fang one
thousand dollars for an evening’s entertainment. The common masses among
the Chinese also appreciate this actor, and a manager who succeeds in
inducing Mei Lan-fang to sign a contract with him is always sure of a
crowded house. For five years I have had the opportunity of observing Mei
Lan-fang’s work and I have come to the conclusion that he justly deserves
his fame and his popularity.

Perhaps some who have heard Mei sing in his falsetto voice and have seen
him act a “slow” play, or opera, if you will, in the conventionalized
Chinese manner, to the accompaniment of a screeching violin and
ear-splitting brass cymbals, feel that they would have been willing
to pay a good sum to be excused from the performance. There is, to
be sure, a long list of martyrs who with lavish Oriental hospitality
were treated to interminable sessions of Chinese drama; General Wood,
for example, recently suffered two hours of it. I should like to say
that in my opinion, keenly as I appreciate the Chinese drama and its
interpreter, Mei Lan-fang, I realize fully that it does not present such
a finished product as is found in our theater. The Chinese have no great
tragedies to place by the side of Shakespeare’s; they have no profound
comedies such as Molière’s; their plays are never so closely knit as are
our “well-made” plays; while in staging they are centuries behind us.
The Chinese drama is a case of arrested development; it is childish,
medieval, and very trying to our ears. Yet it is typically Chinese.
No other art is so popular in China as that of the theater, which
presents the old legends of the nation, the famous novels read by the
masses, intrigues such as occur on every hand, the music of the various
provinces, and the moral ideals of the four hundred millions in general.
In fact, the Chinese consider the theater fit for the gods; for whenever
they wish to thank their deities or reconcile them, they give theatrical
performances for the pleasure of the gods and that of the entire village
as well. As Mr. R. F. Johnston remarks in his characteristic manner,
designed to shock the ultra-pious, the taste of the gods as regards
the drama seems to coincide in a remarkable manner with that of the
villagers. Since the theater is in a manner the mirror of the Chinese
nation, and is also of intrinsic interest to the student of the drama,
it is well worth some attention on the part of any Westerner at all
interested in the Orient. Furthermore, because Mei Lan-fang is the most
widely known actor, and because he is an extremely intelligent and
progressive artist, it is perhaps best to approach this exotic drama
through him.

Since Mei Lan-fang is an actor and his ancestors were actors before
him, he comes from the lowest class of society. In the otherwise
extremely democratic organization of the Chinese empire, where the
poorest boy could rise to wealth and fame by virtue of passing the
literary examination in the capital, sons of prostitutes, lictors, and
actors, as has been said, were barred from competing for government
posts. This system of examinations was abolished in 1907, but the
social disqualification was felt by Mei Lan-fang, for he is now just
thirty years old. His youth was tainted also by his being subjected to
unspeakable immoral practices which were openly tolerated in Peking
until the Revolution in 1911. Quite aside from this, the childhood of an
actor is no bed of roses in a land where the struggle for existence is
so desperate, and ninety per cent. constantly hover near the starvation
line. In the Southern City of Peking one meets frequently a long line of
boys, with prematurely old faces, ranging from eight to sixteen years,
marching along seriously and apathetically under the stern eye of a
preceptor—the pupils of an actors’ training school. Or if one takes the
morning canter along the city wall on the smooth stretch to the south of
the Temple of Heaven, one may see the boys at their interminable lessons,
which begin at sunrise. They must learn to sing in the shrill, artificial
falsetto voice characteristic of the Chinese theater, under a master
whose cruel discipline would make Dotheboys Hall seem a pleasant place
for week-ends. When there is a sharp wind blowing Peking dust in a gale,
the boys are taken to sing against the storm in order that their throats
may become properly hardened. The competition for a livelihood as actor
is deadly. Three boys’ theaters are training hundreds of boys, while
about two thousand actors are already out of work in Peking or are being
hired by the day with about twenty coppers’ reward for their long hours
of labor. In such an environment Mei Lan-fang grew up facing a drab,
dismal existence such as the vast majority of Orientals suffer cheerfully.

But Mei Lan-fang’s originality and talents brought him to the highest
position in his art. He had been trained, because of his slender build,
girl-like face, and high voice, to act the type of _hua-tan_, the
_hetaera_. This figure appears regularly in Chinese plays in the rôle of
servant girl, lady’s maid, or demi-mondaine. The method pursued by most
tyro actors is to attempt to approximate down to the minutest mannerisms
the style of the actor at the top of their special class. Mei Lan-fang,
however, decided to copy nature instead. He introduced into his acting
female traits and foibles observed in the women about him, and this
freshness in his style pleased his audiences. He was gradually accorded
more and more prominent parts until twelve years ago he was voted the
most popular interpreter of female rôles in the capital. The actors
selected as the best “lovers”, “warriors”, “old men”, “old women”, and
the various other conventional types can count their fortunes as made.
After he had been chosen as the most popular actor of female rôles, Mei
Lan-fang commanded fifty to one hundred dollars for one regular daily
performance, and for private performances some such amounts as were
mentioned in the first paragraph of this chapter. He organized his own
company, made a triumphal tour through Japan, and began to fill annual
engagements in Shanghai, the “Paris of China” so-called.[25]

Let us suppose that in wishing to see Mei Lan-fang you have done as
many Pekingese do—sent your servant to the theater to hold a seat for
you. Your menial has been enjoying an afternoon’s work by grabbing a
good seat in the almost empty theater at one o’clock and warming it
until five-thirty, at the same time drinking tea, chewing watermelon
seeds, smoking cigarettes, gossiping blandly with his neighbors, and
occasionally watching the actors on the stage. Now comes the hour for
the star, and you, with many sleek Chinese merchants, displace coolies
whose figures—in blue cotton—shrink inconspicuously toward the exit.
The moment you sit down a waiter with the inevitable teapot is at your
elbow, depositing on the table before you a cup containing one grimy
thumb. The tea and watermelon seeds are, as they say in the Moulin Rouge,
“_obligatoire_”, but you are free to refuse threescore flies resting on
a bar of candy, eggs of uncertain age whose whites have become black, or
apples just the proper softness with which to pelt actors. At the tables
all around you men are audibly sipping tea or eating dishes of steaming
viands, after which they wipe face and hands on hot towels which the
waiters are passing. Bundles of towels continually soaring overhead may
remind you of bats under the rafters, or if you are medically minded you
may exclaim, “Look at them throwing the smallpox around!”

[Illustration: MEI LAN-FANG

In European Dress

Ch’ang-O’s Flight to the Moon

Burying the Blossoms

A Young Nun Seeks Love]

The indifferent actors have been on the stage for hours, impersonating
famous emperors of the time of Attila, cunning counselors as old as
Alcuin, or sages contemporary with Pope Sylvester. One short play or
part of a play after the other—each lasting about thirty to forty-five
minutes—has been going on without intermission since noon. The fact that
no pause is made between the plays often leads foreigners to believe
that Chinese plays are of serpentine length, while in reality they are
no longer than the separate numbers of our continuous vaudeville. The
orchestra leader merely beats a few short notes on a gong and the stage
is set for the next play—that is to say, Chinese drama has no stage
settings whatever. A brightly colored curtain forms the background of the
bare stage; in other words, the scenery is left to the imagination, as it
was in Shakespeare’s theater.

When the hour for the star has finally come, a special fluteplayer takes
his seat as leader of the orchestra and sends out soft, wistful notes
that contrast gratefully with the brass din of the preceding battle
scene. With tense interest Mei Lan-fang is awaited, for to-day he is to
play “A Young Nun Seeks Love.”

With light, mincing step he enters in a long nun’s gown of white silk,
over which he wears a white coat dotted with a diamond pattern in light
blue. Long black tresses and a narrow black belt set off the delicate
shades of the light colors. The exquisite color combination is enhanced
by his soft, clear voice and the emotional play of his facial expression.
The theme of the forty-minute monodrama is similar to Browning’s “Fra
Lippo Lippi”, a story which Mei alternately sings and recites to
orchestral accompaniment.

    A pitiful existence is that of the nun with the shaven head! At
    night only a lone lantern consorts me to sleep. Time quickly
    pursues one to old age, leaving only the memory of a monotonous

Sent to the convent at a tender age, she finds her life at sixteen a
dull round divided between the burning of incense and the reading of
monotonous Buddhistic sutras. The abbess has deprived her of the ornament
of her hair and forces her to carry water from the well at the foot of
the hill. On these excursions she has stolen long looks at a handsome
youth playing outside the city gate, and he seems not indifferent toward

    For the price of a little sympathy I would be willing to go
    to the palace of Yen Wang, the god of Hell, to be ground up
    in the mortar, cut into bits by the saw, crushed between the
    millstones, or to seethe in burning oil. My love is deep enough
    to outweigh the punishments of all devils.

Her childhood at the home of her pious parents had been an interminable
droning of the sacred syllables, “_O mane padme hum, o mane padme
hum_”, beating of drums, ringing of bells, blowing of horns, tinkling
of cymbals—all to drive away the devils. Her heart, hungry for a bit
of brightness, feels cramped in her cell and she decides to enter the
large hall filled with the statues of five hundred saints and Buddhas.
Since the stage is absolutely bare, Mei at this point goes through the
pantomime of opening a door and closing it again behind him. After some
quaint meditations before the various ascetic _lohans_ and the figure
of the “laughing Buddha”,[26] who seems to say, “Why waste the precious
days of sweet youth?”, the young nun decides to risk all for the sake of
finding love. In a graceful, rhythmic dance Mei moves off the stage. The
young girl has gone into the “black world”, as the Buddhist nuns call
life outside the convent walls.

Another favorite among Mei Lan-fang’s plays is “Burying the Blossoms.” A
young girl, tormented by jealousy and doubt of her lover’s good faith,
finds the garden path covered with fallen blossoms. In these flowers,
broken from their stems and lying crushed on the ground, she sees the
image of herself, a girl whose parents are dead and who is neglected by
every one. She takes pity on the flowers, and, placing them in a silk
bag, buries them under a tree. As she is shedding tears over the little
mound her lover comes upon her. The explanation that follows effects a
deepening of their love.

In Professor Giles’ translation (“Chinese Literature”, page 368) we have
the sentiment of the play expressed (_Cf._ Moore’s “The Last Rose of

    Farewell, dear flowers, forever now,
      Thus buried as ’twere best,
    I have not yet divined when I,
      With you shall sink to rest.
    I who can bury flowers like this
      A laughing-stock shall be;
    I cannot say in days to come
      What hands shall bury me.
    See, how when spring begins to fail
      Each opening floweret fades;
    So too there is a time of age
      And death for beauteous maids;
    And when the fleeting spring is gone,
      And days of beauty o’er,
    Flowers fall, and lovely maidens die,
      And both are known no more.

But not only such pale, wistful themes are found in Mei’s repertoire. The
“Three Pulls”[27] is a tragi-comedy of bourgeois life where Mei presents
a delightfully coquettish wife. This is a four-act play in which a large
company appears in gorgeous costumes of embroidered silk studded with
the little mirrors characteristic of Chinese stage apparel. The various
characters wear historically correct dress, the well-known Manchu robes.
But as an example of the extreme incongruities in the mixture of the
Oriental and the Occidental now taking place in Peking I should like to
mention an incident that occurred when the play was staged for the first
time at the Chen Kwang Theater. This new playhouse has a large European
stage and various other modern conveniences as yet not fully understood
or appreciated by the Chinese, for I observed that the petition written
by the husband and later flaunted in court was written on a three-foot
strip of toilet paper!


The setting in this amateur production shows more stage properties than
are customary in most Chinese theaters.]

The very best-beloved of Mei Lan-fang’s plays is “Yang Kuei-fei Tsui
Chou” (Yang Kuei-fei’s Spree). Yang Kuei-fei, the famous concubine of
the Emperor T’ang Ming-huang, of about 900 A.D., as has been stated,
lives on in Chinese poetry as a charming beauty of absolutely bewitching
qualities. In connection with this play one ought to say that drunkenness
is rare in China and is not considered a vice or a disgrace. On the other
hand a genial spree is looked upon as an exploit. A Chinese gentleman
will tell you “I was roundly drunk last night”, much as an American might
beamingly confide his triumphs at golf. K’ang Hsi, perhaps the greatest
emperor China ever had, used to urge his guests to drink heartily,
assuring them that if they drank too deep he would have them taken to
their homes in a dignified manner.

The plot of the play is a short episode in the imperial palace. Yang
Kuei-fei learns from two eunuchs that the emperor is supping with a rival
beauty, and in her jealous rage she orders one bumper of wine after the
other. As the wine begins to take effect, she performs some charming
dances in which other court ladies join, to the end that a beautiful
inebriated ballet is performed. The effect of the dancers in the ancient
Chinese dress, the style with the long sleeves taken over by the Japanese
as the kimono, is much like a vision of fluttering, multicolored
butterflies. Later Yang Kuei-fei, in a low-comedy scene, uses her charms
first on one and then on the other of the servants, who prefer to run
away rather than be found in a compromising position with the favorite
concubine. Finally Yang Kuei-fei leaves the stage alone, singing, “Now
lonely I return to the palace.”

One specialty of this play is the manner in which Mei Lan-fang drinks
the wine. He grips the cup with his teeth and bends backward very slowly
until his head touches the ground. Such “stunts” are fairly frequent in
Chinese plays and are used just as traditionally as some of the byplay
in French masterpieces staged at the Comédie Française. The great T’an
had a very famous trick which no actor has been able to imitate; in the
play, “Seeing the Ancestral Portraits”, he would kick off his shoe in
such a manner that in falling it would always strike exactly on his head.
Mei Lan-fang is not stressing these acrobatic and other tricks, but is
placing the emphasis on the interpretation of the emotional content of
the scenes.

A little farce that Mei presents in a droll manner is the “Ch’ing Shang
Lao Shüeh” (Slave Girl Plays Tricks on the Old Schoolmaster). This play
presents the perennial theme of the impertinent servant. The make-up of
the old scholar in Ming costume is comical to the last degree. The slave
girl receives instruction, together with her mistress. When asked to
recite she does so with the swaying body motion commonly found in our
urchins when they “say their piece.” She catches a fly off the teacher’s
face, and in mixing ink, spits in his eye. When he sets out to beat
her, she catches the switch, and as he pulls, lets go, with the result
that teacher falls back into his chair and rolls over on the floor with
a tremendous crash. After suffering many similar tricks the pedagogue
decides to teach in that house no longer. As he leaves the room the
audience sees that the slave girl has pinned on his back a picture of a
turtle—than which there is no greater insult in all the Middle Kingdom!

This is the only play I have ever seen that makes fun of a scholar. I
consider it a pleasant tribute to the Chinese sense of humor that it
allows them to laugh occasionally, even at the figure of their national
hero. The scholar who by virtue of having passed the examination in
Peking is made magistrate or even viceroy of a province is the hero
of hundreds of Chinese plays. The examination in the capital with the
attendant change of fortune in the life of the hero is the _deus ex
machina_ of the Chinese stage. As an example I shall mention another
play of Mei Lan-fang’s, the one he played before Secretary of the Navy
Denby on July 17, 1922. This play is called “Yü Pei T’ing” (The Pavilion
of the Royal Monument). A poor scholar on his way to Peking is caught
in a heavy storm and seeks shelter in the pavilion of a royal monument.
He finds, however, that a lady has come before him and taken possession
of the interior of the small building. Since he is both a scholar and a
gentleman, he passes the night on the outside, where the eaves afford him
only insufficient shelter from the rain. In the morning the lady thanks
him for his consideration, and he continues on his way. The courtesy of
the young scholar has made so deep an impression on the lady that she
cannot refrain from telling her sister-in-law about it, who in turn tells
the lady’s husband. The latter thinks that the story is only a disguise
for what he believes to have been the true state of affairs, namely that
his wife has been unfaithful to him. He therefore divorces his wife and
abandons her to a life of misery and disgrace. The scholar, on the other
hand, passes his examination with such distinction that the emperor
grants him an audience, in the course of which he asks the young man to
tell of the noblest thing he has ever done. The scholar tells of his
night spent out in the rain for the sake of an unknown lady. The husband
happens to be among the courtiers present, and, upon this corroboration
of his wife’s story, he takes her back into his home, and all live happy
ever afterward!

The scholar’s quick change of fortune as a theme in the Chinese theater
finds a close rival in the motive of filial piety. Among Mei Lan-fang’s
plays the latter is best illustrated by the play “Mu Lan”, the name of a
girl who goes to war in place of her father because the latter is too old
to undertake a heavy campaign. It is characteristically Chinese that this
Joan of Arc does not fight for motives of patriotism, but out of regard
for the comfort of her aged father. This fascinating play gives Mei an
opportunity of showing in the first part his skill in portraying a demure
young maiden, while in the second part he can display his address in the
extremely conventionalized art of Chinese stage fighting.

All of these and many more characters Mei Lan-fang is on the stage, but
of his real character very little is known among foreigners in China. It
is known that he has a kindly heart, for every year he contributes his
services to a dramatic entertainment arranged by American missionaries
for the purpose of providing shelters for the riksha runners during
the bitter Peking winters. One reads about it in the papers when he
makes his annual pilgrimage to Miao Feng Shan, a mountain temple three
days distant from Peking, the traditional shrine where actors worship.
But artists eager to paint his portrait have never been able to secure
him as a sitter, because he is very shy about entering any society
outside his immediate circle. I considered myself very lucky when
after some negotiations I secured an interview with him in the typical
Chinese fashion through some friends of some friends of his friends.
The house in which I called on Mei was _his_ house; he keeps two other
establishments—one for his wife and the other for his concubine. For many
years Mei Lan-fang was known as the faithful husband of one wife, but
finally friends prevailed on him to act in the manner of every Chinese
gentleman who respects himself and to take a concubine into his domestic
circle. Among Mei’s friends I met a young actor with eloquent scars on
his cheeks; he had been the one who introduced Mei to the concubine and
the scars were the result of some acid thrown by a brother of the jealous
wife. Another gentleman present was a stocky officer of the Peking
_gendarmerie_, a useful friend to the actor, because on several occasions
ruffians have attempted to extort blackmail from him by violence—as they
do with every one in China who has any money. Mei was the last one to
appear, wearing a long white silk gown, the customary hot-weather dress
of the Chinese gentleman.

Some of the coyness that gives such a true ring to his stage
presentations of young ladies clings to Mei off-stage. He seems like a
charming, bookish, slightly effeminate boy of seventeen. In reality he
is thirty, but like so many other Orientals he appears to Westerners
much younger than he is. He is of the frail, willowy build demanded in a
Chinese beauty, but he is the very opposite of languid, sparkling with
vivacity and full of life. His voice is high, gentle, and soft; in fact,
it sounds very much like that of one of his heroines on the stage.

All in all Mei gives the impression of a youthful scholar rather than
of an actor. There is not the slightest touch of Bohemianism about him.
His favorite avocations are music and drawing; opium smoking and other
fashionable dissipations hold no charms for him whatever. He is very
fond of Western music, and hopes ultimately to win over his audiences
to an appreciation of the piano and the violin, which would give him
an immensely richer field for his musical repertoire. He has for a
close friend and daily companion a learned scholar with whom he makes
researches in ancient works dealing with the drama. Instead of following
in the beaten path he is intent on improving the drama by presenting
ancient plays with a staging historically correct, and by reviving
whatever was vital in the past. With great pride he showed me his
extensive library, lingering long over a neatly written text of a play
copied by his grandfather, who had been musician to the great actor T’an.

To sum up Mei Lan-fang: like most other men who achieve distinction, he
is in love with his work and devotes himself to it night and day.

His great merit is that he is bringing good taste and sensible
innovations to the Chinese theater, which had been stagnant—in a state
of arrested development. The old Empress Dowager, showing her usual
bad taste, had made fashionable in Peking a Mongolian style of music
intended for open-air theaters on the wind-swept plains, which in a
roofed theater is absolutely ear-splitting. Mei Lan-fang is returning to
traditional Chinese music in which the soft notes of the flute prevail.
Instead of the old hackneyed themes Mei has staged numerous new plays
based on the famous romantic novel, “The Dream of the Red Chamber”, as
well as many other plays written especially for him. Into his fanciful
plays of the type of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” he has woven graceful
dances, an absolute innovation on his part. New and often historically
correct costumes appear in his plays, enlivening the otherwise rather
drab Chinese stage. In contrast to the Chinese habit of presenting
only the favorite acts of the well-known plays (as though our managers
should stage only the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet”, or the
husband-under-the-table scene from “Tartuffe”), he presents even the
older plays in their entirety. When he plays in Japan or in the European
theater in Peking, he removes the ill-clothed orchestra from the stage;
but he cannot do this in the native theaters, where the strong tradition
insists that the musicians must sit on the stage and destroy the
illusion, for the foreigners at least.

In this ability of his to make innovations and at the same time to
adapt himself to his audiences to a certain extent, lies the key of
Mei Lan-fang’s success. Even the most hidebound theater devotees and
connoisseurs must recognize the skill of his acting and the perfection
of his enunciation, and therefore they are willing to accept the foreign
elements which he introduces. Mei Lan-fang’s greatness lies in the fact
that he is able to introduce bold reforms into the theater without
cutting himself off from the tradition.




I have often met with people who ask: “Do the Chinese have the division
of plays into tragedies and comedies?” and when they learn that there
is no such division they feel this to be a great defect in the Chinese
theater. But it might be well worth recalling that these Greek terms
did not originally have their present-day connotations, and that their
original meanings were perhaps not far removed from the divisions which
the Chinese make in classifying their plays. Tragedy meant originally a
“goat song”, and philologists are divided on the question as to whether
the name is derived from the fact that the song was sung by revelers
worshiping Dionysus, who, because of their appearance and licentious
character were called “goats”, or whether it was sung at the sacrifice
of a goat, or whether a goat was the prize which was awarded to the
successful poet.[28] At any rate there is no doubt that tragedy was
a musical term. The same is true of comedy, which is the song of the
_comus_, or band of revelers, who marched along in procession carrying
aloft the phallus and chanting songs to Dionysus which were called
phallic songs. The scurrilous remarks interlarded in the intervals
between songs by the leader of the _comus_ gave rise to the form of light
entertainment known as comedy in the theater of to-day. In the Middle
Ages it had the meaning of a poetic work with a happy ending, for which
reason Dante called his long poem a “comedy”, which later writers made
“The Divine Comedy.” Thus we see the two words have deviated altogether
from their original meanings. We know very little about Greek music of
these earliest days, but we hear also of Doric music and Phrygian music
employed in the theater. The Doric music was grave, dignified, and
employed the harp as the chief musical instrument, while the Phrygian
mode was emotional and was accompanied by the flute.

Now let us look for a moment at the Chinese classification of styles of
drama. We generally hear of the divisions of _kuan-ch’ü_, _p’i-huang_
(a telescoping of _hsi-pi_ and _er-huang_) and thirdly of _pang-tzu_.
These are all musical terms. _Kuan-ch’ü_ is accompanied by the flute,
and is said to be the most literary, the most graceful and soft; also
because of its lack of vulgarity it is caviare to the general. It is
rarely performed nowadays, but was quite popular in the Ming Dynasty.
It was directly descended from the classical Yuan drama, whose authors
were scholars ousted by the Mongols from their public offices. This name
is derived from a geographical term, just as are the Greek Doric and
Phrygian modes. The _pang-tzu_ came to Peking from Shansi during the
Ch’ing Dynasty. The chief instrument is a rude kind of fiddle with a
round, flat sounding box, and the _genre_ is considered to be exciting
and vulgar. The _er-huang_ or _hsi-p’i_ (said to be very similar) are
also styles adopted during the Manchu Dynasty. They employ as their chief
instrument the well-known _hu-ch’in_. There is a great similarity between
Greek and Chinese thought, in that both speak of the good moral effects
of music if only there be the proper harmony; and likewise of the immoral
effects of vulgar, exciting music. I believe one could find almost exact
parallels in the writings of Plato and of many Chinese authors,[29] even
so modern a one as Tsai Yuan-pei. We modern Europeans and Americans, on
the other hand, seem to have given up the idea of music as a means for
developing harmonious and moral souls.

In practice music was employed in the Greek theater not only by the
chorus, but also by the actors in the midst of the spoken dialogue when
a particularly emotional point was reached. When the passions rose to a
high pitch the musical accompaniment commenced and the actor sang; such
a passage was, for example, the recital of the forebodings of Cassandra
in Æschylus’ “Agamemnon”, interrupted by the Argive elders who form the
chorus. Exactly the same practice obtains in the Chinese theater, as any
one can readily observe in almost any play. Some scholars have asserted
that the whole of a Greek play was accompanied by music, but it is
generally believed now that only the lyrical passages were sung, while
the iambic dialogue was spoken. In this similarity of the Greek and the
Chinese theaters we can find an aid in our efforts at reconstructing the
past—perhaps worthy of consideration by _régisseurs_ who attempt to put
on the stage to-day some of the plays which stirred the imagination of
the Athenians of old. Possibly it may also be a shock to some who have
seen modern representations in which the actors, as well as the chorus,
employ a solemn and stately, sometimes monotonous recitative, to learn
that the ancients sang or chanted a great part of their plays; a shock
such as we are likely to receive when we first learn that the ancients
did not employ marble in their architecture in its austere virginal
whiteness only, but that they frequently colored their buildings. But
just as a traveler coming to China may see beautiful architectural
results achieved by the bold use of color in architecture, so he may come
closer to the real—not the pseudo-classical—art by reflecting on the
effect of musical interruptions in Sophocles’ “Œdipus” or Euripides’

In Greece the theater was an institution which gave performances at
the time of certain religious festivals, and it was in this sense a
folk theater. In Peking also there are certain plays given always at
particular festivals, and dealing always with the supernatural, or if you
prefer, with religion. On the first day of the New Year, for example,
there is the “Ch’ing Shih Shan”, a play dealing with the gods’ conquest
of the devils; on the fifth day of the New Year comes a play in honor of
the god of wealth; on the fifth of the fifth month, a play describing
the overcoming of the five dangerous poisons; and on the seventh of the
seventh month the “Meeting on the Milky Way.” These plays persist in
spite of the commercialization of the Peking theaters.

The student of European literature whose field of research lies in the
reconstruction of the past can find in China a wonderful source book,
for this is a magic land where for Europeans and Americans the clock
has been set back several centuries. We can see the Middle Ages enacted
before our very eyes, and get in that way a vivid picture of things as
they were in the Europe of yesterday. In illustration of this I wish to
cite the Chinese theater of to-day, and to offer the suggestion that the
Shakespeare scholar who has seen the Peking theaters of the present time
has—if one may use the figure—not only the words, but also the tune, of
the Elizabethan drama.

If I take a tourist to the theater his first remark often is that this
is just like the Shakespearean theater. And it is indeed not surprising
that it should be so, for China to-day is at about the same stage of
culture as England was at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
There is a court where royal splendor can be seen; the deposed emperor
still receives in the Forbidden City the faithful Manchus, who come in
gorgeous raiment and with fastidious regard for court etiquette to offer
their congratulations on the occasion of his birthday.[30] The ordinary
man of means dresses not in the stereotyped manner of our present-day
civilization, but follows his taste in the selection of rich purple,
wine-colored, or other shades of silk. Sedan chairs are still used as
a common means of transportation. Torture is still practiced, and the
heads of executed criminals are hung up in the streets in case of a
revolution or other great excitement. The servants are typical Dromios
in their submissiveness and occasional impertinence. The streets are
frequently still the narrow and filthy lanes of medieval times. Most
important, there are few factories, and manufacture is done by leisurely
home industry. Much of this is passing with the coming of industry,
the automobile and the tram car, the Europeanized tailor and the
moving-picture machine; yet much that is picturesque in Peking continues
to flourish, and the theater with its huge community of actors is one of
the most conservative elements.

To begin with, the Chinese and the Elizabethan theaters are almost
identical in structure, and for much the same reasons. The origin of the
sixteenth-century theater in London is to be found in the innyard in
which a platform had been erected for the performance; and when James
Burbage in 1576 built the “Theater” outside the jurisdiction of the City
Fathers of London he erected what was practically an innyard without
the inn. There was a platform stage projecting into the yard, where the
rabble could find standing room, and a gallery in which the wealthier
patrons could be seated. The origin of the Chinese theater building,
such as it is found in Peking, is very similar. Performances were first
given in the courtyards of temples or of the houses of rich men. A
platform was erected at one end. The spectators stood in the courtyard
or sat at tables. The latter was particularly the case when theaters
were held in the private courtyards of princes or other rich men. For
centuries theatricals in China were either religious or private, and
public theaters which any one may attend for the payment of an admission
fee are a fairly recent institution, but when they were built they
were constructed on the model of the temple or palace theaters, with a
projecting roofed stage at one end, the cheaper seats on the ground
floor and the more expensive ones in the gallery. The Chinese audiences
have been trained to regard the stage as anywhere and not as a particular
place; it is unlocalized, as in Shakespeare’s time. The roof on the stage
serves the same purposes as in Elizabethan times; it is a protection for
the actors against rain, and a “heaven” from which deities may be lowered.

In distinction to our modern theater in which we present a series of
pictures within a frame called the proscenium, which we cover with a
curtain while the pictures are being shifted, both the Elizabethan and
the Chinese stage have neither a proscenium nor, in general, a curtain.
In both the stages is an unframed rostrum thrust bodily forth into the
auditorium, surrounded on three sides, if not on four, by spectators. In
short it is not a picture stage, but a platform stage. On such a stage
there can be, of course, no question of artistic lighting effects; the
plays are performed either by daylight, as they were in Shakespeare’s
day, or by the light of huge arc lamps that illuminate stage and audience
alike. As the actors cannot present artistic stage pictures to three
sides of the house at the same time, it is not surprising that, as the
English literary historians tell us, the appeal was more to the ear than
to the eye. That this is equally true in China is seen from the Peking
term for a theatrical performance, _t’ing-hsi_, which means a play that
is heard. In old Peking theaters the seats on the ground floor are
arranged at right angles to the stage, along tables on which are served
tea and cakes; recently built theatres, however, have their seats (with
rails for the inevitable teapots) running parallel to the stage.

In speaking of the chief characteristics that distinguish the Elizabethan
from other stages Professor Thorndyke says:[31]

    The fixed and most important principle was the use of the
    projecting platform as a sort of neutral, vaguely localized
    territory, where almost anything might happen. The second
    principle was the use of the inner stage with its curtains
    (and to some extent the upper stage) as a means to denote
    locality more exactly, to employ properties more readily, and
    to indicate changes of scene more effectively.



From what has been said it is apparent that in regard to the first
principle the Chinese and the Shakespearean stage are identical. In
regard to the use of the curtain and the inner stage, scholars are
very much divided as to the manner and frequency with which they were
employed. To quote Professor Thorndyke once more:[32]

    The total evidence of the stage directions alone indicates that
    the arrangement prescribed was in general use in important
    theaters, public and private, though doubtless its adoption was
    gradual and subject to variation. We may suppose that the size
    and visibility of the inner stage varied in different theaters,
    and that the extent to which the curtain was used changed
    from decade to decade, or playwright to playwright, or manager
    to manager, or even according to the state of the weather and

The use of the curtain in Chinese theaters is very rare; and the curtain
itself is by no means like the curtain to which we are accustomed. When
a relatively elaborate setting is about to be placed on the stage a
curtain about ten feet high by about twenty feet wide is carried by stage
hands to the front of the stage, and there stretched out to cut off the
view of the audience. The ends of the curtain are each sewed to a bamboo
pole held upright by two coolies. In this most primitive manner a garden
setting or a heavenly throne is made to appear to the audience in one
burst of glory instead of being carried on piece by piece, as is the
case with most properties and sceneries. The Chinese playhouse has no
inner and likewise no upper stage. Curtains about beds or other pieces of
furniture are used to “discover” actors in the same manner as was done on
the Elizabethan stage. But all of these articles are regularly carried
on the stage in full view of the audience. The size of the two stages
seems to be about the same, except that the Elizabethan was much wider.
The dimensions given for the stage of the Fortune are forty-three feet
wide by twenty-seven and a half feet deep; while a typical Chinese stage
measures about twenty-five feet in both directions.

We generally think of the Elizabethan stage as very primitive, and in
this respect the Chinese stage is very much like it, only a bit more
so. Both stages lack curtains, and therefore in both properties are
brought on in full sight of the audience, making necessary in China the
“property men” who furnished so much amusement in the performances of
“The Yellow Jacket.” Shakespeare however arranged that at the end of
a play, for example in “Hamlet”, the dead were carried off the stage,
while in Peking convention allows that a victim of murder arise and walk
off, after having gone through the motion of falling dead. The London
theaters also had (at least such seems to have been definitely proved
by recent writers) a small curtain at the rear of the stage shutting
off a place which served as cave, shop, tomb, bed, Bathsheba’s bath, or
any other locality that needed to be “discovered.” In Peking theaters
things are much more conventionalized; a table represents a shop, a blue
curtain with lines painted on it, held up by two stage hands, makes a
city wall, a chair may be a gate or a prison door, a boat on a lake may
be represented simply by the actors appearing with oars with which they
seem to be rowing. Much is also symbolized; an actor on the bare stage
goes through the motions of opening and shutting a door and thus shows
that he has left the house. When a curtain is needed to represent a
listener in another room, or a patient in a bed behind drawn curtains,
two vertical bamboo poles with a horizontal one attached to them from
which the curtain hangs are placed on the stage by the “property men.”
The arrangement is most primitive and casual; the poles are generally
tied to chairs. If the drawing of the “Swan” showing neither an inner
stage nor a curtain is authentic, a similar portable curtain may have
been the method employed in Elizabethan times. In Peking this is a rich,
figured fabric, even though not exactly an “Arras.” If a Chinese Polonius
were to conceal himself behind the arras, it would have been previously
brought on by the “property men” at the beginning of the act or perhaps
even just a few moments before it was needed. In a Chinese theater the
center back of the stage is a wall hung with a rich piece of tapestry
just as free from doors or recesses as the wall of the “Swan.” There are
doors, however, at both sides of the rear wall, corresponding to those
in the “Swan” drawing. As the Chinese theater has no upper stage, men on
a city wall, for example, stand on a table behind the curtain held up by
the stage hands. A general surveying his troops from a mountain top or a
god on his throne in heaven sit on a chair placed on top of a table.

In the paucity of the stage properties we find another parallel. In
Albright’s “The Shakespearean Stage”,[33] the properties are listed, and
I can say from my five years’ experience that the same and no more are
found on the Chinese stage; bedroom: a bed, table, chairs or stools, and
lights; a hall: table, chairs, and stools; presence chamber: a throne,
and occasionally tables and chairs; a church: an altar, and if needed a
tomb; prison scenes: usually no properties are mentioned except fetters
and chains; woods or park: large and small artificial trees, shrubbery,
and benches; shop scenes: a counter and a few wares. The Chinese theater
is often even a bit more simple; for example, a chair serves as a throne,
or a table with a few decorations as an altar. However, for certain
plays fairly elaborate paper properties are used, which are brought
on and removed in full sight of the audience. In both theaters the
imagination of the audience is strained a great deal more than is the
case in a Belasco play; and many conventions that differ from ours, such
as bringing on properties in full sight of the audience, seem just as
natural as it seems to us that a stage room has only three walls.

Even though the Elizabethan and the Chinese stages have no scenery of
any kind, yet it is wrong to imagine that they seem bare, for the color
is supplied in the rich and elaborate robes of the actors. A Chinese
stage filled with actors in court costumes of yellow, red, black, blue,
or purple, with inwoven designs, fierce warriors with masks or painted
faces, wearing pheasant feathers six feet long, and lovely maidens in
costumes of exquisite pastel shades, walking or running about on a gaudy
Oriental rug against a background of rich tapestry, form a veritable
riot of color, very similar in its effect, no doubt, to what was seen
on the Elizabethan stage when the actors appeared in their gowns costing
from £80 to £100 in modern money. They were elaborate creations of
velvet trimmed with gold and silver lace and embroidery, capped by the
“forest of feathers” that Hamlet mentions as necessary for the equipment
of an actor, with tapestry from Arras as background. To quote Professor
Thorndyke,[34] “No stage cared more for fine clothes than the Elizabethan
or lavished a larger portion of its expenses on dress.” In both theaters
almost no attention is paid to historical appropriateness of costume.
Elizabethan actors sometimes wore masks also, just as the Chinese often


From Jacovleff, “Le Théâtre Chinois”]

The stage direction “alarums” for the entry of a king or other important
personage, which may never have been associated by the reader with
anything definite at all, will be full of meaning to any Westerner who
has heard the Chinese orchestra sound the _Leitmotiv_ for the entry of
a famous general. The Chinese orchestra sits on the stage in full view
of the audience, while in Shakespeare’s day the upper stage was the
normal place for the “noise.” The use in the Elizabethan days of the
word “noise” for both music and orchestra establishes another great
similarity between the two theaters. In Shakespeare’s day the music seems
to have been confined chiefly to the intermissions between the acts and
to occasional songs, while in the Chinese drama almost every emotional
part is punctuated by song. It approaches close to opera in many cases
in the number of lines sung by the actors. One division of Chinese plays
is that into civil and military, and in the latter the fighting is
always accompanied by a terrible din of brass, drum and string music.
This frantic noise stimulates in the audience the excitement which
the desperate contest in arms is supposed to arouse. As a fact, these
military plays are very popular with the masses, and they take up fully
half the program.

In the eating, drinking, smoking, hawking, towel-throwing, spitting, and
loud interruptions always found in the Chinese theater we have another
close parallel to the Elizabethan. It is well known that hawkers went
about before and during the performance selling ale, tobacco, and various
articles of food. Apples were fought over by young apprentices and
sometimes even used to pelt the actors. The women in the galleries were
offered pipes to smoke. Young nobles insisted on sitting on the stage in
order that they might display themselves and their garments, while pages
lighted their pipes for them. The groundlings in the yard were intent
on the broad humor and the fighting in the plays. The women of the town
in the gallery probably also had other motives for coming besides that
of seeing the play. All of this a Westerner can understand very much
better after he has seen a Chinese theater, for the conditions are very
similar; except that the Chinese lack of pugnacity makes the spectators
perhaps a little less violent.[35] In this connection it is interesting
to compare the methods of applause and criticism in Shakespeare’s time
and in present-day China. Applause was rendered by clapping—some writers
refer to it as “thundering”—while disapproval was evinced by hissing,
and by even more violent methods, as may be judged from the verse of an
Elizabethan drama:

    We may be pelted off for aught we know,
    With apples, egges, or stones, from thence belowe.

In China applause is expressed by shouting the word “_hao_”, good, and
disapproval by no more violent method generally than by a sarcastic
intonation of the same word! It it difficult for a foreigner to tell
which is meant, especially since applause is rendered for subtleties
of intonation often lost even on natives. However there is also the
word “_t’ung_”, which is very rarely used to express disgust with the
performance; but when it is employed the actors are driven off the stage
in utter shame and confusion. In recent years, however, clapping has been
introduced from the West along with many other innovations. But in spite
of all distractions one can very often see a Chinese audience sitting
spellbound during the recitation of a particularly beautiful passage or
the presentation of a tragic scene, as I imagine must have been the case
in Shakespearean England also.

Without the aid of scenery or lighting the acting must be splendid
to hold an audience, and there is the danger that it become loudly
declamatory and bombastic. Hamlet’s well-known criticisms frequently
apply in Peking, for there are many who mouth their lines so that the
town crier could improve upon them, who saw the air too much with their
hands, who tear a passion to tatters, who strut and bellow as though one
of nature’s journeymen had made them, and thus make the judicious grieve.
However, good actors of all times avoid this. Hamlet tells of a good
actor who

    Could force his soul to this conceit
    That from her working all his visage wann’d;
    Tears in his eyes, distraction in ’s aspect,
    A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
    With form to his conceit! and all for nothing!
    For Hecuba!

It is similarly impressive to see Mei Lan-fang, for example, playing
Mu Lan, the Chinese Joan of Arc, presenting in the first part the coy
maiden and loving daughter, and in the second the brave warrior, or to
see him (he is an actor who always interprets female rôles) portray the
emotions of the daughter who finds her old father in prison but who dares
not make herself known. In most theaters in Peking the acting is good,
so that the foreigner can often follow the play, even though he does not
understand one word of what the actors are saying. For vivid portrayal of
emotions, facial expression, and delightful byplay, the Chinese actors
are wonderful, just as the scholars conjecture that the English players
must have been in Shakespeare’s day.

[Illustration: A CLOWN

Chinese Character Type]

The Chinese audiences demand the fool, the acrobat, and the dancer quite
as loudly as they were demanded by the groundling in Shakespeare’s
time. The Chinese clown is very good at improvising, and provokes the
same criticism that Hamlet made, “And let those that play your clowns
speak no more than is set down for them.” Giles in his “History of
Chinese Literature” writes in this connection, “As they stand in the
classical collections or the acting editions, Chinese plays are as
unobjectionable[36] as Chinese poems or general literature. On the stage,
however, actors are allowed great license in gagging, and the direction
which their gag takes is chiefly the reason which keeps respectable women
away from the playhouse.” This recalls that in Elizabethan days the
respectable women who attended the theater wore masks or made judicious
use of their fans to hide their blushes.[37] It is only in the last few
years that the better class of women have begun to attend the theater
in Peking; just as the mingling of the sexes in the theater was an
innovation in the early seventeenth century in England. In Peking, as
formerly was the case in London, the women are admitted to the gallery

A vital similarity between the two theaters is the fact that women’s
parts are played by men. The reasons in both cases are moral or
Puritanical motives. The similarity in this case is accidental, for it
was only about George Washington’s time that women were forbidden to
appear upon the stage; during the Ming Dynasty many princes and officials
had large numbers of actresses in their palaces—a custom that led to
gross abuses and immorality. Therefore the early Manchu emperors forbade
women to appear as actresses. But things are fast changing in this
respect in China, for in some parts of the country men and women appear
together on the stage, while in Peking, where this is forbidden by the
police, there exist two theaters in which women act both male and female
rôles. The Chinese consider the women poor artists, and the connoisseurs
do not patronize these theaters, or if they do they apologize for it. A
Chinese actor who respects himself will never appear on the same stage
with actresses. That the Elizabethans likewise thought women incapable
of good acting can be seen from the patronizing tone of Thomas Coryat
in which he tells (1611) of having seen women acting in Venice “and
they performed it with as good a grace, action, gesture and whatsoever
convenient for a player, as ever I saw any masculine actor.”[38]

In connection with the subject of impersonation of the other sex,
which we see nowadays only in burlesque or minstrel shows, I should
like to quote some observations made by Goethe[39] in Italy on seeing a
performance of Goldoni’s “La Locandiera” in which a man acted the part
of the heroine, the pretty innkeeper. Goethe of course grants that the
highest form of art cannot be found in such a representation, but he
says that he would like to speak a few words in defense of this practice
to tell how one might well derive considerable pleasure from such a
performance. He states that he went to the theater with prejudice, but
once there he became reconciled to it and even experienced a certain kind
of pleasure never felt by him before. He tried to analyze this æsthetic
sensation and came to the conclusion it consisted in the enjoyment of
the fact that the actor could not possibly play himself, but had to
put his art of imitation to a far greater test, that of holding the
mirror up to life in a sex not his own. The spectator enjoys a much
more self-conscious delusion, just as when he sees a young man playing
the part of Rip Van Winkle or King Lear. There is a more conscious
æsthetic pleasure in seeing how well a young man has studied the actions
of a young girl in order to present a Rosalind, or how perfectly Mei
Lan-fang can copy the dainty dress, actions, and walk of a Chinese
lady. My experience has been that this is much more pleasant than to
see round-cheeked girls essay the rôles of fearful generals or cruel
husbands in the woman’s theater in Peking.

It has often been remarked that as a result of the fact that boy actors
played the women’s parts in the Elizabethan theater we find Shakespeare’s
heroines very frequently masquerading as pages. Julia, Portia, Nerissa,
Jessica, Viola, Rosalind, and Imogen all appear as handsome youths. An
analogous result in the Chinese theater of to-day is that the heroines
appear in an endless number of cases as warriors. The Chinese have not
only their Mu Lan (who goes to war in her father’s place because the
latter is old and feeble), but very many other heroines who invariably
defeat men in battle. Chinese history or legend does not account for
this, but it is due to the fact that the actors who portray women seek
opportunities to display their skill in fighting. This fighting is a
highly conventionalized art, a combination of dancing and acrobatics
performed to a deafening and exciting music, which, in regard to its
place on the program, can best be compared to our ballet. Most foreigners
in Peking are kept away from the theater by the fearful noise made in
these “fighting plays”, as they are called, but if these same people
could attend an Elizabethan theater they would possibly find that the
great delight of the audiences was the “noise” (music), the clatter and
scuffle of the battles, the drums, the squibs, and the cannon.[40]

There are in Peking three companies of boy actors, the largest of which
has about three hundred in its theater. These are training schools for
actors in which the boys of eight to sixteen or eighteen years are given
very arduous courses in singing, acrobatics, stage fighting, and all
the other arts that an actor requires. The competition of these “little
eyases” in Peking might well arouse the ire of some of the regular
actors, as it did Shakespeare’s (“Hamlet”, II, 2, 362), for in China the
life of the common actor is a hard one, most of them eking out a meager
living at about twenty cents a day.

The position of the actor in society is very low in Peking, just as
it was in London. A Chinese moralist might well apply to them the
words written in 1759:[41] “Players are masters of vice, teachers of
wantonnesse, spurres to impuritie, the Sonnes of idlenesse, so longe
as they live in this order, loathe them.” Under the former dynasty the
actors and their sons, together with the sons of prostitutes, jailers,
and lictors, were not eligible for taking the examinations. Even now they
usually intermarry only among their own number, and they suffer also from
various other discriminations. Most of them were catamites, until the
Republic abolished this formerly legalized institution. Mei Lan-fang, an
actor who has risen to high perfection in his art, as well as to great
wealth, an artist who may tour America in the near future, would have
ample reason in the present organization of Chinese society to reproach
Fortune in Shakespeare’s words:

    That did not better for my life provide,
    Than public means which public manners breeds,
    Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
    And almost thence my nature is subdued
    To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:
    Pity me then and wish I were renewed.

Peoples are alike and differ also in what they consider to be humorous.
It has been said that the first comedy was the torture of a captive
by his enemies. This sort of performance would nowadays of course
be impossible; yet in most of our comedies we enjoy heartily the
discomfiture of victims of circumstances. We have not yet become too
refined to enjoy the difficulties of a man whose senses are benumbed by
alcohol, of a bald man, a lame man, yes, even a deaf man. The condition
of a blind man, however, strikes us as too tragic to figure in a comedy,
and no modern comedian could draw a laugh from his audience by fooling a
tottering old man bereft of his sight. Yet every one who has seen “The
Merchant of Venice” acted recalls very well what Launcelot Gobbo does to
his blind old father, and I have seen in Chinese theaters how a blind old
beggar deceived by a clown affords huge amusement to the audience.

As I have already stated, Chinese and Elizabethan audiences are alike
also in that they use their imaginations much more vividly than we do.
For them a draped screen represents a city wall, and the bare stage any
country, a ship, a mountain, any house, a street, or whatever is needed
in the particular scene acted. Warriors on horseback in the Chinese
theaters carry whips to let the audience know that they are mounted on
chargers, while Macbeth and Banquo rode on the stage on hobbyhorses—and
were taken seriously. I recall a performance in the Chinese City in which
there suddenly came running on the stage on all fours a man in a tiger
skin, and I laughed because of droll recollections of Shaw’s “Androcles
and the Lion.” But no one else laughed; to the Chinese present it was
a tiger, just as real a tiger as the actors on the stage were for the
moment real kings and queens, soldiers and servants. Of this particular
illusion more anon.

Because there are many similarities in the theaters, stages, actors,
conventions, audiences, and the psychology of the spectator of
Shakespeare’s day and of present-day Peking, I certainly should be the
last to say that because a thing is so in local theaters, it must have
been identical in London three hundred years ago. Yet it seems that
since human nature is very much the same everywhere, it would be safer,
if one wished to hazard conjectures as to what was true in the past,
to take a living example of the theater on the same level of culture,
than to look back at the Elizabethan stage in the light of what has been
accomplished since, and what happens to be the fad at the present time.
This is the day of stage lighting and color effects, of Gordon Craig,
Max Reinhardt, and Bakst, but we should hardly think that these problems
troubled Burbage, who had neither electric light nor scenery, and who
performed his plays on an uncurtained stage by daylight. Yet Professor
H. T. Stephenson of Indiana University, for fifteen years a lecturer
on Shakespeare, author of “Shakespeare’s London”, and “The Elizabethan
People”, by profession a specialist in reconstructing the times of
“Merrie England”, discusses seriously in his very stimulating “Study of
Shakespeare” (page 40) the plight of the stage manager of Shakepearean
days, who could never tell beforehand how the gaily dressed young nobles
sitting on the stage would fit into his color scheme! He also believes
that changes in the stage setting could not have been made in full sight
of the audience, because “this would have upset entirely the unity if not
the gravity of the piece.”

In Peking one can see very remarkable things on the stage that fail to
upset the gravity of any present except the Westerners, who are used to
different conventions in the theater. Professor Stephenson, with the
results of three hundred years of stage experience at his hand, believes
that the Elizabethans must have been fools if they could not have thought
of the same useful devices for the theater that he knows of. To quote
(page 47):

“To my mind the situation suggested by these facts reduces itself almost
to a mathematical problem; if one of us can easily invent such a staging
for an Elizabethan scene, as any ingenious person could construct out
of what we know they had in those days, is it unfair to assume that the
ingenious Elizabethans did as well if not better? More likely better.
They were more used than we are to making a little go a great way.”
He even goes on to explain how one could put up a curtain, simply by
the use of canvas, wire, a few rings, and presto, the thing is done. A
play without the commonplace scenic devices of the twentieth century is
unthinkable to him.

Another theorist is Mr. Corbin, in the _Century Magazine_ for December,
1911. He proves to his own satisfaction that Burbage and his colleagues
had means for darkening the stage.[42] It seems this author staged “The
Winter’s Tale” in New York a few years ago. In this play a bear has to
appear on the stage, and this part was acted by a man on all fours. At
first the scene was played on a lighted stage, and all the New Yorkers
present laughed at the sight of the actor in a bearskin. Then they hit
upon the device of darkening the stage, and having the actor-bear run
quickly across. When this was done, no one’s risibilities were affected.
This forms one of Mr. Corbin’s chief arguments for his assumption that
the Elizabethan stage was darkened; namely, that it would have offended
the good taste of the audience to see in broad daylight in a serious
scene, an actor impersonating a bear. If human nature can endure this
convention in Peking, with the above-mentioned tiger, why should we
assume that three hundred years ago people felt as we do now, and base on
this the novel theory that stages were darkened in those days?

A large measure of the success attained by “The Yellow Jacket” was due
to the fact that the Chinese stage conventions employed seemed so funny
to us provincial Westerners that they caused a great deal of happy
laughter. But this is really quite as intelligent as the attitude of the
rustic who sought out Richard III after the performance and offered to
sell him a good horse for less than a kingdom. It is very strange that
even otherwise scholarly men, like, for example, Victor Albright in “The
Shakespearean Stage”, struggle with all fours against the possibility
that in the theater of the gentle Shakespeare there might have been
committed such desecrations as setting properties on the stage in full
view of the audience. He approaches the evidence with blinkers when it
seems to contradict his theory. He says (page 126): “Only the dramatists
had not yet learned to use explicit stage directions.” On page 143 he
tells us that the Elizabethans did not read stage directions literally.
Then on page 106: “Here in the midst of a street scene is a direction
to set the stage with a table, stand, chairs, stools, etc.,—just such
properties as are used in the next scene, a counting room. We cannot
believe that a manager would disturb an important scene by setting the
stage for a coming one.” Further, on page 110: “The placing and replacing
of a regular setting in full view of the audience never was a _general
custom_. It is contrary to the very nature of the stage,—an illusive,
make-believe world.” In my opinion it is contrary only to the very nature
of a provincial New Yorker.

Let me add in passing that William Archer holds that “in the generality
of cases properties were brought on in full sight of the audience, often
in the middle of the action.”[43]

Doctor Albright, in “The Shakespearean Stage” (pages 122_ff._) condemns
with sarcasm (which seems well merited) the theory of Brodmeier, who
holds that the entire stage in Shakespeare’s theater was curtained from
view. But I should like to question whether or not his own judgments
would have been quite the same if he had known the Chinese stage before
he wrote his estimable thesis. A Chinese actor walks once around the
stage in full view of the audience, and in conformity with the ruling
conventions he has traveled miles, or hundreds of miles, as the plot
requires. Doctor Albright, arguing backwards from the Restoration
staging, comes to the conclusion that there was in the Elizabethan
theater a regular changing from inner to outer scenes, and vice versa,
and that the few pieces of furniture which constituted the stage setting
were always carefully shut off from the view of the audience. He quotes
an example with his comment from a play called “Pinner of Wakefield”, Act
IV, Scenes 3-4. “Jenkins enters a shoemaker’s shop, and dares the owner
to meet him at ‘the towne’s end.’ The challenge is accepted, and after a
certain amount of stage business, _during which the curtains must have
been closed_ [italics mine], Jenkins says, ‘Now we are at the towne’s
end, what say you now?’” However, I should add that in his concluding
paragraph Doctor Albright is by no means dogmatic, but gives this merely
as his theory, stating that there is absolutely no way of proving it.

With all the striking similarities in the Shakespearean and the Chinese
theater there are of course also vast differences, especially in the
background of the two. So far as I know there has never existed in China
a manner of staging which could in any way be compared to the medieval
system of mansions. Likewise the evolution of the platform stage into the
picture-frame stage of the present day makes it seem that even on the
projecting stage the feeling for the need of the curtain for the sake
of the illusion increased as time went on. I repeat that I have not the
slightest intention of arguing from certain conventions on the Chinese
stage that they must have been identical in Elizabethan times. My point
is simply that scholars ought not to assert that certain primitive
conventions are “against the nature of the stage” or “contrary to human
nature”, for this point of view is based on the current conventions
with which the particular writer is acquainted. I should like to quote
the concluding words of Doctor Albright’s thesis, spoken out of the
depth of his experience of wrestling for years with the problems we
are discussing. He calls an article by William Archer “one of the most
original and enlightening articles on the Shakespearean stage that has
yet appeared.” He says further about this writer, “As a learned dramatic
critic of to-day, he approaches the Elizabethan stage with that special
insight and ability which a closet student cannot hope to have. The stage
and the staging have changed since the days of Shakespeare, but the mimic
world is still the mimic world; and the deeper the scholar is grounded
in the stage of to-day, the better he is qualified to study the stage
of yesterday.” And, allow me to add, the knowledge of a living stage at
a similar period of culture will likewise add to his qualifications to
study the theater of the past.




    2705-2595     Huang Ti, mythological emperor.

    2357-2206     Legendary sages to whose teachings Confucius harked

    551           Birth of Confucius.

    255-206       Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the emperor who burned the books
                    and built the Great Wall.

    206 B.C. to
    221 A.D.      Han Dynasty—Recovery of literature—Introduction of


    221-265       The “Three Kingdoms”—Age of romantic chivalry.

    618-906       The T’ang Dynasty—Emperor Ming Huang, traditional
                    founder of the theater, and his consort Yang
                    Kuei-fei, China’s most famous beauty. China was
                    at this time the most civilized country in the
                    world. Li Po and other great lyric poets.

    960-1127      The Sung Dynasty—Development of landscape painting.

    1280-1368     The Yuan or Mongol Dynasty—Classical age of Chinese
                    drama. Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan. Marco Polo.

    1368-1644     The Ming Dynasty—Restoration of Chinese rulers—Drama
                    in the hands of scholars.

    1644-1911     The Ch’ing or Manchu Dynasty—Emperors K’ang Hsi and
                    Ch’ien Lung encourage arts and letters, including
                    the theater.

    1912-         The Republic.



History of the Drama under the Sung and Yuan Dynasties. Wang Kuo-wei.
Commercial Press. Shanghai, 1915.

    Not translated into any European language.

Théâtre Chinois, ou Choix de Pièces de Théâtre Composées sous les
Empereurs Mongols. Bazin Ainé. Paris, 1838.

    Four Yuan Dynasty plays translated by a French sinologue who
    was for years Professor of Chinese at the École des Langues

Chine Moderne, ou Description Historique, Géographique, et Littéraire de
ce vaste Empire, d’après des Documents Chinois. Paris, 1853.

    In the second part of this volume M. Bazin gives numerous
    discussions of Chinese plays with summaries of their plots.
    Very valuable work.

Le Pi-Pa-Ki, ou L’Histoire du Luth. Traduit sur le texte original par M.
Bazin Ainé. Paris, 1841.

    Contains also a very good introduction to this important Ming

L’Orphelin de la Chine. Drame en prose et en vers, accompagné des pièces
historiques qui en ont fourni le sujet, de nouvelles et de poésies
chinoises traduit de chinois par Stanislas Julien. Paris, 1834.

    A complete translation by the famous French sinologue of the
    Yuan drama, The Orphan of the Chao Family. Voltaire made an
    abridged version by a Jesuit missionary the basis of his
    L’Orphelin de la Chine (1755), a stiff and artificial piece,
    presenting a Genghis Khan who falls in love in the manner of a
    French courtier of the 18th century.

L’Histoire du Cercle de Craie. Traduit du chinois par Stanislas Julien.
London, 1832.

    Translation of a Yuan drama.

The Sorrows of Han. Translated by John Francis Davis, F.R.S. London, 1829.

    A Yuan drama translated by a British sinologue; The Fortunate
    Union, a Chinese romance, appears in the same volume.

Le Chagrin dans le Palais de Han. Louis Laloy. Publié par la Société
littéraire de France. Paris, 1921.

    M. Laloy’s version of this Yuan drama attempts to introduce
    some modern motivation. In his preface the author expresses
    the fear that in working over this Chinese tragedy “_il l’a
    défigurée en tachant de l’embellir_”, and perhaps his fears
    were justified.

La Chine Familière et Galante. Jules Arène. Paris, 1876.

    In this volume by a French consul “_qui contient des détails
    fort curieux et intéressants sur les chinois, et surtout sur
    les chinoises_” are printed translations of four realistic
    comedies of popular life, “_sorte de vaudeville au gros sel,
    où, en gestes comme en paroles, la license chinoise se donne
    libre carrière_.” About ninety pages are devoted to the theater.

The Chinese Drama. William Stanton. Kelly and Walsh. Hongkong, 1899.

    A British colonial official has translated three plays. The
    Willow Lute, The Golden-leafed Chrysanthemum, and The Sacrifice
    for the Soul of Ho Man Sau. In an introduction of eighteen
    pages the author discusses the types and conventions of the
    Chinese stage as seen in Hongkong and Canton. It is interesting
    to note that in general the southern theater is identical
    with that of Peking, but that there are some variations,
    particularly in customs and ceremonials.

Catching a Golden Tortoise.

Beating the Gold Bough.

    Two Chinese plays translated by Charles Budd, Tung Wen
    Kuan Translation Office, Shanghai, 1913. Short and mildly
    interesting plays, translated partly for the purpose of aiding
    Chinese who wish to learn English.

Chinesische Schattenspiele. Übersetzt von Wilhelm Grube, herausgegeben
und eingeleitet von Berthold Laufer, Verlag der königlich bayerischen
Akademie der Wissenschaften. München, 1915.

    A huge volume containing in translation the entire repertoire
    of a company of shadow players which Berthold Laufer, Curator
    of the Field Museum, had bought in Peking in 1901 and which
    were translated by the famous German sinologue. Though these
    plays are not presented on the stage, but recited by shadow
    players to accompany the movements of their puppets that cast
    shadows on a screen, yet the plots are the same as those of the
    theater. The book thus serves as a wonderful source for some
    one wishing to familiarize himself with Chinese plays. Berthold
    Laufer has prefaced the book with a meaty introduction.

Pekinger Volksleben. Wilhelm Grube. Berlin, 1901.

    Sociological studies on popular customs and usages in Peking. A
    chapter is devoted to the theater in which numerous summaries
    of modern plays are given. The author also deals with related
    subjects: acrobats, story-tellers, annual ceremonies of guilds,

Geschichte der chinesischen Litteratur. Wilhelm Grube. Leipzig, 1909.

    Several chapters are devoted to the drama. Professor Grube,
    in his discussion of Yuan and Ming plays, is using Bazin’s
    translations, but in his evaluation of modern plays he is
    drawing on his long and intimate experience with the theater in

A History of Chinese literature. Herbert A. Giles. Heinemann, London.

    This well-known sinologue devotes two chapters to the drama,
    but they are not up to the standard of the rest of this
    excellent work. Pi-Pa-Chi is the most modern drama he discusses.

Das Theater und Drama der Chinesen. Rudolf von Gottschall. Breslau, 1887.

    This small volume of 209 pages was written by a minor German
    dramatist without first-hand knowledge of China. The author
    based his study upon French translations of older dramas. Yet
    the book is not lacking in remarks showing a keen insight into
    the Chinese character.

La Littérature Chinoise Contemporaine. Soong Tsung Faung, _Journal de
Pékin_. Peking, 1919.

    A volume by a professor of literature at the National
    University, Peking, in which his critical articles from
    Peking’s French paper are reprinted. Forty-seven pages are
    devoted to the theater under headings such as the following:
    “Origin of the Drama”, “Evolution of the Modern Chinese
    Theater”, “Ibsenism in China”, etc. Professor Soong follows to
    a certain extent Wang Kuo-wei’s History of the Drama under the
    Sung and Ming Dynasties. His thorough knowledge of the European
    stage enables him to make very striking comparisons.

Peking, A Social Survey. Sidney Gamble and Stewart J. Burgess. Doran,

    The chapter “Recreations” in this interesting and painstaking
    survey presents statistics on the number of theaters, their
    locations, prices of admission, status of the actor and
    actress, etc.

En Chine, Mœurs et Institutions, Hommes et Faits. Maurice Courant. Paris,

    The French diplomat devotes one chapter to the theater. He
    writes before the Revolution, but most things connected with
    the theater have been changed very little. He reports one
    abuse, however, which the Revolution (1912) abolished. Page
    144: “_La prostitution féminine reste discrète, car la femme
    est toujours tenue à l’écart; mais la prostitution masculine
    s’étale au grand jour; il n’est guère de pàrtie de théâtre où
    l’amphitryon ne réunisse ses amis d’abord au restaurant et
    ne convie quelques jeunes garçons de bonne mine, richement
    habillés, sachant causer et ‘rendre le vin plus agréable’;
    ils plaisantent et rient avec les convives, les accompagnent
    au théâtre et restent avec eux jusqu’à ce que, la fête finie,
    chacun rentre chez soi. Naturellement, aux simples lettrés on
    ne demande que leur bonne humeur, et ce sont les riches qui
    paient la note; bien de fils de famille se ruinent de cette

The Yellow Jacket. A Chinese play done in the Chinese manner, in three
acts, by George C. Hazelton and Benrimo. Bobbs-Merrill, 1913.

    This play represents a unique example of Chinese influence
    producing a worth-while drama on our stage. Will Irwin was kind
    enough to write to me concerning its origin:

    “... I can tell you the history of the play. Harry Benrimo,
    actor and stage-director, is a native of San Francisco. He
    saw much of the Chinese in California. His father was a
    contractor, employing Chinese labor and doing business with
    Chinese merchants. As a young actor, Benrimo became interested
    in the Chinese theaters of San Francisco. That was the golden
    age of the Chinese theater in America. The price of admission
    made the Jackson Street Company and the Washington Street
    Company rich on Chinese standards and they were able to get
    some great actors—just as the money from the Metropolitan
    Opera drew Caruso from Italy. Ah Chic, leading tragedian of
    the Jackson Street Company, was as great an actor as I ever
    saw.... Benrimo sketched out a scenario made not from any one
    Chinese play, but from a dozen—situations or bits of business
    or dialogue which he remembered from his old days in San
    Francisco theaters. Benrimo called into collaboration the late
    George Hazelton, playwright. On this scenario they worked out
    The Yellow Jacket.... Several Chinese, notably one man—name
    forgotten—from the Consulate helped with the rehearsals.
    Deliberately the authors took certain liberties with Chinese
    drama and psychology in order to make the play effective for
    an Occidental audience. Notably, they made the love of man for
    woman the main theme. One piece of business, I remember, caused
    endless dispute. It is where the happy and united lovers kiss.
    That would not happen, of course, with the Chinese. Benrimo
    understood that perfectly. But he said that an Occidental
    audience would expect it. And he had his way. I remember that
    whenever this piece of business occurred in the rehearsals, the
    man from the Consulate used to giggle.

    “Lately I was talking over The Yellow Jacket with Percy
    Hammond, dramatic critic. ‘Do you know what made it a success?’
    he said, ‘The Property Man as played by Shaw.’ Possibly he’s
    right about that. But the play served its artistic purpose.
    It made American audiences understand something of this
    extraordinary art. And I’ve no doubt but that if Hazelton and
    Benrimo had stuck close to the originals our audiences wouldn’t
    have understood half so well.”

    So far as my experience goes, making love the main theme is not
    un-Chinese, but The Property Man as played on our stages is.
    Possibly Cantonese usage differs in this respect, but in Peking
    property men are always on the stage, coolies dressed in shabby
    blue cotton, but they are conspicuous only to the Westerner
    not used to Chinese conventions. They by no means have the
    importance attached to them in The Yellow Jacket. Compare the
    chapter, “External Aspects.”

The Chinese Drama. R. F. Johnston. Kelly & Walsh, 1921.

    A slender volume that came to be written because the publishing
    firm had four paintings of Chinese actors which they wanted
    to issue in calendar form with a few words of comment from
    the well-known sinologue. Mr. Johnston became absorbed in the
    subject and wrote so much and so interestingly on it that Kelly
    & Walsh decided to make a book out of it. The text is much
    better than the pictures.

Le Théâtre Chinois. Chu Chia-chien. Paris, 1922.

    The chief features of this book are the excellent paintings
    and sketches made in Peking theaters by the Russian artist,
    Alexandre Jacovleff. An English edition has been published by
    Putnam. No other book can give such a vivid notion of the real
    appearance as well as the spirit of the Chinese stage as this
    volume of inspired drawings. M. Chu Chia-chien, instructor in
    the École des Langues Orientales in Paris, writes well, but too
    briefly, on the conditions and conventions of the Chinese stage.

Chinesische Literatur. Eduard Erkes. Hirt, Breslau, 1924.

    A brief, but up-to-the-minute sketch of Chinese literature.
    This volume by a University of Leipzig Privatdozent is one of
    a series on the literatures of various nations. The book came
    to me too late to include what it said on the origin of the
    theater in China in the text, and therefore I shall quote an
    interesting paragraph here. (The author speaks of the Pear
    Garden origin as a myth and says that the Chinese had a theater
    as early as other nations):

    “_Es hat sich aus den bei festlichen Gelegenheiten aller Art,
    bei Krieg und Jagd, bei Opfer und Gelage, inszenierten Tänzen
    entwickelt, in denen man vorher im Spiel darstellte, was sich
    nachher zutragen sollte, um so auf magische Weise das Geschick
    günstig zu lenken, und nachher seiner Freude mimischen
    Ausdruck verlieh. Zu diesen Tänzen sang man Wechselgesänge mit
    Rede und Gegenrede, wie solche uns anscheinend aus mehreren
    Liedern des Schi-king erhalten sind, so dasz das China der
    Urzeit auch hierin das Leben anderer primitiver Völker geführt
    hat. Aus Südchina sind uns Texte solcher Dramen religiösen
    Charakters, wie sie auch K’üh Yüan im dritten Jahrhundert
    vor Christo bearbeitete, mehrfach überliefert, und bereits
    aus dem Jahre 545 v. Chr. haben wir eine Notiz nach der bei
    Tempelfesten, ganz ähnlich wie im alten Hellas, nach den
    ernsten Schaustellungen eine Burleske von den Stallknechten
    aufgeführt wurde. Das zeigt also, dasz die dramatische Kunst
    der Tang-Zeit nicht einen Anfang, sondern nur eine späte
    Etappe auf einem langen Wege bedeutet. Auch die Han-Zeit
    hatte ihre Singspiele, die bereits mit einem umfangreichen
    szenischen Apparat auf geführt wurden und vielleicht
    kompliziertere Bühneneinrichtungen voraussetzen lassen,
    als sie das heutzutage an Einfachheit unserer modernsten
    Schaubühne ebenbürtige—vielleicht für sie vorbildlich
    gewordene?—chinesische Theater jetzt bietet._” Pages 58-59.

Altchinesische Liebeskomödien, aus dem chinesischen Urtexte ausgewählt
und übertragen von Hans Rudelsberger. Kunstverlag von Anton Schroll & Co.
Wien, 1923.

    Free translations of five comedies of love (among them two
    comedies discussed in this book on pages 33 and 96). The
    work is a splendid specimen of book-making with five colored
    illustrations by the Chinese artist Hua Mei-chai and numerous
    woodcuts from the original Chinese editions.

_Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society._

    This very interesting journal, so far as I have been able to
    examine the files, contains only two articles on the theater:
    Volume XX, “Chinese Theatricals”, and Volume XXI, “Histrionic
    Notes.” Neither is very important.

This bibliography is by no means exhaustive. There are a great many
articles not mentioned here, but they are generally not very instructive.
In most cases they are written by travelers who note the obvious things
about the Chinese theater. Naturally there is also a great deal of
repetition in these writings.


[1] As I find the Revised Version, with a fuller understanding of
Oriental life, prefers to phrase it.

[2] Commercial Press, Shanghai, 1915.—A small volume of about 200 pages.
Not translated into a European language.—The same author has issued a
“Dramatical Catalogue”, same publishers, 1917.

[3] Quoted by De Groot, “Religious Systems of China”, vol. VI, p. 1187.

[4] The chief reason why theatricals are given at the village temples
to-day is that they are public buildings with convenient stages. Not only
religious but also secular plays are performed, sometimes vulgar and
immoral ones. On the whole the moral standard of the Chinese stage is
very high and must be called a good influence for the largely illiterate
population. The worship at Chinese temples in the course of the religious
festivals has the general character of a carnival with money changers,
booths for eating and drinking, acrobats, magicians, beggars, gambling
devices, etc.

[5] See Sir William Ridgeway, “The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of
Non-European Races in Special Reference to the Origin of Greek Tragedy,”
Cambridge University Press, 1915.

[6] Professor Porter calls my attention to the fact that Doctor Hu
Shih calls these court jesters “sophists.” They were the ones to make
the shrewdest observations among all courtiers. The suggestion of the
revolutionary element probably accounts for the death sentence.

[7] _La Revue de Genève_, January, 1921.

[8] Note by Professor Porter: Mr. Wang develops his argument very well,
using evidence from the odd foreign names of countries, localities and
places. At the period it is known that there was extensive intercourse
between Western countries and China along the northern and southern
caravan routes.

[9] Page 257.

[10] The difficulty in acquiring a reading knowledge of the classical
Chinese (Wen Li) does not consist chiefly in learning to read five
thousand or more ideograms—that is only a minor trouble—but in the
retention in the memory of the texts of the classics to which constant
allusion is made in a manner to confuse utterly the uninitiated. “The
dragon has gone down to the sea” means “the emperor has died.” Or to
translate the idea into English; the Bible says, “The words of the wise
are as goads” (Ecclesiastes xii, II) and Shakespeare (Hamlet V, I).
“There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners”; therefore the reader would
have to know that “goads” stands for the words of the wise and “ancient
gentlemen” for gardeners. But connoisseurs regard this classical language
as the greatest monument of China, far finer than Sung pottery or the
Temple of Heaven. Said a friend to me one day, picking up a copy of Omar
at the verse:

    O Thou, who man of baser earth didst make,
    And didst with Paradise devise the snake,
    For all the sin wherewith the face of man
    Is blackened, man’s forgiveness give and take.

“Such is this wonderfully rich, poetic Wen Li, while in Pai Hua (the
vernacular) this same thought would cover pages of dull, colorless
prose.” Of course, the spoken language is still as poor a vehicle for
poetic thought as Italian was before Dante, but its advocates hope for
its growth and development.

[11] “Travels of Marco Polo”, Everyman Edition, Dutton and Company, page

[12] The Chinese woman must as a child obey her father, as a wife her
husband, and as a widow her son. The four wifely virtues are: (1) to
honor and serve her mother-in-law; (2) to respect her husband; (3) to
live in peace with her sisters-in-law; and (4) to have pity on the poor.

[13] See Bibliography.

[14] The Chinese name for the instrument is _chin_. Chinese writers on
music have set down seven conditions under which one should not play the
instrument: when one has just heard the news of a death; when some one
is playing the flute in the vicinity; when one is oppressed by business
cares; when one has not purified his body; when one is not wearing the
ceremonial cap and gown; when one has not lighted sweet-smelling incense;
and when there is not present a friend who understands music. Chancellor
Tsai Yuan-pei, until 1923 the head of the National University in Peking,
was a believer in training in æsthetics, and considered a proper
appreciation of the music of the chin a most desirable element in the
_mental equipment_ of a cultured man.

[15] Giles, “Chinese Literature”, page 155. “A poet should not dot his
i’s. The Chinese reader likes to do that for himself, each according to
his own fancy. Hence such a poem as the following, often quoted as a
model in its own particular line:

    “A tortoise I see
          on a lotus-flower resting:
    A bird mid the reeds
          and the rushes is nesting;
    A light skiff propelled
          by some boatman’s fair daughter,
    Whose song dies away
          o’er the fast-flowing water.”

[16] A most readable biography in English has just been published by the
Commercial Press, Shanghai: “Yang Kuei-fei”, by Mrs. Wu Lien-teh.—In
the _Mercure de France_, beginning August, 1922, there appeared a
fascinating series of articles: “La Passion de Yang Kuei-fei”, by Soulie,
translations of songs by blind Chinese singers woven into the story of
the greatest Chinese tale of love.

[17] “The Jade Chaplet, A Collection of Songs, Ballads, etc., from the
Chinese.” Trübner and Company, London, 1874.

[18] The Chinese actually say that the birds imitated her voice in their

[19] One of the many complaints against Yang Kuei-fei was her fancy for
fresh _Li-chihs_. She was so fond of these, that she had them, when in
season, brought from the South to Ch’ang An daily, a distance of three
thousand _li_. This apparently simple fancy was the cause of immense
suffering, distress, and injustice; the messengers carrying the luxury,
presuming on the protection of their mistress, committed all manner of
depredation and violence.

[20] Yang Kuei-fei had intrigued with a noble named An Lu-shan, who
afterwards raised the standard of rebellion, it is said, with the hope
of obtaining possession of her. Be that as it may, the Emperor assembled
a large army, and accompanied by Yang Kuei-fei, went to meet him. On
arriving at a place called Ma-kuei in Sze-chuen, the Emperor’s troops
mutinied, declaring that Yang Kuei-fei was the cause of the rebellion,
and demanding her life, otherwise they would not fight. The Emperor,
having no alternative, was forced to comply. Some say he ordered her to
be strangled, and that this was done by the soldiers; others again, that
she strangled herself—the latter appears the correct version.

[21] For similar practices among the Romans, see Sumner, “Folkways”, page

[22] See also pages 91 and 92.

[23] See Bibliography, book by Arène, for examples.

[24] See outline, page 105.

[25] About a year after the earthquake Tokio’s Imperial Theater was
reopened, and the Japanese honored Mei Lan-fang by engaging him for this

[26] This popular figure, called also “big stomach” or “cloth sack”
Buddha, is laughing in anticipation of the happiness to come. His image
is found in practically all Buddhist temples and frequently among the
_bibelots_ collected by foreigners. In regard to the taste of collectors,
Baron de Staël-Holstein, a Russian scholar versed in Buddhist lore,
remarked to me one day, “The ugliest of all these figures is the one most
sought after by Westerners.”

[27] See page 83_ff._

[28] See Haigh, “The Tragic Drama of the Greeks”, Oxford University
Press; Murray, “Ancient Greek Literature”, Appleton, etc.—So far as I
know no scholar has suggested that the goat did the singing of the “goat

[29] See “Sacred Books of the East”, vol. XXVIII, pp. 92-131.

[30] This has now come to an end. In October, 1924, the deposed emperor
was driven out of his palace by the “Christian” General Feng Yu-hsiang.

[31] Thorndyke, “Shakespeare’s Theater”, Macmillan Company, page 139.

[32] _Ib._, page 87.

[33] Page 76.

[34] _Op. cit._, page 394.

[35] See Taine’s description, Book II, chapter II, in his “History of
English Literature.”

[36] Page 261.—According to my friend Ferdinand Lessing, a German
sinologist, Giles has here made a mistake. In Lessing’s words, Chinese
plays contain “_faustdicke Zoten_.”

[37] “Shakespeare’s England,” II, 308_ff._

[38] Quoted from “Shakespeare’s England”, II, 246. See also Thorndyke’s
“Shakespeare’s Theater”, page 372.

[39] Goethe, “Frauenrollen auf dem römischen Theater von Männern

[40] “Shakespeare’s England”, page 252_ff._

[41] “Shakespeare’s England”, II, 241.

[42] Thorndyke, page 138, refers to this article, but takes no stock in
Mr. Corbin’s arguments. He says that darkness was symbolized by lighted
candles, etc., which is precisely the thing done on the Chinese stage.

[43] “Shakespeare’s England”, II, 301.



[The names of Chinese dramas are printed in italics]

  Albright, Victor, 201, 216, 217, 218

  Amateurs, 109

  Archer, William, 217, 219

  _Autumn in the House of Han._ _See_ SORROWS OF HAN

  Bakst, Leon, 214

  Bazin, A. P. L., 4

  _Beating the Heartless Husband_, 90

  _Beating the Nephew and Worshiping at the Grave_, 87

  _Blood-Stained Fan, The_, 70

  Brodmeier, Professor, 217

  _Burying the Flowers_, 80, 179

  _Butchering the Pig_, 168

  _Chalk Circle, The_, 32

  Ch’ang An, 3, 15, 48, 50, 74

  Chang Chien, Mr., 113

  _Ch’ang-O’s Flight to the Moon_, 104 _ff._, 159

  _Ch’ang-O Pin Yüeh._ _See_ CH’ANG-O’S FLIGHT TO THE MOON

  Ch’ang Shan Tien. _See_ PALACE OF ETERNAL LIFE

  Chang Yao-shang, actor, 15

  Chang Ziang-ling, 142

  _Chao Chia Ku-er._ _See_ ORPHAN OF THE CHAO FAMILY

  _Chao Mei Hsiang._ _See_ INTRIGUES OF A LADY’S MAID

  Chao Tsung, Emperor, 15

  Character Types, 25, 112, 149, 151, 152, 153, 175

  Chen Kwang Theater, 181


  Ch’ien Lung, Emperor, 69

  _Ch’ing Shang Lao Shüeh._ _See_ SLAVE GIRL PLAYS TRICKS ON THE OLD

  Ch’ing Shih Shan, 194

  _Chu Fang Tsao._ _See_ BUTCHERING THE PIG

  _Chu Sha Chü._ _See_ CINNABAR SPOT, A

  Chu Su-yün, actor, 83, 86


  Chu Yuan-chang. _See_ HUNG WU

  _Ch’un Yin Hui._ _See_ MEETING OF MANY HEROES

  _Cinnabar Spot, A_, 88

  Civil Plays, 10, 146

  Classical Language. _See_ WEN LI

  Clowns, 23, 25, 153, 207. _Cf._ COURT FOOLS

  Commedia dell’ Arte, 16

  Confucius, 10, 17, 25, 28, 49

  Corbin, John, 215

  Coryat, Thomas, 208

  Court Fool, Yu Meng, 12
    Yu Sze, 12

  Court Fools, 11, 12, 15, 16. _Cf._ CLOWNS

  Craig, Gordon, 214

  _Crossing the Milky Way_, 159, 194

  Dances, Dramatic, 6

  Dottore. _See_ COMMEDIA DELL’ ARTE

  Dream of the Red Chamber, The, 80, 93, 188

  _Drunkard_, 13

  Duke Lan Lu, 13

  Dwarfs, 11, 13. _Cf._ COURT FOOLS

  Elizabethan Theater, 25, 133, 194 _ff._

  Empress Dowager, 188

  Fan Kuai, 15

  Feng Yu-hsiang, General, 195

  Fools, Court. _See_ COURT FOOLS

  Gamble, Sidney, 133, 144

  Giles, Herbert, 18, 59, 80, 180, 207

  Goodrich, Mrs., 104

  _Greatest Event in Life, The_, 119 _ff._

  Greek Theater, 10, 192 _ff._

  Grube, Wilhelm, 80

  Han Hsi-ch’ang, actor, 140

  _Han Kung Tsu._ _See_ SORROWS OF HAN

  Han Lin Academy, 4, 43

  Harlequin. _See_ COMMEDIA DELL’ ARTE

  _Ho Lan-chi._ _See_ CHALK CIRCLE, THE

  _Ho Lang Tan._ _See_ SINGING GIRL, THE

  Ho Yi, Emperor, 105

  _Hsi Hsiang Chi._ _See_ WESTERN CHAMBER, THE

  Hsien, 7, 11


  _Hsü’s Mother Curses Tsao Tsao_, 81

  Hu Shih, 11, 21, 22, 74, 78, 117, 198


  Hung Sen, author, 70

  Hung Wu, Emperor, 43

  Intrigue of a Lady’s Maid, 26

  I-Yin, 7

  Jade Palace, 3

  Jen Tsung, Emperor, 43

  Jesters. _See_ COURT FOOLS

  Jung Tu-shan, 113, 115

  _K’an Tsien Wu._ _See_ MISER, THE

  K’ang Hsi, Emperor, 69, 182

  Kuan Han-ching, dramatist, 23

  Kuan Yin, 99

  Kublai Khan, 19

  _Kung Chuan Chi._ _See_ RUSE OF THE EMPTY CITY

  Kung Shang-jen, author, 70

  Lao Tze, 28

  Laufer, Berthold, 10, 11, 99

  Lessing, Ferdinand, 207

  Li Fang-yün, 137

  Li Shou-shan, actor, 83

  Li Yuan Tzu-ti, 3


  Literary Language. _See_ WEN LI

  Liu Ming-ju, 135

  Liu Yen Ming, 96

  Marco Polo, 23, 41

  _Mask, The_, 13, 14

  _Meeting of Many Heroes, The_, 82

  Mei Lan-fang, Chapter VIII; 80, 83, 84, 86, 98, 104, 105, 110, 118,
        138, 142, 143, 145, 150, 151, 152, 155, 157, 159, 206, 211

  Mencius, 17, 28

  Military Plays, 10, 13, 77, 79, 146

  Ming Huang (Yuen Tsung), Emperor, 3, 70, 135, 181

  _Miser, The_, 35 _ff._

  _Mu Lan_, 185, 201, 212

  Music, Types of, 142, 147, 191 _ff._

  Musical Instruments, 148 _ff._, 192

  _New Mayor, The_, 115

  New World, 132, 143

  _Ngoh Chia Chuan._ _See_ NGOH FAMILY VILLAGE

  _Ngoh Family Village_, 87

  Orphan of the Chao Family, The, 37, 94

  _Pai Hua_, 21, 22

  Palace of Eternal Life, 4, 70


  Pantalone. _See_ COMMEDIA DELL’ ARTE

  Pantomimes, 6

  _Pavilion of the Royal Monument_, 184

  Pear Garden, 3, 18, 135

  _Pi Pa Chi._ _See_ STORY OF A LUTE

  P’iao Yu. _See_ AMATEURS

  Plays, Types of, 146 _ff._, 197


  Porter, Lucius, 11, 14

  Precious Hairpin, The, 93

  Reinhardt, Max, 214

  Ridgeway, Professor William, 9, 10

  _Ruse of the Empty City, The_, 80

  _Ruse of the Nail, The_, 157

  San Kuo Chi. _See_ THREE KINGDOMS, THE

  _San Yao Hui._ _See_ SHAKING DICE

  Scapino. _See_ COMMEDIA DELL’ ARTE

  Seasonal Plays, 104 _ff._, 159, 194

  _Seeing the Ancestral Portraits._ _See_ TRIAL OF STRENGTH

  _Shaking Dice_, 98

  _Sha Tze Pao._ _See_ SLAYING THE SON

  _Shang Ting Chi._ _See_ RUSE OF THE NAIL

  Shih Hu. _See_ HU SHIH

  Shih Wang-ti, Emperor, 12

  Shui Hu Chuan. _See_ STORY OF A RIVER BANK

  _Singing Girl, The_, 29

  _Slave Girl Plays Tricks on the Old Schoolmaster, The_, 183

  _Slaying of the Son_, 158

  Smith, Doctor Arthur H., 66, 68

  _Snow in June._ _See_ SUFFERINGS OF TOU-E

  Soong Tsung-faung, author, 12, 117, 118

  Sophists. _See_ COURT FOOLS

  _Sorrowful Korean, The_, 114

  _Sorrows of Han_, 37

  Spring Willow Dramatic Society, 112

  _Ssu Pao-pi._ _See_ DRUNKARD, THE

  Stäel Holstein, Baron de, 179

  Stanton, William, 4, 159

  Stent, George Carter, 71

  Stephenson, Professor H. T., 214, 215

  _Story of a Lute._ _See_ CHAPTER III

  Story of the River Bank, 79

  Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, 80

  Suen Lo Ngao, 12

  _Sufferings of Tou-E_, 23, 39, 142

  _Ta Chih Shang Wen._ _See_ BEATING THE NEPHEW


  _Tai Yü Chuan Hua._ _See_ BURYING THE FLOWERS

  Taine, H., 205

  T’an Shen-pei, actor, 149, 188

  T’an Shoo-shan, actor, 150

  _T’ao Hua Shan._ _See_ BLOOD-STAINED FAN, THE

  Taoism, 34

  Teh Hing, actor, 152


  Thorndyke, Professor A. H., 198, 203, 208

  Three Kingdoms, The, 78, 79, 80


  _Three Strange Meetings_, 83, 180

  _Tiger, The_, 14

  T’ing Hua, critic, 154


  _Transmigration of You Hsin_, 33

  _Trial of Strength and Viewing the Ancestral Portraits_, 94, 183

  Tsai Yuan-pei, 58

  Tung Lo Yuan, 140

  Types of Character. _See_ CHARACTER TYPES

  Types of Music. _See_ MUSIC, TYPES OF

  Types of Plays. _See_ PLAYS, TYPES OF

  Vernacular. _See_ PAI HUA

  Wang Kuo-wei, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 23

  Wen Li, 20, 21

  _Western Chamber, The_, 24

  _White and Black Snakes, The_, 100

  Wu, 7, 11

  Wu Lien-teh, Mrs., 71

  Wu Wang, Empress, 7

  Yang Kuei-fei, 4, 70, 71, 72 _ff._, 159, 181 _ff._

  _Yang Kuei-fei on a Spree_, 157, 181

  _Yang Kuei-fei Tsui Chou._ _See_ YANG KUEI-FEI ON A SPREE

  Yang Shiao-lo, actor, 138, 151, 155

  _Yellow Jacket, The_, 170, 200, 216

  _Yi Tsai Hua_, 111

  Yo Fei, 91, 92, 134

  _Young Nun Seeks Love, A_, 178

  _Yü Chan Chih._ _See_ PRECIOUS HAIRPIN, A

  Yu Meng, Court Fool, 12


  Yü San-yen, actor, 150

  Yü Sze, Court Fool, 12

  Yuen Tsung. _See_ MING HUANG

  Yung Lo, Emperor, 47

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Chinese theater" ***

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