Theatre of China and Japan


History of Chinese Drama

The birth year of the Chinese drama is unknown. Dates are variously suggested and disagreed upon and enclose a period of more than twenty-five centuries. The reason for this divergence of opinion is that while one writer considers the pantomimic dances--for religious worship or military jubilation--which were presented to musical accompaniment, a dramatic production, another wants to name the century of the initial stage performance until festival rites unite with speech in dramatic situation and an histrionic dénouement; or, one studies drama from the assumption of the aesthetic, and another, the anthropologist, considers physical trait and language and primitive custom to find in the emotional agreement in ceremony and ritual a dramatic presentation.

Like its other arts, a nation's drama is a development and is incepted, as they are, by civic and national ceremony. It is only the shortlived that is born completely functioning. And the tenacious Chinese drama can have had neither a definitely marked inception nor a conclusion for the early scribe to have noted, even in a country of remarkable literary antiquity and the habit of notation. From the cult of the dead Chinese drama has been developed by assimilation, by the patronage of succeeding emperors, and the corresponding conversion of the Chinese people. Historians say that music existed in China in B.C. 5400. Of China's second dynasty and its "Golden Age" B.C. 2205-1766, we read that religious worship was accompanied by music and dances which represented the occupations of the people--plowing and harvesting, war and peace; and that these dances illustrated the sensations of working, joy, fatigue, and content.

The Chou Ritual classic written several centuries before the time of Confucius states that six ceremonial dances were in vogue at that early period: "In the first, wands with whole feathers were waved--in the worship of the spirits of agriculture; in the second wands with divided feathers were used--in the ancestral temples; in the third feather caps were worn on the head, and the upper garments were adorned with kingfisher feathers--in blessing the four quarters of the realm; in the fourth yak-tails were used--in ceremonial for the promotion of harmony; in the fifth shields were manipulated--to celebrate military merit; in the sixth the bare hands were waved--in homage to the stars and constellations.

But the ceremonial dances chiefly in vogue were to celebrate, and partly to portray, civil and military accomplishment. "Royal music was of two kinds. If civil merit was to be celebrated the posturers grasped feather wands; if martial prowess, they grasped vermilion shields and jade (embossed) battle-axes. The jade signified virtue, and the shields benevolence, to inculcate clemency to those defeated."

Here, without question, is action to an accompaniment of music. Speech and song were a later emanation. Gradually these dances expressed more license than litany and during the Chou dynasty, B.C. 1122-255, were forbidden in association with religious worship; they were then presented under separate ceremonials but continued to give honor to the same symbols. Elaborate and fantastic costumery and an increased ballet were added and pantomime had become a spectacle for popular entertainment, and was presented on a stage built for the purpose instead of in a temple.

Other early Chinese writers mention occurrences which establish the fact of some form of drama: we read of an emperor who lived seventeen hundred years before the Christian era who was commended for having forbidden certain stage conventions; another ruler of a pre-Christian dynasty was deprived of funeral honors because he was thought to have too much enjoyed the theatre; and a third emperor was advised to exclude actors from his court.

Emile Guimet says that a Chinese theatre was established by an emperor about B.C. 700 and that the writers of that century applied themselves to the development of a poetic drama. Any literature which may have existed has been destroyed by succeeding rulers.

We find a more definite drama chronicle of the eighth century. The emperor Hsuan Tsung, or Ming Huang as he is commonly called from a posthumous title, established a school in the gardens of his palace to teach young men and women the arts of dancing and music, and probably chose his court entertainers from this group. Many actors of today associate themselves with this early imperial school and call themselves members of the College of the Pear Orchard. Ming Huang, who is said to have acted upon his own stage, is today's patron saint of all actors, and his statue, with incense burning before it, may be seen in Chinese greenrooms.

Plays during this century, which is sometimes called the first period of Chinese drama, focused on extraordinary themes, and anticipated the present heroic drama. It is probable that interest in the drama did not extend further than the Imperial court until the thirteenth century.

During the Yüan dynasty, founded in 1280 by the Mongol warrior Kublai Khan, drama, as it now exists in China, appears to have slipped into being as quietly as a fall of snow overnight, and as far as most historians are concerned with the subject, is an established fact only from this time. What actually happened in the thirteenth century was that divisions of subject and character were fixed and an enduring literature produced.


Cao Guojiu

Cao Guojiu, patron of the theatrical profession, he was the brother of the Empress Cao, and he is always depicted wearing an imperial court dress. Another brother’s crimes led him to seek a holy life; it was because of his diligent pursuit and dedication to this that the other seven immortals selected him to join them. Beside him is a qilin, the emblem of "perfect good" and the attendant goals of wisdom in administration, felicity, and accomplished descendants. These Chinese unicorns appear at the birth of a good and wise ruler.


The Twelve Ornaments - representing power and authority.

The "Twelve ornaments" should not be ignored in any consideration of Chinese design; they appear alone or in grouped decoration, and frequently are embroidered upon robes of ceremony worn in the theatre both by actors and the audience.

  1. Flames represent the spirit of fire, heat, the Yang Principle.
  2. Rice or Millet is the symbol of prosperity and fertility.
  3. The Pair of Goblets represent ceremonials and sacrifice.
  4. The Sun with the 3 Legged Raven is a symbol of Yang Principle, male, imperial sovereignty, brightness.
  5. The Moon with Hare Pounding the Elixir of Life in a Mortar, a symbol of the Yin Principle, female, passiveness, sacrifice.
  6. The Stars represent China and the Heart of the Emperor, the inexhaustible source of pardon and love.
  7. The Ax represents justice, authority. Emblem of Lu Pan, God of Carpenters, also the symbol of go-betweens.
  8. The Conventional Bows or folded Embroidered Alter Cloth is a symbol of peaceful collaboration, embroidery as a fine art.
  9. Mountains represent a place of worship.
  10. Pond weed is a symbol of the Spirit of Waters.
  11. Water weed, similar to pond weed, is a symbol of the Spirit of Waters.
  12. The Pheasant represents beauty and good fortune, an attribute of the great Emperor Yu. The Golden Pheasant pertains to Civil Officials 2nd Grad; the Silver Pheasant, to 5th Grade Officials.


The Drama of China by Martha Fletcher Bellinger

The Religious Influence on Chinese Drama by Kate Buss

Decoration, Costume, and Symbolic Design in Chinese Theatre

History of Chinese Drama

Modern Chinese Drama


The Origins of Traditional Shadow Theatre

Right up to the present day the academic world is split over the true origins of shadow theatre. China, India and Indonesia are all mentioned as the founders. The first written records date back to the Sung Dynasty in China - about 1000 BC; but we can be sure that the first productions were much earlier. There is a well-known Chinese legend dating from 121 BC which tells of a magician who staged shadow theatre productions at the court of the emperor Wu. It is undeniable that shadow theatre first saw the light of day in the Far East. It is equally undeniable that it grew out of a kind of cult: even today Indonesian shadow players make an offering to the gods before the beginning of a production. The same Indonesian shadow players have the status of priests and are invited to events such as births, marriages, cremations and the consecration of temples.


Overview of Bunraku Puppet Theatre

One of the three major classical theaters of Japan, with kabuki and noh drama, bunraku is a sophisticated puppet theater written and performed for adult audiences with cultivated sensibilities. It reached its peak in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and at one time even eclipsed kabuki in popularity.

The puppets are one-half to full life-size. Each major character is jointly manipulated by three puppeteers, who appear on stage in full view of the audience. The main puppeteer generally appears bare-faced, while the others are "invisible" in black hoods.

The main puppeteer manipulates the eyelids, eyeballs, eyebrows, mouth, and the right arm. A first assistant operates the left arm only, and a second assistant the legs. Puppet heads and costumes represent character types rather than individual characters.

Sitting to the right of the stage on a slightly elevated platform are a chanter (tayu) who is the voice of all the puppets - men, women, and children - and a shamisen player, who provides musical punctuation for the drama. The art of bunraku lies in achieving perfect synchronization of these three elements - puppets, chanter and shamisen - for intense dramatic effect. There is much to interest the audience in a bunraku play - not just the action on stage, but also the masterful performances of the chanter and the shamisen player.

The history of bunraku began in the 16th century, its popularity rising spectacularly in 1686 after the outstanding playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) began a collaboration with the magnificent chanter Takemoto Gidayu I (1651-1714) who established the Takemoto puppet theater in Osaka in 1684. From this time bunraku surpassed kabuki in popularity, and kabuki began adapting bunraku plays for the kabuki stage, the actors even copying the stylized movements of the puppets. Toward the middle of the 18th century kabuki took over again.

Chikamatsu wrote plays of both historical and contemporary interest. As with kabuki, the themes of bunraku plays reflected the prevailing Buddhist and Confucian morals of Edo-period society, in which most contemporary plays were set, especially the conflict between social obligation and personal desire (giri-ninjo).







Overview of Kabuki Theatre

One of the three major classical theaters of Japan, with noh drama and bunraku puppet theater. Unlike noh drama, which is solemn and ritualized, kabuki is designed to entertain an audience with dramatic, often spectacular, effects.

A kabuki play opens to the rapid clapping of wooden clappers as the traditional stage curtain, in black, green, and persimmon vertical stripes, is drawn open. Plays are performed using a combination of dramatic dialogue and dance, and accompanied by drums, flutes, stringed instuments called shamisen, and chanting. The kind of musical accompaniment changes according to the play. The actors wear dramatic costumes, whose style depends on the type of play - historical play (jidaimono), or the dramatization of a topical event (sewamono). The costumes of sewamono plays are in the fashion of the Edo period (1600-1868), when kabuki originally flourished.

No women take part in traditional kabuki. Women were banned at an early stage of kabuki's development because an important side business of the onna (women's) kabuki troupes was prostitution, and men assumed the female roles. The art of female impersonation (onnagata) was developed into a theatrical role requiring years of training. Common underlying themes of kabuki plays reflect the prevailing influence of Buddhist and Confucian thought in Edo-period society and include retributive justice, the pathos of the impermanence of all things, filial piety, and the conflict between love and duty (giri-ninjo).

Kabuki began in the early 17th century and it rose to the peak of its popularity in the late 17th century owing to the talents of outstanding playwrights such as Chikamatsu Monzaemon and star actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro I, who created the aragoto (rough business) style of acting, with heroes displaying superhuman powers. Kabuki's popularity waned at the begining of the 18th century due to the rising influence of bunraku puppet theater. It rose again in the second half of the 18th century, but half the plays performed today are still adaptations of plays for the puppet theater. Kabuki is mainly carried on by families of actors, but the National Theater in Tokyo also has a school for training young performers outside this framework.

The majority of kabuki performances today still rely largely on a core of classic Edo-period plays and use traditional costumes and conventions. However, there is also a new generation of actors attempting to update plays and to attract modern audiences with exciting stage techniques. The average length of a performance is five hours, including intermissions. The larger theaters such as the Kabukiza and National Theater in Tokyo provide earphone guides in English.


KABUKI: Traditional Theatrical Arts

Introduction to Kabuki

Kabuki Story 2001

Kabuki and the Floating World of Tokugawa Japan



Overview of Noh / Kyogen Theatre

Noh is a classical Japanese performance form which combines elements of dance, drama, music and poetry into one highly aesthetic stage art. Largely based in the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, it is performed throughout the country by professional artists, mainly men, who have passed down the art among family members for numerous generations. There is also a wide following of both male and female amateurs who practice and perform its chant, dance, and instruments.

Kyogen is the classical comic theater which balances the more serious Noh. While Noh is musical in nature, Kyogen emphasizes dialogue. The two are traditionally performed alternately on the same program and they share a common heritage. In addition to their own Kyogen repertoire of comic plays, Kyogen actors usually appear in interlude roles in Noh plays. Similarly, Noh instrumentalists also sometimes appear in Ky gen plays. The training methods of the two forms are also similar.

Noh developed into its present form during the 14th and 15th centuries under the leadership of the distinguished performer -playwrights Kannami and his son Zeami. Zeami, in particular, wrote numerous plays which are still performed in today's classical reper-tory of some 250 plays. He also wrote a number of secret works which explain the aesthetic principles governing Noh and give details on how the art should be composed, acted, directed, taught, and produced.

Noh flourished during Zeami's time under the patronage of the mili-tary shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Later during the Edo period (1603-1868), Noh became the official performance art of the military government. Feudal military lords throughout the country supported their own troupes and many studied and performed the art themselves.

With the societal reforms of the Meiji period (1868-1912), Noh lost its govern mental patronage and was left to fend for itself. Although it nearly died out, enough performers regrouped, found private spon-sors, and began teaching the art to amateurs so that it slowly began to flourish again.

Today, like many classical performance forms throughout the world, Noh cannot be described as a popular art among the Japanese people as a whole. Yet its supporters are enthusiastic and its professional per-formers are highly trained and extremely busy performing and teaching throughout the country. There are today approximately 1,500 professional performers who make their living largely through performing and teaching Noh.

Types of Plays

There are five categories of Noh plays. In order, these feature gods, warriors, beautiful women, miscellaneous (notably mad-women or present-time) figures, and supernatural beings. During the Edo period, a full day's program consisted of the ritual piece Okina-Sanbaso followed by one play from each category in the above order. One Kyogen play would be presented between each Noh. Of the five categories, the women plays are the slowest in tempo but the most poetic, and of the highest level in expressing yugen, an aesthetic term suggesting quiet elegance and grace, and subtle and fleeting beauty.


The main character of a Noh play is called the shite (pronounced sh'tay) who sometimes appears with one or more companion char-acters called tsure. In many plays, the shite appears in the first half as an ordinary person, departs, then appears in the second half in his true form as the ghost of famous person of long ago. The former is called the maejite and the latter the nochijite. They are traditionally performed by the same actor.

The secondary actor, the waki, is often a travelling priest whose questioning of the main character is important in developing the story line. He also often appears with companion waki-tsure. An interlude actor called ai or ai-kyogen also often appears as a local person who gives further background to the waki, and thus to the audience, in order to understand the situation of the shite.

The Chorus

A chorus called jiutai, usually consisting of eight persons, sits at the side of the stage and functions to narrate the background and the story itself. It also sometimes describes the character's thoughts and emotions or even sings lines for the characters.


Matsukaze, translated by Royall Tyler

Tsunemasa translated by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa

Ikuta by Zembo Motoyaso

More Plays...



Japanese Noh Theater

The Noh Stage

Munakata UEDA and His Shakespearean Noh Plays

Dojoji: One of Mishima’s Modern Noh Plays

Noh and Kyogen