Chinese culture can be traced back for thousands of years, as a people and place, China has remained fairly stable for millennia. When a peoples' history can be accurately traced back so far, naturally aspects of their culture can be found to have extremely deep roots indeed. The foundations of Chinese Theatre are laid in the Shang Dynasty, which took place around 1500BC. While Western Europe were experimenting with bronze and boats, in the East a rich culture was putting emphasis on the art of performance.
Perhaps where as many paganic tribes would use ritual and ceremony in spiritual practice and perhaps on the battlefield, putting it into use for a general spectacle was definitely a huge step. Only the Greeks can match this amount of time when it comes to advanced intellectual culture. So many other people groups have been and gone, but for those who stood their ground, the present day has allowed a true flourishing of their ancient ideas.
The span of work that encompasses Chinese theatre is huge. Everything from circus type performance like acrobatics and feats of human ability to the more delicate world of shadow puppets and graceful dance. Music has always been a key ingredient to Chinese theatre, a soundtrack put into action creates a wholesome experience. Where-as we in Britain have musicals and operas, in Chinese culture it's less of a separate form.
During the early Shang Dynasty, it was acrobatics set to music that first became a national form of entertainment. Later, during the following Yuan Dynasty, other forms also began to emerge. Even today, Yuan Style Theatre is known for its opera and grandiose costumes. Of the four doctrines of Chinese theatre, Song, Dance, Acrobatics, and Voice, even in these early times, they were each becoming apparent.
Dance in Chinese Theatre is defined not only by moving in patterns to music, but by timed acrobatics and combat skills. The martial arts of the theatre were used as a form of dance however could easily translate into fighting if in different circumstances. Within the theatre, it is beauty and grace which are required to create a good performance. Combining physical and vocal skills with an elegant delivery is the goal of any Chinese performance artist.
The dance moves often had meanings, and their language was understood by those trained in it. A way of communicating ideas among the elite without closing the doors to the public was able to allow everyone to feel connected but also to keep wisdom out of the hands of those who would misuse it. During the Tang Dynasty, this art form became translated into puppetry. Instead of using one's own body to perform, the skill moved into creating the illusion of theatre from tiny gestures of sticks and strings. Separating the artist from the performer and exchanging vivid and expressive movements for much lighter and subtle routines gave another new dimension to the wisdom of the form.
The puppets used in Chinese Theatre are defined by their appearance. Cantonese puppets are large and show various colours to depict their role in the play. Peking puppets are smaller and their actionable rods are placed at ninety degrees rather than running upwards. The stories and general method of telling them were the same for both types, however to become experienced with one form of puppet was considered a specialism. Chinese puppeteers have a superstition that if the head is left on the puppet over-night then it will come alive. For this reason, the body and the head of Chinese puppets are usually kept in separate containers.
With the modern age, technology has given us cinema and music production. The same themes and elements of the old theatrical forms can still be found in even the most modern of Chinese performance, whether its on stage, DVD, or CD.
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