The Theatre of China
Continuing from Topaz 3, we include a further extract from the book, ‘The
Tear – Studies in World Theatre and Dance’, written by John Turner
and due to be published later this year.
Since the Golden Age in China is considered to be over 3,000
years ago, the origins of Chinese theatre are vague and tend to be little more
than myth and legend, with only fragments of historical evidence to work from.
However, if we look at the theatre that emerged out of the esoteric halls of
the temples and courts during the 3rd century, we can find many clues as to
what existed in pre-recorded history. Perhaps more than any other nation, the
Chinese have managed to preserve much of their ancient values and traditions.
They embody a reverence for the sacred mysteries of the past, and this quality
ensures us insights into a time when theatre was a natural and intuitive part
of the affairs between man and the universe.
The heritage of Chinese art is a wealth of beauty, skill, subtlety, power and
grace - the sublime watercolour scrolls; the exquisite sleeve dancing; the esoterically
coded masks and costumes, each distinctly expressing a quality and a character,
each colour telling a story; and the sublime beauty of the language, carrying
a grace and evocative nature found in few other tongues.
else do you get such a sense of how each art complements the other, where each
act is a small piece within a greater picture. The costume, the facial expressions,
the music, the colours, the language – together they present a harmonised
response to whatever power or set of powers moves or once moved in this vast
civilisation. Even the names of the songs and dances are lyrically exquisite
conveying a half dream state, and the sense of a separate reality that the soul
yearns for: ‘Song to Rainbow-Coloured Clouds and Clear Water’, ‘The
Physician from the East Changes the Whole of the Earth’ and the ancient
variety show ‘The Gathering of Celestial Troupers’.
To be a ‘Student of the Pear Garden’ - a college and theatre company
of the 8th century AD - was to live within a world of extraordinary sensitivity,
to learn the language of colour, the virtue and kindness of blue, the honour
of red, the royalty of yellow. It was to explore the art and power within a
simple gesture and the vocabulary of hand movements. The beautiful sleeve dancing
conveys a time when a movement was not simply a movement but an inner state
or process, playing itself out in a cascade of colour, harmony and radiation.
Stilling with the left and invigorating with the right, the students would train
in at least fifty different movements, each with its own precise meaning.
What marvels to behold in the theatre of colour and stories - the seasonal
plays such as ‘Crossing the Milky Way’, performed on the seventh
day of the seventh month, invite us into a universal theatre where imagination
and wonder abound; the intricately created shadow-puppets skilfully manipulated
to draw the audience into a mystery tale of heroes, villains, gods and demons;
the elegance and grace of the fine stylised dancing with feathers, sleeves or
Theatre in China was never an art for art’s sake. It was a development
journey, a quest for inner and outer refinement, an attempt at tuning oneself
into the virtues of honesty and care, of duty and compassion, not just to be
enacted but lived. And thus the dance, the music or the act was a radiation
clothed and borne to those who watched.
The human body and faculty registers life through impressions, senses, intuition
and registrations. All the impressions we receive during our lifetime are registered
in the brain, whether consciously or not. And as we know, there are fine impressions
and there are impressions of a coarser kind. It is the function of the mentality,
principally formed in us during the first twelve years of our life, that determines
which impressions are captured and stored and which not, which are made conscious
in us and which not. The mentality is rather like a filter as it lets in some
impressions and denies others access and, if accepted, the impressions then
enter the temple of the mind and the mind’s theatre.
Chinese art and theatre has a strong connection to the role of the mentality
and how this relates to the theatre of imagery and the transference of feelings
and states. It explores, communicates and transfers its art through impressions,
symbolism, coding and imagery. It paints pictures through simplicity and grace,
the painter with the brush, the dancer with a gesture or small movement. Each
exact brush stroke evokes imagery and each arm movement conveys a feeling.
China’s history is one of preserving its essential qualities and maintaining
the line of its cultural and artistic character and values. It has always powerfully
resisted influences that would threaten its essential nature and characteristics.
This infers that China has been an effective filter in accepting the best of
what the outside has to offer, whilst rejecting that which it believes would
corrupt its heritage. Throughout its history the elements of divination and
exorcism are recurrent functions within its theatre practices – the one
to foresee, the other to dispel.
Looking at the painted masks that appear in Chinese theatre, and indeed in
the theatre of many other lands, the question is often asked as to their origin
and purpose. In trying to approach this question, it is first necessary to understand
more about the human face. To use a modern analogy of a television set, the
original images are captured and converted into electrical signals within the
studio or wherever the filming is going on. These signals are then transmitted
through a number of methods to the television set, where by the means of a cathode
ray tube, they are converted back into pictures. The human face is our equivalent
to a television screen, translating what we process into expressions and images
- whether joy, doubt, sorrow or love. There is, however, a more profound level
to this understanding, which is that this relates not only to the physical expressions
we witness on each other’s faces, but also to the radiations emitted by
the face. It is inside these realms of understanding that we can begin to appreciate
the theatre of masks and painted faces.
The stage design in Chinese theatre is one of the most basic of all settings
in world theatre, with a bare backdrop and few props; the only significant decoration
being the actors wearing their colourful costumes and face paint. This is designed
to highlight and emphasise the essential natures and qualities of the character
on the stage. Even the plot takes second place to the expression of the characters
on stage. What is important is the portrayal of qualities and influences, all
else being left to the imagination of the audience. It was originally a theatre
of state, or state theatre, in which the personality of the individual player
had no place.
The mask removes the personal features of the actor/player, leaving us free
to witness the face of an essence or a quality. Each colour held a meaning or
significance for the watcher, each expression a state. Gold was the most religious
appearance, green might often have represented the antithesis. Fixed masks later
replaced what was at one time a live and unfolding theatre of essence faces
and today all we have is the remnant of an art long since abandoned. What now
has become set in stone was once like running water - freely moving, spontaneous,
exhilarating and enhancing.
Thus within the theatre of masks we are witnessing the end stages of a nature
of theatre long since lost. Watch the face of wonder on a child – we are
witnessing the face of an essence. Witness the face of longing in the young
lover removed from his or her loved one - this too is an essence face. What
then is the face of courage, of honour, persistence or defiance?
The Chinese sleeve dancing is comparable to forms of wing dancing that appear
throughout many cultures, such as Egypt, Persia and the North American Indians.
In the case of the Chinese, this dancing was one of a series of religious dances,
later to be known as ‘Small Dances’. These were dances with coloured
silk, feathers, plumes, banners, shields and the long extended sleeves. The
sleeve dance carries much significance, both as a regulatory process for the
dancer and as an evocation to the stars. It can be seen to be symbolic of the
longing to use one’s wings to fly to the stars and the longing of our
spirits to return to its place of origin and distant home.
In the same way that the theatre of China encourages the development and liberation
of the imagination, so we are left to wonder and mystery dream as to what would
have once been the most glorious and sublime theatre of the gold and the yellow,
the opal and the amber. A theatre that could, in a movement or a gesture, transfer
an elevated state or knowing to those who abided and were open. Living in our
world today, we are so surrounded and consumed by colour and movement that we
can only in small imagine the enormous power of colour and movement when it
is used sparingly with exact purpose and deliberate passion.