The classical Chinese theater developed during the Yüan dynasty (1260–1328). Springing from story cycles made familiar by professional storytellers, Yüan plays relied for their appeal on romantic or sentimental plots. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) the drama utilized the plots of popular novels. Until the 19th cent., Chinese drama was not spoken; it was a mixture of music and declamation. Like the Sanskrit, Chinese drama avoids tragedy as that term is understood in the West. However, it is frequently infused with pathos, often involving the deaths of women.
Although acting style, character types, stage properties, and other external features of Chinese drama are highly conventionalized, there is great narrative freedom in the plays themselves. Often they are replete with Confucian ethical precepts, propounded with rigid didacticism. Many of the plays, however, embody a Taoist mysticism that runs counter to Confucian influence. Chinese drama is more social and less concerned with romantic love than is the Sanskrit. Family and country are frequently regarded as of more importance than the individual.
In contrast to the Sanskrit, Chinese drama was written for a popular audience, and dramatic performances took place in virtually every village. There are many Chinese plays extant, ranging in mood from pathos to farce. Among the masterpieces of Chinese drama are The Injustice Suffered by Tou F by Kuan Han-ch'ing, The Western Chamber by Wang Shi-fu, and The Orphan of the House of Chao by Chi Chun-hsaing (all 12th–15th cent.); The Peony Pavilion by T'ang Hsien-tsu (16th cent.); and The Palace of Long Life by Hung Sheng (17th cent.).
In the West, Chinese drama has traditionally been regarded as an entertainment rather than a serious art form. There are several reasons for this judgment: first, the formlessness of Chinese plays, as, for example, Hung Sheng's Palace of Eternal Youth (1688), a play in 49 scenes without any act divisions; second, the spectacular nature of Chinese drama, which relies heavily on music, song, acrobatics, mimicry, and costuming; and third, the preponderance of stock characters, such as the comic drunk.
In Chinese drama no attempt is made at realism; props and scenery are symbolic (for instance, a flag represents an army); the property man is present on stage; characters at times directly address the audience. Often only parts of plays are performed, or scenes are performed in arbitrary sequence. Since the early 19th cent. the Beijing opera has been the dominant force in the Chinese theater. After World War I a realistic, spoken drama, patterned after Western plays, developed, but after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 the theater (except on Taiwan) devoted itself to political propaganda until the 1990s.
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