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The Hometown of Operas

Chinese operas originated from the song and dance performances in the prehistoric religious ceremonies. Later, these primitive performances absorbed other acting forms such as farces and finally developed into operas a comprehensive acting form chiefly featuring singing and talking. Together with the ancient Greek dramas and Indian Sanskrit plays the Chinese operas have been valued as an art treasure representing the ancient civilization of the world.

In Song Dynasty, with the development of social economy and culture and the overall improvement of living standards common people tended to go in for entertainment and the ruling class advocated the education of the ruled through fun. In such circumstances variety plays which combined miscellaneous acting art forms appeared and gained wide popularity. Till the period of the Yuan Dynasty on the basis of the variety play and professional scripts and modes of ancient Chinese music known to have flourished in the Jin period a kind of poetic drama came into existence which symbolized the ancient Chinese drama art had entered into a mature phase.

Shanxi is one of the cradles of Chinese operas. Shanxi has witnessed dramatists of great fame coming forth in great number and opera stages spreading all over villages and towns. Rich in opera relics of great variety, Shanxi is well known as “hometown of Chinese opera art”. And the south of Shanxi, especially the districts around Linfen has been prosperous in economy and culture since ancient times and has nourished the opera art forms of Song and Yuan Dynasty.


SONGS AND DANCES: WORSHIP AND ENTERTAINMENT

  When our remote ancestors created songs and dances to hold sacrificial ceremonies, they never expected that these activities would have gained such popularity as they were in the following generations. People sing and dance to show their happiness and sorrow on occasions when they offer sacrifices to heaven and god when they intend to scare away evils and diseases when they celebrate good harvest when they mourn the deceased and when they express love to each other.

  When the wheels of history rumbled into stratified society, some music and dances came to be related to social manners and hence became the symbol of rank and status. But the bulk were still rooted in folk acting performances and handed down generation after generation on an innovative basis. Of these robust representatives are typical “Nuo” in the pre-Qin days“You” in the Han and Wei period“Canjun Play” in the Tang Dynasty and the traditional festivities and children’s bamboo horse game in the Song Dynasty. They are all from the people and still active among them.


TRADITIONAL OPERA:POPULARITY AND CIVILIZATION

  The traditional opera art in the Song and Jin period had absorbed many acting forms from the past and gradually featured a unique acting pattern. The subject it involved had also expanded from the original sacrificial ceremonies and festive celebrations to entertainments intended for educating people and criticizing society. The opera art, rooted deeply in the fertile soil of social life became a multi-faceted prism reflecting the reality as it was.

  In the carved brick-layered tombs of South Song and Jin Dynasties in the southern Shanxi,unearthed many sculptures from which people can learn almost everything of the ancient opera art and social life.


POETIC DRAMAS:ART AND LIFE

  In Song and Jin period, poetic dramas one of the early opera forms began to flourish in the southern towns and villages of Shanxi. Back then commercial acting performances were widely popular. The drama stagers began to fall into various parts including the male role the female role the painted-face role and the comic role. And each had the costumes and garb styles of their own. The band accompanying the acting with musical instruments came to have its own fixed members and verse tunes. By Yuan Dynasty all these aspects of the ancient operas became more stabilized and mature and continued to develop in a more complicated and detailed way. It is from then on that operas as a fresh branch began to embark on the stage of the ancient Chinese acting art.

SHADOW PLAY:SILHOUETTE AND CUSTOM

  The shadow play has converted the traditional story telling into a special acting form, which is in particular intended for a small audience of country villages. When the play was on the actor performed not by himself but by holding some silhouetted figures made of donkey or goat hide. Under lighting background the shadows of these figures would be projected onto a white cloth screen. With the actor moving the figures in different directions accompanied with narrations singing and musical instruments these figures would come alive and visualize the story in presentations.

  The shadow play, having combined as one different art forms including painting sculpture music singing and acting is of high value of artistic appreciation. The shadow play in Shanxi has two schools represented by advocators from the Southern Shanxi and the Middle Shanxi respectively. They differ in acting style each having its own merits. In general leather silhouettes no matter which school they may belong to are all beautifully made and equally satisfactory in performing result.