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That the Chinese are extravagantly fond of theatrical representations, is well known to all who live in China. The Chinese trace the origin of the stage to the times of the Emperor Ming Huang, of the T’ang Dynasty (died 762) who, under an alias, is supposed to be worshipped as the god of play-actors. It is a popular saying that if the players neglect to do homage to this patron, they will altogether fail in their representations, whatever these may be.

With the history of the Chinese stage, we have in this connection no concern. According to the Chinese themselves, it has degenerated from its ancient function of a censor in morals, and has become merely a device for the amusement of the people. It is a remarkable circumstance that while the Chinese as a people are extravagantly fond of theatrical exhibitions of all sorts, the profession of play-actor is one of the few which debars from the privileges of the literary examinations. The reason for this anomaly is said to be the degradation of the theatre by pandering to vitiated or even licentious tastes. To what extent the plays ordinarily acted are of this sort, it is impossible for a foreigner to decide. The truth seems to be that the general (theoretical) contempt for the stage and its actors in China, is a product of the moral teachings of Confucianism, which uncompromisingly condemn the perversion of the right uses of dramatic representation. But while this (theoretical) view is the one which is constantly met, it is like many other Confucian doctrines, chiefly remarkable for the unanimity with which it is disregarded in practice.

In what we have to say of Chinese theatres, we must disclaim any knowledge of them at first hand, that is to say, by listening to acted plays. There are several obstacles to the acquisition of such knowledge by this method, even were other difficulties lacking. Most Chinese plays are laid out upon so extravagant a scale, as regards time, that they may be spread over many hours, or possibly several days. The most indefatigable European could not listen to the entire performance of any one of them, without becoming utterly exhausted. The dialect in which the actors speak is so different from the spoken language, that it is hard to form an idea of what they are saying. The tone adopted is that shrill falsetto, which is not only fatiguing to an Occidental hearer, but almost of necessity unintelligible.

When to these embarrassments are added the excruciating music, the discomfort attending the dense crowds, and the universal confusion which is an invariable concomitant of a Chinese theatre, it is not strange that these representations have for Westerners very few attractions, after the first glance has satisfied curiosity. This indifference on our part is almost unintelligible to the Chinese. That a foreign traveller, who is told of a theatre in full blast at the town at which he expects to spend the night, should feel no joy, but should deliberately push on so as to avoid spending the night at that place this is to the Chinese profoundly incomprehensible.

Except in a few large cities, the Chinese have no theatres in our sense of the term, provided with seats and enclosed by walls and roof. The stage is a very simple affair, and is entirely open to inspection. Sometimes it is built like a temple with an open front. But by far the larger part of the rural representations of theatrical companies take place on a temporary scaffolding which is put up for the purpose the night before the plays begin, and is taken down the moment the last play closes. The players resemble their ancient Grecian prototypes in that they are a migratory band, going wherever they are able to find an engagement.

The stage equipments, like the stage itself, are of the simplest order, the spectator being required to supply by his imagination most of those adjuncts in the way of scenery, which in our days, are carried to such perfection in the theatres of the West. There is no division of a play into separate acts or scenes, and what cannot be inferred from the dress, or the pantomime of the actors, they must expressly tell to the audience, as for example who they are, what they have been doing, and the like. The orchestra is an indispensable accompaniment of a theatrical representation, and not only bursts into every interval of the acting, but also clangs with ferocity at such stirring scenes as a battle attack, or to add energy to any ordinary event.

Apropos of this resemblance between the Greek stage and the Chinese, which must have struck many observers, Mr. H. E. Krehbiel (in an article published in the Century for January, 1891) has declared that “the Chinese drama is to-day in principle a lyric drama, as much so as the Greek tragedy was. The moments of intense feeling are accentuated, not merely by accompanying music, as in our melodrama, but by the actor breaking out into song. The crudeness and impotency of the song in our ears has nothing to do with the argument. It is a matter of heredity in taste.”

The village theatrical company owes its existence to some rich man, who selects this as a form of investment. As all the available land in the greater portion of China is wholly out of the market, it is not easy for one who has more money than he can conveniently use to decide what to do with it. If he should go into the theatrical business, it is not necessarily with the expectation that the money will yield him a large return, but in order to provide a popular amusement for a great number of people, and at the same time receive a larger or smaller interest on the amount invested.

The person whose capital is used in the costumes, which are the main part of the outfit of a Chinese theatre, is called the “Master of the chest.” The whole outfit may be leased of him by an association of persons, who pay a fixed sum for the use of the costumes, which must be kept in good condition. In a first-class theatre, these costumes are very costly, and include what are called “dragon robes,” and “python robes,” each with double sets of inner garments, of fine quality, and handsomely embroidered. Of these there are at least two suits, five suits of armour, and numberless other articles of clothing, such as trousers, skirts, boots, buskins, etc. Another “chest” contains the accoutrements of the players, as swords, spears, and the like, made of gilded wood.

The value of all these various equipments, in a well-furnished theatre, is said to be fully $5,000, and in those of the cheaper sorts, two-thirds or half as much. Each of the three “chests” in which the stage accoutrements are stored, is in charge of three men, who are responsible for the security and the care of the contents of the cases.

The players are divided into classes which are called by different names, the members of each class receiving pay according to the dignity of their position. There are, for example, two individuals, one civil and one military, who represent high-class historical characters, like Chiang T’ai-kung, etc. These actors are called lao-sheng. Another class styled hu-sheng, represent personages like Wen Wang, or Chao K’uang-yin. A third class are assigned to characters like LA1/4 Pu, etc., and these players are called hsiao-sheng. In addition to these are persons of less importance, who represent ladies, officials’ wives, young girls, or others. After these come what may be called clowns, who are termed “flowery-faced,” (hua-lien) subdivided into first, second and third. These represent the bad characters, such as Chou Wang, Ts’ao Ts’ao, and the like, down to the lowest class who take the most despised and hateful parts of all. In addition to these main characters, there is a considerable force detailed as soldiers, servants, messengers, or to personify boatmen, innkeepers, and the like. The rear is brought up with a large staff of cooks, water-carriers, etc., whose duty it is to provide for the material comfort of the players in their vagrant life.

Aside from the regular theatrical companies one frequently meets with companies of amateurs who have inherited the art of giving performances on a small scale called “a little theatre.” They are young farmers who delight in the change and excitement of stage life, and who after the crops are harvested are open to engagements until the spring work begins. There may be only fifteen or twenty in the band, but the terms are low, and the food furnished them much better than they would have had at home, and when the season is over they may be able to divide a snug little sum to each performer.

The manager, or lessee of the theatrical equipment, is called a chang-pan, and engages the players for a term of about ten months, beginning early in the spring, and ending before the close of the year. The whole company may number between fifty and a hundred men, and the best actors may be engaged for sums ranging from the equivalent of a hundred dollars for the most skilled, down to a few tens of dollars for the inferior actors, their food in each case being furnished. It is thus easy to see that the expense of maintaining a theatre is a vast drain upon the resources of the lessee, and presupposes a constant succession of profitable engagements, which is a presupposition not infrequently at a great remove from the facts of experience.

The lessee of the theatre supplies himself with the material for the development of actors, by taking children on contract, or apprenticeship, for a fixed period (often three years) according to a written agreement. At the end of their apprenticeship, these pupils are at liberty to engage in any company which they may elect, for whatever they can get, but during their term of indenture, their time belongs to the man who has leased them of their parents. The motive for such a contract on the part of the parents, is to secure a support for the children. Sometimes children run away from home and make engagements on their own account, attracted by the supposed freedom of the player’s life.

The amount which each child receives during the time of his apprenticeship, is the merest pittance, and it is said that in three months at most he can learn all that it is necessary for him to know. A large part of his duties will be to strut about on the stage, and mouth more or less unintelligible sentences in a grandiloquent tone. If the number of plays in which he appears is large, the tax upon the memory may be considerable, but Chinese children can learn by rote with amazing facility, and constant practice must in a short time fix in his memory everything which the young actor requires to remember.

From an Occidental point of view, it would be hard to imagine anything more remote from a life of pleasure, than the constant locomotion, routine drudgery, uncertain and inadequate remuneration of the average Chinese actor. We have never met one who did not admit that it was a bad life. A leading Japanese actor is quoted as saying that the popular notions in regard to the theatre of that country which is probably in many respects analogous to that of China are as different from the reality, as clouds from mud. “The hardships endured are as the suffering of Hades, and the world is not benefited a fraction by the actors’ exertion, so they are not useful to society. It is a life to fear and to dread.” There are probably very few Chinese actors who have progressed so far as to entertain, even for a moment, the thought whether their work is a good or an evil to “society.”

It is not uncommon to hear of an exceptionally intelligent District Magistrate who issues proclamations strictly forbidding theatrical performances within his jurisdiction, exhorting the people to save their funds to buy grain and relieve the poor, or to set up public schools. But the only way to enforce these sensible orders of an unusually paternal official, is for him to make constant personal inspection, and see that his commands are heeded. Otherwise, a sum of money judiciously spent at the yamen, will buy complete immunity from punishment. Free schools and charity are too tame for the taste of the people, who demand something “hot-and-bustling,” which a theatrical performance most decidedly is.

It is one of the contradictions which abound in the Chinese social life, that while play-actors are theoretically held in very light esteem, the representation of a play is considered as a great honour to the person on whose behalf it is furnished. Instances have occurred in China, in which such a representation has been offered by the Chinese to foreigners, as an expression of gratitude for help received in time of famine. The motives in such cases, however were probably very mixed, being composed largely of a desire on the part of the proposers to gratify their own tastes, while at the same time paying off in a public manner a technical debt of gratitude.

To suggest under such circumstances that the money which would have been absorbed in the expenses of the theatre, should rather be appropriated to the purposes of some public benefit, such as a free-school, would not commend itself to one Chinese in a thousand. Only a limited number of scholars could receive the benefit of a free-school, whereas a theatre is emphatically for everybody. Moreover, a theatre is demonstrative and obtrusively thrusts itself upon the attention of the general public in a manner which to the Oriental is exceedingly precious, while to set up a free-school would be “to wear a fine garment in the dark,” when no one would know the difference.

The occasion for the performance of a play is sometimes a vow, which may have been made by an individual in time of sickness, the theatricals to be the expression of gratitude for recovery. In the case of an entire village, it is often the returning of thanks to some divinity for a good harvest, or for a timely rain. A quarrel between individuals is frequently composed by the adjudication of “peace-talkers” that one of the parties shall give a theatrical exhibition by way of a fine, in the benefits of which the whole community may thus partake. In view of the well-known propensities of the Chinese, it is not strange that this method of adjusting disputes is very popular. We have known it to be adopted by a District Magistrate in settling a lawsuit between two villages, and such cases are probably not uncommon.

Sometimes there is no better reason for holding a theatre than that a sum of public money has accumulated, which there is no other way to spend. A foreigner could easily propose fifty purposes to which the funds could be appropriated to much better advantage, but to the Chinese these suggestions always appear untimely, not to say preposterous.

When it has been determined to engage a theatre, the first step is to draw up a written agreement with the manager, specifying the price. This will vary from a sum equivalent to twenty-five dollars, up to several hundred dollars. The former amount is, indeed, a bottom price, and would be offered only to a very inferior company, which might be forced to accept it, or even a less sum, as better in a slack season than no engagement at all. During the time of the year, on the contrary, in which the demand for theatricals is at the maximum, a company may have offers from several villages at once. Rather than lose the double profit to be made, the troupe is often divided, and a number of amateurs engaged to take the vacant places, thus enabling the company to be in two places at the same date.

It is a common proverb that the country villager who witnesses a theatre, sees only a great hubbub, a generalisation strictly within the truth. It is upon this ignorance of the villager that the theatrical manager presumes when he furnishes an inferior representation, instead of the one for which his contract calls. But if the villager ascertains the fraud, consisting either in deficiency of players or inferior acting, he rises in democratic majesty, and “fines” the company an extra day or two, or even three days, of playing as a penalty, and from this decision it would be vain to appeal.

The individual who communicates with the village which hires the theatrical company, and who receives the money, is called the program bearer ("pao-tan ti"). The scorn in which theatrical folk are supposed to be held, appears to be reserved for this one individual alone. He makes arrangements for the conveyance of all the trunks containing the equipment from the previous place of playing, to the next one, and especially for the transportation of the staging.

In inland regions, where it is necessary to use animals, it requires a great many carts to move about so much lumber, which must be done with great expedition in order not to waste a day, at a time when engagements are numerous; and, even to a Chinese, time is precious, because the food and pay of so many persons have to be taken into the account. The carts for this hauling are provided by the village which is to enjoy the exhibition, being often selected by lot. Sometimes, however, a small tax is levied on all the land in the village, and the carts are hired.

The day previous to a theatre in any village is a busy one. Great quantities of mats are provided, and in a short time some barren spot on the outskirts of the hamlet begins to assume the appearance of an impromptu settlement; for aside from the theatre itself, great numbers of small mat-sheds are put up to be used for cook-shops, tea-shops, gambling-booths, and the like. During the day, even if the village is but a small one, the appearance is that of the scene of a very large fair.

In the larger towns, where fairs are held at more or less regular intervals, it is usual, as already mentioned, to begin them with a theatrical exhibition, on the first day of which hardly any business will be done, the attendants being mainly occupied in gazing at or listening to the play. In such cases the attendants can frequently be safely estimated at more than 10,000 persons. In large fairs there is generally a performance every day as long as the fair holds, an arrangement which is found to be very remunerative from a financial point of view in attracting attendance, and therefore customers.

From a social point of view, the most interesting aspect of Chinese village theatricals is the impression which is produced upon the people as a whole. This impression may be feebly likened to that which is made upon children in Western lands, by the immediate imminence of Christmas, or in the United States by the advent of a Fourth of July. To theatrical holidays in China every other mundane interest must give way.

As soon as it is certain that a particular village is to have a theatre, the whole surrounding country is thrown into a quiver of excitement. Visits by young married women to their mothers’ homes, always occasions to both mothers and daughters of special importance, are for a long time beforehand arranged with sole reference to the coming great event. All the schools in all the neighbouring villages expect at such times a holiday during the whole continuance of the theatricals. Should the teacher be so obstinate as to refuse it (which would never be the case, as he himself wishes to see the play) that circumstance would make no difference, for he would find himself wholly deserted by all his pupils.

It is not only brides who take advantage of this occasion to visit their relatives, but in general it may be said that when a village gives a theatrical representation, it must count upon being visited, during the continuance of the same, by every man, woman and child, who is related to any inhabitant of the village and who can possibly be present. Every Chinese family has a perfect swarm of relatives of all degrees, and the time of a theatrical performance is an excellent opportunity to look in upon one’s friends. Whether these friends and relatives have been invited or not, will make no difference. In the case of ordinary villagers, the visitors would come even if they knew for certain that they were not wanted.

It has frequently been remarked that hospitality as such cannot be said to be a characteristic Chinese virtue, although there is at all times such a parade of it. But whatever one’s feelings may be, it is necessary to keep up the pretence of overflowing hospitality, so that whoever comes to the yard must be pressed to stay to a meal and to spend the night, however anxious the host may be to get rid of him. On ordinary occasions, guests will not stay without such an amount of urging as may suffice to show that the invitation is bonAc fide, but during the continuance of a theatre it often makes very little difference how lacking the host may be in cordiality, the guests will probably decide to stay, as the play must be seen.

It is by no means an uncommon thing to find that in a village which has engaged a theatrical troupe, every family is overrun with such visitors, to such a degree that there is not space enough for them to lie down at night, so that they are forced to spend it in sitting up and talking, which may be easily conceived to be an excellent preparation for the fatiguing duties of the morrow. As a theatre seldom lasts less than three days, and sometimes more than four, it can be imagined what a tax is laid upon the village which is overrun. When it is considered that every married woman who returns to her home, as well as every woman who visits any relative, always brings all of her young children, and that the latter consider it their privilege to scramble for all that they can get of whatever is to be had in the way of food, it is obvious that the poor housekeeper is subjected to a tremendous strain, to which the severest exigencies of Western life afford very few analogies.

The cost of feeding such an army of visitors is a very serious one, and to the thrifty Chinese it seems hard that fuel which would ordinarily last his family for six months, must be burnt up in a week, to “roast” water, and cook food for people whom he never invited, and most of whom he never wished to see. It is a moderate estimate that the expense of entertainment is ten times the cost of the theatre itself, realizing the familiar saying that it is not the horse which costs but the saddle.

The vast horde of persons who are attracted to the village which has a theatre, has among its numbers many disreputable characters, against whom it is necessary for the villagers to be constantly upon their guard. For this reason, as well as on account of the necessity for being on hand to look after the swarms of guests, the people of the village have little or no opportunity to see the play themselves. Guests and thieves occupy all their time! Eternal vigilance is the price at which one’s property is to be protected, and the more one has to lose, the less he will be able to enjoy himself, until the danger is over. It is a common observation that, after a theatrical performance, there is not likely to be a single chicken left in a village. To prevent them from being stolen by the expert chicken-thieves, the villagers must dispose of their fowls in advance.

Such being the conditions under which the Chinese village theatre is held, it is surprising that so great a number of theatrical troupes contrive to make a living such as it is out of so precarious an occupation, which is likely to fail altogether during years of famine or flood (never few in number), and also during the whole of each period of imperial mourning, when actors are often reduced to extreme misery. One reason for their passionate attachment to the theatre, must be found in the fact that for the Chinese people there are very few available amusements, and for the mass of the country people there is literally nothing to which they can look forward as a public recreation, except a few feast days (often only two or three in the year), the large fairs with accompanying theatricals, or theatricals without fairs.

It is evident that a form of exhibition which is so much valued by the Chinese, may become an important agency in inflaming the minds of the people. This is at times undoubtedly the case. Many instances have come to the knowledge of foreigners, in which theatricals representing the Tientsin massacre or some similar event, have been acted in the interior of China. In some cases this is doubtless done with the connivance of the magistrates, and it is easy to see that the effect upon the minds of the people must be very unfavourable, if it is held to be desirable to maintain among the Chinese respect for foreigners.

In China, as in other lands, it is easy for theatrical representations to deal with current events which have a general interest. In a certain case of warfare involving two different Counties, as to the right to make a bank to prevent inundation, several lives were lost and a formidable lawsuit resulted. The occurrences were of such a dramatic character that they were woven into a play, which was very popular at a little distance from the scene of the original occurrence.

The representation of historical events, by Chinese theatres, may be said to be one of the greatest obstacles to the acquisition of historical knowledge by the people. Few persons read histories, while every one hears plays, and while the history is forgotten because it is dull, the play is remembered because it is amusing. Theatricals, it is scarcely necessary to remark, do not deal with historical events from the standpoint of accuracy, but from that of adaptation to dramatic effect. The result is the greatest confusion in the minds of the common people, both as to what has really happened in the past, and as to when it took place, and for all practical purposes, fact and fiction are indistinguishable.

Among the most popular Chinese plays, are those which deal with everyday life, in its practical forms. Cheap and badly printed books, in the forms of tracts, containing the substance of these plays, are everywhere sold in great numbers, and aid in familiarizing the people with the plots.

Our notice of the Chinese drama may fitly conclude with a synopsis of one of these librettos, which contains a play of general celebrity, to which references are constantly made in popular speech. It is said to have been composed by a native of Shan-hsi, and is designed as a satire upon the condition of society in which, as so often in China at the present day, it is almost impossible for a teacher, theoretically the most honoured of beings, to keep himself from starvation.

It is a current proverb that in the province of Shan-tung, the number of those who wish to teach school is in excess of those who can read! The scene of this play is therefore appropriately laid in the land of the sages Confucius and Mencius, and in a district within the jurisdiction of the capital, Chi-nan Fu.

The characters are only two in number, a teacher called Ho Hsien-sheng who is out of employment, and reduced to extreme distress, and a patron named Li, who wishes to engage a master for his boys, aged nine and eleven. The teacher’s remarks are mixed with extensive quotations from the Classics, as is the manner of Chinese schoolmasters, who wish to convey an impression of their great learning. He affirms that his success in instruction is such that he will guarantee that his pupils shall reach the first degree of hsiu-ts’ai, or Bachelor, in three years, the second of chA1/4-jen, or Master, in six, and attain to the eminence of chin-shih, or Doctor, in twelve.

The teacher begins by a poetical lament that he had lost his place as a teacher, and that a scholar so situated is far worse off than a handicraftsman, who, he says, has always enough to eat. After this, the teacher comes on the stage, crying out like a peddler, “Teach School! Teach School!” Upon this Li comes forward, suggests that a man who offers to teach probably knows at least how to read, and explains that he feels the need of some one in the family who can decipher the tax bills, etc., but that he really cannot afford the expense of a teacher for his children.

He explains that his boys are dull, that the food of the teacher the bill of fare of which he details will be poor and coarse. There will be only two meals a day, to save expense, and at night there will be no fire. The coverlet is a torn dogskin, no mat on the bed, only a little straw, and no pillow. The salary is to be but 8,000 cash a year, but this is subject to a discount, 800 counting for 1000. The teacher is never to leave the schoolyard while school is in session.

The school will be held in a temple, hitherto occupied by nuns. These will be removed to a side room, and the teacher will be required to strike the bell, sweep out the building, and perform the other necessary services on the first and fifteenth of each month, and these duties must be executed with punctilious care. He is also cautioned not to allow his morals to be contaminated by the nuns whose reputation is so proverbially bad. None of his salary will be paid in advance, and a pro rata deduction will be made for every day of absence. During the summer rains the teacher must carry the children to school upon his back, that they may not spoil their clothes and make their mother trouble. Whenever school has been dismissed, the teacher is to carry water, work on the threshing floor, take care of the children, grind in the mill, and do all and everything which may be required of him. To all the foregoing conditions, the teacher cheerfully assents, and declares himself ready to sign an agreement upon these terms for the period of ten years!

Perhaps the most instructive aspect of Chinese theatricals, is that which takes account of them as indices to the theory of life which they best express, a theory in which most Chinese are firm, albeit unconscious, believers. It is a popular saying that “The whole world is only a stageplay; why then should men take life as real?” It is in strict accordance with this view, that the Chinese frequently appear as if psychologically incapable of discriminating between practical realities which are known to be such, and theoretical “realities” which, if matters are pushed to extremities, are admitted to be fictitious.

The spectacular theory of life is never for a moment lost sight of in China, and it demands a tribute which is freely, unconsciously, continually, and universally paid. It is upon this theory that a large proportion of Chinese revelling is based, the real meaning being, “You have wronged me, but I am not afraid of you, and I call upon all men to witness that I defy you.” It is this theory upon which are grounded nine-tenths of the acts which the Chinese describe as being done “to save face,” that is, to put the actor right with the spectators, and to prove to them that he is able to play his part and that he knows well what that part is. Never, surely, was it more true of any land than of China, that

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”