Asian Theatre Journal 22.1 (2005) 87-106
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An Entertainment of War in Early China
Juedixi is a performance genre of the Western Han (206 BCE-23 CE) that developed from martial rites of the central state in early China. The genesis of this art from competitions And performances dedicated to wu (martiality) and held in autumn and winter is detailed. The relationship of the art to a Han strategem to soften and control nomad opponents is explained. The high point of the genre came under Emperor Wu, who used it to impress local and foreign audiences even as he waged a costly war on the frontier. The genre's excesses were related to the excesses of the unsuccessful war. Juedixi faded after Emperor Wu, but its legacy of variety performance was inherited by the "hundred entertainments" and wu would later reappear in xiqu as one of the two fundamental categories of performance style.
This article considers how juedixi, the spectacular performance form of the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-23 CE), was used as mode of impressing enemies and allies and mythologizing the power of the Chinese empire. As exploited by Emperor Wu (literally, the "martial" emperor) it exemplified art as a military strategem. It grew from Chinese rituals of winter, struggle, and death, which saw violence as part of the cosmic cycle. It became an antecedent of the "hundred entertainments."1 While juedixi faded after Emperor Wu, understanding this form can help clarify aspects of Chinese performance history and [End Page 87] help explain the historical significance of the performance category of wu in xiqu. In a larger perspective, juedixi allows us to contemplate performance where military display, sport, and theatre spectacle interpenetrate in ways that have political impact.
Juedixi is made up of three words: jue (horn, or the aggressive action of horning), di (resisting),2 and xi (entertainment, which much later came also to denote theatre).3 Juedixi's history can be traced back to jueli (horning-strength), competitive displays staged during the Warring States period (481-221 BCE) as martial rites (Ye 1985: 2-3, 20-21; Dolby 1983: 11; Diény 1968: 58). The name was changed to juedi (horning-resisting), and various nonmartial acts seem to have been added during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). By the time we reach juedixi, in the reign of the Han Emperor Wu (r. 140-87 BCE),4 we are confronted with an immense spectacle including not only feats of strength and displays of skill with weaponry, but also acrobatics, song and dance, wondrous technical effects, sequences of transformations, magic acts, and a skit in which an over-the-hill magician battles a white tiger—the whole permeated by a multivalent symbology.
Juedixi was marked by its derivation from state martial rites andits link to Emperor Wu's long war against the Xiongnu nomads, a war that coincided with the first major Chinese imperial expansion. By the time its descendant baixi, or the "hundred entertainments," was being staged, the country had undergone antiexpansionist reaction and patronage was passing from imperial to private sponsors. Juedixi allows us to contemplate martial oriented theatre as a tool of state, and its demise is linked to failure of that state.
Promoting Wu (Martiality) through Jueli and Juedi
As background to juedixi it is important to see how it relates to earlier forms, the competetive ritual jueli of the Warring States and the more theatricalized juedi of the Qin. Jueli (horning-strength) encompassed a range of competitive martial performances: weightlifting,5 wrestling,6 archery, chariot-handling, and what seems to have been a rowdy and violent team sport known as taju (kickball) (Hou Hanshu: 3123, 3136) Jueli fulfilled three intertwined aims. It was a practical training for war that acted as a ritual response to questions about the use of organized violence by the centralized state, even as it provided entertainment to viewers.
Jueli were staged as part of the annual rites to "promote wu." Usually translated as "martial," wu has a cosmic implication the English word lacks...