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  • The Many Shapes of Medieval Chinese Plays:How Texts Are Transformed to Meet the Needs of Actors, Spectators, Censors, and Readers
  • Wilt L. Idema

When Voltaire's L'Orphelin de la Chine (1755) is mentioned nowadays in general histories of Western theater, it is not because of its eminent literary qualities, even though, like practically everything by Voltaire, the play is written with wit and flair. It is rather mentioned for its influence on one particular aspect of performance: costume. L'Orphelin de la Chine was in its own day an extremely popular play that was performed, in French and in translation, all over Europe by actors and actresses in "authentic costume." Until well into the eighteenth century, actors in tragedy performed all plays in a limited set of costumes, but in L'Orphelin de la Chine they tried to dress as Chinese—to the best of their knowledge. As with every change in performance practice, this daring innovation had its detractors at the time. One Dutch observer noted that the heavily perspiring performers of the Dutch version of Voltaire's tragedy in their oriental draperies looked more like "Armenian merchants" than anything Chinese (Hartnoll 1968:158-59, Worp 1908:268).

As is well known, Voltaire's L'Orphelin de la Chine was only one of the many eighteenth-century adaptations of the first Chinese play to be translated into a Western language, Ji Junxiang's () Zhaoshi gu'er (; The Orphan of the House of Zhao).1 We know little about Ji Junxiang, except that he must have been active in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. Most likely he was a playwright working for the burgeoning commercial theater of the big cities of the time—to begin with, Dadu (modern day Peking), the capital of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1260-1368.).2 [End Page 320] The specific genre of Chinese theater that was practiced by Ji Junxiang and his Northern colleagues is called zaju (; Shih 1976, Idema 1988). Because zaju plays are relatively short (modern editions usually divide them into four acts), can deal with any conceivable subject, and usually end on a happy note, in the past I have used the term "comedy" as my translation of the term zaju. However, it should immediately be stressed that traditional Chinese theater did not know the genre distinction between "tragedy" and "comedy" that is so central in the tradition of Western drama—and perhaps even more in writings on drama. These terms have only become common in China in the twentieth century, giving rise to heated debates about whether or not traditional China produced "tragedies," and, if it did not produce "tragedies" that adhere to all the formal Western rules, whether we can identify "tragedies with Chinese characteristics," which many critics believe to be possible (Zhongguo 1983, Xie 1993). Actually, since the early years of the twentieth century, Ji Junxiang's The Orphan of the House of Zhao is listed as one China's first Chinese tragedies, not in the least (one surmises) because its eighteenth-century French translator Joseph de Prémare had called it a "tragédie chinoise."3

In traditional China dramatic genres were not distinguished on the basis of the social status of characters or the nature of the plot, but on the basis of the type of music used for the songs and the general background music. This can be done because all forms of traditional Chinese drama are a form of ballad-opera: they all include arias that are composed to a limited number of melodies. Plays that share one specific repertoire of melodies (and related musical conventions) form one genre. Zaju or comedy employs "northern music" for its arias; moreover, all arias in an individual play are assigned to a single actor or actress (Johnson 1980). The male lead or female lead as a rule plays the same role throughout the play, giving the genre a highly asymmetrical character since only one of the parties (the single singing role) in the central love affair or dramatic conflict is given much [End Page 321] more space to express his or her opinions and feelings at length. Occasionally the male or female lead will...


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