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  • The Role of the Chou ("Clown") in Traditional Chinese Drama: Comedy, Criticism, and Cosmology on the Chinese Stage
  • Megan Evans
The Role of the Chou ("Clown") in Traditional Chinese Drama: Comedy, Criticism, and Cosmology on the Chinese Stage. By Ashley Thorpe. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007. 396 pp. Cloth $119.95.

Perhaps riding the wave of China-related books timed to exploit interest generated by the Beijing Olympics, good books about Chinese theatre in English are on the rise, yet many gaping holes about even fundamental performance elements remain. Ashley Thorpe's survey of the chou role (, "clown") in xiqu (, "Chinese opera") makes an important contribution, offering the first English-language analysis of one of the four main xiqu role-type categories. In this expansive work, Thorpe provides effective analysis of chou and chou-related characters in leading plays, translations of seminal theoretical writings, and wide-ranging contextual discussion helping the reader to understand why the chou, though usually listed last of the four main jingju (, "Beijing opera") role types, is also the subject of the adage that opens and closes the study: "Without the chou, there would not be drama" (p. 284).

The book offers an introduction to the chou for Western readers and opens with a helpful foreword by John McCormick that aligns the chou with the familiar Western traditions of the court jester and the Shakespearean clown. In the introduction, Thorpe presents the structural anthropology-based model he engages throughout the study: that the chou transgresses culturally accepted moral codes as a means of publicly defining them in the minds of the audience" (p. 3). In the course of explaining his decision to use the Chinese term chou, rather than the misleading translation "clown," Thorpe provides an enticing overview of the chou's "complex mixture of fool, villain, trickster and hero." He also outlines his interdisciplinary thrust, which augments historical and literary analysis with attention to the chou in performance, particularly as a significant intersection between ritual and secular performance.

In chapter 1, Thorpe reviews historical influences from outside the direct chou lineage, covering early imperial jesters, adjutant plays, and the jing () role from the Song dynasty zaju (). Numerous examples, with extended analysis of Yuan and Ming dynasty versions of Romance of the Western Chamber ( , Xixiangji), amply support Thorpe's conclusion that the zaju jing role, which was an antecedent of the chou, was exceedingly complex, moral or immoral, comic or serious, depending on demands of the plot, and these attributes were carried forward to the contemporary chou role.

Thorpe turns to the chou's direct lineage in chapter 2, offering a sprawling historical survey of likely influences on the role's development. He works persuasively through layers of conflicting evidence to conclude that the first clear evidence of a chou role is found in Song dynasty nanxi (, "Southern Drama"). He offers extended discussions of chou and chou-related roles in important plays, including his own engaging translations of many passages (pp. 77–84). This chapter also contains the first English translations of leading Ming scholar and playwright Li Yu on the function and proper execution of comedy. While the quotes are valuable in their own right, I wished for more [End Page 368] analytical integration of them with Thorpe's line of argument. Thorpe credits the rise of zhezixi (, "excerpted scenes") performances as fostering the rise of star chou performers. Chou roles typically had been supporting rather than leading characters in full-length plays. The zhezixi practice allowed performance of chou focal scenes to be performed alone. The chapter carries forward chronologically to one of the most interesting passages in the book: Thorpe's account of Communist anti-chou pressures rising from the perception that ineffectual or laughable chou characters of low social status were disrespectful of the working class. In his discussion of historical interdependence of chou and jing dramaturgical functions, Thorpe at times assumes rather than clearly articulates what he understands to be the influence of non-chou roles and techniques on chou development.

Because few historical records of chou performance techniques are extant, chapter 3's description is gleaned from the work of contemporary chou actors. Movement, voice, makeup, and...