Friday, January 13, 2012

Art throughout Asia- China

A new working series that strives to explore the world of Asian Theatre by country. I have found there is a serious lack of english information about Asian Theatre that gives details and descriptions about the art forms so that people from other countries can learn about it and learn to appreciate it. Having lived in Hong Kong for almost four years now, I have found the best part of my experience of working internationally was the opportunity to learn about international styles of art. I hope that by sharing my information, that I can help students on projects. Feel free to email or comment with any questions.

First topic is on Art through China. China is a pretty big place, so you pretty much have to break the theatre into categories. Once the categories are broken down then you can delve into more details.

1. Opera- 2 major types- Peking and Cantonese- Song Dynasty til Present Day
2. Shadow Plays- Peking and Cantonese- Ling Dynasty til Present
3.Xianghsneg- A type of comedic monologue or dulogue. Similar to standup in American terms. Tang Dynasty- Present Day.
4. Modern Drama- More typically melodrama or prat comedy based. It is typically one end of the stick or the other. Large emotions and gestures despite being in modern setting. Present Day.



There are two types of Chinese Opera: Peking and Cantonese. Both have the four major archetypes for characters the Male (Sheng), the Female (Dan), Painted Face (Shing) and the Chou (Clowns). All characters must fit into one of these types of roles. Unlike most traditional theatre, Chinese Opera has double the ammount of roles for females than males. But similar to traditional Western Theatre the Dans were originally played by males until women were allowed on stage. Women were allowed on stage as opera performers in China around the 1930's.

Actors typically train in one style of character for their entire life. They become an expert at one archetype. A few can play two types but most are incredibly talented at being a one trick pony. It's just how it's done. Within each archetypes there are several different characters. Let's break one down.

Shing- The warrior type, typically the villian, similar to a Capitano in Commedia d'ell Arte.
A painted face or mask role. A white face means betrayal, black means properness, red indicates courage, blue denotes evil. A mix of multiple colors indicates a more complicated personality. I wish real men would color code their faces.

The major defining differences between Peking and Cantonese Opera is the Language as Peking Opera is done in Mandarin and Cantonese is done in Cantonese. Because of the evolution of the Mandarin Language since the operas have been written many of the plays are considered to sound old fashioned. Some are even barely understood by modern Mandarin speakers, but still sound pretty. Cantonese have evolved less from it's primary language and kept many of it's poetic features so most of the operas have stayed in their original forms. Also there are some distinct fashion differences in the characters based on the region the piece is being performed. Most companies now adays will tailor the costumes for the historical costume of the region they are performing in. Different areas of chinese wore different types of historical dress even during the same period due to weather differences and leaders who were in power at the time.

Shadow Plays

Chinese Shadow plays were original political in nature as they were simply infering with shadow and the original laws said you couldn't "say" anything bad about the emperor. The law didn't say you couldn't make a puppet about him sucking cock. So people would make really funny shadow puppets about political figures to skate around the law. Shadow Puppetry is now used to entertain the Children of China. This is great example of traditional puppetry. They used narration and music to tell the story. Some are complete one or two man shows and still tour around China. Highly recommend it, if you can go see one!

3. Xiangsheng
Xiangsheng is kind of like a rambling monologue that is making an observation or statement on society. It can also be a duologue. It was originated by the Jesters of the court and continued on to present day as a style of Chinese Comedy. Similar to the One Man Show or Standup. It is simply one person's perspective. Can often contain song/dance parodies of modern songs.

4. Modern Drama
I have to admit for being a huge fan of Chinese traditional theatre I really can't stand modern chinese drama. I find it to be poorly written for the most part. (Not that I understand it much, I read the surtitles and watch the emotions.) It's very generalized for the most part. It's either drama or comedy. Black comedies are not really common here. Also the dramas are very melodramatic and borrow acting techniques from soaps and opera which work when you're playing to the cheap seats in the back but in no way work in a 100 seat black box.
Comedies I find are the same: they are very pratty and borrow from the clowning techniques from the Opera. I wish sometimes they would be a little more real.
I think overall, Chinese Modern Dance is much stronger than Chinese Modern Theatre. The best show I ever saw in Hong Kong was a Chinese Modern Dance Piece and that was four years ago. So, for it to stick in my head for that long it had to be incredibly well done.

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