Zaju, the opera popular in the Yuan Dynasty, represents a period in the development of the Chinese Opera.

Zaju provided entertainment through a synthesis of recitations of prose and poetry, dance, singing, and mime, with a certain emphasis on comedy or happy endings.

The Yuan zaju were poetic music dramas comprising four acts, with the “act” (齣, chu) defined as a set of songs following and completing a certain musical modal progression. Occasionally one or two “wedges” (楔子, xiezi), or short interludes in the form of an aria performed by another character might be added to either support or enhance the plot.

The zaju featured particular specialized roles for performers, such as dan (female), sheng (male), hua (花, painted-face) and chou (clown).

In terms of the history of theatrical performance, the zaju’s contributions to Chinese theater include the received legacies from previous forms of theatrical performance, the transformations based on the influence of these, and the legacy which the zaju performances in passed on to future performers and performances.

On a more purely literary level, much of the poetry of the Yuan period is in the form of the qu poetry verse, which basically became an independent form of art, removed from its original theatrical and orchestral context: written after the model of the cadences, or set tone patterns, known from the arias of the zaju theater, the Chinese Sanqu poetry eventually became a separate tradition, in the category of poetic literature, rather than in the category of the performing arts.

During the Yuan dynasty the prestige of both theater and of the use of vernacular language in art and literature were probably related to the fact that the new Mongol dominated regime less understood the older, classical language and forms. Rather, the new Mongol elite appreciated the theater and the use of vernacular language.

Compared to the traditional Chinese shì, or scholar-officials or emperors, the newcomers were not so literately erudite or oriented, much less were they appreciative of the ancient forms, expressions, and allusions, legacy of more than a millennia. Zaju took much of its characteristics from both this emphasis on the vernacular speech, as well as the lowered prestige of traditional scholarly literature.

Illustrations of zaju plays by Yuan authors, Ming – Wanli reign period. In Zhongguo meishu quanji – Huihua 20 – Banhua. Wang Bo(mei?), ed. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988. plate 93, p. 98.

Zaju had its genesis even before the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). Zaju was performed during the Song dynasty (960–1279), particularly the Northern Song period (960–1127), as well as the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234), which succeeded it in northern China.

Zaju is now best known now from its high development during the Yuan dynasty, which was founded by the Mongol Empire under the leadership of Kublai Khan. Significant surviving literature exists from this period, including around two-hundred written scripts for zaju performances.

Although the Yuan was the first non-Han dynasty to rule over China fully, varying ethno-musico influences had already made an effect upon the culture of China, most relevantly in terms of the mix of arts that went on to coalesce as the mixed zaju (“variety theater”): this encompassed poetry, gymnastics, orchestral music, set design, along with the other arts required for this complex form of theater art.

Famous playwrights (that is, authors of zaju) include Guan Hanqing, author of The Injustice to Dou E, and the author Bo Renfu,[6] who wrote three existing plays, plus a lost work on Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and his lady Yang Guifei. Wang Shifu wrote the popular play Romance of the Western Chamber. Li Qianfu wrote Circle of Chalk. Ma Zhiyuan has seven extant zaju plays.

edited by staff

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