Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
Drama and Great Fictional Novels
Kunqu Opera - The Pavilion
Kunqu OperaThe Mongols were nomadic people who herded cattle north of the Tang Empire and wandered over a large area fighting on horseback. They believed that they might be able to conquer the world. They easily conquered Persia far to the west. It was a big empire with high technology, a big population and a big army. Then they decided to try to conquer all the countries around them. They attacked the Tang Dynasty, the Dali Kingdom in Yunnan, and much of Asia, and they formed the biggest empire in the history of the earth until then. They conquered Russia, a part of eastern Europe and a part of the Middle East. In China, the Mongols established the very rich Yuan Dynasty. In their camps, the Mongols were entertained by shadow puppet plays in which a lamp cast the shadows of little figurines and puppets on a screen or sheet. In the Yuan Dynasty, puppet drama continued to entertain the rich dynastic courts in vernacular language. Dramatic operatic theaters with human actors speaking in vernacular language was a favorite form of entertainment as well, and some of China’s best dramatic scripts were written then. Also two of the four novels that are generally considered China’s best literary classics were written in vernacular language then. So though the Yuan Empire wasn’t ruled by Chinese, it was an era of some historically renowned dramatic playwrights and novelists who wrote in vernacular language.
It is thought that the operatic style of the shadow puppet dramas that entertained the courts influenced the development of the operatic theater style of the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan rulers were fabulously wealthy according to historical accounts. They had a vast empire and control of trade in Eurasia. For the royal courts or the rich people, refined music, sound effects and talented singers were employed for shadow plays. The Yuan “Zaju” style of opera was similar to their shadow plays. Perhaps the playwrights adopted the plots and the features. There were exciting plots, elaborate costumes, refined music and singing, action, and dance that the Mongols enjoyed. The music of the Zaju operas was called Yuan Qu (Yuan Music). The language used wasn’t the Classical Language but the vernacular language, so that the theater might be enjoyed by everyone. After the Yuan Dynasty, the operatic style developed into the Painted Faces style of Chinese opera that was popular until modern times.
Guan Hanqing is regarded as one of the best playwrights of the times. He wrote Midsummer Snow that was one of the most popular drama pieces. It is a tragedy about an unjustly accused woman who received justice after her death. The Romance of the Western Chamber was written by Wang Shifu. It is considered one of the best romantic dramas ever written in China.
Novels were another outstanding achievement of the Yuan era. The novelists influenced the future development of the genre. Two novels are still widely read now and are generally considered two of the four greatest novels in Chinese literature. These are Water Margin and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written in vernacular language by Luo Guan Zhong. It is historical fiction about the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms Period. The Three Kingdoms Period was between the Han and Tang eras. Special emphasis is laid on the two famous historical rulers Liu Bei and Cao Cao who were antagonists. It is a long novel with 800,000 words.
Water Margin is about the lives and ideals of a group of characters who fought against the corrupt Northern Song Dynasty that the Mongols conquered. It is said it was written in vernacular language by Shi Nai An, but scholars debate about the authorship. Many scholars think that the first 70 chapters were written by Shi Nai An and that the last 30 chapters were written by Luo Guan Zhong who was also the author of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
NovelsThe Chinese rebelled against the Mongols, and the Ming Dynasty era began about 1368. The Mongols and the Ming government still sometimes fought. Because of this and the presence of Muslim countries in between, trade with the west was reduced to the pre-Yuan level. The Ming initially were interested in exploration, and Muslims whose ancestors arrived during the Yuan Dynasty and who were familiar with seagoing trade were employed to make long voyages to the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and perhaps Africa. Then they became isolationist. It is interesting that a book that is one of the four great classics called Journey to the West about a monk going to India was written during this time of isolation. Maybe the thought of travel to the lands in the west was appealing then. Novels were the era’s main contribution.
The Journey to the West is based on the historical journey of a Buddhist to India during the Tang era to learn Buddhist teachings and bring back scriptures and information. In 1629, Xuanzang (602 - 664) left Chang'an in 629 and arrived back in Chang'an in 646. Mythical tales about this journey including the character of an intelligent monkey began to be circulated long before the book was written. The author drew on known tales.
Journey to the West is thought to have been published anonymously by Wu Cheng'en in the 16th century though scholars have doubt about the authorship. The trend in that era was for people to write in Classical Chinese and imitate the literature of the Tang Dynasty and Han Dynasty. However, this book was written in the vernacular. Perhaps because there was a lack of accurate geographical knowledge available to the author, much of the geographical landscape of the story is inaccurate. However, the “Flaming Mountains” that are near Turpan in Xinjiang are mentioned. Perhaps the author meant to poke fun at Chinese religion because a monkey is said to have defeated a whole army led by Taoist gods, and only the Buddha’s intervention stopped the monkey. The book describes India as a land of gross sin and immorality, and the monk was commissioned by Buddha to help India. The characters in the book are well known to Chinese children, and they often appear in martial arts movies and cartoons.
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Novels and Pre-modern Literature
The Manchus invaded the Ming Empire from the north and established the last dynasty called the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus were not Chinese, but they retained the Neo-Confucian governing system of the Song and Ming eras. The Qing Dynasty came under increasing attack from both internal rebellions and foreign countries. In the 19th century, foreign literature and the West became better known. In the middle of this era, the last of China’s four great classic novels was written called Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢); and near the end of the era, modernistic literature developed.
The Dream of the Red Chamber also has an uncertain authorship. Like the other three great classic novels, it was written in a vernacular language – the Mandarin language that was the language of the Qing capital. It is probably mostly composed by Cao Xueqin (about 1715-1763) in the middle 1700s, and the first printing of the book was in the late 1700s. It is thought that Cao did not live to see the first printing. It is thought that another person or other people contributed the ending of the story since the original ending of the story was lost. The book has a lot of textual problems, and there are different versions. In a preface to a printed version in 1792, two editors claimed to have put together an ending based on the author's working manuscripts that they had bought from a street vendor.
At the end of the Qing Dynasty era, the dynastic rulers came under increasing pressure both from foreign attacks and internal rebellions. Educated Chinese had easier access to foreign literature, and they were more influenced by Western culture. Students started to travel abroad to study, and schools built by missionaries educated tens of thousands of students. There was a general sense of crisis, and intellectuals started translating foreign works on science, politics, and literature. These were popular, and the culture started to change. Some writers produced fiction more like Western fiction.
Modern Era (1912-present)
Sun Yat-sen led a revolution that marked the end of Chinese dynasties in which a clan rules an empire. Of course, the big change of Chinese society that happened with the change of government led to a change in literature. It became westernized, and the Classical Language wasn’t used. The national government wanted women to have more of an equal status in society, and women writers and scholars were taken more seriously. There was a lot of politically oriented literature printed. Scholars had access to foreign literature, and many students studied abroad.
Until about 1923, there was a New Culture Movement. Writers generally wanted to lead the way in transforming China into a modern industrialized country and replacing Confucian life-style with a westernized one. Under the national government, there was some freedom of expression, and lots of views and styles of literature were popular. China came under attack from Japan. After the Communist victory, only literature approved by the government was allowed.
SOURCE : chinahighlights.com
- Chinese Classics Dream of Red Mansions Journey to the West Romance of the Three Kingdoms The Peony Pavilion Traditional Culture and Art
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