Theater Culture in the Jin & Yuan


A review of “Drama Sustains the Spirit”: Art, Ritual, and Theater in Jin and Yuan Period Pingyang, 1150-1350 by Fan Jeremy Zhang.

Fan Jeremy Zhang’s dissertation provides a tangible picture of the theater culture prominently developed in the middle and southern regions of Shanxi province (Pingyang) during the Jin and Yuan periods. The dissertation is a welcome contribution to a distinctive field of study, i.e., “material study of theater (xiqu wenwu)” initiated in the late 1980s in China, which focuses on collecting and analyzing material remains of theater and excavated objects from tombs and temple sites. Benefitting from pioneering earlier works such as Liu Nianzi’s Xiqu wenwu congkao and Liao Ben’s Zhongguo xiju tushi, yet focusing on specific themes, Zhang’s dissertation gives a meaningful texture to the still-formulating field. While earlier Chinese scholarship founded the field by organizing extensive collections of objects and images, primarily engaging the reconstruction of early Chinese theater and dramatic forms, recent in-depth studies of the material conducted in the Anglophone world have begun to pay attention to the material itself, recognizing the specific contexts in which they were produced and used. Marking the third dissertation in this direction, Zhang’s study analyzes some of the most up-to-date archaeological discoveries in ritual contexts. [Ed. Note: the other two dissertations in question include Shun-ling Irene Tsang’s “Archaeology of Performance and Gender in Ancient China” (SOAS, 2007); and Jeehee Hong’s “Theatricalizing Death in Performance Images of Mid-imperial China (University of Chicago, 2008).]

The dissertation is composed of five chapters, divided by a mixture of sites and mediums. Chapter 1 (Picture and Performance) lays out an overview of the visual culture of the Pingyang area by examining visual representations of theatrical scenes or actors circulated in secular contexts. The chapter first analyzes the roles of the printed flyers of drama illustrations (“Four Beauties”), which demonstrates the high level of commercial printing produced in Pingyang as well as the local taste embedded in them. Moving to the field of painting, the next part discusses people’s contemporary appreciation and enthusiasm for experiences of the theater. The case in point is Sima Yu’s Dream of Su Xiaoxiao by Liu Yuan, a Pingyang native. Again with its local connection emphasized, the painting is understood as a remarkable pictorial achievement driven by the thriving development of dramatic genres. The last section examines a group of ceramic pillows decorated with scenes of popular dramas, which demonstrates the accessibility of theatrical performance to a wide range of people in Pingyang. These cases collectively support the premise that theatrical performances cut across many strata of society.

Chapter 2 (Theater in Text) is a focused study of a single case featuring the spiritual efficacy of dramatic texts in a burial space. The tomb of Madame Zhang discovered in Ershui, Shanxi, is the main case of discussion, in which the texts of zhugongdiao arias (“all-keys-and-modes”) were written on the tomb walls. By connecting the content of the arias filled with a sense of the vanity of life to the popular doctrine of a popular sect of Daoism, i.e., Quanzhen, the chapter suggests that illiterate locals like Madame Zhang could utilize the written arias as symbolic “images” for her eternal burial space in seeking spiritual welfare.

Chapter 3 (Theater Presented Underground) discusses several representations of actors and theaters of zaju (variety play) found in tombs in ritual contexts. While representations of zaju derived from traditional images of entertainment in tombs, Zhang argues that the burial culture in Pingyang shaped them into the images that participated in the larger rites of ancestral worship, including muji (graveyard rite) and rituals (presumably) conducted inside burial chambers. In arguing these points, Zhang brings in prescriptive ritual texts that are directly or indirectly relevant, such as Dili xinshu (New text on earth patterns), Zhuzi jiali (Family rituals expounded by Zhu Xi), as well as a few excavated sites of family tombs. Pointing out the value of deep-rooted ancestral worship in the local region, Zhang suggests that the representations of theatrical performances were utilized as a ritual component of worshiping ceremonies.

The site of theatrical performances and image-making shifts to temples in Chapter 4 (Theater in Festivals and Rituals). The first section engages in the shared imageries of performance between tombs and temples. The primary example is the well-known mural in Shuishen Temple in Guangsheng Monastery in Hongdong, Shanxi, which presents a tableau of an actor troupe on stage. By observing the overlapping composition and motif between the Shuishen mural and those in two representations of performance situated in tomb space (Panle tomb in Hancheng, Shaanxi, and Yue Chongjin tomb in Luoning, Henan), the author suggests that the idea of making offerings in perpetuity (yongwei gongyang) became a major theme underlying pictorial programs in both tombs and temples of the time. This mural is thus seen as a visual record of the “elevated status” of drama in local lives. The next sections demonstrate that theatrical performances were an important part of local festivals and deity-worship rites. By emphasizing the dual function of actors as a “medium” between the reality and fictional world, and between this and the netherworld, the author interprets the representations of actors in temples as playing the expected role of glorifying and worshiping deities.

In contrast to the previous four chapters that highlighted the mimetic mode of the theatrical images mainly as a visual document of imaginary or actual performances, Chapter 5 (The Art of Persuasion) turns the discussion to their symbolic role in burial chambers. Two major tomb sites with representations of theatrical motifs and inscriptions are closely examined. The first case, the tomb of Duan Ji (Macun Tomb No. 7) in the Duan family cemetery in Macun, Shanxi, provides insight into how tomb chambers would have been used by the family, i.e., as a worshiping space of their ancestors. Linking this inscription to some of the images of filial piety found in other chambers of the same cemetery, Zhang argues that the tomb was conceived as the space of (imaginary) performance where themes of filial children would be displayed for the progeny as the audience. The second case of the tomb of Dong Hai is also interpreted along the same lines; several representations of literary episodes on the tomb walls in relief reflect the idea of filial piety. By extension, the author suggests that the images of theatrical performances and theater-evoking images were utilized as a didactic tool for teaching and promoting filial piety for the descendants.

Although a conclusion is not provided in the dissertation, the point of this well-researched study is clear: the theatrical images that adorned the funerary and religious sites actively participated in the making of the ritual context itself. Moving from one chapter to another, the reader can conjure up vivid imageries of theatrical tableaux set in various ritual spaces, and find himself or herself immersed in the local culture of middle-period Pingyang. Among many merits, its extensive coverage of the excavated material deserves special attention; the meticulous details of the archaeological sources will be extremely helpful for scholars not only in the field of art history, but also for anyone who is interested in cultural, social, or ritual aspects of the Jin-Yuan periods. Fan Zhang’s dissertation has demonstrated remarkable potential of the field of visual and material culture of middle-period China.

Jeehee Hong
Department of Art and Music Histories
Syracuse University

Primary Sources

Tujie jiaozheng dili xinshu 圖解校正地理新書, reprinted in 1192
Family cemetery of the Duans, Macun, Jishan county, Shanxi Province (late 12th – early 13th c)
Tomb of Madame Zhang, Ershui, Houma City Shanxi Province (1200)
Tomb of Dong Qijian, Niucun, Houma city, Shanxi Province (1210)
Feng Junjie, ed. Shanxi xiqu beike jikao (A study of stele inscriptions related to drama collected in Shanxi) (Zhonghua Shuju, 2002)
Liao Ben, Zhongguo xiju tushi (An illustrated history of Chinese theater) (Zhengzhou: Daxiang chubanshe, 2000)

Dissertation Information

Brown University. 2011. 376pp. Primary Advisor: Maggie Bickford.

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