Zaju (traditional Chinese: 雜劇; simplified Chinese: 杂剧; pinyin: zájù; Wade–Giles: tsa-chü) (literally meaning "variety show") was a form of Chinese drama or Chinese opera which provided entertainment through a synthesis of recitations of prose and poetry, dance, singing, and mime, with a certain emphasis on comedy (or, happy endings). Zaju is a genre of dramas that had its origins in the Song Dynasty. It has particularly been associated with the time of the Yuan Dynasty, and remains important in terms of the historical study of the theater arts as well as Classical Chinese literature and poetry.
The Yuan zaju were poetic music dramas comprising four acts, with the "act" defined as a set of songs following and completing a certain musical modal progression. Occasionally one or two "wedges," or short interludes in the form of an aria performed by another character might be added to either support or enhance the plot. Within the acts, lyrics were written to accompany existing tunes or set-rhythmic patterns; and, the major singing roles were restricted to one star per act. The zaju featured particular specialized roles for performers, such as Dan (旦, dàn, female), Sheng (生, shēng, male), Hua (花, huā, painted-face) and Chou (丑, chŏu, clown).
On one hand, the zaju theater represents a long process of Chinese art, music, and poetry; on the other hand, the zaju appears as a phenomenon resulting from a combination of cultures over a long period of time. Developed during the Northern Song Dynasty, the zaju theater was further popularized during the subsequent Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), founded by the Mongol Empire under the leadership of Kublai Khan (1215-1294). Although it was the first non-Han dynasty to rule all of China, varying musico-ethnic influences had already made a profound effect upon the culture of China, most relevantly in terms of the mix of arts that went on to coalesce as the mixed variety, zaju theater: this encompassed poetry, gymnastics, orchestral music, set design, along with the other arts required for this complex form of theater art. Major questions remain about the relationships between this artistic and political process, in regards to how it is known in relationship to the zaju theater form of art. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty succeeded the previous dynasties which controlled China: the Tangut Western Xia (1038–1227), the Khitan Liao (1038–1227), and the Han Chinese dominated Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). The transitions between the various political regimes tended to involve war, death, and disorder in a large scale. However, various cultural and artistic contributions from these diverse sources melded together to help form the zaju performances: musical modes of the steppes, traditional Chinese shi and ci poetry, the newly developed and embedded qu lyrics, acrobatics, and dance, combined together with the other varieties of artistic performance to contribute to the mix which zaju represents. Accompanying musical notation is evidently lacking; instead, the tune to which an aria was meant to be sung is indicated in the text by the title of a popular song or aria using the same tune. Generally, information about performances derives from preserved literary texts: arias, libretti, and/or other forms of stage direction.
Much of the information on Yuan era plays (that is, "operas") and playwrights derives from a book written during this time period which is entitled Register of Ghosts. Famous playwrights (that is, authors of zaju) include Guan Hanqing, author of The Injustice to Dou E, and the author Bo Renfu, who wrote three existing plays, plus a lost work on Tang Minghuang and the lady Yang Guifei. Wang Shifu wrote the popular play The Story of the Western Wing. Li Qianfu wrote Circle of Chalk. Ma Zhiyuan has seven extant zaju plays/operas, four of which have been translated into English.
Zaju, or Yuan opera, represents a period in the development of the Chinese Opera. 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.
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