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Home History and Culture Yuan Zaju (元杂剧)
Yuan Zaju (元杂剧)
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Guan HanqingThe dramas of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) are called Yuan Zaju (yuán zá jù 元杂剧), poetic dramas set to music. As a mature, high-class theatrical form, the Yuan Zaju is full of the characteristics of that period, and displays unique artistic creations. Hence, they are regarded as the most notable achievement of Yuan literature. At the beginning, the Zaju centered on Dadu (dà dū 大都) (present-day Beijing) and spread widely over northern China. After the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) fell to the Yuan Dynasty, the Zaju became a national drama. It quickly flourished, with a number of plays written, and the ranks of performers swelling.

Guan Hanqing (guān hàn qīng 关汉卿), founder of Zaju (zá jù 杂剧), was born in Qizhou, Hebei (hé běi 河北) Province. In his youth he worked as a doctor, but gave up this profession and chose to write plays that exposed the dark side of society. He created 67 Zaju works, 18 of which are still performed.

The Injustice Done to Dou E (dòu é yuān 窦娥冤) is one of Guan Hanqing's representative works. It tells of a girl named Dou E to whom a local tyrant takes a fancy and wishes to marry. On refusing to be his wife, Dou E is falsely charged with murder, and sentenced to death. At her execution, she proclaims her innocence, saying that on being beheaded her blood will spurt high enough to stain a piece of white gauze hanging overhead, that snow will fall in midsummer, and that the region will be hit by drought for three years in succession. All these phenomena occur exactly as she foretells. Three years later, her father comes back as judge and conducts a re-trial of this case, and clears Dou E of the false charge.

Outstanding dramatists of the time included Bai Pu (bái pǔ 白蒲), Wang Shifu (wáng shí fǔ 王实甫), Ma Zhiyuan (mǎ zhì yuǎn 马致远), Zheng Guangzu (zhèng guāng zǔ 郑光祖).

   Dou E
In the social sphere, the Yuan rulers abolished the imperial examination system, lowering the status of intellectuals to a position only a little higher than that of beggars. Such scholars found an outlet for their talents as professional playwrights. They set up an organization called the Scholars Association, which was one of the cradles of play writing, giving rise to the Yuan golden age of Chinese theater in contrast to lyric poetry, which mainly expressed the subjective feelings of the poets, the Yuan Zaju gave wide publicity to social problems. This was because the playwrights themselves lived among the people, and knew all about real life and the tribulations (kǔ nàn 苦难) of the ordinary people.

altIn general, the Yuan Zaju mainly consisted of a prelude and the main story, composed of four acts, which were well coordinated. The prelude was fairly short. Singing was the most important means of expression in the Yuan Zaju, in combination with recitation. Each act featured one mode of ancient Chinese music and several songs, sung by the leading male or female character Influenced by the Canjun play, the recitation in the Zaju was often full of impromptu (jí xìng qǔ 即兴曲) comic gestures and remarks. All in all, the Yuan Zaju showed great maturity in the integration of music with drama.






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