This document was written by Kate Buss and originally published in Studies in the Chinese Drama. New York: Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, 1922. pp. 73-86.

Mei Lan-Fang in "The Bandit General"Decoration is usually considered as an external of the drama. In China, however, it has so profoundly filtered into the dramatic spectacle through the national disposition to symbolism (in all the seductive fantasy of form and color to which the symbol lends itself) that decoration has become an essential, as well as a sentient, component of the classical theatre. And this occurs in a country where the stage has no scenery. Such apparent anachronism is explained by Chinese that as their theatre is not imitative, landscape, or an interior, is created for an audience by suggestion; by emotion; and, it must be confessed of the theatre habitué of today, by drama tradition.

To the Chinese, scenery is a "silly and unnecessary bother." A court event which may have taken place centuries ago in a magnificent entourage will be reproduced in the playhouse with every detail of costume and mode of speech carefully exact but without scenery and with almost no stage furnishing. The imagination that has created in Chinese art so much chimerical humor of animal and flower and fetish can find a river where there is no water, and a mountain where none is painted.

Prescribed action creates scenery! If some character must climb a mountain, pantomimic motions assume the presence of a granite hill. If a criminal is to be executed it is accomplished with a bamboo pole and traditional movements on the part of the actor. He, the criminal, wails a confession of guilt, walks to one side of the stage and stands under a bamboo pole on which a cloth is tied; he indicates strangulation by throwing back his head and looking up to heaven. If, in a stage story, a general goes upon a journey, the scene is not changed to transport one's mind to another place, instead the soldier cracks a whip, dashes across the stage to a crash of cymbals, and announces that he has arrived. To dismount from his absent steed he pirouettes upon one foot and drops his whip; to mount he turns upon the other foot and picks up his whip. If a plot demands that a fairy enter in a chariot of clouds, a feminine figure advances bearing horizontally two flags upon which clouds and wheels are painted; she is accompanied by another actor in the ubiquitous blue cotton of the Chinese workman.

Upon the stage a man may drink wine in which, unknown to himself, a venomous snake has been dissolved, he may suffer a frightful irritation, throw himself into a pond, wash, and find himself cured, in a propertyless pantomime that is perfectly understood by his audience. Rivers, walls, temples, groves, thrones, couches, are represented by a bench or screen, and if the acting is good everyone is satisfied.

But if scenery exists only in the imagination, costumery is splendidly authentic and is frequently of astonishing beauty. Chinese costume--like plumcake--from the very richness of its material, is long lived; and the clothes used in today's theatre may have been worn several centuries ago by mandarins and court officials, by emperors, their wives and concubines.

As Chinese dress was designed for ceremonial purpose--a cloak in which to hide any condition of spiritual or physical poverty--and to present men to the world as they wished to appear, it is not difficult to realize why it is so magnificent and costly. The traditional stage dress of even a beggar is a silk coat of a gay checked design. There is a tradition too to be followed in the "barbarian's" dress, and he must wear a bit of fur about his throat no matter what the temperature.

The necessity for accuracy in stage dress means that an actor's wardrobe may be so expensive that he more often hires than owns it. Establishments exist to furnish stage clothes by the season to an entire company; and servants, who return every costume to its particular box after each wearing, are included in the rental price.

Faces are painted with red, black, white, green, and gold, and add their colour characterization to the spectacle. The effect, even without scenery, that is obtained by groups of painted figures dressed in stiff brocade of all tints, by the glitter of immense jewels, of gold traceries and silver tissue, of tufted plumes and long pheasant feathers that wave above glistening headdresses, of glinting swords and brilliantly uniformed soldiery, is of memorable dazzle and magnificence.

Pierre Loti mentions [1] the stage trappings for the actors who played in the Empress' theatre in Peking, and which he was privileged to see when he was one of the Occidental soldiery appointed to guard the looted Imperial City in which the imperial ruler, Tsu-Hsi, gratified her whims and cruelties, her emotional desires and her demand for entertainment, during the years she lived behind the inner walls of Peking. Tsu-Hsi, was deeply entertained by the theatre and wrote a few plays herself for palace presentation. Loti says: "I arrive in time to see ... the decorations, emblems, and accessories of the Chinese Imperial theatre. They were cumbersome, frail things, intended to serve but for a night or two, and then forgotten for an indefinite time in a room which was never opened ... mythological representations were evidently given at this theatre, the scene taking place either in hell or with the gods in the clouds; and such a collection as there was of monsters, chimeras, wild beasts and devils, in cardboard or paper mounted or carcasses made of bamboo or whalebone, all devised with perfect genius for the horrible, with an imagination surpassing the limits of nightmare."

It is this imagination surpassing a nightmare that shaped avatar and devil to scurry and swoop as stage character, and that wove grotesque and fantastic forms into brocaded robe for Mongol and Ming and Manchu to reappear upon the stage of today. Although fact and fancy offer rare latitude for spectacular effect they maintain this separation: gods and mortals as stage people may be creatures of imagination, or legendary portraits--if a god has made the step from person to personification--but costumes must be either authentic or minutely copied from models of the period they dress.

Candles, lamps, or, in a few permanent theatres, electric lights, illumine the stage, but lighting for artistic purpose is not included in the Chinese theory of dramatic art.

The Chinese differ from many other Eastern people in that they understand the ancient symbols woven or painted or cut into their decoration and continue to utilize them to tell a story or reflect an early superstition--to protect, to ridicule, to praise.

Tae-Keih, or Great Monad, is a significant symbol in Celestial design. It represents the dualistic principle of man and woman (the male in the female and the female in the male); and the harmony of the universe is supposed to depend upon the balance maintained between these two elements. This design is everywhere, on book, wall, porcelain, tablet, and brocade. It is a symbol of Chinses cosmogony. It may applay to opposites that exist in pairs--to the world and hades, to the sun and moon, to hard and soft. The great Monad symbolizes the basis of Chinese philosophy, science, and religion, and thus its universality in decoration is inevitable.

In China the dragon is the male element. He is the emblem of Heaven as, since B.C. 206, he has been the device of emperors. He is a stage character and appears in apparent flesh as well as in sinuous embroidery. Although he is wingless he has the power to rise in the air at will. As the sender of rains and floods and the ruler of the clouds he dominates the type of village stage performance which is arranged during a too rainy season to pray for dry weather. The earth dragon marks the course of rivers.

The monkey too is immortalized. He is supposed to have existed before there was a Heaven and earth--where we are not informed. He defeated the generals of Heaven in battle and was finally captured by Buddha, in the end to be released from earth wanderings by a mighty traveller.

The fox is a comic symbol whose stage "business" seems limitless. He may be either man or woman, and practices every deceit. His glance is said to be as efficacious as a drop of benzine for removing spots, and soiled garments are left before his shrine.

The god of thunder association is called Lei Shên. His birthday is on the twenty-forth of the sixth moon, and during the three weeks which precede this date the people feast in his honour. He has three eyes and rides a tiger.

There are many gods in the likeness of men. In the third century the present god of war was a famous general named Kuan Yü. He slept quietly for twelve hundred years until, in 1594, he was deified and became known as Kuan Ti. He is usually in armour and carries a long weapon. Confucians call him the military sage. To the Buddhists he is the god of protection, and to the Taoists the minister of Heaven. In popular usage he is also the head of the military. Although habit is in a great measure responsible for the continuing faith in deity prescience and protection, it is interesting commentary on the popular European legend that China's martial spirit is not awake, to recall that a picture of Kuan Ti hangs in every tent and officer's camp of her million and a half soldiers, and that the god of war is the patron of many trades and professions.

The theatre god is the likeness of Ming Huang, the eighth century emperor who established a school for actors in the garden of his palace. While most actors have another patron saint to whom they make sacrifice, they are said to pray to the theatre god to be saved from laughing upon the stage. The image of Ming Huang is seen in theatres. The symbol called age represents a force to be placated that is used at birthday celebrations of gods and mortals and finds place upon the stage. For festival use "age" is of carved and gilded wood and is about four feet high; as a motif it decorates many surfaces of porcelain and silk, and its general popularity is a common expression of the psychic effect in associated ideas.

The ideograph for happiness and for bat are both pronounced as "fu" and the Chinese wit often plays with this dual significance in design. If five bats are shown together the five blessings are signified.

There is a group of sacred and profane symbols called the "Hundred antiques" which includes the pearl, a charm against flood and fire; coin, emblem of riches; Artemisia leaf, good fortune; two books, representing learning; and the jade gong which aids in procuring justice.


The "Twelve ornaments" should not be ignored in any consideration of Chinese design; they appear alone or in grouped decoration, and frequently are embroidered upon robes of ceremony worn in the theatre both by actors and the audience. These "Twelve ornaments" are:

1. Sun, in a bank of clouds, with a three-legged bird inside the disc.
2. Moon, containing a hare and a mortar and pestle.
3. Constellation of stars connected by straight lines.
5. Five clawed dragon.
6. Flowery fowls, two variegated pheasants.
7. Temple vessels, used in ancestral worship.
8. Aquatic grasses in sprays.
9. Fire in flaming scrolls.
10. Millet grains grouped in medallions.
11. Fu = axe or weapon of warrior.
12. Fu = symbol of distinction or happiness. [2]

Symbols, with confusing frequence, vary in name to accord with the three doctrines of China; they may differ even in form among the Manchus of the north or the Chinese of the south; but however symbol and image may change in outline their presence and influence is universal. Scroll and animal and flower, knots and leaves, claws, scaly tails, fangs and squinting eyes depict fury, malice, cunning, goodness or wisdom; a dragon protects, a fox betrays, a squat old mandarin advises, a bit of golden scroll blesses; monsters of lacquer or bronze or jade; vermilion, nocturnal blue or the yellow of old faïence; deities of the house, the street, the tomb, the temple, the theatre, speak the secrets of the Violet City; and confess in contortions and audacious prostrations of the superstitions of the Chinese; to link dynasties and repeat the imponderable fantasy and the bland cruelties of twice two thousand years.

Purchase Books on Chinese Theatre


1 "The Last Days of Pekin."

2 Sir A.W. Franks.

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