One does not begin to understand the Chinese drama without some knowledge of the religious doctrines and the demonolatry of the Chinese people. Not only was the stage incepted by religious rite but it has remained dependent upon Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism for theme and character and symbol.
Superstitions inherited from Buddhistic principles frequently denude the stage of mortality and are the playwright's inspiration for extravaganza; he may create a mise en scène in terrestrial immortality and people it with nostalgic gods and provoking genii and find it more absorbing to an audience than the type of play that transpires on an earthly plane and presents the principles of morality that Confucius meditated upon. The playwright may even unite the two--and add a theme from Taoism--in his high romance. But when fact and fancy meet and have been mingled in such heterogeneous drama as this even a Chinese is sometimes unable to decide whether a play that turns on the achievements of a general and attendant genii, or of an emperor and certain immortals, is, except for the genii and the immortals, all reality, or except for the general and the emperor, all supposition. Upon such misleading and rich occasion the general may be as foreign to the battle lists as the genii are to the birth registry, for when a Chinese dramatist most clearly limns the unlikely he may the most ardently surround it with every ramification of the actual.
Confucianism is based upon ancestor worship and teaches that the source of morality is in filial piety. Confucianism is so definite a theory of conduct that it cannot be expressed in many symbolic forms such as Buddhism furnishes, but it provides themes for numberless librettos. Buddhism teaches that release from one's present existence is the greatest happiness. Its four "truths" are that life is sorrow; that the chain of reincarnation results from desire; that the only escape is through annihilation of desire; and that the way of escape is through the "eightfold path" of right belief, right resolve, right words, right acts, right life, right effort, right thinking, right meditation. Buddha denied the virtue of caste, ritual, and asceticism as taught by the Hindu sage Guatama, and insisted upon the necessity of pity, kindness, and patience to receive salvation.
The most common form of Buddhist drama is the fantasia or the buffoonery of deity and demon symbols through which Buddha is frequently worshipped.
Taoism teaches that contemplation and reason, avoidance of force, and disregard of mere ceremony, are the means of regeneration. It may be said that Confucianism is based upon morality, Buddhism upon idolatry, and Taoism on superstition; that the one is man-worship, the second image-worship, and the third spirit-worship. Or, in another form, Confucianism deals with the dead past, Buddhism with the changing future, and Taoism with the evils of the present.
However we classify we shall inevitably mix them and be justified by the fact that a Chinese sometimes confuses, and often has belief in, all three. A Confucian may worship in a Buddhist temple and follow a Taoist ritual.
Two thousand years of peaceful existence in one country of a trilogy of doctrines, and the common meeting ground of the theatre of gods and demons and genii, of teaching and tenet that represent all three, indicate a certain degree of national religious pliancy.
To add to the long list of mythological beings derived from doctrinal sources are the idols of historic association which have been deified for battle valour or for civil accomplishment. During the twelfth century Kaing T'ai Kung deified many soldiers, and in the fourteenth century the first emperor of the Ming dynasty appointed a great number of city gods. It was then only a short step from a "Great man to a little idol" and ultimately to become both a household and a stage deity. There seems a god for every occasion and a dozen needs for his favour every day.
In the Imperial Theatre in Peking there are three stages, one above the other: the highest is for the gods, the middle space is for mortals, and the lowest plain receives the slain villain. Heaven above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth, with all that these planes may be supposed to control, appear to figure in dramatic performances, and may even be shown during a single play.
Such fantastic, and so traditioned an imagination, and such uncircumscribed deification baffle the "barbarian" and disqualify him to accept a stage performance with a tenth part of the intelligence and, in the beginning, almost none of the pleasure he will remark in every Chinese in the audience. But as he continues to study the Chinese drama he will not fail to perceive the virtue--and the attendant weaknesses--of ancestor worship, of the belief in recurrent life, and the earned privileges of another existence, which govern and satisfy the great majority of the Chinese people.
If it seems strange to find dogma in the theatre, the fear of evil demons and the respect for, and placation of, symbols, we have only to recall that doctrines and drama have developed concurrently. Any attempt to separate them might destroy the potency of both; and would certainly rob the Chinese theatre of many of its most popular characters.
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