14 June 2011

The Entertainers: Disciples of the Pear Garden

Jeannie Lin

The Tang Dynasty was a golden age for the arts in imperial China and the theater was no exception. In the 8th century, Emperor Xuanzong formed the first national opera troupe which primarily performed for the Emperor's pleasure. The troupe was dubbed the "Pear Garden" and opera performers to this day are referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden."

Throughout the Tang and Song dynasties, opera was performed in Classical Chinese, however the during the Yuan Dynasty, operas performed in the vernacular became popular. Today there are 368 forms of Chinese opera, the Beijing form being the most popular.

Chinese opera is a combination of song, instrumental music, dance, acrobatics and martial arts. The training is quite strenuous with performers usually starting at a very young age. In historical tradition, a schoolmaster would take on all the costs of training and raising the disciples. As a result, the performers would incur debt which they would repay later on as they started to perform. Jackie Chan received vocal, acrobatic, and martial arts training as a child in a Beijing Opera School. So we can credit his crowd-pleasing stunts to his operatic background. I hear he's not a bad singer either.

In traditional Beijing opera, there are specific roles: Sheng (male), Dan (female), Jing (painted-face male), Chou (comedic). Within those categories, there are further sub-categories which correspond to common archetypes, for example the elderly man, the virtuous woman, the young male, the general, the warrior. The elaborate costumes, headdress and makeup are specific to each archetype and serve to help identify the character to the audience.

One of the most famous roles in the Chinese opera is that of the Monkey King. This role requires someone with acrobatic and martial arts ability as well as great comic timing.

Much like in early Shakespearean theater, female or dan roles were played by male actors. Their costumes were modified to make the actors appear more feminine such as special shoes to make their feet appear smaller. This practice waned after women were started appearing on stage in the 1870s, though the female actors continue to play the traditional roles as they were originally written -- which was for a man impersonating a woman.

Research into the North Hamlet, the entertainment district of the Tang Dynasty, yielded some very colorful characters which will hopefully be unveiled in upcoming books.

Jeannie Lin writes sweeping historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China, featuring sword play, politics, and, above all, honor. Her Golden Heart award winning debut, BUTTERFLY SWORDS, and the linked short story "THE TAMING OF MEI LIN" are currently available from Harlequin Historical.