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« A New Look | Main | The Tao of Our Town »

July 07, 2010


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I think drama looks less central to Chinese culture because of the print culture which develops so much earlier. Granted, there's a dramatic strain in Western urban culture from earlier, but the great flowering of drama is in the Early Modern, just as it is in China, because that's when the cities come into bloom.

Thanks for the comment. Let me ask: do you think it is true that drama did not play as central a cultural role in China as in, say, Greece, or does it just look that way?
And on the point about print culture: am I right to suppose that it is the wider circulation of printed texts in the early modern period that facilitates the development of drama in China?

"drama was not as central an element of cultural expression in China as it was in other parts of the world because neither Confucianism or Taoism provided a strong philosophical basis for it."

If the intended contrast is with Greco-Roman culture and its descendants, are you implying that Western philosophy provides a basis for the legitimacy and continued practice of drama? I confess I've never seen the two as linked. (Though perhaps by mentioning Confucianism and Daoism you are talking about something more encompassing, like "the values of the educated elite" rather than just philosophical traditions.) Drama was a very strong element of Greek public life for decades before philosophy came into its own. But we have only a pitiable fraction of the scripts preserved. Just a few more scripts lost, and Greek drama would look like Warring States drama: nonexistent. Of course, there remains the fact that Greece had famous plays and playwrights, which we would know about even if the scripts had all perished. That particular genre, or that way of distinguishing it from other genres, seems to have been absent in early China. But I've always assumed that there was a dramatic aspect to 樂 performance, and a few 詩 are thought to have been performance pieces with a mimetic element.

The best actors I've known have all possessed a certain fluidity and adaptability of mind and body. This is not so different from many of the artisans described in the Zhuangzi, for instance, or the ideals (yielding, waterlike, flexible like a young plant) one finds in the Tao Te Ching. A good actor slides into his or her role effortlessly, in wu wei fashion...

As for Confucianism, it seems to me that all acting is "ritual" in some sense. I'm reminded of I Ching hexagram "Yu" and Wildhelm's commentary on it:

Thunder comes resounding out of the earth:
The image of ENTHUSIASM.
Thus the ancient kings made music
In order to honor merit,
And offered it with splendor
To the Supreme Deity,
Inviting their ancestors to be present.

When, at the beginning of summer, thunder--electrical energy--comes
rushing forth from the earth again, and the first thunderstorm refreshes
nature, a prolonged state of tension is resolved. Joy and relief make
themselves felt. So too, music has power to ease tension within the heart and
to loosen the grip of obscure emotions. The enthusiasm of the heart
expresses itself involuntarily in a burst of song, in dance and rhythmic
movement of the body. From immemorial times the inspiring effect of the
invisible sound that moves all hearts, and draws them together, has mystified
Rulers have made use of this natural taste for music; they elevated and
regulated it. Music was looked upon as something serious and holy, designed
to purify the feelings of men. It fell to music to glorify the virtues of heroes
and thus to construct a bridge to the world of the unseen. In the temple men
drew near to God with music and pantomimes (out of this later the theater
developed). Religious feeling for the Creator of the world was united with
the most sacred of human feelings, that of reverence for the ancestors. The
ancestors were invited to these divine services as guests of the Ruler of
Heaven and as representatives of humanity in the higher regions. This
uniting of the human past with the Divinity in solemn moments of
religious inspiration established the bond between God and man. The ruler
who revered the Divinity in revering his ancestors became thereby the Son of
Heaven, in whom the heavenly and the earthly world met in mystical

These ideas are the final summation of Chinese culture. Confucius has said
of the great sacrifice at which these rites were performed: "He who could
wholly comprehend this sacrifice could rule the world as though it were
spinning on his hand."

Stephen and Zenarchist,
Thanks for the insightful comments...
The point about drama likely predating "philosophy" (guess we need to define that at some point...) in Greece is quite interesting. As is remembering that "Daoism" and "Confucianism" are not neatly captured by "philosophy" either - they extend into the more amorphous realm of "culture".
I do not have a fully formed argument here about the necessity of a philosophical basis for drama. I'm just noting that, on first consideration, I am not finding it in Daoism and Confucianism. Perhaps it has less to do with philosophy and more to do with aesthetic sensibilities...
Just something to think about.
Regarding Zhuangzi, yes, Zenarchist, I agree that if an actor were to go looking for inspiration in ancient Chinese classics, cook Ding would be a good starting point, suggesting that the practice of acting, like any practice, can become a means of apprehending Way. In the post, I was thinking of the converse, however: if a Daoist were to think about acting (as opposed to an actor thinking about Daoism), I suspect he or she would hesitate, asking: why is that necessary when Way can be discovered without assuming the role of another?
By the way(!), I had a good, if brief, discussion of this with a friend who knows the texts, and I am beginning to see that there may well be more of a Daoist defense of acting than I was originally able to see. Perhaps it will require another post...
And the point about Ritual brings us back to Stephen, to some degree. There certainly was performance, especially music, in ancient China. Whether it took the shape of something we could recognize as "drama" is open to question (historians please!). But if it did approach "drama" a Confucian would approach it, I think, through the lens of Ritual.

And one last thing: Stephen, what do you think of Wilhelm's use of the term "God"?

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