Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/Ceremonies/Theatricals


In the South of China theatrical performances are prefaced by some spectacular representations of propitious and happy omens. These preludes consist of shows representing the Eight Genii paying respect to the Queen of Heaven and wishing her eternal years, the presentation of a son and heir by a fairy, and the personification of official success and advancement. The plays-in-chief are generally adapted from historical events, the performance of which may extend over several days and nights. But in the northern part of China short historical acts, each quite unconnected with the other, are preferred, and the plays commence without any of the preliminaries of the south. Plays are usually selected pointing the moral that the wicked are punished and the virtuous rewarded. On the stage no serious effort is made to produce scenic effects, everything being left to the suggestive actions of the players and the imagination of the audience. For example, two tables, one piled on the top of the other, with the written Chinese characters for a "rampart" on the side may be all that represents a rampart. In the same manner, a chair put sideways, or a divided curtain held up by attendants, will be employed to represent respectively a river bank or a city gate. Again, an actor taking a whip in his hand and going through the movements associated with riding is to be taken as being on horseback, and so, too, when he goes through the action of closing and bolting a door, the door must be considered to have been closed and bolted, though, in fact, no door is visible. Although the stagery is primitive, the acting is most realistic to those who are in a position to understand and appreciate it. The chief and sole aim of an actor is to perfect himself in the role he takes without any adventitious aid from scenery. Although there are actresses in China, they do not as a rule act with men, as it is not considered to be decent by the better class of Chinese for them to do so. Consequently, female characters have in most companies to be undertaken by men. Each actor makes a special study of some particular character, whether it be that of an old man, a youth, a clown, a fighter, a literati, or a female, and does not take any other part. A good actor may command a big salary — some of them get as much as $10,000 a year — but their social status is not high.