The origins of Chinese theatre

There is much common ground between jesters and actors, particularly comic actors.  Jesters could perform in court entertainments, whether impromptu skits or full-blown plays or masques.  Similarly, actors could play the role of a jester either as a character in a play or spontaneously stepping out of their scripted role to improvise some satirical commentary on current affairs or criticism of those in power.   Examples of this exist among ancient Roman actors, Elizabethan comic actors and Qing dynasty Chinese actors. 

Some, such as Richard Tarlton and Tom Killigrew, were viewed as being a court jester in addition to their role in the theatre.  

But perhaps only in the case of China can we say that the theatre originated with the Chinese jesters. Sometimes they worked solo, in a one-to-one relationship with the emperor.  But often their truth-telling took the form of short, impromptu skits, and later this morphed into the development of Chinese drama. We see it too in the classical Chinese terms for ‘jester’, such as lingren, which later came to mean ‘actor’. 

The Chinese theatre may be said to begin with the court jesters of [the] late Chou [Zhou] dynasty.  These jesters were personal companions to the dukes and princes they served, as shown by the various references to their witty contributions to ordinary conversation.

Source: Hsu Tao-Ching [Xu Taoqing], The Chinese Conception of the Theatre (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985), p. 299.

Image credit: Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE) mural featuring actors, in a hall of the Guangsheng Temple 广胜寺 in Hongtong county 洪洞県, Shanxi province.   In mid-Imperial China, characters in theatrical performances wore elaborate costumes and stereotyped facial makeup. A banner above reads ‘Raodu liked it. Zhong Duxiu, a famous actress of sanyue performed here. The fourth month of year one in the Taiding period’ (堯都見愛/大行散樂忠都秀在此作場/泰定元年四月)


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