ALL THE UNDERWORLD’S A STAGE
The Shanxi Province of China lies to the West of Beijing. It is famous as the home of Yang Family Style Tai Chi Chuan, the most popular form of tai chi (which happens to be the style of tai chi that I practice). But the new exhibition at the China Institute Gallery on East 65th Street in Manhattan reveals another source of fame for Shanxi -- its importance as a crucible for the development of Chinese theater and opera.
“Theater, Life, and the Afterlife: Tomb Décor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi” looks at the period from around 1100 to 1300 CE, when China was invaded from the north and the ruling Song Dynasty pressed southward. With the invasion, the local capital of Shanxi and its theaters moved south, too. Theatrical entertainments, once confined to the court, then to cities, spread out and meshed with local celebrations and festivals, forming new kinds of theater by the time the invading Jurchens formed the Jin Dynasty.
Little written evidence remains from this chaotic time, but since the 1950s in southern Shanxi more than 100 tombs have been uncovered, most with scenes of theatrical performers and/or performances depicted on the carved brick walls. These have proven to be invaluable sources for study of the kinds of theater, music and dance that evolved during the period.
Brick carving was a local folk art of the area, which consisted mostly of low relief images that were painted. The performers depicted on the walls of the below-ground tombs were meant to accompany the dead and entertain them in the afterlife, which was imagined to be similar to everyday life above ground.
The two galleries at the China Institute show a series of brick carvings from several tombs and present an entire tomb that was uncovered in Shanxi in 2009, plus replicas of other sculptures, including a model of a theater.
The reconstructed tomb is a spectacular assemblage of 43 bricks with floral, animal and abstract designs. Two gate-keepers appear on one wall. On another, four performers, holding their hands and waiting to begin, are carved in mid-relief. Some paint remains to give an idea of the fabric of their garments.
One thing is sure. People during the Jin were obsessed with the theater. Theater in China had started out as sung poems at court, but melded with local agricultural festivities as it suffused into the countryside. Music, song, dance, acrobatics and short skits, some laced with satire and others more traditional morality tales, were mixed together and appeared in various combinations.
The theater in Shanxi took place in temple settings, unlike theaters in cities that charged admission. The performances in Shanxi were communal and related to local deities in this agricultural area. Still unknown is whether theatricals were held specifically for the dead. The small one-chamber tombs were too small to have held any such rites, but perhaps the temple theaters did.
The carved bricks from several sites illustrate individual dancers and musicians. Some play drums strapped to their waists while others beat larger, stationary drums. Flutes, oboes and clappers are played as dancers in robes sway gracefully.
The Eight Immortals appear singly on bricks to remind viewers of their moral obligations. Another religious fable is depicted on a large brick with a boy and a girl riding on deer, each holding herbs of immortality.
Well-known stories of filial piety are compressed into one scene in another series. An example is the tale of Meng Zong, who cries because his mother is seriously ill and calling for bamboo shoots to eat, even though they are out of season. His tears move the gods, and the shoots appear. He puts them in a soup for his mother, and she miraculously recovers. Red paint surrounds a sketchily painted representation of the crying youth.
A lion dance, which is not that far removed from dragon dances you can see in Chinatowns the world over at Chinese New Year, is on another brick. A three-dimensional head of a stock character from satiric skits, a “zhuanggu” or court official, is extremely life-like even with closed eyes.
Finally, a short video allows visitors to see several of the theaters that remain in Shanxi. One is the Erlang Temple Stage (Jin Dynasty, 1183 CE), the oldest stage discovered to date in China. The video also serves as a travelogue for Shanxi with a brief look at theatrical performances being held there today. It can make you want to take a plane to Shanxi immediately.
“Theater, Life, and the Afterlife: Tomb Décor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi” was curated by Shi Jimming, Director of the Shanxi Museum, under the direction of Willow Hai Chang, director of the China Institute Gallery.
“Theater, Life, and the Afterlife: Tomb Décor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi,” Feb. 9-June 17, 2012, at the China Institute Gallery, 125 East 65th Street, New York, N.Y. 10065.