A Reassessment of the Place of Shamanism in the Origins of Chinese Theater

Article excerpt

The single most common explanation of the origins of theater--Chinese or otherwise--is that it began in ritual. What follows is an examination of scholarship that makes this assertion and the evidence and assumptions on which it is founded. But before exploring the claim that theater began as ritual, it is worth considering the point of the exercise. While I diverge from the consensus of most Chinese theater historians and modern ethnographers on the roots of Chinese theater, this essay is not an attempt to present new evidence for the roots of Chinese theater, nor is it an attempt to create a new theoretical framework for the study of Chinese theater in the very well-documented and vast history of entertainment. This latter topic in particular deserves a separate study. Rather, my focus here is on the soundness of the theses and conclusions of earlier scholars who have searched for the origins of Chinese theater in shamanism. My aim is first to show how the claim that Wang Guowei was a proponent of the theory arguing that the roots of theater were found in shamanism is based on an erroneous reading of his work. Second, I argue that the prevailing modern tendency to establish the roots of theater in a ritual shamanic context rests on a shaky foundation. Finally, I suggest that questioning the shamanic roots of theater is also a call to reconsider and diversify the study of the origins of Chinese theater outside its ritual context.

In a preliminary discussion of the Cambridge Ritualists, Richard Schechner--one of the influential proponents of the value of anthropology for understanding theater--pointed out the pointlessness of looking for the roots of theater in order to understand theater; it is a quixotic quest, he argues, that in the end proves little. (1) This is only partially true for the Chinese tradition, not because the final aim of the search for the roots of theater can deliver satisfactory results, but because the search for roots in China itself initiated a discussion that did accomplish two essential things. First, it established Chinese theater as an academic discipline, thus raising the literary status of drama and placing it on a par with the novel. Second, it created a consensus about the synthetic nature of Chinese theater, establishing the dominant constituent elements that came to form the core and determine the unique nature of Chinese theater.


Discussion of the roots of theater began in earnest in the early twentieth century when Wang Guowei (1877-1927) published his History of Song and Yuan Drama (Song Yuan xiqu kao, 1915). Other scholars had previously questioned the roots of Chinese theater, but Wang's work provided the meta-narrative for the history of Chinese drama for generations to come. In his search for origins, Wang established two early lines of dramatic development--one in song and dance and the other in comedy--creating a binary system that has prevailed in the historiography of Chinese drama to this day. In Wang's schema, comedy stemmed from the witty language and actions of early performers (paiyou tit), and in particular the court jesters of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1050-256 B.C.E.), whereas song and dance derived from Han-dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) descriptions of shamanic performances. Wang's approach has been so influential that ever since he opened his History with the rhetorical question "Could the rise of song and dance have begun with ancient wu shamans?" (2) the ritual origins of Chinese drama have seldom been challenged. Instead, scholars have endeavoured to demonstrate the ritual lineages of each of the main components of Chinese theater. (3)

Over the past one hundred years, scholars have claimed to find the origins of Chinese theater in various types of ritual activity. (4) Here I focus on one: shamanism. This paper will contextualize Wang Guowei's use of shamanism within his ideas of art and literature to show that Wang's view of shamanism differed from mainstream interpretations of shamanism (he wasn't actually interested in possession). …