It is said (people who knows about it) that in the origin of the acting technique in Chinese Opera it was the way puppets were manipulated to become alive. Following strict patterns from ancient rituals to convert a dead matter in a live body, in the same way the actor’s body becomes alive in a new one, through training, in a theatrical body. That’s a fascinating subject but today I want to go further back in history. It is also said (the same savants) that the origin of the Puppet Theatre technique of movement it was inside of the ancient tombs of China, in the technique mortuary figures were made for. Human-like figures, made of wood, paper, bronze or clay, which must have had movement to recall and to reinforce life to the dead once installed in the other world; and the techniques to provoke movement in those mortuary figures were used later to create a Puppet performance outside the tomb (and at the end the actor’s performance as well).
I knew a little bit about this ideas before arriving to China but it was there, in 2005, when reading Jo Riley's book Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance (1) that I answered many of my questions about Beijing Opera Actor’s movement technique and I could compare them with what I was seeing in every performance I attended in China. Of course, and I must say it, this doesn’t mean that a common modern Chinese Opera actor is aware of this origin, or any other, in his training, he learns from a tradition, most of it imitation, and in that kind of education many questions are not answered and origins usually are covered with mystic and fantasy. That’s then part of a researcher’s field or maybe of a curious observer.
What it’s fantastic in all this story is the origin of all of it, apparently very simple human-like figures buried in a tomb, functioning as puppets for the dead, as a company for the other world, recreating life and movement in a subterranean stage-world. It wasn’t till the last century that Chinese discovered the figures and researchers could elaborate a reasonable discourse about their function in funerary rituals, keeping the idea of being alive through reaching the movement inside the tomb. So, many of these figures were made with moveable arms and jaw, painted with vivid colors for the eyes and signs referring to muscular gestures, and in some tombs hanging in a position that could keep them in movement thanks to the air (as a common puppet); all of these figures imbued of substances linked to the fluids of life (related to the Chinese terms of Qi and Shen), blood of course and several mineral powders.
Riley makes for us a fantastic parallelism of the ways those figures were made with the objective of becoming alive and how Chinese Opera training technique is structured to create the actor’s new body for the stage. In the beginning puppets were a medium for exorcism in the underworld while actors were exorcists in this our "real" world; both should follow the same patterns, being related to the same materials, and of course the same technique to become alive.
I didn’t find any of these figures inside China, only because I didn’t have the opportunity to travel where they were in exhibition, but surprisingly I found two of them during my visit to San Francisco in February 2009, inside the very well known Asian Art Museum; these figures are made of clay and their arms, once moveable parts, are missing. The Museum information said they were more than 2000 years old.
The next photographs of mortuary figures come from Jo Riley’s book, from a Principal's tomb in Mawangdui, just 40 kilometers from Changsha, in Hunan Province. The Tomb dates to approximately 168 B.C.
Finally here you see two photographs with more mortuary figures taken from an Internet site: one of them, from the Mawangdui tombs, shows a group of musicians with their instruments (it is not dated), and the other presents an almost recognizable modern puppet (but still a funerary figure), dating from Liao Dynasty (Between 907 and 1225 A.D.).
As usual, I’m happy to expose information and documents, then, the rest, if up to you. See you next time.
(1) Jo Riley "Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance" Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1997.