Theater of the Dead

Book Review:  Theater of the Dead: A Social Turn in Chinese Funerary Art, 1000-1400, by Hong Jeehee. (2016, University of Hawaii Press).

This new book by Hong Jeehee is about the aesthetics of 1000 year old tombs in China. I picked it up because I thought it might tell me something new about the ritual elements of theater. Hong starts out with this question: Why were they putting theater stages, images and statues of actors, and theatrical reliefs in tombs over several hundred years in China? 

To be completely honest, I thought I would just scan this book for juicy bits, but I ended up reading it cover to cover. It is fascinating and weird. As it turns out, the book has much to tell us about the origins of Chinese martial arts. 

A thousand years ago, many Tombs had theater and actors built into their internal architecture. Traditional Chinese actors generally performed roles which were thought to be dead, as in heroes of the past, gods, ghosts or demons. In fact, the word for a theatrical role is guishen, or ghost-god.

While archeology keeps turning up more and more tombs with inner-theatricality, we actually have much more evidence of a bias against putting theater in and around ones tomb. This evidence is in the form of laws and published criticisms of these practices. Theatrically themed tombs mostly belonged to wealth commoners, government officials conscientiously avoided the practice.

Here is a selection of thought provoking quotes:

"While the increasing weight of the criticism is itself a telling barometer of such performances’ popularity, the content of the entertainment on funerary occasions is missing in those accounts; only a handful of rare records let us have a glimpse of how they would have been staged and how the mourners responded to them. A lively performance scene during the funerary process is captured in a eyewitness account by Feng Yan (fl. 756), which gives us some idea of actual practices conducted at the vernacular level in the late Tang period and provides a counterbalance to the disproportional number of records consisting only of prescriptive rules for funeral rites: “Again they stopped the funeral carriage, and set up wooden figures of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang participating in the banquet at Goose Gate. The show lasted quite some time. In the meantime, all the mourners came through the funerary curtain, stopped wailing, and watched the performance.” This performance was part of a funeral procession during the Dali reign (766-799) as the coffin of the deceased was being carried on the street to his tomb site. The main funerary ritual had taken place at the house of the deceased, and now the mourners were walking in the funeral procession, along with a troupe of performers. The latter performance of this celebrated episode of the feast at the Goose Gate (Hongmen) from the Three Kingdoms saga was preceded by the enactment of a combat scene between two celebrated soldiers in history that was performed alongside the procession. These few descriptive passages thus focus on conveying the fascination of the onlookers and provide the details of the theatrical performances as a part of the larger funerary program. Clearly the power of spectacles impelled the mourners to temporarily forget about their ritual duties and instead indulge in watching what was unfolding fantastically before their eyes. (P. 17)"

The dichotomies of illusion: 

"The concept of illusionism in traditional Chinese art is as complex as that in other cultures, if not more so. Wu Hung has defined the notion of illusionism by classifying the concept of huan in traditional Chinese literature into three groups: “illusion/illutionary,” “illusionism/illusionistic,” and "magical transformation/conjuration.” The “illusionism” refers to a state in which the dualism of the real/realness (zhen) and illusion (huan) is confused, and the artist of such image deceives “not only the viewer’s eye but also his mind, at least temporarily.” As is implied in Wu’s suggestion, however, the distinctions between these categories are often themselves unclear and the concept of huan pertains to rather broader historical phenomena of illusionism throughout the history of Chinese art. Moreover, one must bear in mind that multiple notions of illusionism could always coexist in a single given time and space. The specific kind of illusionism apparent in the Yanshi reliefs is one of several possible practices of seeing during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (p. 59-60)”

Theater was a gateway to the realm of death.

During festivals the entrance was sometimes a theater that people walked under, like a tunnel, called a pass-through.  Theaters were also constructed as a second story on other buildings so they could be viewed from far away. Thus one could walk through the ground floor of a building (storage/grain) under the performance as an entrance to a new space. If you have seen the anime “Spirited Away” you will easily get this idea of entering another world outside of time (xiantian)

This book was good all the way through, it kept me reading even while I was asking myself why I care this much about funerals and tombs in medieval China? The kicker at the end is that the original gate of the Palace of Eternal Joy financed by the Yongle emperor on Mount Wudang (the oldest one there!) was in fact a theater that people walked under to enter the temple! (P. 133-135)

This puts a great new spin on my Possible Origins press release rhetorical question “Was Shaolin Temple some kind of theater school or what?” It turns out, Wudang Shan was a sort of theater center! 

“Like other Daoist temples, the Palace of Eternal Joy comprises several buildings within a landscaped compound. When the townspeople came to visit the temple, the first building they encountered was the Hall of Dragon and Tiger (Longhu dian), also called the Gate of Ultimate Limitlessness (Wuji men), which they had to pass through to reach the temple—that is, the central hall dedicated to the Three Purities (Sanqing dian). The Hall of Dragon and Tiger features a courtyard between two lateral wings, and on one wall facing the courtyard was a U-shaped platform that used to be encircled by wooden railings and was most likely used as a stage. Rarely has notice been taken of the fact that the hall also functioned as the main gate of the monastery until the Qing period, when the current temple gate was built. It thus had a double function as gate and stage during the late thirteenth century, a particular form often termed “gate-stage” (menting) or “pass-through stage” (guoting)