元杂剧 Zaju of the Yuan Dynasty
关汉卿像 A portrait of Guan Hanqing
《窦娥冤》插图 An illustration of the drama The Grievance of Dou E
《西厢记》插图 An illustration of the drama The West Chamber
It was after long years of evolvement of Chinese local opera that zaju came into being in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD). It was already a relatively matured form of drama integrating music, singing, dancing, performing and speaking.
The rise of zajua made the Yuan Dynasty the golden age of Chinese opera. As far as we know today, there were more than 200 registered playwrights and more than 700 zaju scripts.
Guan Hanqing was the greatest and most prolific playwright of the time. He created over 60 plays of which 18 are still extant. Most reflected the misery and struggles of women at the bottom of the society and highly praised their wisdom and courage. His representative work The Grievance of Dou E (also translated as Snow in Midsummer) is the best known of the zaju tragedies. It tells of a kind-hearted young woman falsely accused and thrown into prison by the local authorities and finally murdered. Through this play, the author expressed his indignation and his sympathy for the weak in society. Guan's plays had great influence on the development of drama of later generations.
Wang Shipu was another renowned playwright of the period, writing altogether 14 plays of which The West Chamber was considered as a masterpiece in the history of Chinese drama. This play, a love story of Cui Yingying and Zhang Sheng, acclaimed their courage in the pursuit of a free marriage in opposition to feudal ethics, declaring that, "all those in love shall be wedded".The main characters such as Cui Yingying, Zhang Sheng and Hong Niang continue to be known by most Chinese.
Other well-known playwrights include Ma Zhiyuan, Bai Pu, Zheng Guangzu and Ji Junxiang.
Like the Tang poetry and Song ci, zaju of the Yuan Dynasty also holds a very high position in the history of Chinese literature. Many items are still performed on the stage of today, and some have been made into films and TV plays. Their influence is very broad. In the 18th century, The Orphan of the Zhao Family was introduced to Europe and was converted into a play entitled The Orphan of China.