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A Comparison between Ancient Greek Theatre and Chinese Opera

· Theatre

by Miao Bin

As the two existing ancient civilizations in the world, both China and Greece have theatre, however, it is not easy for us to tell what are the differences between the theatre from the two countries, who are so far away from each other and are the birthplaces of the western culture and the eastern culture. We can’t simply say there are similarities between Chinese and Greek theatre, just as we say there are similarities between the Chinese and Greek culture. The fact is that, the culture in the east and the culture in the west are so exotic from each other. So does the theatre.

To be more accurate, normally when we talk about the theatre in China, we mean Chinese opera. The theatre in China was imported from Europe in the beginning of 20th century, and helped the development of Chinese society in that period. So there are several concepts to be defined.

Theatre, is θεάομαι in Ancient Greek, and θέατρο in modern Greek. It origins from Ancient Greek theatre, and then expanded and developed in the other areas of Europe. It is a comprehensive performing art, including gestures, movements, dialogues, singing and the stage, as well as audiences.

Chinese opera, is the traditional performing art in China, including Kun Opera, Beijing Opera and many others in different regions of China. It talks about a story, using the music and dancing, or maybe some acrobats, and is musical.

Drama, is a performing art mainly using dialogues. It came to China since early 20th century, and because of the characteristic of dialogues, Hong Shen, a drama artist named it “Hua Ju”, while theatre in Chinese is “Xi Ju”. “Hua” means dialogue.

Theatre and drama are both from Ancient Greece, while Chinese opera is from China. That’s why we need to be clear about Chinese opera or Chinese drama, when we talk about Chinese theatre.


Here, we are going to compare Chinese opera and Ancient Greek theatre.

When we watch Ancient Greek theatre and Chinese opera, we can easily find out that the form of performance, the emotion expression, and the dialogues and singings, are obviously different, which bring us different feelings. Ancient Greek theatre was performed in the open air theatre which accommodated thousands or even tens of thousands audiences, while Chinese opera was performed normally in the indoor opera houses which were small in space.

Sitting in these two different spaces, the audiences received very different feelings and information. This is why most of the Chinese audiences felt uncomfortable when their first time watching the performance in the Ancient Greek theatre. Even further, some of them could not understand the performance. Not only because of the language, but also because they were not used to watch a performance in such space.

I got used to the Ancient theatre after several times, and also started to enjoy sitting on the broken seats made of stone, watching the actors performing in the round orchestra. Sometimes raised my eyes seeing the mountains surrounded, or watching the stars all over the sky. I felt peaceful in my heart.

Many Europeans felt uncomfortable too when they for the first time watching Chinese opera in a traditional opera house. It was difficult for them to understand, what kind of culture was inside that narrow space, that conservative gestures and that slow singing.

Certainly we must notice that, the birth time of Ancient Greek theatre and Chinese opera are far from each other. Ancient Greek theatre was born in 6th century BC, while Chinese opera was born in the end of 12th century AD. Almost 1800 years apart from each other. The life styles and the levels of culture were significantly different, so as the ways of watching performances.

Greece has Aegean, Ionia and Mediterranean seas, and the land is relatively barren, so from ancient times, Greeks needed to conquer the sea in order to survive, which generated the marine civilization. In the contrast, China has broad and fertile land, which is easier to provide food and living conditions for the Chinese people. So the agricultural civilization was born in China. Greek and Chinese civilizations went to two different directions. The former is more open, and advocates the struggle against the nature and the destiny, while the latter is more introverted, and advocates that Tao is learning from Nature.

This difference is clearly reflected in the Ancient Greek theatre and Chinese opera. Ancient Greek theatre talked about politics, ethics, conflict and struggle against destiny, etc., such as Oedipus, while Chinese opera talked about the stories from real life and the conflicts between people and the society, such as the story of women's pursuit of love in "The West Chamber”.

There are both conflicts and fightings, but the results in the East and in the West are different. To the ancient Greeks, destiny is invincible, maybe because conquering the sea was too difficult. So the most of the endings of the ancient Greek tragedies were unable to get rid of fate and ended in failure. But the spirit of the Chinese was different. Chinese people believe that although the road is tortuous, the future must be bright, because with our talent and power, we can conquer the land, the rivers and the mountains. So the Eastern operas mostly have happy endings, and the audiences like to see the happy endings, to get the comfort of the soul.

About the content, the stories of Ancient Greek theatre were mainly from Ancient Greek mythology, which brought a lot fun and and mystery. The Chinese opera talked about historical and social stories, which were more realistic. This difference can be traced by to the birth of the Chinese and Greek theatres.

Ancient Greek theatre was born in the sacrifice of Dionysus. Just as Nietzsche's two-sidedness of the Greek spirit, both the rationality of the god of sun and the enthusiasm of the god of wine, theatre was born from the sacrifice of the God of wine, and full of passion. In Athens, theatre became mature, and got support from the governor of this democratic polis. Theatre became educational for the public, and the government even paid for the citizens to watch theatre performances and competitions. In the same history period, China was in Spring and Autumn Period, and the main difference between the east and the west was the people’s positions in the society. Athens was already democratic polis and citizens were relatively equal and free, while the people in Spring and Autumn Period were not in the equal position, and the kings and emperor were impossible to support the public to watch theatre performances.

When Chinese opera was born, China has passed a journey of more than one thousand years. In Song Dynasty, it appeared the citizen class, benefited from the development of commodity economy. Compared to the elite culture, the citizen class provided the soil for opera to grow. Until Yuan Dynasty, the Mongolian rulers interrupted the Confucian ruling, and broke the literati's promotion path, which pushed the literati to start to write plays. During this period, a large number of good plays were written.

Another factor affected the difference between the Ancient Greek theatre and Chinese opera, is the aesthetic. Till today, Chinese people prefer to feel the helplessness of life in a sad mood, but not the exhaustion in Ancient Greek theatre, which preferred to pursuit some kind of spirit. Ancient Greeks’ aesthetic is in the solemn atmosphere, feeling the sublime style and reflecting the heroic spirit.

But it is strange that, such heroic spirit reflection was completed in displaying evil. There were many “evil behaviors” such as killing husbands or abandoning children, etc. This is difficult for us to understand. Why ancient Greeks like to see the evil behaviors to be displayed on the stage? Let’s see on the stage of the Chinese opera, there are full of elegant words and beautiful music. So ancient Greeks liked evil and ancient Chinese liked goodness? The reason for being so different is based on the different understandings on the functions of theatre and opera. Ancient Greek theatre focused on “purification”. They put the evil on the stage in front of the audiences, who will be purified in fear or compassion. But Chinese opera had different philosophy. Since Confucius proclaiming ritual and claiming humans were born to be good not evil, Chinese people prefer to hide the evil but publicize goodness, and guide the public to be good. In fact, this is “cultivating”. "Purification" causes concern about the nature of human beings, and thinking about how people are human beings, while "cultivating" causes concern about life and thinking about the essence of life.

Why was theatre born in 6th BC in Greece, but not in the Spring and Autumn Period of China when there are many philosophies and colorful cultural developments? Another reason was because ancient Greeks were good at narration, which we can see from “Iliad” and “Odyssey”. In the east, “The Book of Songs” and “Analects” had not that complicated narration yet.

I think ancient Greek theatre is more dramatic, while Chinese opera is more musical. That’s why in Greece we say watch a play, while in China we say listen to a play (the actors sing a play). People use different senses. Since it’s watching a play, in the stage of Ancient Greek theatre, the stage preferred to be real, while the stage of Chinese opera preferred to be simple, and several words by the actors tell the audiences about the changes of the time and the space. Although we know theatre or even all stage performing arts are based on assumptions, but Chinese opera has much higher level of assumption that Ancient Greek theatre, and aims to present complicated content in a simple way.

Dialogue is very important in Ancient Greek theatre, not only between the actors, but also between the actors and the chorus. Chorus is also typical in Ancient Greek theatre. But Chinese opera focus more on “performing a story with music and dancing”. So when we watch Kun Opera or Beijing Opera, there are many singing and instrumental playing, and actors use a lot of dancing. Some person said that, theatre’s highest expression is dialogue, while Chinese opera’s highest expression is solo singing.

So learning theatre and Chinese opera are also very different. Chinese opera requires practicing since very young age, around 4-6 years old, and must follow a certain program to learn and constantly imitate repetition. Theatre is more open for learning, and improvisation is an important method. The ways of expressing emotions are also different. Chinese opera is more introverted and humble, while theatre is straight and open to express sadness or happiness. This is related to the personalities of the Greek and Chinese people.

From the above, we can see there are quite many differences between Chinese opera and Greek theatre. There are many reasons for these differences. They are the miniature of Eastern and Western civilizations.

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