In Chinese theater, the clown, or
role,is one of four basic character types. Althoughthe
is formally considered to have thelowest rank of the four, in actual performancehe plays a far more significant role. There iseven a popular legend that the Tang emperorhimself used to play the
role, which mayexplain the old tradition forbidding the otheractors from applying makeup before theclown has first dabbed some white onto hisface.As was true of Sanskrit drama, the clownin the Chinese theater traditionally has beenthe only actor to speak in colloquial idiom, andoften the patter includes ribald jests andtopical allusions not found in the original text.In terms of acting, the Chinese clowns aresubdivided into two types, the
whodisplay considerable verbal wit, and the
who are noted for their skillfulacrobatics. The clown’s makeup usuallyconsists of a few black marks and a symmetrical white patch around the eyesand nose, which will vary in size according to the specific character portrayed— servant, go-between, or military officer, for example.It was in the regional theaters of China that the clown became the real hero of the play. Rural audiences apparently identified more readily with the clown’sirreverent humor and use of local idiom than did the more sophisticated courtaudiences of Peking. The provincial clown also could afford to be more daringpolitically than his urban counterpart, precisely because he was removed fromthe center of power. In Peking Opera, for example, the emperor usually wasplayed by an actor of elderly hero roles, whereas in the provincial theater of far-off Szechuan he was more likely to be portrayed as a clown.In the Szechuan theater, in fact, many characters were seen as clowns. The roleof the emperor would fall into one of the most popular categories, that of theclown-dignitary. Usually the clown mimicked the dry elocution and stiltedgestures of a bombastic (and often evil) scholar, ruler, or aristocrat. The dignitarywas sometimes even presented as a puppet, or performed by a dwarf-clown; the“dwarf” was often a normal-sized actor who moved about in a squatting position.
Chinese clown as storyteller. Photograph from A.C.Scott,
The Theatre in Asia,
by permission of Weidenfeld and Nicolson.