The Mulian Opera 'Ghost Drama' Revival

March 24, 2011
Editor: Lin Lin

The Xinchang Diaoqiang Troupe of Zhejiang Province performed on March 14 the venerable Mulian Opera, which is also known as 'ghost drama'. The last Mulian Opera performance was in 1996. 
 
Background


Mulian Opera originated in Yiyang County, south China's Jiangxi Province and has been acknowledged throughout history as the most famous religious drama with the broadest repertoire. It became popular in Anhui, Jiangxi, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces during the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644).

As the oldest theatric genre, it is also the earliest documented Chinese opera and hence constitutes a platter of Chinese traditional dramas.

An actress performs the Mulian Opera in Xinchang County, east China's Zhejiang Province, March 14, 2011.(Xinhua/Wang Dingchang)
An actress performs the Mulian Opera in Xinchang County, east China's Zhejiang Province, March 14, 2011.(Xinhua/Wang Dingchang)

Mulian Opera got its name from the play Mulian Rescues His Mother, a story that can be traced back to Buddhist scriptures. The main characters are Liu Siniang (widow of Fu Xiang, a mortal who devoted his life to prayer and helping people and who was canonized after death) who is consigned to hell for killing livestock and disrespecting the gods. Fu Luobo is Liu Siniang's son, who sets out on a pilgrimage to the west, and whose filial piety moves Buddha. Fu becomes a Buddhist and is given the name, Damu Jianlian, abbreviated to Mulian. With a Yu-lan-pen scripture in one hand and his abbot's staff bestowed by the Buddha in the other, Mulian goes through countless trials and adventures before finally saving his mother and joining in a family reunion in the immortal world.  

An actor performs the Mulian Opera in Xinchang County, east China's Zhejiang Province, March 14, 2011.(Xinhua/Wang Dingchang)
An actor performs the Mulian Opera in Xinchang County, east China's Zhejiang Province, March 14, 2011.(Xinhua/Wang Dingchang)

The history of Mulian Opera is so long that it has become known as the patriarch of all Chinese traditional operas. 

Between the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Mulian Opera gradually gained popularity in areas of Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Jiangxi by virtue of its impressively diverse styles, distinct percussion, and interactive live performances .

Mulian Opera is also well-known for its 'ghost' roles, and is generally performed late at night to enhance the play's sepulchral ethos. The male and female ghost characters are terrifying, exotic but sometimes also lovable and amusing.  

The popularity of Mulian Opera began to decline in the 1920s, and by the end of the 1990s it was more or less extinct. A revival came in 2006, when it was listed as National Intangible Cultural Heritage.  

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