Higher Wages, Less Pain: The Changing Role of Children in Traditional Chinese Theater

  • Mark Branner
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


One scene in Chen Kaige’s1 remarkable film, Farewell My Concubine, summarizes the powerful grasp that traditional Chinese theater once had on the imaginative lives of young people—both future performers and spectators alike. Two boys have deliberately run away from their Beijing Opera school, determined to escape the constant beatings and almost inhuman training regime. They race through the back streets of the city, eating forbidden snacks and enjoying their newfound freedom. As if by chance, they stumble into a bustling theater. With a sudden and earsplitting cacophony, the performance begins. Blaring reeds, metal gongs, percussive mallets on wooden blocks, and tautly wound string instruments break the silence with a decided clap of sound as an army of actors carrying banners fills the stage. Then, in a spectacular display of almost superhuman ability, another actor clothed in a vibrant-colored silken gown enters, performing repeated backflips with increasing speed. Suddenly the lead actor enters. His painted face—a remarkable pattern of lines, shapes, and hues—seems already otherworldly as he too adds to the visual and aural excitement, belting out a piercing introductory statement to begin the narrative and amplify the cacophony of sound and spectacle already swelling the space. The boys, jostled behind a large crowd in the back of the theater, squirm to get a better look.


High Wage Corporal Punishment Cultural Revolution Traditional Theater Recent Graduate 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, Miramax: 1993.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Adolphe Clarence Scott, An Introduction to the Chinese Theater (Singapore: Donald Moore, 1958), 119.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Jackie Chan, I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 2.Google Scholar
  4. 18.
    Loren Brandt and Thomas G. Rawski, eds., China’s Great Economic Transformation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1–2.Google Scholar
  5. 19.
    Helen H.Wang, The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010), 6.Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    John Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998), 408.Google Scholar
  7. 21.
    Elizabeth Wichmann, “Traditional Theater in Contemporary China,” in Chinese Theater: From Its Origins to the Present Day, ed. Colin Mackerras (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), 197.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Colin Mackerras, Peking Opera (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1997), 61.Google Scholar
  9. 32.
    Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power (New York: Vintage, 1995), 328.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Gillian Arrighi and Victor Emeljanow 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark Branner

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations