The other day I posted about the superstitions that exist in western theatre, so in the interests of balance and world theatre traditions, today I have an extract from The Illuminated Lantern: A Short History of Chinese Opera which, not surprisingly, covers the same but in Chinese theatre.
In western theater, a number of superstitions have grown up among performers. Many words and phrases are avoided backstage, as they are said to cause bad luck. For example, actors never say “Good Luck” to each other, they say, “break a leg.” Whistling backstage is also said to bring bad luck. As is, most curiously, saying “Macbeth.” When one wishes to discuss Macbeth in the theater, one should always refer to it as “the Scottish play.” In Chinese Opera, similar superstitions exist.
The words Meng and Keng are particularly important. One should never say Meng at the back of the stage, nor Keng at the front of the stage. These prohibitions stem from the story of Yu Meng, a legendary jester who is said to have impersonated a famous scholar at the court as long ago as 403 B.C. The king was so impressed by the impersonation that lavish favors were bestowed (though respectfully declined).
Another superstition involves the doll that Chinese Opera troupes use to represent babies on stage. These dolls possess the soul of the child they represent. Before and after each performance with these dolls, the actors would pay their respects to it. During the performance, it was always left facing the sky, and afterwards, it was always packed facing the earth. The film Attack of the Joyful Goddess explores this superstition in violent, bloody detail.
Since the Opera often concerns itself with the supernatural world, it’s players must be ever more respectful of the laws of that world, and ritual and ceremony must be performed properly and with respect. Tales like the one which begins Hocus Pocus are often told of Chinese Opera troupes who visit a remote town and give a performance, only to find in the morning that the town did not exist and that they were entertaining ghosts. It is traditional that during some Taoist ceremonies, and especially during the Ghost Festival in the seventh month, an Opera Troupe would perform in front of the shrine, to entertain the spirits of that place. Ultimate Vampire begins with a performance of this type. These days, a TV may often be seen facing a shrine to provide similar entertainment to the gods. Though if I were an angry spirit, I can only imagine the suffering I would inflict on anyone who decided to set up a TV in front of MY shrine.
T’ang Ming Huang
The Patron Saint of Chinese Opera is T’ang Ming Huang. A figure or tablet of T’ang Ming Huang is set up in every theater, and incense was burnt to him before every performance. He was believed to have the power to make each actor perform well or badly. Military actors typically honor another tablet, representing the spirit Wu Ch’ang. This spirit was believed to possess special abilities, including the cruelty needed to wage a successful campaign. Four famous generals from the Warring States period were said to have this spirit’s ability bestowed upon them.
Opening a new theater is a special occasion for ceremony, to ‘purify’ the stage, and drive away devils and harmful spirits. The stage must be doused in dog’s blood or chicken’s blood, while actors appear on the stage dressed as spirits, carrying whips, tablets, and masks. This ceremony thus drives away the devils, placates them, and ensures that they do not appear on stage again.