Entertainers—including acrobats, martial artists, and illusionists—are recorded in early Chinese literature and art, and by the time of the Tang dynasty (618–906) actors had begun to specialize in certain types of roles. The flowering of Chinese theater, however, is often attributed to the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the further development of zaju
, a variety performance in which dialogue and song alternate.
The importance of theatrical performances in China from the tenth to the fourteenth century is reflected in the representations of actors and other performers on the walls of tombs, as well as among the ceramic figures placed in these funerary structures. A replica of one of the most spectacular tomb finds, a small stage with five actors that filled the wall in an early twelfth-century tomb in Shanxi Province, is featured in the exhibition, as are several clay sculptures depicting different types of performers.
In addition to comedy, tragedy, romance, and history, Chinese theater, which was also performed in temples, included morality plays and other works featuring exemplars such as the Daoist immortals. Imagery found in paintings, ceramics, metalwork, and lacquer in the exhibition includes these immortals as well as other cultural heroes, such as calligraphers and poets.