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To entertain and renew : operas, puppet plays and ritual in south Yeung, Tuen Wai Mary

Abstract

Operas and puppet plays have long been performed both to entertain gods and people, and to thank the gods for renewing the life forces of the community. Such performances are carried out all over China. With special attention devoted to the religious dimensions of Cantonese opera in Hong Kong and marionette theatre in western Fujian, this Ph.D. thesis is a preliminary attempt to examine the religious traditions of regional operas in south China. Supplemented by some written sources, the present study is based on face-to-face interviews with actors and puppeteers, as well as direct observations of their religious practices. The first research aim is to discuss the inseparable relationship between traditional opera and religion in China (especially the southeastern part) from the ancient periods up to the present. Important or auspicious occasions are often accompanied by puppet or/and opera performances. The second aim is to examine the beliefs and practices of actors of regional operas in south China, especially Cantonese opera players and marionettists in western Fujian, with special attention devoted to the birthday celebrations their main occupational deities. It is important to point out that no single forms of Chinese traditional opera can be classified in terms of "either-or" categories. The question is a matter of degree. Traditional literary operas contain some religious elements and ritual operas also include some literary or artistic elements. There are neither absolute traditional literary operas nor absolute ritual operas in China. The present study is concerned both with the ritual functions of operas and plays in the communities where they are performed, and with the beliefs and taboos of the performers themselves. Actors or puppeteers of both types of opera usually worship a group of deities as their occupational deities. Hence, their beliefs can be characterized as polytheistic. Moreover, the beliefs and practices of performers of various types of regional operatic genre in south China are related to some extent since the worship of Chinese theatre deities was spread from place to place by lineages, merchants and opera troupes during the imperial times.

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