The Stage in the Temple

The Stage in the Temple

Ritual Opera in Village Shanxi (CRM 78)

David Johnson

Publication date: 2022
ISBN-13 (print): 9781557292018
ISBN-10 (print): 1557292019
ISBN-13 (e-book): 9781557292025

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Za Operas were offerings to village gods performed on temple stages during annual festivals. They first appeared in the eleventh century and were still performed in Shanxi villages in the nineteenth century. The Stage in the Temple discusses a number of old village scripts, reconstructs where and how village opera was performed, and considers the role of ritual opera in premodern rural Chinese culture.

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Title information

Villages in China’s Shanxi province celebrated the birthdays of local gods with large festivals. The celebrations included solemn rituals performed in the god’s temple. They also included grand banquets of food and programs of opera. Temples in the countryside always included stages. The stages faced the statues of the gods in their great hall, who were the real audience, though villagers were also present. Both stage and great hall were in the temple compound, hence the title of the book. The operas were based on stories from Chinese history. Love stories, crime and punishment stories, and farces were not allowed. These ritual operas were called “Za Opera” in Shanxi and many other regions as well. Za Opera first appeared in capital and countryside in the eleventh century. As other operatic genres appeared in later times, Za Opera became strictly village opera. It was virtually ignored by educated town and city dwellers until recently. Hence it changed little and provides important information about the history of Chinese drama.

Pages: 190
Language: English
Publisher: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley
OCLC: 1350440213

David Johnson

David G. Johnson is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include premodern China and traditional Chinese popular culture. He is the co-author of Domesticated Deities and Auspicious Emblems (IEAS, 1992) and the author of Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in North China (Harvard University Press, 2010).



A.B. at Harvard College; Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley

The Stage in the Temple

1. Scripts of Za Opera
Five Scripts from Southwestern Shanxi
Three Scripts from Xinzhuang Village
2. History of Za Opera
Origins and Early Development of Za Opera
Early Stages in Shanxi
The Invisible History of Za Opera
Nuo Opera in Anhui: A Parallel Tradition
3. Village Opera in Performance
Za Opera
Dui Opera
Sai Opera
Tiao Opera
4. Questions and Conclusion
Appendix 1. List of Early Stages in Shanxi
Appendix 2. Note on the Authenticity of Our Scripts
Appendix 3. List of Za Opera Manuscripts


"The Stage in the Temple probes Chinese theatre history generally and Za Opera history particularly.... Johnson invites a reassessment of the interplay among performers, performances, and audiences as well as the function of theatrical performance in everyday village lives. Since Johnson also touches upon Chinese classical fiction, storytelling, and other opera genres including Clapper Opera, this book...appeals to a wider range of readers." ~ Yunjie Hu, University of Sydney, in Asian Studies Review 48, no. 1 (2024): 207-208 (DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2023.2266870)

"By delving into the immense variation within the symbolic culture of Chinese villages, Johnson's work serves as a foundational research endeavor.... Notably, he posits that while rituals themselves are performances, they are heavily structured, hierarchical, nearly immobile, and symmetrical, controlled by the educated elite. In contrast, opera, in the hands of ordinary people, is characterized by movement, asymmetry, scripted spontaneity, and conflict, providing precisely what traditional rituals lack" ~ Geng Li, China Agricultural University, in China Review 23, no. 4 (2023): 318-320

“This book, together with Johnson’s previous work, represents a groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of ritual performance in China. The Stage in the Temple would make an excellent addition to undergraduate courses on Chinese and East Asian popular religion, performance, and popular culture.” ~ Levi S. Gibbs, Dartmouth College, in Asian Ethnology 82, no. 2 (2023). (