The dramas of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) are calledYuan Zaju, poetic dramas set to music. As a mature, high-class theatrical form, theYuan Zaju is full of the characteristics of that period, and displays unique artistic creations. Hence, they are regarded as the most notable achievement of Yuan literature. At the beginning, theZaju centered on Dadu (present-day Beijing) and spread widely over northern China. After the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) fell to the Yuan Dynasty, theZajubecame a national drama. It quickly flourished, with a number of plays written, and the ranks of performers swelling.
The prosperity of theYuan Zajureflected developments in the arts and society as a whole. Regarding the development of the arts, influences in Chinese theater that had been slowly maturing for many years in both its internal structure and external expression suddenly flowered in the Yuan Dynasty. This was a period in which, paradoxically, traditional poetry was in decline, after flourishing so brilliantly in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. In the eyes of leading artists, the artistic and literary salon of the drama was a piece of virgin soil waiting to be cultivated.
In the social sphere, the Yuan rulers abolished the imperial examination system, lowering the status of intellectuals to a position only a little higher than that of beggars. Such scholars found an outlet for their talents as professional playwrights. They set up an organization called the Scholars Association, which was one of the cradles of play writing, giving rise to the Yuan golden age of Chinese theater in contrast to lyric poetry, which mainly expressed the subjective feelings of the poets, theYuan Zajugave wide publicity to social problems. This was because the playwrights themselves lived among the people, and knew all about real life and the tribulations of the ordinary people.
In general, theYuan Zajumainly consisted of a prelude and the main story, composed of four acts, which were well coordinated. The prelude was fairly short. Singing was the most important means of expression in theYuan Zaju, in combination with recitation. Each act featured one mode of ancient Chinese music and several songs, sung by the leading male or female character Influenced by theCanjunplay, the recitation in theZajuwas often full of impromptu comic gestures and remarks. All in all, theYuan Zajushowed great maturity in the integration of music with drama.