Carved bricks tell tale of opera, tradition

An exhibition at the Zhejiang Museum takes visitors through the styles and development of Jin opera.  

The Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) barely lasted more than 100 years, but it was considered a powerful regime in northern China, stable and prosperous. That power and stability fostered an environment in which culture, especially traditional operas, could thrive.

Jin-style operas were built on the performances from the Liao (916-1125) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, featuring multiple forms and reflecting the urban life of the times.

Traditional operas were so popular that people even sculpted representations on bricks used to build tombs.

They bricks showcased stories, performers and musical instruments, testifying to the dynasty’s vibrant arts scene.

Now, the Gushan Pavilion at the Zhejiang Museum is displaying a series of Jin Dynasty carved bricks, through September 17. The bricks and other exhibits tell the story of the short but powerful dynasty.

The bricks, which were used to build tombs in the Jin Dynasty, features traditional opera performers.

The first section introduces a local opera named sanyue(散乐). It originated in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), when it was only performed at the royal court. It developed during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589) as it spread through the temples. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), it spread to cover both urban and rural areas.

Sanyue merged music with dance, and many of the carved bricks depict the instruments and the dancers. Performances are divided into two varieties according to the different instruments and costumes.

Drums and the Chinese bamboo flute were used to play grand music, and players were dressed in loose-sleeved robes and wore ornate hats decorated with flowers. In ancient times, such bands not only accompanied the opera performances but also performed at weddings and funerals.

Chinese zithers and reed pipes often appeared in operas playing mild, soft music to create a poetic vibe on stage. Performers were usually ladies with exquisite costumes and accessories.

Another popular opera style was shehuo performance (社火表演). As a noted folk opera, it was usually performed during rituals and festivals to pray for a good harvest and prosperity. Common forms included lion dance, long-stilt dance and yangge dance (typically using a red silk ribbon tied around the waist and swinging the body to the music).

Some performance types vanished over time, but some have been carried on throughout dynasties. One is the bamboo horse dance portrayed on the bricks and, which is still performed at modern temple fairs.

The “bamboo horse,” or zhu ma, is made of bamboo. Performers tie it to their waist and then dance to the music, imitating riding a real horse. The bricks on exhibit show this dance set to scenes of war as performers fight fierce battles.

The second section of the exhibition showcases opera characters from the area that is now present-day Shanxi Province. A large number of engraved bricks, have been excavated from this area, characterized by smooth lines and vivid shapes. These bricks were sculpted with classic Jin-style opera, jinyuanben (金院本). It was common in the local area and is still carved on modern buildings. Usually, a jinyuanben performance comprised five set characters.

Moni (末泥), who often wore a robe, was the lead actor, Fujing (副净) was the comedian and Fumo (副末) was the supporting actor. Zhuanggu (装孤) was not necessarily included in earlier versions, but later became permanent during the Jin Dynasty. The character’s function varied according to the individual play. Zhuangdan (装旦) was the leading actress and sang songs throughout the performance.

A brick features a dancer.

The last section of the exhibition shows the social effects of the Jin Dynasty operas.

Operas originally developed from rituals and celebrations at the imperial court. Over time, they gradually merged with folk tales and reflected people’s happiness and misery.

Of the more popular themes, filial piety was always at the forefront, since it is one of the main moral values of Confucianism. Royal courts often took advantage of operas to spread its importance among the people to build a harmonious, steady society.

In ancient times, the most famous filial piety performances came from a series called “The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars.”

It is a classic text, extremely influential from the Song to Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. Popular operas were created centered on it, and massive burial bricks were sculpted. The bricks in the exhibit depict some of these stories.


Date: Through September 17, closed on Mondays

Venue: Gushan Pavilion, Zhejiang Museum

Address: 25 Gushan Rd

A carved brick depicts people’s daily happy life.

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