Mulian Opera got its name from a play named 'Mulian Rescues His Mother'. As the oldest theatric genre, it can be called the ancestor of dramas. The tale can be traced back to Buddhist scriptures. For hundreds of years, Mulian Opera has enjoyed great popularity among people, due to its features. Developed by innumerable artists, Mulian Opera boasts a grand and complex theatrical form, inclusive performance techniques, abundant musical subjects, fusion of emotions with a natural setting, and interaction between the performers and audience.
Mulian Opera is one of the oldest Chinese operas noted in historic documents. It dates back to the Tang Dynasty and is closely related to the life of ancient society. Mulian Opera refers to a series of plays about how Mulian rescues his mother from Hell. Legend has it that Fu Xiang's family was Buddhist. After Fu Xiang died, his wife broke religious taboos by killing animals and eating meat. After the wife died, she was sent to Hell for her sins. Fu Xiang's son Fu Luobo, or Mulian, his Buddhist name, went to the west to ask the Buddha for help. The Buddha gave him a copy of a sutra and an iron club. Mulian went down to Hell, experiencing countless hardships, and persuaded his mother to abandon her evil ways. She did, and the whole family was reunited. Mulian Opera boasts the richest content and the largest scale. Filial piety is highly valued in the tale of Mulian saving his mother. This corresponds with the traditional Chinese morals which give priority to filial piety over any other kindness. Of all the places where Mulian opera is preserved today, Qimen town is quite significant. Ni Qun, a sociologist specializing in Mulian Opera studies, says that the opera has a special meaning to Qimen town.
'The Mulian opera in Qimen is performed in the oldest and most primitive form preserved from the Yuan dynasty about 8 hundred years ago. What's more, the author of the most famous and influential Mulian Opera script Zheng Zhizhen was from Qimen. He added the local folk traditions to Mulian Opera.' Mulian Opera is the most representative religious opera in the history of Chinese theater. The performances require combat and acrobatic skills, such as walking on stilts, sword dances, and fighting with spears, as well as comedy. Audiences are attracted by these plays, not because they are religious stories, but because of the complicated plots, and fantastic settings, such as Heaven and Hell, in addition to the unusual characters from religious and philosophical sects. Every time Mulian Opera is played in the village, the small theater is crowded with people. The villagers say they love the opera because it's lively and exciting.
'I like the opera because it tells the story of filial piety. I know all the performers, because they are my neighbors. Although they are not professional performers, they are funny, ' Sociologist Ni Qun says that Mulian Opera in Qimen town has its own characteristics. It features a fixed and reliable repertoire, authentic and colorful arias, magical and exaggerated makeup, and a complete package of costumes and paraphernalia. It also features ostentation and extravagance. The makeup can be divided into two types, namely, Jing, characters with painted facial makeup, including Sheng, or male characters, and Dan, female characters and Chou, the clowns. Interspersed with acrobatic performances such as flipping, kicking jugs, rope skipping, and leaping through a fire ring, the performances become even more exciting and splendid. The richness and vitality of Mulian Opera has made it popular for several hundred years. Later, people wrote more play scripts, which been passed down from generation to generation. Although Mulian Opera is popular among the villagers, it can not be played casually. Ni Qun says that Mulian Opera, as a religious drama, can only be performed on certain important occasions.
'People play Mulian Opera to expel the evil spirits when bad things happen to them. Of course, on big occasions, such as the launching of an ancestral temple, people will perform it.' It is said that in the past a play could be staged all night for nine consecutive days. Mulian Opera was then even more popular. Currently, Mulian Opera is recognized as the 'living fossil of Chinese theater'. It has provided valuable information for studying the origin, evolution and development of Chinese theater. Without scripts or music scores, Mulian Opera has been passed down orally by older performers and it still sparkles with wit and vigor.