Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989
Performance Theory Australia
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Re-orienting semiotics:
performance, philosophy and theory

David Birch


Joseph Wu [1] in a paper called "Western Philosophy and the Search for Chinese Wisdom", offers as one of his contributions to the three fallacies he suggests are most common in western pursuits of Chinese philosophy the 'fallacy of the misplaced hamburger.' Simply put, the fallacy points to a common tendency in western philosophy to assume that important topics like 'causality,' 'universals,' 'mind-body relations' and the 'analytic synthetic' distinction are necessarily found in Chinese philosophy too, just as the materials for making hamburgers are expected to be found in Chinese restaurants by customers unwilling to eat Chinese food, say, in New York or London. The metaphor may be a little weak, given the increasing syncretism and inter-multi-culturalism taking place worldwide, but the point is a vitally important one. Laissez-faire western cultural imperialism comes in a wide variety of guises, and can lead western researchers interested in non-western phenomena to numerous problems. This is as true of theatre researchers as it is of philosophers, and it is these two concerns that I want to draw together in this article.

Joseph Wu's other two fallacies are the 'fallacy of the Procrustean bed' based on a Chinese idiom which translates as something like 'cutting ones toes to fit the shoes.' That is, the application of ready made categories upon subject matters not necessarily suited to those categories. His third fallacy is 'the craving for cash value,' which is basically a metaphor for the tendency for western researchers to dip in and out of Chinese subjects, picking out only those parts which are perceived to give good value for money in higher education courses, for example, but leaving aside the important contexts from which the selections have been made. In theatrical terms that would be like talking of a specific opera, for example, without mentioning the dialect being used (a Cantonese opera for example would be performed in a quite different way to a Teochew production, even though to an unpracticed 'western eye' there might appear to be a common dramatic text (whatever that might mean in Chinese Opera, and I would suggest it means very little).

Wu's three fallacies are relevant to any number of research interests that people might have concerning Chinese ideas and practices, and though rather generalized, nevertheless are of immediate and cogent concern to any western discipline seeking to understand, by various theoretical and analytic means, phenomena not familiar to western modes of thinking reading and analysis. The discipline I want to concentrate on here is SEMIOTICS, and though I've not come across any specifically semiotic analyses of Chinese opera (notwithstanding Elam's somewhat odd appropriation of Brusak to the cause) I want to assess the philosophical appropriateness of western semiotics for the analysis of this particular kind of performance. My conclusions, exploratory though they are at this stage, suggest that first generation semiotics, i.e., that kind of semiotics based on formalist/structuralist theory and methodology (the sort carried out by Elam in his New Accents book [2]) is wholly inappropriate, but that a second generation semiotics, informed much more by some of the post-structuralist thinking of recent years, might have rather more to offer an analyst of performance, Chinese opera or otherwise. I suggest this, however, with some caution, because semiotics in its current forms, based on its philosophical foundations as it is, first or second generation, requires some considerable re-orienting (in all senses of that word) of its fundamental theoretical base, before it can be of any value in the analysis of Chinese or indeed any Asian theatre that I, at any rate, know anything about.

It is not by accident that much of what I have to say here is applicable to semiotics of performance in general, Chinese or otherwise. The lesson, if there is one at this stage, is that the philosophical ground of any analytic discipline should be laid from the dictates of the discourse to be analysed, and not from some supposed neutral, 'innocent' and objective theorizing, particularly one like a semiotics of theatre which models its theoretical and analytic positions on a fundamentally formalist view of language which did its very best to divorce both people and meanings from its domain of enquiry. As theorists and analysts we are as unable to separate our subjectivity from our work as we are unable to separate it from our perceptions of ourselves. It would seem time therefore to follow the lead of critical theorists (e.g., Habermas) and critical analysts (e.g., Fowler and critical linguistics) and begin to build that subjectivity and its consequent ideologies, into our theories and methodologies for discourse analysis whether that discourse is a performance text or not.

I am conscious of the difficulties involved in assessing the appropriateness of semiotics (of whatever generation) for the analysis of Chinese opera, given that both fields are heterogeneous. It is as much a fallacy to talk of Chinese opera in the same way. We are all probably quite familiar with those vague (and ideologically objectionable) labels like 'the Chinese mind,' 'the medieval mind,' 'western thinking' and so on, and the last thing I want to do is to contribute to the continuation of such classifications. But as a way of beginning what I think is a very important argument, I need to drop into the fallacy of 'craving for cash value,' in order to single out (a particularly western thing to want to do, of course) what I consider the major thematic strands of the sort of thinking that, in general, (as the qualifiers continue) is common to most theories of semiotics propounded in western ideologies, and some of the major philosophical currents in traditional Chinese influences on Chinese opera performance.

I must stress my use of 'I' here, because what you consider to be some of those major theoretical positions may differ from me. This article is part of a debate we are involved in at Murdoch University and one which we hope to widen. My statements are therefore not those of an ideologue - seeking definitive (and hence closed off) conclusions, but those of a researcher seeking to offer work in progress and to widen the debate.


First generation semiotics concentrates on the study of form and not substance, as a consequence, and in the words of Greimas and Courtes 'it cannot indulge in making judgments concerning the nature of the objects it analyses.' [3] Its concern is to analyse, therefore, in order to see things as objects, i.e., to identify them as objects, but not to do anything with those objects. Greimas and Courtes use the familiar structuralist term of immanence when they say that 'the description of the object is designed to progressively reveal the immanent order of the significations.' Immanence is of course, not about people. The principle of immanence is interested in autonomy, in the creation of a discipline designed to be homogeneous, which is why semiotics argued for excluding such things as extra-linguistic facts.

We need go no further than this to see some of the enormous problems involved in analysing performance in general, and for my purposes, Chinese opera in particular. Contrary to what many people in the west might think, Chinese opera, like Japanese Noh, or Thai imperial court theatre for that matter, does not require an analysis of its forms. They are, certainly in traditional performances, givens, and are either recorded in handbooks in enormous detail, or, as is more often the case, handed from performer to performer, performing group to performing group. In Chinese opera the performers' voices, their entrances and exits, the music, the gestures, the positions adopted and moved to on and off the stage, sleeve movements, hand movements, foot movements, leg movements, finger movements, arm movements, feather movements, beard movements, costumes, symbols on the costumes, make-up and painted faces, colours of costumes, and a host of other movements and activities, all of these and the myriad patterns and inter-relations they have with each other, with role-types, with particular stories and operas, with dialect groups, all are fixed. Analysis is not needed to uncover meanings here, but traditional semiotics, which is based on a voluntarist perspective which argues for the privileging of the individual and for choice from systems of options, would effectively trap a researcher into doing just that. Which, in terms of Chinese opera would be to commit a major fallacy given that the notion of individual choice is quite philosophically different from those operative in the west. (see Section 3 below).

What is needed, however, is a semiotics that doesn't act simply as a decoding device for researchers and others unfamiliar with the patterns and conventions of Chinese opera, but one which can account for the production of meanings involved in the relationships which exist between the actor, actors, spectators, teachers and conventions. In other words, a semiotics which is about people, and this requires a fundamental reshifting of the philosophical ground upon which earlier and current generations of semiotics were built. This involves relocating semiotics in the real world, not the virtual world in which it was born with earlier structuralist linguistics, and making what has always been a relational discipline into a discipline about relations in real and not virtual systems. Such shifts have been taking place in literary and linguistic theorizing in recent years, and are starting to make their effects felt within semiotics too. What this means, therefore, is a semiotics that can operate in the messy, noisy, disruptive, disturbing, non-autonomous world of people, beyond form and into those areas of substance which it has generally fought shy of for so long (as indeed did linguistics).

What is needed is a semiotics which can account for the intuitive; which involves subjectivity; which recognizes the ideological positions of the participants of discourse (of whatever variety) as being determining, rather than peripheral, factors in the production of meanings. In short, what is needed is a semiotics that centres people and the way they produce and are defined by meanings. This applies, I would suggest to all forms of theatre and discourses generally, but particularly to a performance discourse like Chinese opera which centres people as actors - centres performers. Contrary to what many people might think, Chinese opera is not about automata, people who are 'empty' acting vehicles, marionetting their roles according to traditions and conventions. Chinese opera is about the exact opposite - it is about the way performers relate to these conventions and the subtle and highly skilled creative ways in which they extend and create meanings for them, time and time again in a perfecting way. Chinese opera, and I develop this in greater detail in the next section, is about the individual, though the most common western myth, for example, is that Chinese society and thinking in general has nothing to do with the idea of the individual, but rather more to do with the subjugation of individuals, weighed down as they are perceived to be by the Confucianist mill-stones of filial piety and extended family ties. Nothing could be further from Chinese thinking (to use a rather overbroad phrase for the moment). To understand this, for example, as western researchers we need to do some radical re-thinking, and if we are to use western-based theoretical and analytic concepts and tools, we need to re-orient those too, very radically.

Rustom Bharucha in an article called "A collision of Cultures: Some Western Interpretations of the Indian Theatre" in the first issue of Theatre Journal, [4] criticises a number of western perceptions and appropriations of Indian theatre, notably Schechner, and makes the important point that such a theatre (and theatres) become constructs for western researchers and directors, and not practices, even when, like Schechner, they appear to incorporate traditional aspects of such theatres into their own work in the west. Indian theatres, like Japanese Noh and Chinese opera, accept the body of the performer in ways that are unfamiliar to most western modes of thinking, because, for the most part, western thinking since Aristotle has been about dissection, compartmentalizing, and segmentation, and not about harmonies of the body, and the 'whole'. The major thinking behind such performance theory, for example, is that from rigorous demands made upon the body, there comes an acute awareness of the people as performers and as people, at one and the same time, rather than a thinking that cuts up their worlds. This is a thinking, applicable to Chinese opera as well as most traditional Indian and Asian theatres generally, which seeks to reconcile, if you like, what are, in western ways of thinking irreconcilables. It is not coincidental then, that western semiotics concerns itself with process rather than product, because it is process which can more easily be compartmentalized than product. Bharucha's conclusions are quite simply that the east is east and the west is west and in theatre terms never the twain, etc., etc.. I think this position rather too drastic. What is needed is a recognition that the philosophical foundations of western thinking and its subsequent encoding into theoretical and research practice need to be drastically altered by the discourses they are concerned with. And that means understanding those discourses, be they Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Australian, Jamaican and so on, and not cutting the toes of such discourses to fit the western made shoes.

The semiotic enterprise, thus far, has tended to be, like much of western intellectual activity in the last one hundred years, a glorification of and preoccupation with, objectivity. Such an enterprise is, I would suggest one of the ways we might begin to define western ethnocentrism, and one of the major accounting reasons for the fallacies that Joseph Wu highlighted in his paper. The one recurrent phrase for example in first generation semiotics (the sort found in Elam's book on the semiotics of theatre and drama) is the need to be explicit. Explicitness is a function of objectivity, and this in turn rests upon the classic dichotomy in most western philosophies between presence and absence, i.e., the real versus the virtual (which led to a structuralist preoccupation with the paradigmatic axis of meaning (virtual systems) and the syntagmatic axis of meaning (real systems)). A semiotic system, by its language, theatre or photography, as an object of knowledge, is considered to have these two modes of existence, and as a consequence, in order to be able to start talking about how meanings are produced in a semiotic system, a theory of actualization has to be determined. That is, a theory which allows for the passage from a virtual semiotic existence (e.g., theoretical) and a real semiotic existence (e.g., the practical) to take place; that allows the passage, if you like, from an existence of being absent to an existence of being present.

Virtual systems (like de Saussure's langue or Chomsky's competence) are considered to be stable and constant, whilst real systems (de Saussure's parole for example or Chomsky's notion of performance) are considered to be unstable and variable. The beauty, if I can use such a term here, of a theory and practice that contained its activities to discussion of and understanding of virtual systems only, was that all the mess and noise and instability of the real systems wouldn't get in the way of the work. This is the reason, for example, that descriptivist linguistics in its early days, and why current generative linguists, do not think it necessary to talk about meaning in their discussions of language. Meaning is messy, noisy and upsets the stability of the virtual systems. This is the classic structuralist emic/etic position, so that in linguistics for example, phonetics is the study of the actual sounds we produce when we talk, and phonemics is the study of the theoretical sounds we have the potential to produce, but can't without a theory of actualization that allows for a realization of the theoretical virtual plane into the actual real plane. It is of crucial importance to recognize that first generation semiotics and its preoccupation with explicitness, objectivity, formalities and taxonomies of categories and classifications, was designed (as was Elam's work) to build models of virtual not real systems. That is why, for example, the discussions of textuality in semiotics of theatre can be a little confusing, because the positing of a literary text as against a dramatic text, and the setting up of a performance text distinct from a dramatic text, is a theoretical abstraction; a theoretical concern; a concern of the virtual and not real systems. The text for analysis, therefore, is not what one might ordinarily think of as the text we see when we go to the theatre, for example, but a theoretical text of performance which is actualized, realised in practice by a transformation from existing as an absent, theoretical, potential text in a virtual system, to an actual, real-life, practical, noisy, messy text in a real system. The difference is crucial, and often misunderstood.

What this has meant in the history of a semiotics that models the world as if it operated like the classic structuralist model of language, is a variable, and hence difficult to work with, let alone analyze. The thinking has been fairly straightforward: once you understand the virtual system, the real will take care of itself. Together with this preoccupation with form, or structures, call them what you will, has been a concentration on a theory of signification which is known as the combinatory principle. This is a theory of meaning which argues that the more complex the forms or structures, the more complex the meanings involved. Most of contemporary linguistics and semiotics is based upon this principle, so that ranks are set up which show more complex units being built from simple ones. This ranking is hierarchical, so for example in linguistics one moves from the simple phoneme through a series of ever increasing meaning complexities through morpheme, word, group, clause, sentence, and in more recent years, to discourse. A similar model exists in semiotics, so that the more complex the semiotic systems involved, the more complicated the meaning. I would suggest that this is a highly questionable theory, and requires some quite dramatic re-thinking. It is still the base of most linguistics and semiotics though, but it is, in its present form, wholly inappropriate, as a way of modelling meaning for both western and eastern discourses.

The important thing to realize is that such principles, based though they are at the very foundations of western linguistics and semiotics, are not absolute truths, and one of the best and quickest ways to realize that, is to try and apply this thinking to non-western discourses, for example, Chinese opera. The process of a movement from simple to complex, may, in terms of certain other philosophies be best seen as a process of complex to simple, and not necessarily as a linear, teleological system, but maybe as a circular process. As researchers based in western traditions we often never critically question the assumptions most of our theoretical and analytic procedures are based on, and this needs to be done if we are working with non-western determined discourses. The useful thing, of course, is that it can then often lead us to critically question the assumptions for western modes of discourse too.

For example, at the base of most western semiotics is an unquestioned 'truth' which sees a model of representation which argues that we understand language because it is made up of signs which represent the world, reality or whatever we might call it. In other words, language is seen to be 'standing in' for something else. It is representing that 'something else'. So in theatre semiotics, modelled as it is on structuralist models of language for the most part, there is a theory of representation at work which argues that performance signs represent or stand in for something else, either as in first generation semiotics for the 'real world' or as in second generation semiotics for either the 'real world' or the world or possible world of the theatre. But such a notion of representation is not absolute, it is not a truth handed down from some almighty. There is a way of looking at these worlds (what Foucault calls discourses) in ways which suggest that such discourses would not exist unless it were because of the 'signs'. The signs aren't representing something, or standing in for something, at all. They are that something. This is a vitally important point, and one crucial to understanding, for example, the discourse of Chinese opera performance, because the notion of the theatre discourse representative as some sort of icon or symbol for the 'real world' just doesn't exist; neither indeed, does the distinction between the virtual and the real (but more of that later). The idea of representation is inapplicable because, in general, most modes of Chinese philosophies, i.e., ways of looking at the world, see the process of meaning in discourse, theatre or otherwise, not as a representational system but as a developmental one, where no distinction is drawn between the classic western dichotomy of representation and signification.

I'll develop this in the next section, because at this point it is crucial to understand that at the centre of all of this argument is a foundational concept of western philosophy which is based on the idea of DIFFERENCE. This rests at the centre of semiotic theory too. The theory will be well known to you because it is so central to western thinking. You only recognize something as being something (i.e., having meaning) because you recognize it as not being something else. Black is black because it isn't white. Dark is dark because it isn't light. Virtual is virtual because it isn't real, and so on. In other words, central to this notion of difference is the idea of binary oppositions. Such oppositions (binary structures) have a very privileged place in western thinking. /p/ is /p/ because it isn't /b/; a noun is a noun because it isn't a verb and so on. This has been called into question quite dramatically in recent years within modes of discourse usually called post-structuralist, such that the 'very' foundations of linguistics and semiotics are now in question, e.g., that the dichotomy between langue and parole, virtual and real, deep and surface structures, etc., are of little value in our understanding of the way we produce meanings.

The relation of contradiction is central to this tenet of opposition in western thinking, but it is this very notion of contradiction which is an unthinkable one in most Chinese ways of thought. Privileging one relation like this (contradiction) is not part of Chinese philosophies, because central to most if not all of the main modes of thinking (generalized here as Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist), is a dynamic of several modes in action at one and the same time, which is unable to privilege just one. Whereas western thinking segments and isolates; these modes of thinking suggest a harmony.

The problem for using such a western semiotics for the analysis of performances which have developed from quite different philosophical foundations, is quite severe, if one wants to avoid, that is, the fallacies current in much western research. In first generation semiotics you can't talk about the category 'theatre', for example, but you can talk about the relation between drama and theatre. This might sound a little odd, but the theory of opposition in traditional semiotics is a relational one. Furthermore, and this is an important point for those not familiar with semiotics or theoretical linguistics, for example, the relation dramatic/theatrical is a relation that exists in a virtual system, not a real system. This relationship is then actualized, realized or encoded into the real world as representations of a semiotic system which is an ideal system, i.e., one that is invariant and constant. The notion of 'ideal' is important here, because first generation semioticians amongst others, measure the success if you like (the acceptability of the discourse in real time) by how it measures up to a theoretical ideal of it in virtual time. Elam, you may recall, uses this notion of the ideal, and it is one that is at the base of structuralist poetics generally. Some of you may be familiar with Jonathan Culler's work for example, or with the generative position of competence (the linguistic competence of the ideal native speaker) and performance (what people actually say relative to his ideal). In terms of a general way of looking at the world, I find this a particularly objectionable and inappropriate theory, but in terms of Chinese ways of thinking it is an impossibility.

All western semiotic systems are networks of relations, but what has tended to happen is that semiotics has concentrated on the structures (forms) that make up and organize the relations in real time in order to elucidate and understand the relations in virtual time, i.e., the SYSTEM. What this means, therefore, is that although an end-product, like say a sentence in language, or a production in theatre, is used to gather data, the end-product is not the reason for doing the work. The end-product of the work is to understand the system. This can be confusing, particularly to theatre practitioners who measure their lives by end-products for the most part.

What this means in practice, for example, is that this sort of semiotics has developed the classic structuralist idea of an opposition between form and content; theme and figure (what Peirce and others call types and tokens) as a way of understanding the recurrence and development through discourse of a particular structure, (e.g., the repetition of the type 'and' realized as say hundreds of 'ands' in a discourse) and process and product. Each of these dichotomies (and there are, of course, many more involved in semiotics), are based on the idea of opposition. For example the relation theme/figure is based on an understanding that sets up a principle that echoes the virtual/real dichotomy. This argues that 'extension', that is the figurativization that takes place in discourse, (i.e., the different ways in a discourse in which a particular theme is realized), is not a pertinent study for the semiotician. What matters is the 'comprehension,' i.e., the theme that exists in virtual time. So for example, in terms of theatre semiotics, the ways in which a particular theme, say the proxemic relation of character 'A' to character 'B' throughout the performance, is not of such importance as the theme itself. Let's say this proxemics is indicative of hatred, or anger, or sexual desire, then it is this theme, and not the way in which the theme is extended or figurativized throughout the discourse that is of the most importance - because this theme has a place in the theatre 'system'. How it gets to be there is considered irrelevant.

Again this may sound odd to you, but this is the classic traditionalist semiotic position, and one which still informs much of the theoretical work. It is immensely problematic it seems to me, because it is a semiotics that sees the theme and figure, the type and token, the form and content, the dramatic and the theatrical as separate entities. It presupposes a neutral world somewhere; a non-figurativized world; a world made up of only types and not tokens; of themes but not figures; of forms but not content; a world, if you like, of no meaning.

Where are the people here? Where is the mess? Where are the unexpecteds? Where are the meanings?

The central problem, of course, is that such a semiotics sees the world as separate from its representations. But a position that argued for the 'figures' to be the world would be in a position that would certainly be more suitable for understanding Chinese opera, and I would like to think most other kinds of discourse too.

The success or failure of this kind of semiotic enterprise, based on the notion of differentiation for example, and I should point out that there are other ways of thinking semiotics than this one, lies with the notion of COHERENCE, because it is this that determines whether the enterprise is explicit enough - scientific enough - objective enough. Formalization is a classic example of a semiotic enterprise which tries to make explicit the conditions for the production of meanings, according to a way of looking at the world which sees signification as a struggle; a confrontation between the making and recognition of differences. Analysis using this sort of thinking would then generally require a formal, meta-language, resulting in a taxonomy of recognition criteria and procedures for semiotic signification. The result is, as far as I can see, an emphasis not say upon theatre, but upon a semiotic system constructed as an object of knowledge by the very descriptive procedures of the model. And this is both inappropriate for understanding Chinese opera as performance discourse, and, I would argue, any other discourse too.


There are special problems, however, for understanding how meanings are constructed in Chinese opera, which go beyond even a second generation semiotics which has abandoned this formalist, virtualist idea of an ideal competence type of system. And it is some of these I want to address in rather more detail now.

Ever since Aristotle, western philosophers have compartmentalized the world; not seeing it as a totality but as a collection of separate classes and aspects of knowledge. This segmenting of the world has resulted in a preoccupation with analysis and argumentation as a mode of discourse designed to offer ways of understanding how meanings, the world if you like, are constructed. Consequently we spend our time in a western tradition fighting about the autonomy of disciplines like philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, biology, physics, etc., we concentrate on parts, not on totalities. Chinese philosophies, for all their diversities, concentrate on the totality; not on isolating the parts. I do not believe it is possible to understand Chinese theatre without having some grasp of some of the major facets of this kind of philosophy, just as we cannot understand modes of thinking in western theatre without the backgrounds we have gained through being brought up in western traditions of thought.

Central to most modes of Chinese thinking is the inseparability of the components most western philosophers like to see as separate entities. This would also include the inappropriateness of separating theory from practice and philosophy from life. Central to this harmony of discourses, if you like, is a humanism which argues, and this may run counter to your stereotyped myths about Chinese thinking, which foregrounds both people and the notion of the individual. This foregrounding of the individual enables a privileging of an ethical consciousness which is at one and the same time a spiritual consciousness. This consciousness is what might be called the 'essence' of human life. This does not mean that filial piety takes away the centrality of the individual from such an ethical consciousness, on the contrary, the notion of filial piety is seen as the focus of such a consciousness. In other words, the idea of the individual is developed because of filial piety, not, as some might think, reduced. Filial piety is as much a means of centring the individual into social life as it is a means of defining social life. This might contrast, for example, with the western focus on civil rather than social life. This also means that there is a fundamental belief that all individuals are equal and originally good (unlike western notions of original sin, for example). The difference between the western notion of original sin and a Chinese belief in original goodness means, of course, that the individual is firmly rooted into things of the earth; whereas a doctrine of original sin suggests the lack of control individuals have over their own lives. There is a crucial difference of thinking here and, it seems to me, one vital to understand. Western humanism is one based on guilt, for the most part, whereas Chinese humanism celebrates the free individual. What this also means is that the notion of duty is in the control of the individual, not in the gift of some other power, and this has meant that the notion of duties has taken on a lesser role than, say, in more recent western thinking that puts individual rights above individual responsibilities to duties. The differences in thinking have been summed up as the difference between BOTH-AND in the Chinese system of thought and EITHER/OR in the western system.

Perhaps more importantly, for analysts of performance, is the fundamental notion that the investigation of phenomena in Chinese ways of thought improves the individual. This is a particularly Confucianist way of thinking that argues that knowledge leads to sincerity of truthfulness (in the sense of integrity) in the individual, which in turn will lead to a well ordered family and state.

This notion of truthfulness or integrity is an important one, and one which I believe lies at the heart of understanding a Chinese opera performance. Truth is not something that is revealed from above, like Saul on the road to Damascus, or Moses at the burning bush, neither is it an abstraction - an activity of philosophers - it is a part of a discovery procedure which can be demonstrated in the conduct of the individual. Truth in a Taoist philosophy comes to an individual after a great deal of practice, training and polishing in those practices which are relevant to an individual's life. Truth is not based in Taoism (or Buddhism for that matter) on a distinction between good and evil (though the relationship is not necessarily one of difference as we might perceive it in western thinking) but on whether an individual is a practised individual in the ways of the world. In terms of Chinese opera then, the notion of truth is an important one, because it is this that is the measure of success of the integrity as a performer. When the performer is judged by an audience, by their company, by their teachers, it is on whether the performance is a 'true' one or not. This cannot be accounted for in western semiotics. It is the notion of t'i-jen, a realising, and witnessing of, 'truth' in performance. It involves a personal involvement, both critical and rational (intuitive and subjective), with meaning and significance of reality. The years and years of training involved in Chinese opera training (traditionally, and usually, one role-type for life) is a process of reaching towards a true performance. It is not, as is often thought in the west, an amount of time required to learn the many hundreds of conventions and movements associated with just one role type, but rather more a training in a perfection which is a celebration of the individual. And this is a concept of the Chinese opera performer rarely held by western observers who tend to see no further than the intricacies of the conventions, e.g., Scott and the many others who have written so voluminously and repetitively on Chinese theatre.

What this means is the centrality of the individual (the centrality of the performer) in the performance, and as a consequence any semiotics de signed to analyze the construction of meanings in such a performance mode would need to centralize the performer, and you can't do that when the theory spends most of its time trying to keep the performer out of its space. It means, also, that the idea of truth is intimately and inseparably related to the notion of experience, and this in turn leads to the inseparability of words and actions in Chinese thought. There is no room here for a distinction between real and virtual systems, everything is of the real. The argument, then, is that knowledge is the beginning of action, and action is the completion of knowledge. No more is this clear than in seeing a Chinese opera performer at work, both in training, which never ends, and in production, which never closes.

If this sounds like a paradox, one of those enigmatic sayings from the east which have such a restricted place in western philosophy, then accept it for what it is - exactly that, and then re-orient your semiotics around this, rather than acting as if this seeming paradox (which isn't a paradox) doesn't exist. It won't be the first such one that you will come across in this enterprise. Central to any performance theory in Chinese opera, and hence what should be central to any semiotics of that performance practice, is that one of the major principles of human, individual conduct, is the full exercise of the mind and body. This requires harmonious relations between the two, and all other activities, and it is this that we see when we see Chinese opera actors at work. We are not just talking about mechanical skills, but a striving for perfection as an individual through the perfecting of the actor's skills. And if you say that this sounds rather too spiritual an activity for the sort of Chinese opera you might have seen, then my response would be, that the separation of the actor's skills from a spirituality, is a western abstraction, not a Chinese one. Spirituality in most forms of Chinese philosophy is well and truly anchored to the human world. We are not talking about some other-worldly spirituality here, but a celebration of the individual. Humanism unaffected, if you like, by the guilts of western religions.

In a human world, a world of the individual, it is the body and not a denial of the body which becomes important; In Chinese opera the skills with which the performers use their bodies stands testimony to this central feature of the performing art. This should not be denied in a semiotics not willing to incorporate bodies into its models of analysis and theory. Truth, in whatever guise, whether on or off stage, is discovered and tested in events and actions. These events and actions are at one and the same time, both theoretical and practical. We are dealing with a way of thinking that says that there is right because of wrong and vice versa; a theory based on relations of equality rather than difference. Again, this is a vital philosophical concept to build into a model, and one which does not exist in current western semiotics. Yin and Yang, for example, is a relation of harmony, not of difference, so the theory needs to be based on harmony and not as in the west on confrontation and contradiction. No element in the many dichotomies that exist in Chinese thought can exist by itself, they manifest themselves as a harmony. To achieve an understanding of this harmony as individual performers, say, the mind and the body needs to go through some quite severe discipline. It is this discipline that brings achievement, and which is why an actor can spend a life-time in the same role-type and still find things to bring to that role that are new, vital and individual to the performer, yet will stay within the very strict parameters set by tradition and teacher, etc., etc., for the movements and expressions permitted to that role. It is this that lies at the heart of the actor-audience relationship in Chinese opera and which would need to be incorporated into a semiotics that recognized the impossibility of separating the actor from the audience, the individual from the role and so on. (It is the inseparability that Brecht misunderstood in Chinese opera, and which caused Grotowski to abandon Chinese performance techniques for similar misunderstood reasons). When an actor, for example, is meant to be very drunk and riding a horse which is not drunk, and that actor has to show drunkenness in his upper body and sobriety in his legs as the horse, you have levels of skills which foreground the very notion of the individual, not denying itself or the role. The conventions in Chinese opera are not distancing mechanisms, as some seem to think, but an expression of a reality, a harmony, of individual and role which is a microcosm of a harmony of the world.

The notion of time in western thinking is generally one of movement forward: this may not be of much relevance for Chinese opera. Taoist thinking sees time as a circular activity, Buddhism sees time as rather more illusory, and Confucianism, though it sees time travelling forward, the position would be that it never repeats itself; it never actually comes to an end. This is a very important point to bear in mind, because every production is therefore seen as a different production. There has never been a case of there being a single text which gets performed in basically the same way every time. The Yin and Yang are in a different relationship in every production, and so consequently, there is always a different show/text. This is not the site of an ideological struggle as it might be in the west. It is a given, and so performance theory would be quite different from the very beginning. There is not the monolithic text theory to engage with here; there is not a theory that argues for actors to decode faithfully what is 'in' the text, and to try to do that every time they perform. The theory in Chinese opera is of perfecting the actor's relationship with the role, not for textual integrity, but for individual integrity. Development change, therefore, is at the heart of this type of performance, not confrontation. And the semiotics would need to recognize this. And of course, this is one of the many reasons why spectators can continue to return, time and time again to operas, as they do, whose stories and characters, and often dialogue, is well-known. Because it is not these things that spectators are engaged in directly, bypassing the actor as some sort of transparent vehicle for the dissemination of this 'textual' information, as is often the case in western perceptions of what happens in a theatre, but the relations between the performers and the conventions (one of which would be 'the story').

This last point is an important one, because it is much more a western perception that one can separate the components of a performance into say, character, plot, setting, actor, director and so on. These roles exist, of course, in Chinese opera, but it is the way they are perceived which is vitally different. That way is part of a fluidity of meanings, where it is impossible to separate the role from a myriad of conventions which define that role; impossible to separate the story from the performers doing the story; impossible to separate a sleeve movement from the musical phrase that accompanies it, from the role it signifies from the actor performing that role. Even though it may appear that the actor is, in fact, distanced from that role by the conventions that define it. It appears like this, but this is all it is - an appearance which can be very deceptive to western-trained thinkers.

Knowledge of a 'thing' requires practice and the ability to investigate things to the very limit (ko-chih). Ko-chih is the perfection of knowledge, the gaining of truth if you like, through investigation. It is the individual performer who does this investigating. When you speak to Chinese opera performers (those who are seriously concerned with their work, that is, which for the most part would account for the great majority of the ones I've spoken to), the way they understand their performance is in its striving for perfection; that isn't just a striving for technical perfection (this is a western notion), it is a perfection that harmonizes the technique with the individual. They talk of how 'true' their performance is. Not true to some meaning supposedly noticed encoded into a text, but true relative to their art and skills as a performer and non-performer at the same time.

Knowledge of a thing (li) is knowledge is the universe (ch'i) and the more you strive to understand and perfect, say a role in opera, the more a performer can penetrate and appreciate the quality of that role. This is very important because it requires an aesthetics to be part of any performance analysis model. It is this sort of penetration, which is both a search for truth and an aesthetic activity, which often gets confused in the west with intuition and hence dismissed. But it is so much more than that. Intuition is not something that just happens, it is arrived at through dedicated hard work and practice over many years, often a life-time. Intuition is about both the intellect and the body, and pushing both to their absolute limits. Intuition, then, is both a product and a process. And if all of this sounds far too spiritual, far too meditative for what might often appear to be a form of performance which doesn't have that 'slowness' which we often associate with this sort of thinking actor, then it is because we are allowing our western perceptions to control our reactions to, say, martial arts on stage, or rollicking comedy scenes between magistrates and witty maids for example.

What is central in a Chinese opera performance is this search for li/ch'i; it's an adventure, if you like, of individuals searching for true performances, and as a consequence the focus in opera has always been on the performers themselves. Sets and props were always minimal (usually still are, but this is changing and I've seen operas that have complicated back projection and much so what we have become familiar with in contemporary western theatre, but this is still quite rare) and were minimal as a way of focussing attention upon the actor, who with the turn of a foot may walk a thousand miles, and is both set and props and performer at one and the same time. This is never addressed in the many books on Chinese opera in the west, because there is a preoccupation with the forms and conventions, but never any interest in why these conventions, how these conventions? One of the main principles of Taoism, for example, is that nothing should be left undone. Performers, like everyone else, should strive for a perfection in what they do, but with detachment. This can confuse people into thinking that Chinese opera performers are detached from their roles, but this is to treat the situation as an either/or. It isn't, it's a both/and. One can't be separated from the other. A semiotics of Chinese opera performance would need, therefore, to be modelled on a both/and principle, not an either/or principle, and would need to understand the basic Taoist philosophy which is at the centre of the harmony of the performance and which is basically a relativist position, where no one thing can make claims to a privileged position - to suggest an importance over and above something else on stage. Western theatre and its consequent semiotics (not necessarily appropriate though) might well be described as a state of anxiety, whereas Chinese opera is quite the opposite. Performance is about the search for a transfigured world which is both a reflection of the world and the world of the theatre at the same time. It is not, as has often been perceived by western commentators, anti-realistic, a glorification of the theatrical as perceived in the west. Such a theatricality that is an escape from the world is an impossible concept in Chinese opera; the reality of the world and the reality of the theatre are not separates. The governing principle for understanding Chinese opera is the idea of balance or proportion, and the importance of being able to both separate the performer from society and to recognize that performer as part of society. Chinese thinking is as, maybe more, dualistic as western thinking. But the major difference rests in the nature of that dualism. And that needs to be recognized in any semiotics.

Central also to Chinese opera performance theory is the relation between knowledge and action. Knowledge involves observation, and emotional involvement, as we've already seen, implies action. In order to know something better you need to live with it, endure it, to be involved in its action. Once this is achieved, let's say for example it is the stepping out of a boat, the knowledge and action is transformed into an aesthetic state, a pattern of movement which, having been tried out over a long period of time, is accepted as a convention. In other words, Chinese opera conventions are aestheticized realities; combinations of knowledge and action. This is vitally important, and usually misunderstood by commentators concerned only with the surface activity of the convention. If the actor cannot show that the knowledge/action relation is true, then it will be dismissed as pretence. This is not unrealistic theatre, then, it is, in many ways, absolutely realistic, because everything in Chinese opera is based on realism. If a statement, in whatever form, be it movement, gesture, make up, song, music, etc., etc., if such a statement is carried out without accompanying experience, then this would be considered as fundamentally incomprehensible. It is this idea of experience which is at the heart of the actor's training. In western theatre we tend to have privileged the writer, but in Chinese opera the ability to use someone else's words, say, is not enough. It is the whole art of the performer that should be the centre of a semiotics, and to do that requires rather more understanding of ways of thought than have so far been given.


1. Wu, J. S., 'Western Philosophy and the Search for Chinese Wisdom" in Arne Naess and Alastair Hannay (eds.) Invitation to Chinese Philosophy (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1972) pp. 1-18.

2. Elam, Keir, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London: Methuen, 1980).

3. Greimas, A. J. and J. Courtes, Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979).

4. Bharucha, Rustom, "A collision of Cultures: Some Western Interpretations of the Indian Theatre", Asian Theatre Journal 1:1(1984) pp. 1-20.

New: 14 February, 1996 | Now: 11 March, 2015