Nanxi was an early form of Chinese opera, developed from ancient traditions of mime, singing, and dancing during the Song dynasty in the 12th century. The name means literally Southern drama, and the form originated in the area around Wenzhou in southeastern China.
|Literal meaning||Southern drama|
Nanxi started as combinations of Song plays and local folk songs and ballads, using colloquial language and large numbers of scenes. As with western operetta, spoken passages alternated with verses (qu 曲) set to popular music. Professional companies of actors performed nanxi in theatres that could hold thousands of spectators. Nanxi developed into the later and more complex dramatic form known as chuanqi, and later still into kunqu.
Nanxi had seven role types, many of which were seen in later Chinese opera forms. Sheng were heroic male characters and dan heroines. Mo (末), jing, chou, wai (外), and hou (后, also called tie 貼) were less defined roles, and actors in these role types portrayed a variety of characters in the same play. The role types of later forms of Chinese opera were made more strict, but can be seen to have their roots in nanxi.
Due to its coarse language, rough prosody, and unsophisticated literary style, nanxi was not mentioned in contemporary historiography and had been almost forgotten by scholars after the mid-16th century. Of the large numbers of nanxi originally written, only 283 titles and 20 play texts survive. Some of the missing plays such as Liu Wenlong and the Water Chestnut Mirror have been preserved in other languages.