Mulian Opera

The staging of the Chinese folklore, Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother, dates back to more than a millennium, to the time of Northern Song (960–1127).  It is one of the oldest repertories in Chinese theatre.  It has its origin in Buddhist scriptures, but as a popular form of entertainment, it was found in almost every part of China.  Its popularity ran parallel to religious activities, rituals and folk culture.  In traditional Chinese literature, sacrificial rituals topped all forms of rites and etiquettes.  Mulian opera is therefore performed on the fairgrounds of the Yulan (Ullambana) Festival, at Buddhist and Taoist services, funerals and during the Hungry Ghost Festival to expiate the sins of the dead and deliver them from purgatory.  Often, when disaster strikes, whether as a cause of Man or nature, staging the Mulian opera is believed to have the power of expelling evil and returning calm to the land.  On the other hand, if the land has enjoyed clement weather and bumper harvests for years, staging such plays is a way of thanksgiving.  There are rituals to be performed before and after the core performance, which may not form part of the storyline, but they make up a holistic experience for the audience attending the Mulian opera.  The integration of ritual and performance therefore sets the Mulian opera apart from other performing art forms with its rich vernacular colour.

During the Wanli years of Ming (1573–1620), a literati Zheng Zhizhen of Anhui set out to propagate Buddhism via traditional theatre, with the purpose of guiding people to good.  He compiled and wrote Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother – Script to Guide People to be Good and Benevolent in 1579.  It was soon used for staging in various parts of China and became one of the most representative works of folk theatre of the Ming Dynasty.  It was a time when Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism were equally practiced and honoured by the government, so Zheng’s adaptation was a perfect amalgamation of the doctrines of the three.  The Confucian spirit was introduced to the Buddhist stories, the concept of filial piety was upheld, the Confucian advocation of loyalty and filial piety was highlighted, while the Buddhist concepts of karma and reincarnation, the Taoist concepts of yin and yang, ‘mandate of heaven’ etc.  , all fitted into this convenient vehicle to inculcate the masses.   By the Qing period, there were still records of the Mulian opera being performed.   There was even an ‘official’ collection coming from the palaces, entitled Golden Rules Exhorting Goodness (Quan shan jin ke).  Although later Mulian opera was banned by the Qing court, the tradition existed in the rural areas and the playlets were performed in thanksgiving fairs.  Even to this day, the ritual performance A Gathering of Immortals for the Goddess of Mercy is often performed in Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong.  The play is related to The Birthday of the Goddess of Mercy, which is the ninth episode of Zheng Zhizhen’s Scripts to Guide People to be Good and Benevolent of the Ming Dynasty.   In it, the Goddess would show a number of incarnations.

The series encompasses an incredible range, whether in terms of content or performing format.  The emphasis is on being as close to life as possible - but rather than dramatizing everyday life, it sets out to make this form of theatre part of everyday life.  The core of the story, that of Monk Mulian going into Hell to save his mother, links up all sorts of art forms - playlets, folk songs, dance, acrobatics, martial arts, stunts, and even demonstration of making paper figurines.  Past records show that during the Northern Song period (960–1127), a performance could last for seven or eight days.  By early Ming, its length could cover up to fifteen days.  The diversity of the Mulian opera, interspersed with burlesques, farce and even lampoons, was typical of plebeian entertainment.  While they create laughter, they were also poking fun at supernatural powers and the highly moralistic stance of society.  The conflicting nature and juxtaposition of the didactic purpose and the humanism of Mulian opera produce an interesting revelation of its rich content, as well as the tolerant attitudes of the plebeian social culture.



Coordination of the Mulian Opera Series is assisted by the Ministry of Culture of China.
Translated by KCL Language Consultancy Ltd.

Provide Chinese version only

House Programme

Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe

Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe




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Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian

Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre
for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian


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Centre for the Preservation of Qi Opera of Hunan

Centre for the Preservation of
Qi Opera of Hunan


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Qimen Mulian Opera Troupe of Anhui

Qimen Mulian Opera Troupe of Anhui


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Monk Biancai Releases the Demon

Monk Biancai Releases the Demon




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Peking Opera Theatre of Beijing

Peking Opera Theatre of Beijing




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Her Majesty Wu Zetian

Her Majesty Wu Zetian




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Jingkun Theatre and Shandong Peking Opera Theatre

Jingkun Theatre and
Shandong Peking Opera Theatre


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Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of Jiangsu and Su Opera Troupe

Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre
of Jiangsu and Su Opera Troupe


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