Friday, June 19, 2009

Another "Thunderous" Chinese Periodic Drama Serial: "The Lotus Lantern: the Prequel"

I believe many people (local) will probably know that our Mediacorp is having a rerun of "The Lotus Lantern" on channel 8 at 5.30pm on weekdays. Now, apparently, there's a prequel to this serial and is already showing on China's national TV.

As if "Dream of the Red Mansion" is not "thunderous" (Mainland Chinese slang for shocking) enough, this production is equally thunderous, at least to me. Here're the pictures I've found:

Didn't people complain about the half-evolved-monkey-like and "opela"-flavoured hairstyle of Er-lang Deity (human form) simply too ugly? 

I personally find this outfit and hairdo acceptable, but I think she simply don't have the classic out-of-the-world look required for Goddess of Huashan (Er-lang Deity's sister)

Is she acting in Madam White Snake again? No, this is Goddess Yaochi, Er-lang Deity's mother!

This Yang Tianyou (Goddess Yaochi's husband, Erlang Deity's mortal father) looked too much like a beggar than a poor scholar

I think this personal maid of Goddess of Huashan looked too sci-fiction; a cross breed of Species and Cirque du Soleil?

On a side note, this show is like a "rojak" as well, as it incorporated plots from "Journey to the West", "Seventh Fairy and Dong Yang", "Ne Zha Creates Havoc in the East Sea" and "Investiture of the Gods". How imaginative TV producers in China are!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Anhui Luju opera: The Teacher's Salary

Recently I saw this Luju short opera titled "The Teacher's Salary" as below:

This show has been adapted into Xiangju decades back by the late Shao Jianghai, but it is no longer performed for a very long time already as many traditional shows had been gradually forgotten since it's reform in the 60s. If not because of Xiamen Municipality Opera Troupe's "Shao Jianghai", in which a small section of this piece was featured, maybe nobody would even remember there's such a show in Xiangju repertiore.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Old Skool" Yueju

Yueju has been around for a century already. Since the 50s when Yuan Xuefen started her own style of singing, many other her peers followed suit, and then started a revolution in Yueju. In present day, Yueju has already shed its "regional opera" status and became one of the major opera genres in Chinese culture.

However, in recent years, there has been growing concern within the Chinese opera circle of trying to preserve the traditional style of Yueju opera, which can no longer be found in major cities like Shanghai, but still triving in small towns and rural areas.

Below here is a portion of a traditional Yueju opera show performed in the traditional style by an unknown troupe in recent years. The relevant authorities had originally wanted to archive 100 of such shows in the form of VCDs, but due to lack of fundings, the project was stopped after producing about 30 odd shows.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Chinese Opera Myths and Facts: Wang Kui the Unfortunate Scholar

In Zhaoyuan city of Yantai, Shandong province, there is a street called "Street of the Scholar". Not many natives know how this street was named, but historical record showed that this street was named after a top scholar of the region in the Song dynasty named Wang Junming, better known as Wang Kui now.

For those who have not watched "Wang Kui Abandons Guiying", the story is about a talented young men Wang Kui who was too obsessed with courtesan Jiao Guiying that he used up all his money initially meant to finance him for the imperial examination. In order to let Wang Kui sit for the imperial examination, Jiao Guiying gave him a sum of money she had secretly saved. Wang Kui felt indebted to Jiao Guiying initially, and vowed at the Temple of the Sea God that he would return to marry her if he made it through the imperial examination. However, the moment he became the top scholar, his character changed drastically and started to despise Jiao Guiying for her low status. He then wrote a divorce letter and had it sent back to Jiao Guiying. Jiao Guiying was devastated, and went to the Temple of the Sea God, begging the Sea God to punish the heartless man. The Sea God told Jiao Guiying that he was unable to do anything to Wang Kui because he was the top scholar and was blessed. Shocked that the Gods were not helping her, she decided to end her life and take revenge on Wang Kui personally as a ghost. After becoming a ghost, Jiao Guiying turned up at Wang Kui's mansion. Wang Kui thought that Jiao Guiying was still a human and tried to chase her away. Jiao Guiying showed her true self and had Wang Kui's spirit chained away.

Based on the above-mentioned plot (it should be noted that the Yueju version is slightly different in some of the scenes, but the general plot and the ending are the same), why on earth is a notorious baddie like him being honoured in such a way? The truth is, Wang Kui was wrongly slandered. The real Wang Kui is named Wang Junming, who lived in the era of Renzong Emperor. He was a capable official with a upright character. However, one day, he suffered from some strange illness (I believed should be stress and depression), which caused him to scream at pillars for no reason. He was under medication, but passed away within the next few years. His sudden rise to fame and subsequent death became topic for speculation, and the most "believable" reason for his death later became what we now know as Jiao Guiying coming back to seek revenge on Wang Kui (The word "Kui" is often used to refer the top scholar). What was unknown to them at that point of time was that Wang Junming had died due to wrong usage of medication and not of supernatural causes.

30 years after Wang Junming's death, renowned physician Chu Yushi, friend of Wang Junming, got frustrated with the slander made against his friend and wrote in one of his medical journals about the side effects of a particular drug, warning people that if they consume it, they might end up just like Wang Junming dying a "mysterious" death and being slandered for a crime that wasn't even commited in the first place.

Chinese Opera Myths and Facts: When One Person Became Two - Xue Ren'gui and Xue Ping'gui

Since young I was quite confused with Xue Ren'gui and Xue Ping'gui due to their almost identical sounding names. Both are even generals from the same era, adding on to my confusion.

Xue Ren'gui is usually portrayed as the father of Xue Ding'shan in "Thrice Begging of Fan Lihua", and is a historically famous general in the Tang dynasty. Xue Ping'gui on the other hand is a well-known character in "Lady Wang Baochuan", a Tang dynasty general who was forced to serve the army, got caught by the Princess of Western Liang Kingdom and made the Princess Consort while his wife Lady Wang was waiting for his return by a broken hut.

There is no Xue Ping'gui in history, so how did this figure came about in Chinese opera? The fact is, Xue Ping'gui is derived from Xue Ren'gui himself. As a young man, Xue Ren'gui was a very poor man, and on the advice of his wife Lady Liu, he decided to join the army. Lady Liu had not expected that this move would meant that Xue would be away for many years, and before Xue was to return to his hometown in glamour, Lady Liu had already died of starvation by their broken hut.

This story was adapted into Yuan opera "Xue Ren'gui Returns in Glamour", and was subsequently revised into various folk opera shows. There are two rather possible sayings as to how the original opera became "Lady Wang Baochuan" as we know now. The first was that once upon a time, a wealthy family once invited an opera troupe to perform, and one of the shows was a revised version of "Xue Ren'gui Returns in Glamour". After the show ended, the matriarch of the family went up to the troupe leader to ask about how the story of Xue Ren'gui and Lady Liu ended, and was disappointed that Lady Liu had such a tragic ending. She was so grieved that soon after she fell ill. In order to make her well again, the family started seeking playwrights to amend the ending to a more joyous one. An unnamed playwright did just that, and in order not to twist the historical facts around, he decided to change the names of the lead characters, but still giving out hints on who the original reference was by retaining two out of three characters in the male leading role's name. Surprisingly, the martriarch's illness was cured completely after watching the new revised opera.

Another version of the saying was that after Xue Ren'gui's return in glory, the native folks in his hometown of Shanxi were very proud that a famous general was born in their district and hence wrote operas about him to sing in his glory. People in Shaanxi were dissatisfied with that, because Xue Ren'gui moved to Shaanxi after his rose to fame but it was the people from Shanxi that received all the attention. Therefore, people in Shaanxi wrote a new play based on Xue Ren'gui's story as a retaliation, but in order not to rewrite history, they decided to change the name of the leading character slightly.

Chinese Opera Myths and Facts: The Mutated Perception of Li San'niang

The character of Li San'niang is particularly well-known in Hokkien and Teochew opera. She is portrayed as a bitter, strong-willed woman who suffered a lot for eighteen years without her husband and son by her side.

"Li San'niang", also known as "The Tale of the Rabbit" or "Reunion by the Well", started off with Li San'niang, the daughter of Squire Li, who married her poor cousin Liu Zhiyuan, and was tortured by her sister-in-law Madam Diao (in Zhangzhou City Xiangju Opera Troupe's version, the latter role was change to Li's step-mother) after Squire Li's death. Frustrated with Madam Diao's behaviour, Liu Zhiyuan decided to enlist himself in the army, hoping to return in glory so as to provide San'niang with a better life. However, not long after Liu Zhiyuan's departure, San'niang was thrown into the milling hut by Diao, and it was in there that San'niang gave birth to a son. The heartless Diao refused to give San'niang a pair of scissors, causing the latter to bite off the umbilical cord of her newborn son with her teeth, hence her son was named Liu Yaoqi (literally meaning biting off the umbilical cord). That wasn't the end of San'niang's ordeal: before she was well enough again, Diao decided to marry her off so that San'niang will get none of Squire Li's inheritance. San'niang refused to remarry and ran away from home. Being too weak to go to the military camp Zhiyuan was in, she entrusted her son to her brother to be carried to Zhiyuan. However, the brother died soon after reaching the camp, and Zhiyuan could not find out from his brother-in-law where San'niang was putting up at. Eighteen years had passed, and Zhiyuan had married his god-sister Yue Xiuying because he saw that Yaoqi needed a motherly figure in place of San'niang. One day, Yaoqi was out hunting when he saw a rabbit and gave chase. The rabbit disappeared by a well and Yaoqi saw San'niang instead. Seeing how bad state San'niang was in, the curious Yaoqi asked San'niang about her family background, and was shocked when San'niang mentioned Liu Zhiyuan as her husband. With doubts in his mind, Yaoqi went home and asked his father and the truth about his identity came to light. Li San'niang was finally reunited with her family, and at the same time, Madam Diao, who had misused her inherited fortune, became a poor beggar roaming around in the streets. The virtuous San'niang forgave Diao despite of her shortcomings, much to the shame of the latter.

That is what the typical impression of Li San'niang is, but some fans of Teochew opera may have another totally different opinion of her: a vicious woman who tried to murder her family members. This is how she is portrayed instead in Teochew opera "Liu Yaoqi Succeeds the Throne". In this supposedly sequel to the above-mentioned story, Liu Zhiyuan became the Emperor but was soon murdered by Li San'niang who had wanted the throne all to herself. As if the murder of her husband was not enough, she even planned to kill her only son Yaoqi. Fortunately, Yaoqi escaped and was saved by his subject Guo Wei. Subsequently, after building up a strong military force, Yaoqi returned to the palace, had Li San'niang beheaded and had his foster mother Yue Xiuying promoted to the rank of Empress Dowager.

Looking at these two shows, it is totally absurd that a role can be portrayed in such opposing characteristics. No doubt a person can change in terms of character over time, but such drastic change is very unrealistic, and furthermore the sequel made little, if not no attempt to justify why the change in Li San'niang character. So, how is the actual Li San'niang like?

Looking at historical records, Li San'niang is neither the pathetic tortured soul in "Li San'niang", nor the ruthless power-hungry witch of "Liu Yaoqi Succeeds the Throne". However, her real background is highlighted subtly in both shows.

Li San'niang was born in a farming family during the Five Dynasties period, whereas Liu Zhiyuan, who was older than the former by 20 years, was a horse slave. Liu proposed his intention to marry Li to her father but was rejected, so he resorted to abducting her with the help of his friends. Not long after, Li gave birth to a son, and Liu, after serving the army for a period of time, became a Duke. As the wife of the Duke, she was praised for being a virtuous and thoughtful assistant to Liu when on one occasion, Liu had wanted to impose heavy tax due to the shortages of funds for the military but Li opposed, and instead forked out all the jewelries she had to be used for military usage. This move greatly impressed everyone and not long after Liu subsequently founded the later Han dynasty, and Li was made the Empress. The later Han dynasty did not last for long as Liu died the following year, and their only son, Liu Chengyou (not Liu Yaoqi), was not a capable Emperor, thus causing Guo Wei, the relative of Li, to rebel against the court and soon established the Northern Zhou dynasty. As Li had once opposed Chengyou from killing Guo Wei, she was spared from death and was instead still made the Empress Dowager. San'niang lived on as the Empress Dowager for a few more years before passing away at the age of 42.

"Li San'niang" was adapted from a Southern Play classic from Ming dynasty named "Liu Zhiyuan and the Legend of the Rabbit". The legend of Li San'niang was twisted as such most likely to enhance the virtue of Li San'niang, so as to "educate" how a woman of virtue should behave like. Probably too, that this show was inspired by a Yuan dynasty opera "Xue Ren'gui Returns in Glamour" as well. In this show, Lady Liu, the wife of Tang general Xue Ren'gui, endured the hardship of living alone in a broken hut for years while waiting for her husband to return from war. Another informal source which I remembered quite clearly, was a tale of a middle-aged woman who was so poor that she couldn't afford funeral fees to bury her late husband and hence had to sell off her new-born son to a rich Squire. The greedy Squire wanted her to work in his household too as a servant too, but she was not to acknowledge the baby as her son. Out of desperation, this lady agreed. Eighteen years later, this son met his birth mother by a well after giving chase to a rabbit. Curious about her identity, this young man asked her about her identity, and not knowing that this young man was in fact her son, she went on to speak about how she lost her only son. This young man was shocked that the account of the lady's lost son matched his own background, and after much investigation, he realised that this lady was actual his mother and quickly went back to acknowledge her. Judging from this folktale, it could jolly well be that this folktale had somehow fused together with the actual story of Li San'niang at some point in time.

"Liu Yaoqi Succeeds the Throne", on the other hand, is a more contemporary piece of work which I believe exist only in Teochew opera. I have no idea what the intention of the playwright is in writing this opera, but I believe it is a total deviation from history and is a defamation of the real Empress Li. It is a direct consequence of an artistic individual who abused his artistic integrity to write anything he/ she wish without a conscience,

Friday, June 12, 2009

Chinese Opera Myths and Facts: The Defamed Empress Liu

In my previous post, I'd talked about the fictitious case of Chen Shimei that had been wrongly credited to Justice Bao. That is just one of the many urban legends that the great Justice Bao was related to. Another famous case was “The Case of the Cat".

"The Case of the Cat", also known as "Justice Bao Hitting the Dragon Robe", spoke of how concubine Liu substituted concubine Li's newborn son with a de-skinned cat, hence defaming the later of giving birth to a demon and thus causing her to be banished to the Cold Court (similar to being under house arrest in modern terms). Palace maid Kou Zhu was ordered by Concubine Liu to throw the crown prince into the river, but she hesitated, and subsequently passed the baby to Eunuch Chen Lin, who then had the baby sent to Nanqing Palace whereby the prince was secretly adopted as the son of Prince Xian. Ten years later, still without a heir, Prince Xian decided to let Emperor Zhenzong adopt his son as an apparent heir, using this as an opportunity to restore the rights to the throne back to the crown prince. Concubine Liu, who was by now the Empress, grew wary of the past when she discovered how much this adopted crown prince resembled Lady Li. She interrogated Kou Zhu without success, and hence ordered Chen Lin to subject her to physical punishment. Kou Zhu stood by her oath not to reveal anything and committed suicide. Thinking that Kou Zhu was indeed innocent, Empress Liu decided then to let the matter rest. Empress Liu then tried to burn down the Cold Court to completely eliminate her rival, but Lady Li escaped. Another ten years passed and Justice Bao, who was on his way back to the palace after sending ration to Chenzhou, passed by the district Lady Li had been hiding. Lady Li seeked an audience with Justice Bao and had her grievances explained. With the help of Chen Lin, Justice Bao managed to get hold of evidences of the evil plot of Empress Liu and her subordinate Guo Huai, and subjected them to their due punishments, hence restoring justice to the wronged Lady Li.

This story, like Chen Shimei's, is widely popular in Chinese opera and had appeared in many genres. However, there is one very discrepancy that nobody seemed to have realised: Justice Bao and Emperor Renzong (the child of Lady Li who had later become the foster son of Lady Liu and became the Emperor after the death of his "foster father") were born just years apart, but in almost all Chinese opera renditions, the Emperor looked very young (beardless), whereas Justice Bao is portrayed as a middle-aged, full-bearded man. How is that possible?

Side-tracking a bit, Emperor Zhenzong, Renzong's father, did have a concubine with the surname of Liu that made it as an Empress in the end, but there was not record of any concubine by the surname of Li. Emperor Renzong's birth mother, however, was really a lady with the surname of Li, just that she was not a concubine, but a palace maid. According to the imperial law, the palace maid was not fit to become an Empress despite having given birth to Emperor Zhenzong's one and only son due to her status. Accordingly, this son was to be given to Lady Liu to be raised up as her son because she was the next best lady to the post of the Empress.

Emperor Renzong did not know about his birth mother until the death of Empress Liu. By then, he had heard from several senior ministers that Li had not died of natural causes, but after visiting her tomb, Emperor Renzong was surprised that Li's corpse had not decomposed, and had in fact been given a grand burial like those of Empresses. It was then Renzong realised that the accusations he had heard were all false and that Empress Liu had did her bit in giving Li a posthumous Empress rank.

This is how the real story of Renzong realisation of his birth mother. As to how it had mutated into the legend as we all see on the opera stage now, I believe it had to be attributed to how ancient Chinese mentality of women in power. Empress Liu had became the Regent after Emperor Zhenzong passed away as Emperor Renzong was too young to handle court affairs. Being the woman in power, she had the authority to do whatever she wanted or deem fit. This naturally would make many of the male officials unhappy, and she had been constantly been compared to Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty. Malicious words of Empress Liu could have been spread during this time secretly among the officials, and some of which somehow went beyond the palace, mutated and became a totally different story. This urban legend was mentioned in the Chinese classical novel "The Three Swordsmen and the Five Mice", suggesting the highly probable link, and it was from this novel that this twisted "historical fact" subsequently became "The Case of the Cat" that we know of now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Chinese Opera Myths and Facts: The Grievances of Chen Shimei

You didn't see wrongly; the title is indeed "The Grievances of Chen Shimei", instead of "The Grievances of Qin Xianglian".

For those who doesn't know, Chen Shimei is the lead character and big-time villain in "Justice Bao Slays Chen Shimei", "Legend of Qin Xianglian" and "Chen Shimei Abandons His Wife" (all of these are in fact the same story with just different names). This story is very popular in Chinese opera and is the traditional repertoire across many genres. In a gist, the story is about Chen Shimei, a poor scholar who went to sit for the imperial examinations and became a top scholar, and after which he married the Emperor's sister despite already having a wife back home, by hiding his marital status. When his wife Qin Xianglian came to the capital with her children to look for Chen, the latter was afraid that his secret would be exposed and hence hindering his career, therefore he decided to have his wife killed. When Qin Xianglian realised that her husband had become a cold-blooded and heartless man, she decided to report the case to Justice Bao, and with his impartial stance, he had Chen Shimei tried and beheaded.

Now, if Chen Shimei is still alive today, he'd probably sing Su Yanrong's famous "哭声冤" ("'Innocent' I cried" in rough English translation) from the show "The Grievances of Dou'E". In fact, the real Chen Shimei is a far cry from the Chen Shimei portrayed since this story was first set to stage.

To set the record straight, there is no Chen Shimei in Song dynasty, the period in which Justice Bao lived in. So where did Chen Shimei came from? He's actually a man in the Qing dynasty.

The Chen Shimei in the Qing dynasty is a court official in the reign of Emperor Shunzhi. According to official records, this Chen Shimei was a native of Huguang, the same as the Chen Shimei in the opera shows. However, this real Chen Shimei is not a heartless man as portrayed. The actual Chen Shimei was in fact a very kind-hearted court official who would lend a helping hand to anybody in need. However, his kindness invited trouble as many people, regardless of how close they were to him, started to approach him for financial assistance. It grew so out-of-hand that Chen had to start turning people away. One of these people turned away was someone who had helped Chen Shimei previously while sitting for the imperial examination. This man, instead of empathising his difficult position, started to bear grudges with Chen. However, being a mere commoner, he couldn't do anything much, hence he decided to go by the despicable mean: spreading rumour about him in the form of drama, He began writing an opera titled "Qin Xianglian Hugs the Pipa", and in it he accused Chen with whatever crimes he could think of, and it turned out this opera became very popular, and that was what was to become "The Legend of Qin Xianglian" and the similar that we know today.

One very strange thing about this opera was that Chen Shimei was a Qing dynasty character whereas Justice Bao was from Song dynasty, which was a few centuries apart. How on earth did Justice Bao managed to slay Chen then? There's a very funny story behind it as well.

When "Qin Xianglian Hugs the Pipa" was first staged, it was a very short opera; the show ended with Han Qi killing himself at the temple, leaving Qin Xianglian kneeling beside him with a bloody sword. Because the show was too short, opera troupes performing this piece had to insert an excerpt from another show at the start of the performance. On this particular day, one troupe performed "Justice Bao Sends Ration to Chenzhou" before "Qin Xianglian Hugs the Pipa". While the actual show performed on, members of the audience became so emotional that they started cursing Chen Shimei aloud and wanted him to be killed. By the end of the show, the angry audience refused to leave, and the troupe leader was in a fix. Suddenly, he realised that the actor playing the role of Justice Bao in the previous excerpt was still in his costume, and decided to just push him back onto stage, despite both knowing that Justice Bao and Chen Shimei are obviously not from the same era. It turned out that the audience didn't mind either and the show was a great success. Due to these turn of events, the righteous Chen Shimei was heavily slandered and became the notorious baddie we know about today.

Hence the moral of the story: the pen is mightier than the sword; slanderous words can become "truth" if not treated carefully!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"Symphonic" Xiangju

Sorry for sidetracking again, as I need time to arrange my information for Chinese opera repertoire myths. In this post, I'm going to showcase a small excerpt of "Symphonic" Xiangju. This time round, it is performed by Zhangzhou City's Yang Yuexia and Zheng Yaling.

This comes as a surprise since this excerpt was presented in an opening ceremony for some cross-straits conference and is being telecasted live over CCTV, China's national TV channel. If I'm not wrong, this is the first time ever that Zhangzhou City Xiangju Opera Troupe ever appeared on national TV in recent years. Previously, it is usually Xiamen Municipality Gezi Opera Troupe that had the honour.

Anyway, back to the clip. I like the way Yang Yuexia sang here because it sounded rather soft and gentle, unlike in live performances whereby the speakers are cranked up to such high volume that everybody sounded very sharp and shrill. However, I hate the musical arrangement of the music. The "symphonic" sound simply sound too much like a fanfare to me, and doesn't quite suit the excerpt. What was on the musical arranger's mind when he/ she did that?!

An interesting note: there is a Yueju fan in China who used to be rather put off by Gezi opera, but when she saw Zheng Yaling in this excerpt, she was totally mersmerised by her!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Vietnam's Nha Nhac Cung Dinh Hue

I know I'm supposed to be writing on the myths and facts of Chinese opera shows, but before I do that, I thought I'd like to showcase this first: Nha Nhac Cung Dinh Hue musical genre from Vietnam. Despite such a long name, it simply meant "The Classical Court Music of Vietnam".

This form of court music was played in the Vietnamese court at Hue since the 13th century, and is heavily influenced by the court music of the Chinese Ming dynasty. What surprised me is that the Pipa they played is held diagonally (like in Nanyin) instead of the conventional vertical way, and they even have this instrument which resembled the "Si Kuai" of Nanyin and Yilan Gezi opera.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Chinese Opera Myths and Facts: Prologue

Chinese opera is one of the treasures of the Chinese traditional culture, and through Chinese opera, one can not only immense themselves in the fine traditional folk musical and dramatic culture of the Chinese, but also take a peep into the history of the Chinese civilisation.

However, having said that, I have to put on a disclaimer: do not believe everything that happen on stage. Of course, I'm not referring to actors not really crying on stage or two stage lovers may not be real couples off stage. What I'm referring to is that whatever story that is happening on stage should and must not be taken as historical facts. Many so-called "historical plays", or shows featuring real historical figures actually deviate greatly from actual historical records, but many of them have been generally accepted as fact already.

In this series of posts, I shall touch on some of these historically-inaccurate plays, and try to restore the "truth" behind them.