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!

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