Brian Salter's Blogs:
Catawauling in Wuzhen? Must be Chinese Opera night!

 

One of the great things about going to exhibitions and conferences is what you find on the periphery of the events themselves. I’m down in Wuzhen attending an internet conference, but to be perfectly honest what really floats my boat is the town itself, and in particular the West Area.

That building that you see in the picture above is the town theatre, and it’s been arranged that all invited guests to the conference can attend a special performance of Chinese Opera there. The theatre looks pretty nice in the schematic, but I can’t say that it looks particularly appealing in the cold light of day.

But at night time it comes alive with lighting used to great effect.

The performance is called “The Heavenly Beauty”and is an integration of a number of different types of Chinese opera including Peking, Kunqu, Yue, Shaoxing, Diaoqiang, Shaanxi, Wuju, Sichuan, and Luantan operas.

As part of the show, there is a focus on the five major types of roles in Chinese opera – the clown, the main female protagonist as well as vivacious and unmarried women, the ghost, the main female and male, and the fairy tale in military form.

Chinese opera, or xìqǔ (戲曲) has roots going back to ancient China. It’s an amalgamation of various art forms – such as music, song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, as well as literary art forms – that reached its maturity in the 13th century during the Song Dynasty.

According to Wikipedia, Chinese operas exist in 368 different forms, the best known being Beijing (Peking) opera, which assumed its present form in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).

Exaggerated paint on opera performers’ faces, which ancient warriors decorated themselves with to scare the enemy, are used in the opera; each colour has a different meaning, and are used to symbolize a character's role or fate, and illustrate the character's emotional state and general character.

For instance,

  • White symbolizes sinister, evil, crafty, treacherous, and suspicious. Any performer with a white painted face usually takes the part of a villain of the show. The larger the white painted area, the crueller the role!
  • Green denotes impulsive behaviour, violence, no self-restraint or self-control.
  • Red stands for bravery or loyalty.
  • Black denotes boldness, fierceness, impartiality, and roughness.
  • Yellow symbolizes ambition, fierceness, or intelligence.
  • Blue stands for steadfastness (someone who is loyal and sticks to his principles, no matter what ).
  • Pink symbolizes sophistication and cool-headedness.

The show opens with a stage full of performers, showing off some of the amazing costumes to great effect.

Through the use of captioned surtitles, we are told that “the fancy costumes of Chinese Opera is made with with manual embroidery. It is filled with golden silk which is very fabulous”.

It is certainly that!

The evening is split into five “chapters”. The first is called “The Zither and the Sword - Chinese traditional melodic and percussion instruments”.

“The icy full moon is creeping up again casting much shade to this lonely palace. Clearly I see thou. The Jade Hare of the Fairy, flying away to the east. Should Chang'e, the Fairy, be companying the moon, like me companying you?”

After this somewhat quiet start, things begin to take on a more dramatic turn with an extract from “Shaoxing Opera: Monkey Subdues the White-Skeleton Lady”.

Shaoxing opera, also known as Yue opera, is the second most popular opera form and features actresses in male roles, as well as femininity in terms of singing, performing, and staging. “Monkey Subdues the White-Skeleton Lady”, is based on an episode from The Pilgrimage to the West, a mythological novel by Wu Cheng-en, which has had a wide appeal among Chinese readers since its appearance in the 16th century.

In front of me a girl from Xinhua news agency is streaming the entire performance onto a Facebook channel via her smartphone. If you are interested, you should still be able to see the recording of this evening’s event stored for posterity on FB.

Now, we are treated to some Wuju Opera (婺剧) which is a form of Chinese opera from Jinhua, in the eastern province of Zhejiang. There are apparently 11 Wuju troupes in eastern China, and it is characterised by six well known tunes and a way of singing with dominant instruments.

Next, it’s time for some Peking opera or Jingju (京剧) which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics. It arose in the late 18th century and became fully developed and recognized by the mid-19th century.

Extremely popular in the Qing dynasty court, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting, which is based on allusion through gestures, footwork, and other body movements to express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is in the form of recitative and colloquial speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. The traditional repertoire of Beijing opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles.

Here we are treated to “The Women General of Yang Family” which is a sad story about She Tai Jun who went in to battle although she was old.

Taizhou Luan is the local opera of Zhejiang, described as simple and warm. Yan Poxi is a story about a pair of lovers taken from the Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.

Yan Poxi (閻婆惜) is Song Jiang's concubine. Her mother persuades an initially reluctant Song to marry the 18-year-old Yan after he paid the funeral costs for Yan's deceased father. Yan gradually comes to detest Song and has a secret affair with his assistant, Zhang Wenyuan.

In complete contrast, Qinqiang (秦腔) opera from Shaanxi in northwest china is rough and loud. Jiao Guiyang tells a legendary revenge story of a Chinese ancient heroine and uses a bangzi (woodblock) as one of the accompanying instruments, from which it derives its other name, Bangzi opera.

The third “chapter” of the evening represents Everlasting Love in the form of famous love stories of Chinese Opera.

Peking Opera’s “The Matchmaker” is considered one of the masterpieces of the Xun Style. The Matchmaker, we are told, “is an essence opera that witnesses all changes of Chinese cultural forms. The characters in the opera are now considered as symbols of love and marriage by the Chinese people.”

Kunqu Opera is next with the Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭) – a play written by Tang Xianzu in the Ming Dynasty and first performed in 1598 at the Pavilion of Prince Teng. It was the most popular play of the Ming dynasty, and all Kun theatre troupes include it in their repertoire.

Chapter IV features military plays. Martial arts in Chinese opera are filled with many trick stunts such as ‘turning the beat’, juggling and scenes of bustling activity.

Some of it is visually spectacular…

… while some can be quite dangerous – such as this fire eating (what they call Fire spraying, or Blowing fire).

Bian Lian (变脸) – literally: "Face-Changing" is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera. Performers wear brightly coloured costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly coloured masks, typically depicting well known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or a wave of the hand.

Changing masks is a magic trick that is closely guarded by its practitioners. But having said that, it is widely believed that there are four main ways of “face-changing” that are used:

  • Blowing Dust: where the actor blows black dust hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or mouth, so that it obscures his face.
  • Beard Manipulation: where beard colours can be changed while it is being manipulated, from black to grey and finally to white, expressing anger or excitement.
  • Pulling-downing Masks: where the actor can pull down a mask which has previously been hidden on top of his head, changing his face to red, green, blue or black to express happiness, hate, anger or sadness, respectively.
  • Face-dragging: where the actor drags greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows across his face to change his appearance.

It’s certainly spectacular to watch…

Another spectacular thing to watch is “Flat teeth Play”, also known as “Playing Tusks” or “shuaya” (teeth playing). Teeth playing requires performers to use 8 or 10 canine teeth taken from male pigs, usually 5 to 6 centimetres long, in their mouths. Apparently it is extremely difficult to do, and very few have mastered this artform.

Playing Tusks is mainly used in Ninghai Opera, which is one of the oldest opera forms in Zhejiang province. It was on the first National Intangible Cultural Heritage list announced by the Ministry of Culture in May 2006. With a history dating back four centuries, it enjoys an equal reputation with Face Changing in Sichuan Drama. Together, they are known as “face in the west and tusk in the east”.

Four steps are involved when playing tusks: biting, licking, gulping and disgorging. Actors play tusks flexibly and quickly in their mouths to create cruel and greedy images on stage.

I have to admit that before this special performance I had little idea about the different genres of Chinese opera despite occasionally watching the Chinese Opera Channel (CCTV11). But now I’m a fan!