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Peking Opera and The Legend of White Snake

Updated: 2014-12-02 10:08:57

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Tian Han was one of the twentieth-century China's most famous playwrights, especially among those on the left. He gained his reputations in several left-wing dramatic societies in the 1920s and 1930s, and was very active in using theatre as a form of propaganda against the Japanese during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945). A strong support of Mao Zedong's government from 1949, he was given several major positions and headed the first major school for traditional Chinese theatre the CCP set up in 1950.

The Legend of White Snake is based on an ancient legend about a white snake which turns itself into a beautiful woman and marries a mortal. The abbot of a Buddhist monastery Fa Hai exposes her and defeats her, splitting the married couple apart. There are, however, many different versions of the story, both in older dramas and in the various regional styles. Some have the white snake as a positive character, who really loves her husband and fights for him with all her might. In Tian Han's version, the wife is strong and a good fighter, while the husband is rather weak and dithering. The abbot is shown as very evil and power-hungry, and the positive characters call him "scoundrel", "monster" and "butcher". However, Fa Hai does succeed in splitting the married couple, and imprisons her under a pagoda for hundreds of years, long after her husband and child are dead, and in that sense the drama is a tragedy.

There is a final scene to which the pagoda is destroyed, so the wife ends up victorious, but too late to benefit her husband.

The Chinese operas dealing with civil wars, heroes and rebellions do not have magic in them. But you can see from the plot of The Legend of White Snake that the element of magic is very strong. We have snakes turning themselves into women, monsters, battles among heavenly creatures and demons, and so on. One can make similar distinctions in Western operas, with history, myth and legend providing a rich bounty of stories. And magic can meld very nicely into bigger and more potent overarching themselves like love and power. There is one scene in The Legend of White Snake that is often performed separately from the others. Called "Broken Bridges", it is the scene where the lovers are united amid the beautiful scenery of the West Lake in Hangzhou. Both have just overcome enemies, the wife by defeating superhuman spirits in battle. It is the point during the drama when everything seems to be going well.

Tian Han's opera is not particularly political. But there are respects in which we can see a political or social message. For instance, like many other operas in the 1950s and later in China, he appears to be pressing for women's rights and participation in politics by showing the wife as such a strong and positive character who dares fight against the evil abbot when her husband is willing to give in. And again, we can see the portrayal of the Buddhist abbot as so evil and lusting for power as an attack on religion.

I saw Tian Han's version of the Peking Opera The Legend of White Snake first in 1964 in Beijing. The performers of the husband and wife were Ye Shenglan and Du Jinfang, both superlative exponents of their respective roles. I might mention that Du Jinfang was herself a woman, whereas in the past it was men who played the role. The greatest of China's female impersonators was Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), who won renown not only in his own country, but also in Europe, America and Japan. He played the role of the while snake, among many other female roles. The Jinfang in Du Jinfang's name means "approaching Mei Lanfang in excellence".

I have also seen The Legend of White Snake, or the scene "Broken Bridge", in several regional forms. I love this opera. I love the way the plot continually provides elements of surprise. I find the whole thing magical not only because the story has a magical element but because the various Peking Opera arts of gesture, music and costume match the love theme so well. In Tian Han's version, the music and the action have a sensitivity about them that cannot fail to move. And though this is a love story, it still has its battle scenes with their opportunities for gymnastic displays.

It is a real coup for Australia that t is being performed in Sydney and Canberra. And I might add that the actors playing the lead roles enjoy superb reputations in China and are sure to give anybody who goes on unforgettable evening.

(By Colin Macherras )

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