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Peking Opera and The Legend of White Snake


Peking Opera is an exciting and satisfying form of theater. As an art, it is well integrated, with story, singing, acting, gesture, costume, stagecraft, gymnastics and makeup all being very important. You couldn't get a job as a Peking Opera actor if you hadn't mastered the intricacies of gesture, no matter how good your voice is.

Peking Opera doesn't subdivide characters by soprano, lancer, bass and so on, but by the type of character. The qingyi is the main female character, almost always positive and loving. The xiaosheng is the scholar-lover, and he sings in a falsetto voice, sounding a bit like a woman. The older man is the laosheng and so on. These classifications are as old as Chinese theater itself, but have become much more complicated with the passage of time. In the old days just about all performers were male. Actors had a very low social status. However, this changed in the twentieth century, especially under the People's Republic of China. Nowadays, there are just about as many female actors as male, and they have a good social status.

On the things about Chinese acting that is very special is the link between gymnastics and the actor. Battle scenes are very common in traditional theatre, and they are represented by spectacular gymnastics. Of course it's mainly men who do these gymnastics, since they are the ones most involved in battles. However, there are quite a few heroic female warriors in Chinese opera. Formerly they were played by men, but no longer.

In the most traditional Peking Opera, the stage is quite bare, with just a couple of chairs, a table and a mat. In the last few decades there is more scenery, and operas have beautiful landscape, such as mountains and lakes.

Over the last century and more, Chinese drama has undergone a process of reform and modernization. In the olden times, operas were rather episodic, in other words, you'd have a short item of less than an hour, telling a simple story which was based, for example, on one chapter of a novel. But in the recent times, it's very common for an opera to take up a whole evening. It has a developing story that rises to a climax and ends in a denouement, rather the way dramas do in the Western Tradition.

There are over 300 kinds of regional theatre in China, most of them taking the name of the place where they developed and got popular. The earliest records of fully developed Chinese dramas - not counting dances with stories, skits and sort of thing - were in the twelfth century and in southern China. There was also a magnificent tradition of Chinese opera in the north when the Mongols ruled China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Hardly any of the ancient southern dramas are still extant, either text or music. We still have many texts of northern dramas from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but no music.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), regional operas developed and flowered and many still survive, both text and music. An early form is called Kun Opera, after Kunshan, the place very near Shanghai where it started. This was an elegant style, dominated by the wistful tones of the sideblown Chinese flute dizi. The Cantonese Opera, which is especially popular among overseas Chinese in Australia, appears to have begun in the eighteenth century. Peking Opera developed at the end of eighteenth century in the capital of China, Beijing and was a combination of various other forms of regional theatre. During the nineteenth century it became acknowledged as the style that could represent China as a whole.

The Kun Opera was for centuries the theater of the aristocracy. Many educated men had their own private troupes and there were also companies at the imperial court, composed mostly of eunuchs. However, the majority of the forms of regional opera were genuine popular theatre. At certain times of the year, especially festivals, they would roam round the countryside performing for the people. The performers would set up a temporary stage or find a place in the local market or temple and perform all day. You didn't need a theatre and most people didn't have to pay. You can still find this in China today, and in the countryside there are still quite a few amateur folk companies that perform at certain times in the year. But in the cities most performances nowadays take place in a theatre. Traditional Chinese opera is in decline, and many of the old troupes have gone out of business. Young people don't go for the old operas much and it doesn't have ring of being "modern", something that matters a great deal in China nowadays. However, it is still very much alive. Entry into the schools is still very competitive and there are many very good actors coming up. You can see from the performance of The Legend of White Snake that there are still first-rate performers on the traditional Chinese stage. There remains a faithful core audience (mainly middle-aged and older) from which Peking Opera continues to draw its strangest fans. All the traditional opera companies, including those performing Peking Opera, are looking for ways to increase their appeal to Chinese as well as foreign audiences. There are also several theatres in Beijing now set up especially to attract foreign and overseas Chinese visitors rather than the city's ordinary citizens.

The stories of traditional Chinese theatre are mostly based on Chinese history, novels and old dramas. Almost all of them take place in China itself. Many are about old battles and ancient heroes of ancient times, rebellions and myths. In sharp contrast to western operas, traditional pieces are not attributed to particular composers of librettists. However, in the twentieth century, especially under the People's Republic, particular playwrights have adopted old stories to new dramas, which musicians set to music composed in the traditional style. The Legend of White Snake (Baishe Zhuan) is an example of this. The opera's libretto is by Tian Han and its premiere was in 1952.


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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