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Cracks in the Arch of Illusion: Contemporary Experiments in Taiwan's Peking Opera

  • Catherine Diamond (a1)


Textual and performance innovation in twentieth-century Peking Opera is not new and the experiments by practitioners in Taiwan today demonstrate approaches that both reflect past attempts and contemporary variation. There has been resistance to change in the art form, however, because it was supposed to have reached perfection with Mei Lanfang (1894–1961), who, because of his artistic pre-eminence and international status, was able to introduce several daring innovations that revolutionized the medium without upsetting its parameters. Mei not only experimented by acting in contemporary non-traditional plays, but also within the Peking Opera tradition and was responsible for shifting the limelight away from that of the old man role (laosheng) to that of the young woman (dan), his own role. He and his playwright collaborator, Qi Rushan, wrote new style Peking Opera scripts that made best use of Mei's unique performing talents. Instead of the stylized costume evolved from Ming and Qing, dress, Mei would occasionally use historically accurate costumes from earlier dynasties. He introduced the use of classical dances and encouraged the inclusion of the eihu, the second, lower pitched fiddle into the accompanying orchestra.



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1. Before the 1840s the emphasis was on young male actors performing female roles. In mid-nineteenth century it shifted to the laosheng role, which, in the twentieth century, has been played by both male and female actors. See Dolby, William, A History of Chinese Drama (London: Elek Books, 1976), p. 168. See Li, Ruru, ‘Macbeth Becomes Ma Pei’, Theatre Research International, 20, 1, Spring 1995, pp. 4253.

2. Scott, A.C., ‘The Performance of Classical Theatre’ in Chinese Theatre From its Origins to the Present Day, ed., Colin, Mackerras (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1983), p. 128.

3. Correspondence with Xia Huangyi who teaches Peking Opera texts in the Asian Languages and Literature Department of the University of Washington.

4. Sun, William Huizhu, ‘Mei Lanfang, Stanislavsky and Brecht on China's State and their Aesthetic Significance’ in Drama in the People's Republic of China, ed., Constantine, Tung and Colin, Mackerras (Albany: State University of New York, 1987), p. 138. See also Mackerras, Colin, ‘Peking Opera before the Twentieth Century’, Comparative Literature, 28 (1994) for a description of the theatres where Peking Opera was performed.

5. So far no evidence has turned up to show that travelling European theatre troupes played to either the foreign or Chinese communities in China such as the English troupes that performed in India or the Spanish companies that went to the Philippines. It is therefore unlikely that the young creators of huaju saw actual European performances of realistic drama although many saw Japanese renditions while they were students in Japan. In the absence of any other performing style, they would naturally rely heavily on that of Chinese traditional theatre.

6. Sun, ‘Mei Lanfang, Stanislavsky…’, p. 138.

7. Pronko, Leonard, Theater East & West: Perspectives Toward a Total Theatre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 34.

8. In October 1994, the Taiwan government announced it was going to discontinue its regular subsidy to the three military troupes in the coming year.

9. Colin Mackerras has suggested that the mainland China government actively began promoting the traditional theatre in the 1990s because it assisted nationalism and was politically safer than the radical spoken theatre that emerged in the mid-1980s. See Colin Mackerras ‘From and Content in Contemporary Chinese Theatre: Issues in the Period of Reform’, Conference paper. Hong Kong Conference on Asian Peforming Arts, Hong Kong, 4–6 November 1994, p. 1.

10. Sun, ‘Mei Lanfang, Stanislavsky…’, p. 143. While Brecht's dramaturgical style began influencing the spoken theatre in late 1970s, Ursula Dauth suggests that the Sichuan opera of Brecht's The Good Person of Setzuan performed by the Third Chuanju Troupe of Chengdu in 1987 marks the first Brechtian performance by a traditional company. See Ursula Dauth ‘The Intercultural Performance of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Sezuan in the Sichuan Opera Style and its Impact on the Reform Movement’, Conference paper. Hong Kong Conference on Asian Performing Arts, Hong Kong, 4–6 November 1994, p. 2.

11. Wichmann, Elizabeth, ‘Traditional Theatre in Contemporary China’, in Chinese Theater: From its Origins to the Present Day, ed., Colin, Mackerras (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), p. 197.

12. Ibid. p. 193.

13. Wichmann, , ‘Traditional and Innovation in Contemporary Beijing Opera Performance’, The Drama Review, 34, Spring 1990, p. 159.

14. Wichmann, ‘Tradition Theatre…’, p. 185–7.

15. Ibid., p. 196.

16. Wichmann, ‘Tradition and Innovation…’, p. 149.

17. Although the interaction has currently enlivened Taiwan's Peking Opera performance, it, along with the planned subsidy cuts, might spell its doom. Today Taiwan performers can rarely compete technically with their mainland counterparts and will have to find some new way to distinguish themselves.

18. Passion of Returning to Yue in mainland China would be considered a ‘newly arranged historical drama’ (xinbian lishi ju) in which the music is generally in the traditional style but the more tightly constructed plot rewrites a pre-twentieth century historical person or event. See Mackerras, ‘Peking Opera before the Twentieth Century’, p. 4.

19. Programme notes for Passion of Returning to Yue.

20. Anqi, Wang, ‘In the Center of the Ancient Road, a New Path Opens Up’, Performing Arts Review (Biaoyen yishu) 14, 1993, p. 6.

21. Li Lianbi rewrote the music in the modes for Peking Opera but did not change the words from Pei Yanling's hebei banzi text. See Peiyun, Li, ‘Despite Pei Yanling's Excellent Performance, Lu Guang Troupe Offers its Zhong Kui’, Taiwan New Life (Taiwan xinsheng bao), 10 January 1994.

22. Although Lin Xiuwei was the principal director, there were three assistant directors: Li Yongfeng, Lo Beian, Li Xiaoping (a Peking Opera actor).

23. Chang, Winnie, ‘Euripides at the Opera’, Free China Review, 44, 2, 1994, p. 71.

24. In 1991, Zhu Luhao played the lead in a modern spoken theatre drama called Cicada (Chan) adapted from a novel by Lin Huaimin. Under the direction of Li Guoxiu, the Screen Theatre's (Pingfeng biaoyen ban) director/script-writer/actor, Zhu learned about individualizing a character and the modes of expression used in a psychologically realistic play. He also discovered that the most important thing was to move the audience. In his scripts, Li Guoxiu strives to move the audience to both tears and laughter, and Zhu has apparently adopted this aim. See Yifan, Ho, ‘Zhong Kui's Face Isn't Zhu Luhao's’, China Times (Zhongguo shibao), 15 January 1994.

25. Much media attention was given to the novelties in the Woman of Lolan's performance style; however, criticism focused on the problems of textual adaptation. See Jianzhong, Lu, ‘Where is Lolannu Going To or Coming From?’, Performing Arts Review (Biaoyen yishu) 11 (1993), pp. 104–8.

26. See Pai, Maggie, ‘A Chinese Medea’, Artention International, October 1993. It is difficult for me to imagine Medea at anytime being innocent. A woman who has killed her brother and betrayed her family and country was hardly innocent before Jason's betrayal. Lin's words again suggest that she wanted to see Medea as an ordinary normal young woman. In which case, the murder of her children becomes even more difficult to justify.

27. The choice to render Medea's towering rage into everyday Mandarin (which many young writers are discovering does not have a sufficient range in modern idiom to ex-press fully the complexities of modern life) seems a strange decision given that the very restraint and condensation necessary for verse creates emotional intensity.

28. Wichmann, Elizabeth, Listening to Theatre: The Aural Dimension of Beijing Opera (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1991), p. 243.

29. The deficiencies of this new arrangement were clearly illustrated when the Beijing Peking Opera Theatre came to Taipei in January 1994 and presented a large range of traditional dramas. The orchestra sat on stage, close to the actors, and the most satisfying moments for the audience were clearly those when singer and jinghu player interacted with sympathetic virtuosity.

30. None of these three performances had polyphonous duets although they used the more traditional alternating and unison style singing. Duets and trios were prevalent in another new-style opera, The Butterfly Loves the Flower (Die lian hua), given in November 1993 at the National Theatre. The new songs were written by Gao Yi-u of the Shanghai Peking Opera Theatre.

31. Wichmann remarks on offstage singing from another tradition such as Sichuan Opera being incorporated into Peking Opera: ‘the offstage “helping chorus” (bangqiang), was traditionally used in the gaoqiang musical system rather than in Beijing opera's pihuang system’ (1990), p. 158.

32. Boxun, Zhang, ‘Little Troupe of Elegant Voices Presents the New Passion of Returning to Yue’, United Daily News (Lianho bao), 10 November 1993.

33. It seems oddly contradictory to forbid someone with twenty years of Peking Opera training to use either Peking Opera sound or movements. The directors praised Wei Haimin's determination and open-mindedness, but to what point?

34. The ‘invisible’ stagehands that so intrigued Bertolt Brecht have been dispensed with in these contemporary performances. Many troupes opt for blacking out between scenes, or lowering a gauze curtain through which the stagehands are visible but no longer playing an ‘invisible’ role.

35. Xueqin, Cao, The Story of the Stone (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 55.

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Cracks in the Arch of Illusion: Contemporary Experiments in Taiwan's Peking Opera

  • Catherine Diamond (a1)


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