Of minstrelsy in Red Sorghum

The Vernacular Minstrel Class and Jocular Voicing in Red Sorghum.

Magically Realistic Gateway to 18 League Slope (section of Great Wall, Ningxia)

Magically Realistic Gateway to 18 League Slope (section of Great Wall, Ningxia)

I here present two versions of the same raucously amusing style of song that link to the music “line” in Red Sorghum, and which need to be understood if one is to “get” why the hero behaves as he does: that is, fails of that mysterious posture that Party regulars always demonstrate: humourlessness and discipline of plan.

The first is from the film Red Sorghum: it is a travesty of the key rite de passage that takes a newly betrothed Maid to her husband/purchaser. As a display of wealth the “new owner” is expected to fetch her in as grand a fashion as possible. Meaning a grand “orchestra”, as many carriers of her “litter” as can be found, dressed in the Livery of the contracted agency, and as gorgeous a red gauze mask as can be imagined (metaphor for her virginity – it will not come off until she is in her bridegroom’s “mansion”.

But the husband-to-be is a miser and probably nowhere as rich as he has indicated to the “matchmaker”. Or maybe the track that must be followed scares of any but the most desperate. So the carriers are no more the factory employees of her new owner. They lose no chance, therefore, to toss class insults at their master by merciless teasing of his Lady. How it is executed is shown. Her chair is rocked violently in the hope that she will vomit and faint….But the lads are NOT sadists: once she approaches the hoped for condition, their gang-boss is conscious-struck and orders them to halt (not shown in the clip).

The next allows us to hear and see what the hero/minstrel/would-be “tough” had heard and seen before he shows up on the job.

It is a highly comic version of folk-ish stage skit (I’d hesitate to call it “opera”, few stage genres in pre-1920s China have the character we are used to when we use that term).

With perhaps a little added savvy, the Chinese viewer of the film would sense that he knew the tune, and thus that the foreman did too – this was quoted song and dance. Minstrel show works MUCH better than “opera”.

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