Shaoxing Opera in the ’50s: From a Drama of Instruction to the Pastel Idylls of Cinema

Prolonged scandal and violent clashes of personality are perhaps more than the norm for or within theatrical productions of any sort; if so, the fate of Shaoxing Opera in its various Shanghai does not disappoint. The eddies of scandal swirling about the suicide (?) deaths of Ma Zhanghua and Xiao Dangui were grisly, but they were soon forgotten. Not so the 30 odd years’ of battling over playscript text and editorial authority that divided Yuan Xuefen’e Xuesheng (Yueju) Company from the rival 东山越艺社 (Dongshan Shaoxing Opera society) led or dominated by Liu Nanwei (1922-1989), the original script editor and link-personal to the “progressive” (read fellow-traveller) intellectuals associated organizationally with Tian Han, Xia Yan, Hong Chen and Ren Guang and with the League of Leftwing (huaju) playwrights (中国左翼戏剧家联盟)from as early as the late 1930s and well on into the first decade of PRC rule.

Not unlike so many other prolonged antipathies birthed during the early days of the People’s Republic, there were undoubtedly one or several strands of personality dis-synch dividing the parties: in this case so powerful that it became a hereditary friction coming to climax in 2011 only after Nanwei’s two children were forced to drop a copyright infringement suit they had launched against the Shanghai Yueju Arts “Academy” (qua Yuan Xuefen) in 2008 (not even the termination of the suit has stopped blogchatter of a still vitriolic nature..).

If we can back away from the daily grit and try to place the struggle in genre-evolution context, however, another view becomes persuasive: i.e., that the anti-Yuan resentment of Liu Nanwei and freres had much to do with the impact of the Silver Screen, which had had little to do with “minor” regional opera until around 1947, when the (peripheral) Qiming (1948) and 文华影片公司 (1949) studios saw the potential and jumped into the business of xiqupian (filmed opera) for purely commercial reasons. Even the chaos the 1949 regime change did not stop the building craze for (now) color-filmed opera segments, which, only two years after Liberation, coalesced (1953) into a two-hour 12-act monument of Shaoxing opera-in-film, “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai” (I have uploaded the full film with English subtitles for those interested – I suggest having a look before moving on because a lot of what I pose or suggest for analytic consideration derives from a close viewing of that monster production, also China’s first feature-length, multi-Act 35 mm color film, period – though a short color film of Mei Lanfang in 生死恨 was produced in 1947 by Fei Mu’s 上海實驗電影工廠, a year earlier ). When Yuan’s Xuesheng Company was granted audience at the Huairentang “little” palace in autumn, 1949, they did not just perform: they brought with them a copy of a 1948 film based on Lu Xun’s Zhufu, as well as a 1949 film anthology of 4 Yueju operettas. Since that turning point, mainland audiences’ familiarity with Shaoxing opera has, at the margin, come from film, not live performance.

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