Animation in 1941: Wartime Allegory for Children

Whether because exhausted with politically-messaged “leftist” cinema, or because it provided a subterfuge for patriotic expression by rendering it as children’s storying, the Wan Bros. (万氏兄弟) Wan Laiming 万籁鸣 and Wan Guchan 万古蟾 (1900-97, 1900-95) are remembered for their pioneering of the full feature length 3D animated cartoon, “Princess Iron Fan, released by Lianhua Studious in 1941 but apparently begun as early as 1937.

There can be no doubt that it was aimed at a childrens’ audience, and for that reason stayed aloof from secular preaching of any sort. But likewise it is perfectly clear that the tale has allegorical anti-Japanese import. for the family had been involved in whole series of War-alluding short animations from 1932 on. This one is however special: it was produced in “island” Shanghai where the 2 named brothers decided to make their base (no doubt because its technical resources were unique), while the rest of the family headed inland. Perhaps ironically, politics dictated the Shanghai location also, because Chinese studios were (from mid-1937 on) under off-and-on KMT pressure to avoid making “provocative” (i.e. anti-Japanese) movies; whereas “open Shanghai”, despite being surrounded by a stagnant frontline inherited from 1937 until end-1941, was under no such constraint.

It is clearly a United Front story (indeed the Wans’ 1935 “Dancing Camel” was presented as a goodwill offering to Chiang Kaishek on his 50th birthday). With an emphasis on Unity, not social reform”: facing down a magically empowered Ox King Demon and his vassal the Fiery Mt. Genie (a wanton enemy who seems unable to even think of stopping), no individual heroics can prevail, nor can contrived, chest-thumping masculinity (gongfu in the animation) terminate the menace. An ultimate victory is gained by a religious leader (qua saint), Xuanzang, who fetches the gospel from far away “India”, then converts “humanity” to peaceful solidarity and mass unity. Perhaps there is an influence of the Gandhi “Quit India” Peaceful Resistance movement that flared up with Britain’s end-1941 “hot” war with Japan (which completed the censorship of Chinese-made film). More likely (but I admit I am just guessing) is that we (as children) are being encouraged subliminally to accept the second Soviet-led “United Front against Fascism” which also had its start in 1941, though in June not December, in which case the Tripitaka is Soviet “unity” gospel. No doubt to facilitate the disguise of the subplot as childish folklegend, the film lifts its story entirely from the “Sun Wukong” aka Monkey episodes of the mega-Romance Journey to the West (Xiyouji): specifically chapters 59-61. which, though reshaped and parsed, form a single episode, which relates how the famous Xuanzang and his followers deal with and eventually overcome the obstacle of the “Fiery Mountain”, which up till this point has defied any and all pilgrimages to The West (where the heat of the setting sun elevates the conflagration into sheer Hell).

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.

Insecure Space: Movie Theatres as Make Do Chinese Opera Stages in Wartime Shanghai

Photo: Xiao Dangui Shaoxing Opera Company Onstage at Cathay (Movie) Theatre, Aug. 21, 1936
99f1ea413e0c16e18f3c9b56a76ac7f3 Guotai Cathsy inetririor  XDG company ondstage memorial

The above photo caption reads “Commemorative Photo of Entire [Shaoxing Opera] Company of Cathay Theatre”, dated Aug. 21, 1946. Inside the photo two names are multiply inserted: (1) That of Xiao Dangui herself, after whom the troupe was named; and (2) Xu Yulan, a latecomer “young male” impersonater who was recruited on Sept. 1, 1945 (in anticipation of an immediate postWar boom, and, surviving the company’s 1947 extinction (qua “Xiaodan Company”), went on to rename the company after HER self, then earn fame as the spoiled male adolescent Bao Yu in the 1954 color film version of Hongloumeng.

But the supercaption is misleading. There never WAS a “Cathay Theatre Company” because the Cathay was built (in 1932) as a first-run movie house for foreign (Hollywood) feature films, not as a Huaihailu version of a Broadway upmarket theatre. Only in /after 1946 did it become a rotating (for-lease) venue for Yueju and other local troupes: but by May 1954 it was back under its original name as 国泰电影院. It is in that latter incarnation that it is filmed as the “New Great Shanghai Theatre (Xinhu Daxiyuan)”, though the interior (esp. the upholstered row seating) is that of the 1954 renewed building as a dedicated movie house.

Fig. 1: Interior of Cathay Movie House Today
Interior of Cathay used in stage susterds film

The 1947 Suicide of Xiao Dangui Part 3 : The Challenge of the New Media and Film

Note on the header photos (left to right):

(1) ca 1925 publicity poster for Dazhonghua Theatre (later stage for
new Yueju): a Soochow “modern” lady (unidentified) wearing qipao (shizhuang, or “period costume”. )
(3) The Guotai (“Cathay” Theatre where Dangui’s company last performed
(2) Xiao Dangui (seated, as huadan) and Xu Yulan, standing, xiaosheng), probably May 1947, in period costume (shizhuang): 是我错 “It’s my fault”
probably at the Zhedong Theater, one of his 11 major holdings.

Note on Zhang Chunfan, owner of the Cathay: “国泰”、“浙东”、“明星”、“天宫”、“皇后”、“虬江”、“丽都”、“同孚”、“老风”、“恩派亚”等戏院. OF which Zhedong and Guotai were the most profitable, “goldmine” venues. .

Though the tabloids (Huangse baokan) insisted on pursuing the Xiao suicide case as if there were behind it all a monstrous theatre-owning millionare persecuting a wayward actress with too much dramatic innovation on her mind – another Yuan Xuefen 袁雪芬, though less irritating because she lacked Yuan’s intellectual skills – the contest for “ownership” needs to be recontexted into the rather bohemian arts world (wenyijie) that dominated all theater and film in “island” and then post war Shanghai.

The 1947 Suicide of Xiao dangui Part 2 : Sisterly Solidarity facing the KMT Mobster’s Gun

Stage or film stars have perhaps always been closely associated with suicide, just as with alcoholism and narcotics. It would be nice to imagine that the fans who who mourned them or read their death notices (with mountains of PR fotos) in the tabloids were stirred mainly by admiration or regret for the passing of a major talent. There was always that side, of course, but public jealousy and sadism were what sold the most newspapers, as did also the tangled web of courtroom testimony and never quite complete police post mortems. There was always the urge to suspect something BIG was being swept under the rug by those with money and political connections. Jim Garrisons were always on the prowl in such cases as much as with gangster murders.

But sometimes the unexplained surprise of a seemingly happy and famous stage-or film star brutally killing herself indeed raises issues of broader social concern, no matter the inevitable poverty of evidence.
Many issues relating to the upbringing of a poor girl (housemaid) in a older male kinsman’s very wealthy home and (therewith exposure to attempted or actual seduction, prompted criticism of the institution of adoption (“fostering”), which seems to have been the startpoint for Lingyu’s emotional confusion and (later on) inability to extricate herself from the dangers of the love triangle. The strain seems to be what killed her, or rather, caused her to kill herself with a bottle of sleeping pills, leaving behind the famous 4-character line: “gossip is fearful thing!”. (人言可畏).

The operatic self-immolation in Shanghai of the famous silent-film star Ruan Lingyu (1910-1945), was one such case, but it shrivels in proportion to the socio-echoing of another (today much lesser known) suicide by a superstar Shaoxing opera (Yueju) female-role-player (huadan) named Xiao Dangui (1920-1937), who swallowed a fatal dose of lysol in her upscale French Concession apartment on Oct. 13, 1947, just when her ambitions for a renovated Shaoxing opera were being fulfilled. But the “just when” is no paradox: from the still partially embargoed court-trial archival evidence, it seems likely that her death was not only “instigated” by mental cruelty and threat, but prompted by underworld threat then botched attempt at disfiguring and/or blinding her. And behind that, some think, was the KMT “Society” Dept. (social morals inspectorate) whose function was to keep ad hoc social movements from gaining to much popularity – which of course placed the opera stage square in their oversight.

Film Truer than Fact: “Stage Sisters” and Xiao Dangui’s Suicide

Yin Guiifang

THE SHAOXING OPERA JOINT BENEFIT PERFORMANCE OF AUGUST 1947
山河恋 – Theatre Advertisement in Film

SS fil joit perf sign

and photograph of actual cast, Xiao Dangui playing 宓姬 (4th from right)

3068077246147474066《山河恋》剧照 1947

To quote Mark Twain, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” True, but what happens when the “truth” is that of the world of the stage, where nothing is ever quite true or false, only shadow, and (to make matter even more difficult) associates with a still unexplained suicide of a famous real-life actress/opera-diva, Xiao Dangui (1920-1947), a “whydunnit” that cannot be resolved because the perpetrator cannot testify?

STAGE SISTERS (1965, Xie Jin dir.): Opera in a Fishbowl

The closest Chinese equivalent of Hollywood’s “backstage musical” (houtai yinyueju) – if it were to be given a name or assigned a genre label (it has not)- would probably have to be called “backstage xiqu (“opera”): that is, films made about the inner working and psychology of the stage actors who performed traditional vernacular opera against a backdrop of galloping innovation in the way stage-music was performed. I here single out Xie Jin’s remarkably cinemagraphed “Stage Sisters” (libretto 1963, premier 1965) as the most successful undertaking of this sort, for it addresses change and competition head on, though with a loyalty to the most essential and traditional of all xiqu forms: the stripped down dockside temple performances (万年台两头红) that were a staple of the “country of waterways” in East Central (“lower Yangtze”) China, the memory of which Xie Jin (like Lu Xun) carried with him from his pre-teen years in Shanghyu, Zhejiang.

(NB for the film in full with English subtitles see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYfME4FwWTg (August 18 2013) for Part 1 (of 4) and the next 3 uploads, parts 2-4) and/or this post end-page.)

As with “Singing in the Rain” (1952), the backstage theater (musical) form works perhaps best when a new technology and/or venue of production is in the process of replacing an older one, calling into question just about everything that had supported Peking and regional old-style opera (xiqu): ownership of the company and its proceeds (moving from private to pubic), the selection of material for libretti (also increasingly state-influenced); the stature of the stars and of women actors in particular (rising, at the expense of the all-male and partially transgendered casting formula, influenced by the ascent of the female filmstar who often starred in filmed opera as well as narrative film – Zhou Xuan the most famous example), to the move away from the austerity (nakedness) of older mode of performing opera, no longer in tune with younger audience audio-visual expectations, conditioned from the 1930s by film and the popularity of filmed opera (“sound film” made this possible from 1935); and finally the rise to prominence of NON-musical (non-“operatic”, if opera is taken to mean xiqu) stage drama (huaju) often re-syncretized into a “modern” opera by the addition of purpose composed, orchestrally accompanied arias or choruses using Western scales and harmonies.

All or almost all of these changes are in play in Xie Jin’s film, though it takes a fair amount of familiarity with the literary politics and range of traditional xiqu titles to sense just how much change was in progress in the repertory of the Big City stage, and how much influence the Party was already wielding (or thus represented) by the late 40s (Lu Xun’s 祥林嫂 for example appears staged as the new style huaju “New Year’s Blessing”; and the 1945 “modern” opera White Haired Girl, usually regarded as the first “modern” style stage opera, comes on stage near the end).

But there are few other such films (post-49, that is) of this historical sensitivity. The weight of politicization falls too heavily. Since stage performers, from 1949 on, became full time public employees of the State, factional politics inevitably replaced theatre-gossip as the tale within the tale, at the cost of psychological realism, or projection of performance detail. But even before direct subsumption of authority (and bankbooks) in 1949, left-right political factioning surrounds the careers of the “star” new-opera composers, Xian Xinghai (Yellow River Oratorio, 1939) and Nie Er (Yangzijiang Baofengyu, 1934), and thus blocks THEIR biopics – potentially promising backstage dramas – from being anything more than tales of heroic composers agonistes, their works left unexplored and audiences ignored.

The omnipresence of politics in fact (and ironically) bears down even more heavily after Mao: in Chen Kaige’s hallmark post-reform film “about” Peking Opera , Farewell My Concubine, the Troupe and its two Stars appear for the first time in the story already victimized by totalitarian politics, making the rest of the story in essence a “backstage” account of 20th century Chinese (-colonial) politics and its seemingly inexorable culmination in the Cultural Revolution. Anyone who comes to that film hoping to “look inside” traditional stage opera as a social or artistic synthesis will be grievously disappointed: for all that is ever seen of “opera” are 2 or 3 snatches from the Peking Opera that (inter alia) made Mei Lanfang famous as a dan: Farewell My Concubine. One would never even know that there were rival stars or troupes, not to mention operas-in-film or “straight” (new style) stage drama competing for attention.