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.

Shaoxing Opera Goes to the Movies, 1948

Header Collage: (clockwise from upper left)

1. 1948 script book for “Sister Xianglin” film (Qimeng Studio), starring Yuan Xuefen
2. Illustration (frame take) from above movie
3. Film: Look at the Weather When the Rooster Crows (1948), starring Yuan Xuefen
4. Film “The Tragedy of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai” 1953, co-starring Yuan Xuefen

Going to tne movies ocrt 7 013

Below: Promotional Poster for “Look at the Weather…”, Qiming Studios 1948, starring Yuan Xuefen, 黄宗英 / 高博 / 罗兰 / 张伐

p2029561288 Look art sky when roostere cvros 2947


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.

Selling Songs for Supper: The Cry of the Clapper or Abing in the Marketplace

Here I shall begin from the end and with a notated subject that i fear most of you will not read/hear/ even intuit from the script alone. There is a point to this, though. What we see (leave it at that) is a persistent but impossible to translate sequence module characteristic of most – just about all – stage or open-air “aria” song, usually as sung by fem-gendered voices, called (a confusing translation!) “tune-counter”, counter in the sense of marker or chip, or even a card, 牌 pai. A kind of label with internal hint (key, rhythm, BUT NOT MELODY) of the opening line of the song to come. For reasons no one has tried to explain, this mini-overture (never sung, always left to voice-mimetic instruments, mainly the 2-string “fiddle” or erhu) is almost always inserted as the “counter for xxyy” before XXYY is heard.

What is it, and what is its function?

Author’s Transcription of “Wuxi Lakeside Miniature” (xiaoxiao Wuxi jing) as recorded in film erquan yingyue (1979): “tune-counter” in msrs 1-6, much abbreviated.


To my excitement I learned yesterday that the new in-plan subject for the annual Sinomusicological “summit”, hosted by CHIME, will be “Sound, Noise and … Everyday Soundscapes in contemporary China” ( Aarhus University, Denmark / CHIME, 21-24 August, 2014).

According to the initial announcement, 4 of the (over many) possible topics include:

Sound and Music
Defining Urban Soundscapes
Defining Rural Soundscapes
Sound and the Everyday

At the most obvious level, I suspect what accounts for the qupai pre-announcement is (just as with the overture) the need to get audience attention, a kind of throat-clearing without overdoing it. It seems likely to me to be a technique that street-“musicians” of all stripes – before/without the tool of amperage-boosting megaphones – adopted to fashion any sort of recycling, messaged song (from hawker’s cry to what I shall call “begging-bowl opera/beggar’s ballad) to reach out to a consuming/buying open-air crowd. Which in turn makes it part of as well as a response to the noise (acoustical chaos) that always surrounds outdoor anything, most of all the public concert.



Or: Huang Doudou (“Yellow Bean”) rediscovers his metier.

The players:

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This little-heralded dance-drama (wuju) is a backstage musical presenting jingju (Peking Opera) from the inside and as seen through a kind of broadway musical production in the making.

But presenting and trahsforming one subcategory in particular: the wuxi 武戏. (“Military plays”. heroic in nature, full of loyal generals, glorious emperors, wise ministers, all of whom struggle against traitorous opposing forces – Farewell My Concubine and Hua Mulan, to name 2 we have studied). This was thought of as a lower art form than wenxi (civil plays) because so much of the action was imitation combat, acrobatics and the like. It is played mainy by wusheng 武生, which is the class of apprenctices, who must fist train as acrobat-athletes for the combat scenes (a means of testing their stamina).

But forms of Opera both hard as hell to “modernize” or render as hybrid Western/modern. Meaning rescore and rechoreograph such that a Broadway or Soho audience could “get it”, be glued to their seats by (just) watching or listening, without having to endure garbled tutelage from the producer. And without having to recruit audiences by “star”-studding, something that ended with Mei Lanfang’s tours.

The musical is also (or even mainly) about the revival of the career of Huang Doudou, quondam star of the Shanghai Ballet, who has staggered from hit to non-hit as a star player in the world of wushu – tumbling, gynmnastics. appurtenances of the Wuxi. (His Hua Mulan was a flop). The drama of this very short piece rests in whether or not his troupe can rescue the form from its relegation as bottom-level pure show, disappearance on hand. And even more on whether, as tghe junior of the “three musketeers” among the apprentices, and loser in love, he can somehow find the way back to or even create dr nobo something even better.

Well, while we weren’t looking.

November, 2011, 2 Beijing performances only, the rest in Taiyuan (?), the Shanxi Provincial “Opera” Company, not even recorded for CCTV (that I know of)

A 1-hr plus Broadway style adaptation of the “show” that actually works.
The “libretto” by Lilian Lee, who 18 years earlier had made it to the silver screen with the same subject, in Bawang bieji (Farewell my Concubine, see my earlier posts and the “sword dance”), but managed to keep audiences coming only by studiously AVOIDING anything but the shortest take of genuine or even derivative performance. In fact, hardly any “opera” at all, just backstage stuff and back-back-stage political hackery about the Cultural Revolution.

The trick (isn’t it obvious from Maurice Bejart’s In the Mood for Love (2008), a take on Shanghai stage art in the 30s via Zhou Xuan) that scoring it as a musical, with dance featured, was the solution?

Well it is. Or rather was: no invite came from abroad. Not exotic or esoteric enough?

Mulan (2010) as “Music/Dance/Drama”: a not-Musical

Poster for 2010 Version

An oddly named performance. 音乐舞剧 Yinyuewuju. MUSICAL WITH DANCE? Or (more baffling still) 大型原创歌舞剧 Daxing yuanchuang gewuju. ORIGINAL GRAND-SHOW CABARET DRAMA? More cerebral language than one usually sees on tickets. Only “East is Red” seems to have had need of this sort of lego set nomenclature: “Grand Scale” + “in-Music” + “Historical Epic”. And anyway don’t musicals (yinyueju) by definition come WITH DANCE – a legacy of the cabaret from which they sprang? (as opposed to operetta, which comes without…).

Some parsing is easy. There already had been mounted (2008?) a Mulan show categorized as yinyueju (lit. Musical); and of course the Mulan story whether on stage or in film/animation, had become almost too often “told”, becoming a kind of same old same old after the Disney corruption. So that
“original” is perhaps they key word: this is NOT just a redo. The odd insertion (redundancy?) of “dance” alerts us to the feature role of Huang Doudou, known (by now somewhat incorrectly) as a choreographer. And the “grand-scale” alerts us to a jammed jammed stage and overpowering lighting.

Yet it is still a coy self-descriptive: to exploit that hoary paradox universal in Chinese poetics: “It is music and not yet (what we know as) music”; it is dance but not yet dance; it is drama but not at the same time drama”.

Meaning in more concrete terms it is a SPECTACULAR, in the manner of a Las Vegas or Lido “show”: a meager array of solo songs (souvenirs, almost orphans, and only 2 singers); weak instrumental back up (a drum and synthesizer “continuo”); much too much background ambient sound; mind-shattering non-stop freeform martial dance overlit in primary color, disco-like, but not choreography; and storyline trajectory yet one without dialogue. Why all so self-undercut? Why so much excess? So overdone and sustained, unrelieved, unmitigated, that one loses interest even before midway? (If that far).

The King of Chu bids Farewell – and Moves to Hong Kong (Bawang Bieji, 1993)


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Note to readers: the essay extends an earlier of Oct 12 essay “Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?”. But it is a second go: spurred by the of the ever renewing interest in the suicide of 张国荣 … Continue reading

Red Lanterns Raised, Singers Hung, Ghosts Rampant


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Introduction. “Hang High the Red Lanterns”. 1991. Zhang Yimou, dir. We all have seen the film, a few the 2003 ballet, probably fewer still worked our way through the original (Chinese-langage) novella by 苏童 妻妾成群 “Wife and Concubines in Contest” … Continue reading