The Orphan of Zhao；《赵氏孤儿》
The Orphan of Zhao – Ten Productions/ Ten Projections of China
This exhibition considers ten productions of The Orphan of Zhao which were created by practitioners from three countries – China, Korea and Britain – and span a range of theatrical genres: Chinese regional operas; Chinese spoken drama, Chinese opera in the Western style; as well as the recent English-language dramatization by the Royal Shakespeare Company. These diverse productions not only retell an ancient story of an orphan in China, but also enlighten us about the intriguing fluidity and continuity of human culture.
Historical records present contradictory accounts of the Zhao orphan. The earliest surviving source, Zuo’s Commentary (compiled around 450 BC), indicates the orphan was born circa 583 BC during the Spring-Autumn Period (722-481 BC) – a time when the power of the imperial institution was being eroded by the growth of numerous aristocratic-family-states. In this account the orphan’s mother, the Jin ruler’s sister, was revealed to have had an illicit relationship with her uncle-in-law and she reacted by accusing the rest of the Zhao clan of plotting a rebellion. The entire Zhao clan was executed apart from the mother and the orphan, who were taken into the care of her brother, the ruler. Subsequently, the dying ruler decided to rehabilitate the Zhao orphan.
A broadly similar account is found some four centuries later in the chapter ‘The Jin Clan’ in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Elsewhere in the same work, by contrast, the chapter ‘The Zhao Clan’ presents the history rather differently. While the ending accords with Zuo’s Commentary there is no longer any mention of the infidelity of the orphan’s mother. Instead, the cold-blooded massacre of the Zhao clan is schemed by courtier Tu’an Gu. The two heroes who protect the orphan, Cheng Ying and Gongsun Chujiu, appear for the first time, and scholars speculate that the historian Sima Qian introduced these two heroes from contemporary folk tales as exemplars of loyalty, the most important of all duties in the Confucian code. Centuries of scholarly debate, however, have failed to resolve the mystery of why Sima should have written such conflicting narratives in two chapters of his Records.
The extant full-length play about the orphan of Zhao is Ji Junxiang’s great tragedy Wrongs Avenged by the Orphan of Zhao, written in the Yuan dynasty when China was ruled by the Mongols (1206-1368), and ‘The Zhao Clan’ in Records of the Grand Historian was evidently the chief source for this play. Since then, generations of writers and artists within and beyond China (including Voltaire, Goethe, Metastasio, Arthur Murphy, James Fenton and Gregory Doran) have quarried characters and stories from the Yuan play to create their own work.
Most productions in this exhibition are based on Ji’s tragedy, yet the artists’ words reveal how individual work formulates its own interpretation of that piece of history and the character of the orphan of Zhao. More importantly, they also illustrate theatre practitioners’ understanding of China and what ‘Chineseness’ means in the contemporary world.
This exhibition exemplifies the essential theme of our international research network project Performing China on the Global Stage, which will evolve to its second phase ‘Staging China’ after this symposium. We invite theatre researchers and practitioners to work together, challenging the existing models and methodologies of how to examine intra/inter/cross-cultural theatres. We believe that theatre is an important part of culture, as a form of ‘soft power’ (Nye 2004). In addition to presenting China’s image to different regions in the country and the outside world, it is capable of shaping people’s perception of Chinese culture.
Let’s explore this fascinating theatre world together.