The Orphan of Zhao is a play based on historical records. The orphan was born circa 583 BC during the Spring-Autumn Period – a time when imperial power was being eroded by the growth of numerous aristocratic-family-states. Appalled by the chaos and bloodshed, philosophers such as Confucius (551-479 BC) acted as advisors to rulers on how to control their states and people.
Historical records present contradictory accounts of the story. Most versions of different theatrical genres and films we see now are based on the extant full-length tragedy Wrongs Avenged by the Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang, written in the Yuan dynasty when China was ruled by the Mongols (1279-1368 AD).
The basic story is as follows: schemed by the evil courtier Tu’an Gu, the Zhao clan were all killed except for the Princess who was the Jin Ruler’s sister and was pregnant. After the baby was born, he was smuggled out by a doctor called Cheng Ying. Having realized that the baby boy had escaped, Tu’an Gu gave the order to kill all the newly born boys in the country. Finally, Cheng Ying decided to give up his own child for the Zhao orphan. Meanwhile Cheng Ying and his friend, a retired minister Gongsun Chujiu made a plan. Cheng would report to Tu’an about Gongsun who had the Zhao orphan in his house. Actually the real Zhao orphan was hidden in the deep mountain while Cheng’s own baby son was with Gongsun. Tu’an killed both Gongsun and the child. In order to reward Cheng Ying as a loyal reporter, Tu’an took both Cheng Ying and his son (but actually Zhao’s offspring) to his house and Tu’an made himself the foster father of the boy.16 years later, Cheng Ying revealed the true story to the young man. The orphan of Zhao took the revenge on Tu’an, for his parents, grandparents, his clan and for Cheng Ying. In order to rescue this orphan many people died.
This is an archetypal Chinese story of loyalty, honesty, sacrifice, friendship, evil, revenge, bravery, and justice.
The hubei huaguxi clip is a special piece that the Hubei Provincial Huaguxi Research Institute made for the Leeds international symposium Performing China on the Global Stage, held in March 2013. It shows the full last scene of the production: Cheng Ying and his wife come to Gongsun Chujiu’s tomb to say goodbye. They have returned the grown-up orphan of Zhao to his Princess mother, refused any reward from the court, and have decided to leave the palace. The young man comes to beg the couple to stay, but they are determined to leave. They want a quiet space to mourn their own son whom they sacrificed for rescuing the orphan of Zhao.
Images and the video are courtesy of Hubei Provincial Experimental Huaguxi Theatre & Hubei Provincial Huaguxi Research Institute.