The Orphan of Zhao (Zhaoshi guer)
Genre: huaju (modern spoken drama)
Produced by Beijing People’s Art Theatre, 2003
Playwright: Jin Haishu
Director: Lin Zhaohua
Stage and Lighting Designer: Yi Liming
Costume Designer: Cheng Shuyi
Music and Sound Designer: Zhang Jian
Performers: Pu Cunxin, He Bing, Li Shilong, Xu Fan
The Orphan of Zhao is a play based on historical records. [Link to the Exhibition] 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.
This clip is taken from the production by Beijing People’s Art Theatre, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain. [LINK http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/Festival/143211.htm] Established by the leading dramatist Cao Yu and his colleagues, in 1952, the theatre has produced over 300 plays over the past 60 years and established BPAT’s own style.
The director of this huaju production is Lin Zhaohua (1936- ), [LINK: Staging China Book chapter 2] one of the most controversial contemporary directors in the Chinese theatre. His experimental theatre work in the 1980s (see huaju), with Nobel Literature Prize winner Gao Xingjian [external LINK Gao Xingjian] has been regarded as the most important “revolution” in the modern spoken drama realm, because their series of productions overthrew the orthodoxy about “what is theatre and what theatre should look like”.
Again, among differing productions of The Orphan of Zhao, his was the most controversial because the work turned archetypal heroism ironically into a critique on “loyalty”. In this production, the orphan refuses Cheng Ying’s request for taking revenge on Tu’an Gu. He cannot understand why Cheng Ying has given up his own son for him; he is also grateful to his foster father Tu’an. Furthermore, the young man feels no responsibility towards his family or those who have rescued him. “No matter how many people died, they are nothing to do with me,” he cries out. The clip clearly shows the gaps between two generations over life, values and morality. Viewers can also see the beautiful set made of 40,000 orange-red bricks.
Images and the video are courtesy of Beijing People’s Art Theatre.