Siyuan, we need a map to show where the genres are popular in the geographical sense.
The Orphan of Zhao (Zhaoshi guer)
Produced by Shanghai Yueju Theatre, 2005
Playwright: Yu Qingfeng
Director: Wang Xiaoying
Performers: Zhao Zhigang, He Ying, Sun Zhijun, Xu Jie, Qi Chunlei
Introduction to one of the main works in the Pilot:
We use act 4 of the yueju version of The Orphan of Zhao as one of the main works in the pilot; the performance is bilingually subtitled. There are also more accompanied documents including programmes and critical essays.
About the genre
Yueju, also called shaoxingxi, is a regional genre in the xiqu form, specifically popular in Shanghai, and in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. Yet there are yueju companies in other provinces too.
In about 1906, the tea-picking songs in the Shengxian area in Zhejiang were developing into a simple theatrical form by some local troupes. In 1916, some actors went to Shanghai to perform the new genre. The urban competitive environment made actors quickly start absorbing singing melodies from a much older Zhejiang local theatre called shaoju, which had an origin back to the 17th century with a big variety of roots in different musical systems, and learning from jingju’s movements and its division role types. The visual aspects of yueju including costumes, makeup and the scenery were also influenced by the Shanghai cosmopolitan life style. In the early 1920s, all female casting started and replaced the earlier all male or mixed cast members. After 1949, the central government advocated the mixed casting system, male actors were trained, and it was not until after the Cultural Revolution [LINK External] that all female casting companies re-emerged. Yueju today is performed by either a mixed or an all-female cast. The protagonist Cheng Ying in this production was performed by Zhao Zhigang, a male performer, yet his style of singing and acting follows the Yin School, established by actress Yin Guifang for the yueju sheng role type.
Yueju’s role type of category follows jingju’s. Its music and arias are gentle and soft, yet comparing to the melodious kunju [LINK kunju] the pace is faster and the lyrics are easy to follow. It is good at telling romantic stories without much display of acrobatics or martial arts, and thus most of the traditional repertoire is set around the role types of young scholar and young female roles. The most famous actors are also specialized in these two role types.
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.
The choice to use act 4 in the Pilot was made by the playwright Yu Qingfeng, because in his mind Cheng Ying was never a hero, but a “normal man”. Yu described Cheng as an ordinary doctor; he loved his wife and the newly born baby dearly. This act showed how he decided to sacrifice his own son for the orphan of Zhao, and how his wife finally gave the husband her consent. Gongsun Chujiu, the retired minister, insisted that he should die with the baby because the Chengs were still young enough to possibly have another child …
This 21st century’s yueju production interprets Cheng Ying not as a man abandoning life, nor is he reckless in desperation. Having witnessed the brutal death of both old Gongsun and his own child, Cheng bravely chooses a long-suffering path of raising the orphan for 16 years, despite being cursed and reviled by people who are unaware of the truth. Indeed, this is a play about human beings, their feelings and sufferings.
In addition to act 4, there is also a trailer of the production that the Hangzhou Municipal Media Group and the Shanghai Yueju Theatre made for the Leeds international symposium Performing China on the Global Stage, held in March 2013.
Images and the video are courtesy of the Shanghai Yueju Theatre and the Hangzhou Municipal Media Group.