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The Soul of Beijing OperaTheatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World$

Ruru Li

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9789622099944

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789622099944.001.0001

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Yan Qinggu —

Yan Qinggu —

Staging the Ugly and the Beautiful in the Millennium

(p.188) (p.189) 6 Yan Qinggu —
The Soul of Beijing Opera

Eugenio Barba

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses how jingju coped with a shrinking audience and a fast-changing world since China adopted its open-door policy and started its economic reforms. It describes the comic character Chou in jingju. It further explains that the role's trademark make-up is a white patch on the nose/eye area, and is called “small flowery face” (xiao hualian) as distinct from the “big flowery face” of the jing role. It notes that chou is often associated with the ugly and grotesque, which means it has “something in common with comic figures right across the world”.

Keywords:   jingju, China, comic character, chou, small flowery face, xiao hualian, big flowery face, jing role

Time: Since the 1980s.

Location: Shanghai.

Principal subject: Yan Qinggu (1970– ).

Role type: Chou.

Main issues: How to cope with a shrinking audience and a fast-changing world since China adopted its open-door policy and started its economic reforms.

Chou is the comic character in jingju. The role’s trademark make-up is a white patch on the nose/eye area, and it is called “small flowery face” (xiao hualian) as distinct from the “big flowery face” of the jing role (cf. chapter 5). Chou is often associated with the ugly and grotesque, which means it has “something in common with comic figures right across the world” (McCormick 2007, iv). In this volume, the words chou and “clown” are used interchangeably. However, unlike the clown in the West, which “primarily evokes the circus clown, complete with a red nose, a grotesque costume and movements, and a series of routines that might be regarded as vulgar or even unacceptable in everyday life” (iii), the chou is a unique role type in jingju. Not necessarily a fool, he may be serious and well educated, either a hero or a villain. Ashley Thorpe comments that the role “can be threatening and dangerous, ironic and satirical, while also sensitive and touching” (2007, 6). The chou not only entertains audiences with slapstick-type routines like Western clowns do, but commands the four essential skills of singing, speaking, dance-acting and combat, following the jingju aesthetic value of mei or beauty. For example, no matter how grotesque his display is, all his movements are based on the principles of “beautiful” roundness and balance, while his speech and song demand a clear diction. On the same basis, no low farcical tricks of the kind that Western clowns tend to use, such as thunderous eructation or breaking of wind, can be found in chou acting.

(p.190) The chou role is placed last in the hierarchy of jingju role categories. This minor position in the system shows the bias the traditional theatre has had towards its social function since ancient times. Orthodox Confucianism regarded theatre as xiaodao (a petty way of making a living), serving up mere entertainment for all classes of people from the palace to the lowliest labourers. Yet, at the same time, the theatre’s educational purpose was emphasized by imperial rulers and by professionals, especially playwrights. Although the didactic function was weakened when huabu or popular theatre appeared (cf. chapter 1), in adaptations of classical plays the theme of moral education still existed. The chou role, conventionally used to entertain audiences with jokes, could hardly fulfil such a task. The Origin defines a chou as ugly because he “makes impromptu comic gestures and remarks, and gives ugly [grotesque] performances” (Huang Fanchuo, 9:1). In long-form Chinese writing, the characters for the role type chou and the adjective “ugly” (chou) are different, but they were merged when the simplified forms were invented and the two meanings now use the same character. Very few full-length plays in the traditional jingju repertoire use a clown as a protagonist, while in variety shows it is rare to arrange a play centred on the chou as the final piece in the programme.1 Nonetheless, the jingju proverb says “Without the chou there would be no theatre” because his comic movements and humorous speeches function as “lubricating oil in the machine” (Ding Bingsui 1995, 286). In the traditional jingju repertoire, there is a large category called san xiao xi (theatre of three smalls), consisting of light-hearted comedies focusing on a xiaosheng (young scholar) and a xiaodan (a subtype of the huadan role), with a xiao hualian (the chou) as the supporting role.

Despite its low rank in the role categorization, the chou occupied a special position in theatre troupes in the old days, and this was associated with its historical background. Acting in China seems to have started from the court jester (you), the ancestor of the modern chou. You soon evolved into a word meaning “actor”.2 The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (c. 145–90 BC) contains a chapter on jesters, and mentions in particular You Meng (Actor Meng) who was supposed to have been a jester performing music and humorous skits for the King Zhuang of Chu (r. 613–591 BC) during the Spring and Autumn period and was noted for his talent as an impersonator. Meng had a double duty of entertaining the emperor and criticizing officials3 since, like court jesters around the world as described by Beatrice Otto (p.191) (2001), he was accorded a unique licence to speak freely. Sima Qian extolled the jester’s sharp tongue and his mimetic skills (c. 109–91 BC/1972, 10:3197–214). The term “Actor Meng in costume” is thus used to refer to the acting profession or the embryo of the Chinese theatre. The status that the clown formerly enjoyed can also be attributed to the Xuanzong Emperor, who was respected for having establishing the Pear Garden (cf. chapter 1). An anecdote relates that the emperor himself acted chou roles on the stage to satisfy his craze for theatre. For such reasons, a chou enjoyed special privileges: he was permitted to sit on any of the costume trunks backstage, and no actor was allowed to apply make-up before him.4 However, as the indigenous theatre developed into a synthesized form that paid more attention to song and dance, the singing role types of sheng and dan gradually supplanted the comic figure as the leading roles most suited to expressing what playwrights wanted to convey.

Although the chou role is defined as ugly, the role demands beauty (mei), like every type on the jingju stage.5 This dialectic quality informs the chou’s performance art and his facial make-up patterns.

Sub-Types of the Chou and Their Facial Patterns

The performance art of the jingju clown is decided by its sub-types, which can be broadly divided into “civilian” (wen) and “military” (wu) groups.6 As seen in chapter 1, “civilian” in this context means “less acrobatics but more singing skills demanded”. A wenchou is expected to play scholars, officials, aristocrats, working commoners, old men or sometimes teenagers. He can also play comic female roles like a marriage go-between, a maid, or a silly and ugly mistress of a rich family (a contrast to the pretty and clever heroine).7 Sometimes a clown speaks in the dialect (p.192) of Suzhou, the area where the kun theatre originated — yet another reminder of jingju’s roots in that older genre. With regard to the martial group, a wuchou is expected to display combat with weapons and acrobatics, and many characters played by the martial clown in the traditional repertoire are bandits or thieves.8

Both sub-types follow Actor Meng’s tradition in improvisation. Huang Dianqi remarks that a chou actor was given licence to depart from the script not only to make sarcastic comments on current affairs but also to play tricks on his colleagues (2002, 180). Local jests and spontaneous quips were important for a chou actor, although this was not without risk: there are anecdotes in jingju circles about clowns who were beaten up or arrested for making jokes that offended the authorities or the local despots. After 1949, the improvisation in the chou role was largely lost for two reasons. Ideologically, it was dangerous to make political jokes under a totalitarian regime. Artistically, impromptu quips conflicted with the idea that jingju should pay more attention to its written text — as seen previously, this originated from criticism by May Fourth radicals of the genre’s low literary quality. The formalization of the genre and “purification of the stage” were reinforced when direction was introduced to jingju in the late 1950s. However, in the more relaxed political atmosphere of recent years, practitioners are keen to restore tradition, and improvisation by the chou has made a gradual comeback. After learning some general rules from tutors, a clown develops his improvisatory skills “through performance experience”, as Ashley Thorpe observes (2005, 22:2:285).

For the chou role, speech is more important than singing, a characteristic traditionally explained with reference to Actor Meng’s quick tongue. In jingju, the chou speaks using a natural voice (with occasional falsetto to inject a funny stress in a line), and tends to use more colloquial speech than heightened speech. However, “colloquial speech” does not mean a jingju clown can speak as in everyday life since, for example, the tones he uses, though following those in the Beijing dialect, are dramatically exaggerated. In many ways, adopting colloquial speech is more difficult than giving heightened declaration because, first, the former is less exaggerated in its rise and fall of the sound of syllables and therefore has less musical support, and, second, audiences expect to understand every word, and therefore they are more critical than when they listen to heightened speech. The beauty of the chou’s spoken delivery lies in his powerful and rhythmic pronunciation and enunciation. According to Xiao Changhua, a renowned chou actor, this depends on the energy he uses:

(p.193) Energy is the energy when you are speaking lines, which includes lightness, heaviness, the strong and the weak, the rising and dipping of the manner of speaking, and pitch. If you master it well, you will achieve so-called musicality…On the stage, speaking needs to be clear in rhythm and right in the tone of voice. Depending on the emotional change, there will be ups and downs, the stronger the emotions, the clearer the rhythm. From the rhythm, you can make audiences detect the changes in emotion.

(1980, 89)

No matter how fast the chou speaks, audiences should be able to hear every syllable clearly. Thus speaking becomes one of the most important parts of chou training, including the variety in pitch, tempo, volume and timing. Jingju clowns sing occasionally, and for the sake of comic effect they often use the style of “mixture” whereby tunes from folk songs or other genres are inserted incongruously amid the jingju xipi or erhuang modes. They can also humorously mimic nuances of the singing style of a particular acting school or performances.

The jingju clown is physically special too. An over-simplified comparison between a chou and a jing may help us see this more easily. Ma Yongan (cf. chapter 5) once commented that when he played a painted-face role he would always show his hand with its fingers stretched straight and separate from each other, because this would make his hand look bigger and therefore more powerful. The same principle applies to the jing’s other movements. By contrast, a clown always tries to make himself smaller and lighter. Consequently, a chou never stands with his legs straight. As seen in the training chapter, acting from the kun theatre onwards has emphasized the “straight legs” on the stage, but this does not apply to the chou. Instead, a jingju clown is expected to have “bent knees with a straight back (yao)”. Yan Qinggu, our principal chou actor, uses “a pointing foot” to explain a martial clown’s standing position and steps:

Feet are in the T position, and the heel of the front foot is raised while the toes point to the ground. The body’s weight is all on the foot and leg behind. When standing in the T position, the knees should be bent and the yao should be straight. Thus, the clown looks short, nimble, alert and resourceful.

(2000, 247)

Bending knees with a straight back is the posture a chou assumes all the time, even when moving, turning or doing difficult acrobatics.

Both sub-types of the chou have the white patch on their nose/eye area, yet the shape, size and patterns are different. In 1996, Zhang Jinliang (1920– ), a famous jingju civilian chou, published a book of a hundred facial patterns that he had painted. Of the facial make-up discussed inside and outside China, attention usually goes to the jing; however, the chou’s patterns are also an important part of the painted-face heritage. The first point to note is that, compared with the jing’s (p.194) make-up, the chou’s face is “smaller”, and the white patches in the centre of the face can be square, round, triangular or diamond-shaped. (The round shape is usually used for teenagers or good-natured comic roles.) Second, the chou’s patterns are much simpler and mainly use white and black, sometimes with faded red to line the patch. Third, the chou’s patterns are more illustrative. For example, the facial pattern of Lou the Rat, a thief in Fifteen Strings of Cash, depicts a white-coloured rat running downward on his nose (replacing the normal patch) to symbolize the character’s profession as a thief and his wickedness. Bai Sheng, who gained his nickname Bairi Shu (Daylight Rat) through his fast combat skills, is a good-hearted and heroic bandit in Water Margin, and he has an upwardly climbing rat on his nose to illustrate his nickname and to show his upright “moral integrity” (Weng Ouhong in Zhang Jinliang 1996, 5).

Ostensibly, the role types and the facial patterns remain the same in today’s jingju. Yet, as we have seen in previous chapters, numerous aspects of playwriting, acting, singing, make-up, costume and stage design have evolved in response to the fast-changing world, and the performance art of a twenty-first-century chou has inevitably modified too. The following analysis of the chou actor Yan Qinggu and his productions will reflect contemporary attitudes and the interactive dynamics between performers, performance and society. The period is characterized by the open-door policy and economic reforms launched by the current government in 1979, following the decisions of the Third Plenum of the Tenth Congress of the CCP.

A General Survey of the Social and Economic Impact of the Reform Period on Jingju Performers and Audiences

Today, Communist ideology is combined with the market and money. The government-controlled media probably best illustrate the situation. The People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Party, now owns a media conglomerate publishing twelve newspapers and six magazines, over a quarter of which focus on financial news. The People’s Daily itself carries columns about shares and the stock market,9 alongside the speeches and writings of Hu Jintao and other Party and state leaders, and reports on Communist model workers and features on the construction of socialist (p.195) spiritual-civilization.10 The dual-track system of “the market economy base and the communist ideological superstructure”11 — or, in euphemistic shorthand, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Deng Xiaoping 1984) — has caused much confusion, conflict and resentment. Like the Theatre Reform launched in the 1950s, the impact of the economic reforms has penetrated every corner of the arts, influencing individual performers and turning the world of the theatre upside down. Nonetheless, there are two essential differences between the two periods.

Firstly, the government’s intentions are different. In the 1950s, the authorities forced the theatre to cut itself off from the market. This especially affected jingju, because it had had a prosperous commercial network all over China. The abolition of jingli ke discussed in chapter 4 exemplifies the situation. Theatre was dragged into the Communist ideological sphere. No longer merely entertainment, it performed an ideological function, and began to receive generous subsidies from the state. Thirty years later, the economic-reform policy threw the theatre back to the market and the state subsidies were drastically cut;12 meanwhile, the Party’s open-door policy allowed more artistic forms and popular entertainment (often Western inspired) to be seen in China. Unfortunately, the theatre had by then become impotent in dealing with the competitive commercial world, and thus every theatre company had to learn from scratch how to compete with the new forms of entertainment and how to adapt itself to the fast-changing culture affected by rapid globalization.

Secondly, audiences are different. In the 1950s, spectators throughout China were crying out for more performances and for more of their favourite plays to be staged. By contrast, following a brief period when both the traditional repertoire and newly written experimental works flourished in the aftermath of the Cultural (p.196) Revolution, the urban audience for the indigenous theatre has aged and declined since the mid-1980s.13

My interviewees from the Shanghai Jingju Theatre (SJT) confided that sometimes only 20 percent of the tickets for their performances were sold.14 Yan Qinggu said bitterly:

As a chou, I communicate with the audience directly. The best area to position my eyes is rows four to ten in the stalls. However, these seats are often empty. Our loyal audiences are those who have retired, or those who have attended our workshops and have become interested in jingju. However, they can only afford the cheapest tickets and therefore they sit at the sides or at the back of the dress circle.15 OK, I change my way of acting in order to talk to them. But if I try to face one side of the audience, I would have to ignore the other side. In addition, I can’t always offer audiences my profile or the side of my body. Isn’t it ridiculous!16

Shi Yihong, a star dan actress in her thirties, was even more explicit:

I wish I could go back to the 1950s. Yes, we were told that there was strict control of the theatre, but there were audiences. Nowadays, we have some freedom and the funding needed for a new production is huge. We rehearse for days and nights, and sometimes even get injured practising new acrobatic tricks in order to please our audiences. But when we perform the auditorium is empty…I didn’t want to sing but to cry!17

The psychological state of actors on the stage is universally fragile and vulnerable; different Western acting theories and methods have tried to find ways to protect it, with Stanislavski perhaps doing the most outstanding work. Yet no existing (p.197) methodology can help a twenty-first-century jingju actor deal with a largely deserted auditorium. They have to find a way out themselves.

To everyone’s surprise, the productions that seem to be attracting bigger audiences are revivals of the model jingju of the Cultural Revolution. Li Lixing, chairman of the Union in the SJT, commented:

We were all amazed at the beginning, but when thinking about it more carefully we found the answer. People are familiar with these arias and lines. Most of our audiences grew up with these productions. Those who did not see them before are curious about the “model theatre” itself because everyone knows the background to it. They want to have a look themselves.18

What has happened to jingju and its audiences? Amongst the complex causes of shrinking audience numbers in the cities, two issues are most important to note because they are directly associated with the attempt that theatre companies and performers have made to deal with the problem.19 The first will be a specific feature of jingju appreciation, and the second is a cultural fad in today’s China.

As discussed earlier, jingju’s formation — which reshaped different styles of dialect, song, music and acting convention of a variety of pre-existent theatrical genres — has determined a special creative process for its performers. It has also affected how audiences approach a production. Jingju audiences need the ability to relate the here-and-now performance on the stage with their previously acquired knowledge of the genre including — for example, historical events or classical literature relevant to the plot or the lyrics, and acting conventions signalling the dramatic action or the characters’ inner feelings. In order to appreciate a performance, they need to understand that an actor carrying a stick wound round with heavy silk tassels is riding a horse; that the dance sequence qiba shows the general’s preparation for battle; and that Zhang Huizhu’s beautiful water-sleeve dances in Tears in the Barren Mountain demonstrate the heroine’s insanity. They also need to learn that a complicated acrobatic movement and a high-pitched lingering musical sentence might demonstrate a bad show-off because they fit neither the character nor the circumstances in the play. Aiming to judge an actor’s creativity and how the performing tradition has developed, the audience not only needs to recognize the particular style (pai) the actors perform but also the founding masters’ characteristics of the particular schools.

The appreciation of the Chinese song-dance theatre is different from how Western audiences appreciate a play or a musical. As Richard Schechner notes: “Almost all (p.198) Euro-American theatre prides itself on its popularity. What it asks its audience is not special knowledge but responsivity” (1985, 144). By contrast, in jingju (and in many other indigenous genres), audiences need to be real connoisseurs, otherwise they fail the performance. (This is a feature the traditional theatre shares with certain sports.) The ten years of the Cultural Revolution not only interrupted the performing art but also broke up the continuity of the audience. Many of the old fans who know how to appreciate jingju are dying or are too old to travel to the theatre, while the young or middle-aged would “have to make up lessons they missed in history and literature” before they could appreciate jingju productions (Chu 1997, 4).

The revival of revolutionary model works illustrates the issue from a different perspective. Forty years ago, the revolutionary model jingju was imposed on to the whole nation; in some cities, the authorities hired coaches to take their employees to see the model productions/films for the purpose of proletarian education. In rural areas, if peasants went to see a film based on a model work, they could sometimes gain a few “work points” to increase the income they would receive from the People’s Commune. At that time, watching or not watching a model work might be interpreted as reflecting a person’s political stance. Furthermore, model productions and their imitators were the only entertainment there was. When I was in the countryside, we would be happy to walk, carrying our own stools, for more than ten kilometres to see a model opera film in the open air. The revolutionary model jingju was also broadcast on radio all the time, and the omnipresent tweeters lodged the tunes in people’s heads. Even during its golden age, jingju had never enjoyed such all-China popularity because the country had never been in such a panoptical state. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, nobody would touch the model operas. Ba Jin (1904–2005), one of China’s most important twentieth-century writers, wrote in 1986 that hearing arias from the model jingju made his “hair stand on end” (1986, 5:125) because of their association with the ten chaotic years when, in recurrent nightmares, “these heroes of the ‘three prominences’ with hideously misshapen faces came to strangle me” (127). Many people shared his feelings. However, this aversion seems to have faded with the passing of time; what remain in people’s minds are the few beautifully composed arias, witty speeches, the excellent martial arts displays, and perhaps nostalgia for their youth. We should also note that only about six of the model and post-model works have been revived, and typically the revived pieces have less preaching and more revolutionary/legendary elements. Audiences today (exceeding the group of regular jingju fans) prefer these plays to the traditional repertoire or newly written scripts because they are familiar with them. Furthermore, speeches and arias in these productions use Mandarin while the stage conventions are less stylized and closer to everyday life — both features that encourage non-jingju audiences’ responsivity.

The second reason for the shrinking urban audience for jingju is that China has become a member of the global village since it drew back its “bamboo curtain” (p.199) after 1979. What happens outside can quickly be felt in China. Through translations, exhibitions, academic exchange visits, theatre and dance company tours, joint-venture enterprises, and particularly through internet links, China has received an unprecedented influx of information and influences from abroad. People are interested in trends in the developed countries in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia. “Synchronization with the external world” (again the idea of “world” is limited to the above areas) is the catchphrase, and thus not only Western pop culture but also the highbrow arts — including ballet, orchestral and chamber music, and Shakespeare staged by foreign companies — all compete with jingju for audiences. Spoken drama and foreign films in Shanghai and Beijing have done well too.20 The majority audiences in cities are young to middle-aged white-collar employees of foreign or joint-venture companies on high salaries. They see themselves as the social elite. To them, huaju, the modern drama, is trendier than jingju. Among the many reasons they cite, such as the comprehensibility, style of artistic expression and subject matter, one is that the huaju was originally imported from the West, and therefore it was invented for urban intellectuals to appreciate. Jingju is indigenous and old, belonging to the past. Wang Xiaofeng, the former editor of the monthly Chinese Jingju magazine commented: “They [young or middle-aged audiences] think that it [jingju] is something their grandpas and grandmas like, so they shouldn’t…Ask them if they’ve ever seen one, and they’ll say no” (Chu, 1997, 4).

Audiences are the market for a theatre company. Without audiences, how can Chinese indigenous theatres survive? 21 The SJT was one of the first few theatres to launch projects fostering new audiences. From the mid-1980s, they started sending productions to schools and universities, organizing workshops and seminars, as discussed in the prologue. Wang Wenzhang, president of the Chinese Academy of Arts, was hoping to use the internet to promote indigenous theatres, 22 but unfortunately many regional genres had already disappeared, leaving no audio-visual records. The scene described in the article “Can High-tech Save Ancient Operas?” (Sun Shangwu 2005, 2) is bleaker than my interview notes with the SJT people: in the late 1950s, there were 367 varieties of regional theatre all over China while by 2005 the number had dropped to 267. Li Yuru once groaned that she would not dare face senior actors (p.200) in the other world because so much valuable jingju repertoire had been lost in her generation.23

Yan Qinggu’s Perspective on the Predicament Facing Jingju

All these threats to jingju’s viability define the predicament confronting our fourth principal performer, Yan Qinggu (1970– ). After the most demanding seven-year training at the Shanghai Theatre School, Yan became a renowned jingju martial clown. Among the fifty students in his year, only ten have remained in the profession.24 The loss of so much of the traditional repertoire and acting conventions makes it difficult to be a good performer. Previous discussions on the genre’s formation and creative process point out that, without learning and mastering a large acting vocabulary from traditional plays, performers will find it difficult to be creative. Yan commented:

I was fascinated by Li Yuru’s article on The Drunken Imperial Concubine. She had seen the same play performed in so many different schools [pai], and through comparing other people’s styles and selecting what was the best for her she transformed the existing conventions, added in new elements, and worked out her own individual performance. For us, when we present a traditional play, we might have only studied one style of performance and have never seen others. Our minds have become narrower and narrower.25

Yan’s comments confirm the elderly professor’s worries related in the prologue, and highlight the serious problem of the fading tradition in today’s jingju, and in the indigenous theatre generally. Experienced actors who know a great range of the traditional repertoire, and have therefore mastered more acting conventions, are now few in number and usually too old to perform. Yan feels that today’s jingju lacks capable martial chou actors because very few senior performers are still available to teach and to demonstrate this role type (2000, 233). Of course, such a situation may occur in any performing tradition in any culture. However, the speed and scale of the decline in the Chinese indigenous theatre are directly attributable (p.201) to the Communist arts policy in which Mao’s “weeding out the old to bring forward the new” held absolute sway. The new still tends to be flavoured even today, and the money input to national prizes for theatrical productions is only to encourage new scripts. Chinese policy makers at the top seem not to understand that, in jingju (as well as in most indigenous theatres), only tradition can vitalize tradition and only codified conventions can create more re-encoded conventions, and then a newly created piece can be rich and vibrant. Or perhaps, even if they are aware of the genre’s nature, they do not respect it but violate it following Mao’s path of political expediency. In addition, ideology remains a major concern, although a wider range of themes is now permissible thanks to the present politically relaxed climate.26 A production that is in line with a contemporary propaganda theme is much more likely to win a prize.27

Despite the shrinking audience and the disappearance of the performance tradition, the new era, with a certain degree of political relaxation and rapid globalization, has also offered Yan great opportunities to do things that a traditional jingju actor could never have dreamed of. Yan recalled that the jingju research course he attended from 1996 to 2000 at the Academy of the Traditional Chinese Opera, and his year in Japan studying kyōgen, had broadened his horizons with respect to both the theatre and the world. The research course was experimental, and Yan was in the first group of students, made up of rising stars from all over China chosen through a strict selection process. They studied together for two months each year, covering a wide range of activities including practical master classes, literary criticism, English or Japanese, and weekly seminars on various subjects. For the remaining ten months of each year, they went back to work with their own theatre companies. Yan regarded this period as a turning point for his career. Not only did he enjoy every minute of the course, but he also became a formal disciple of Zhang Chunhua (1924– ), the martial chou whose performance of The Crossroads had fascinated audiences in China and abroad. Master Zhang later went through every play that Yan had learned or performed to put the finishing touch to this young man’s performance as a martial clown. Yan’s work with Zhang parallels Li Yuru’s experience with her master, the male dan Zhao Tongshan, after her graduation. The process is essential for making jingju stars because, when promising young actors achieve real knowledge of a repertoire, extra coaching on specific movements, gestures, arias, speeches or unique techniques from a particular school will help them perfect their acting skills and their understanding of the genre.

(p.202) It was through one of the workshops the Academy organized for its research students that Yan first encountered kyōgen. He was attracted by the genre’s simplicity and humour, which he found accorded with his jingju chou role.28 More importantly, he was astonished to hear from Conductor Izumi-ryū Nomura Manzō that the genre had many young fans in Japan. “I was puzzled,” Yan wrote. “How does this old theatre in Japan manage to attract today’s youth?…I wanted to find that out myself” (2004, 4:80). In 2001, he went to Kōbe as a self-funded research fellow working with Professor Itō Shigeru, an expert in noh theatre and kyōgen, in the Department of Humanities at the Kōbe College University. Itō arranged for him to go to Kyoto to study kyōgen with Mr. Shigeyama Masakuni, a performer of the Ōkura-ryū Shigeyama Sengorō family which had practised kyōgen for fourteen generations. Within a year, Yan studied two plays and performed at the Kitano tenmangū, a religious occasion at a famous Kyoto shrine (see Plate 6.1). His first performance was Bonsan, a twenty-minute mediaeval farce about an inexperienced thief whose passion for miniature landscapes tempts him to steal one from a mansion. For this show, three generations of the Shigeyama family came to help: Shigeyama Masakuni acted the antagonist, the owner of the mansion; the father Shigeyama Sengorō worked as a property man for the production in order to give Yan confidence on the stage; while the grandfather, Shigeyama Sensaku, a “Living National Treasure”, also attended the performance and arranged for a special announcement for the Chinese actor (Yan Qinggu 2004, 4:80). Yan recalled: “I heard audiences laugh when I ran off the stage while making an onomatopoetic noise of fsh.29 I knew they understood me and accepted me as a kyōgen actor” (81).

The study in Japan was tough and exciting. One particular difficulty Yan had was learning the Japanese lines. Kyōgen is an art of dialogues, and the scripts he studied were the Shigeyama family’s handwritten copies:

Even Japanese people find it difficult to read them, and I am a foreigner! Luckily I had the journey from Kōbe to Kyoto. On the train, I listened to the tape, imitating the pronunciation, tones and intonation; word by word and sentence by sentence. I was completely in the play all the time. For a whole month I was always speaking the lines, even walking in the street, and on many occasions people took me for a madman.

(Yang Qinggu weblog)

Yan’s year in Japan was indescribably productive; he studied a new theatre, met new people and learned about a new culture. The training in kyōgen speech (p.203) even helped him perform jingju, especially by improving his voice projection. After puberty, Yan’s voice had proved disappointing and had stopped him acting civilian chou plays that involve more songs and speeches. However, the method of chest register and the manner of articulation in kyōgen speech delivery, as well as its strict training, gave Yan an alternative way to project his voice. Returning to the jingju stage, Yan found his speaking skills and his voice greatly improved, and this enabled him to extend his acting scope to perform more civilian chou characters. Yan was also impressed by Japanese actors’ devotion to their careers. He commented:

Many kyōgen actors perform in other more popular entertainment forms like musicals or TV plays or even appear in advertisements, but they always put the title “Kyōgen actor” in front of their names. They have become famous in these forms and then they bring audiences back to their beloved old theatre kyōgen. Our jingju actors behave in a different way. When they become famous in other forms, they never want to come back to their roots. It’s money and fame, isn’t it?30

Yan Qinggu was greatly perturbed. In a country where the whole nation is buying and selling shares, how can we blame a jingju actor who wants to earn more money? Yet practitioners who decide to stay in the profession are to be admired. It is their work and their devotion that will keep jingju alive and relevant to the society it entertains in the twenty-first century.

Yan and the three performers discussed previously have many similarities. They all studied jingju conscientiously, bore the hardships of their physical training and worked hard, and as a result they all made special achievements in their performances. However, they led contrasting lives and had different sources of inspiration. For example, to Cheng Yanqiu, the newly arrived entertainment medium of cinema was an opportunity to learn, and the plots, characters and songs he found in films greatly influenced his newly written repertoire and aria music. Li Yuru felt the urgency of trying to preserve disappearing acting conventions, and employed private tutors to study classical Chinese and plays from the kun, yiyang and bangzi theatres. Ma Yongan’s experience was dominated by the revolutionary model theatre and The Azalea Mountain. He was thus more inspired by huaju and film acting, and claimed the two books that had the greatest impact on him were Stanislavski’s My Life in Art and Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. When neither could help him cope with the new environment in the 1980s and 1990s, he retired into Buddhism.

By comparison, Yan, a twenty-first-century jingju actor, is facing a more diversified world. On the one hand, the jingju acting tradition is dwindling; on the other, he has been able to see and do a greater variety of things than his predecessors. Through his study, running workshops and touring abroad, working (p.204) with practitioners from other genres and from other countries, and most significantly through his regularly updated internet blog, he is far better networked with the rest of the world and his perspective is therefore very different. Yan’s broadened horizon owes much to the Shanghai Jingju Theatre, where he has been working since his graduation, and to the Shanghai style (haipai) of staging jingju. Without the support of the Theatre, Yan would not have been able to engage in non-conventional jingju activities such as studying kyōgen in Japan or working with international dramatists on non-jingju productions. Yan’s creation in 2007 of Death of a Minor Official, a one-man show based on a short story by Anton Chekhov, was certainly encouraged by the SJT’s Shanghai style.

Shanghai and Beijing Styles of Jingju

As noted in chapter 1, in contrast to the orthodox Beijing style (jingpai) of the genre, the Shanghai style (haipai) represents a daringly innovative approach to established jingju themes and conventions. In the past, the division between the two styles was associated with the places where the actors were trained and the masters they followed. Under the headings “Shanghai” and “Beijing” styles, there are many performing schools, or pai. So far, this volume has focused entirely on Beijing-style performers; although Li Yuru started working in Shanghai in her twenties, her education and her artistic pursuit made her an actress of Beijing style.

Shanghai became the most important city for the genre outside of Beijing from the late nineteenth century onwards because all the stars were hyped by the burgeoning market-driven entertainment industry in this most cosmopolitan city. Tan Xinpei, Mei Lanfang, Xun Huisheng, Cheng Yanqiu, Zhou Xinfang (stage name Qilin Tong, a Shanghai-style jingju actor specialized in the singing sheng role) were merely a few on a long list. Similarly, both reformed jingju (by Wang Xiaonong and the Xia Brothers), and the jingju actresses first appeared in this coastal city (cf. chapters 1 and 4). All these factors contributed to the birth of the Shanghai style of jingju. Haipai was first used to define a style of painting but, around the 1890s, critics started applying it to describe jingju acting in Shanghai (Tian Gensheng 2005, 53). Both Beijing and Shanghai styles could stage the same traditional repertoire; the differences lay in their portrayal of characters, arrangement of scenes and ways of singing and speaking. The Shanghai style made alterations to the repertoire to “suit the local customs” (Ma Shaobo et al. 1999, 276). In other words, Shanghai style was more market-driven and audience-centred. Where newly written scripts were concerned, differences were more obvious. Apart from producing plays addressing politics and current affairs, as reformed jingju had, Shanghai style showed a willingness to expand forms by adopting non-jingju elements, including those from (p.205) stories, films and the newly appeared spoken drama.31 For example, influenced by the way that plots of popular stories were organized, Shanghai troupes created “plays in episodic instalments” in which each performance, as an entire story itself, had a cliff-hanger ending so that audiences would return for the next instalment. Equally important, the Shanghai style jingju often employed modern technology on the stage to create seemingly magical effects by “machine-operated stage scenery”. For example, fireworks and flying trapezes were used, and sometimes the stage was raised in its entirety like a drawbridge.32

At first, the term “Shanghai style” was applied in a derogatory way to refer to jingju performers who ingratiated themselves with audiences by showing off, ignoring the conventions or using new stage devices excessively. Gradually it became neutral, and now it possesses its literal geographical meaning as well as conveying an openness to embrace diverse elements and styles. The SJT, responding to the crisis caused by shrinking audiences, reduced state support and competition from new entertainment, has drawn more inspiration from the style33 and advocated it as its brand signature. Its self-initiated reform in administration, headhunting for top-rate actors and the adoption of innovative stage devices including dazzling lighting effects have all been attributed to its “Shanghai style” legacy (Wichmann-Walczak 2000, 44:4:96–119; Li Zhongcheng 1997, 22–24).

The SJT’s Shanghai style can be seen in the following discussion of two of Yan Qinggu’s productions: Stealing the Silver Jug, a traditional play centred on the jingju martial clown; and the new work, Death of a Minor Official. Without doubt, both of these are jingju productions, since Yan plays the traditional role type chou, having a white patch on his nose area (with certain alterations, according to his own facial shape and the characters in the plays) and displaying excellent combat skills that are conventionalized within the jingju tradition. Nevertheless, this millennium clown in the stylized theatre has taken account in his performances of the radically changed society and the spirit of the new century, an openness that Yan credits to the Shanghai style with which he has been surrounded through his career at the SJT.

(p.206) Stealing the Silver Jug

As previously discussed, a jingju clown usually plays a supporting role in productions. Only a handful of full-length jingju scripts employ the chou as protagonist, and even fewer make the martial role type the leading hero. Most of these military plays were recreated by the wuchou actor Ye Shengzhang (1912–66) in the 1920s and 1930s, on the basis of pieces from the traditional repertoire which had often been used as short martial art displays to begin a whole show. Among the martial comic role plays, the most famous are five that focus on stealing, one of which is Stealing the Silver Jug. In the 1950s Theatre Reform, these were condemned for “eulogizing theft” (Weng Ouhong 1986, 428) and, like many other traditional works, they all disappeared from the stage. For decades, only two short plays featuring the jingju martial clown were played: The Crossroads and Holding-up the Horse. Both were heavily revised during the 1950s — the former by Zhang Chunhua and Zhang Yunxi (1919–99, a male warrior actor) and the latter by Li Yuru and Sun Zhengyang (1931– ), a chou actor performing both civilian and martial plays34 — and are regarded as among the finest examples of the Reform. The revised Crossroads is the jingju work most likely to have been seen by Western audiences because its skilful combat and the scene of fighting in the dark (on a well-lit stage) not only overcome the language barrier to attract foreign audiences but also demonstrate jingju’s non-mimetic nature and its rich acting conventions. The essential difference between the original and the revised versions of Crossroads is the interpretation of the inn owner, acted by a martial clown. In the old version, he was a criminal who killed clients for money. In the revision, he is a good rebel who helps the poor and takes vengeance on the rich, a new archetype based on Mao Zedong’s teaching that old theatre “turned the people into the dregs of society” and the new theatre should “restore history to its true face” (cf. chapter 4). The fight between the inn owner and one of the heroes now arises from a comic misunderstanding, since both are attempting to protect the third hero. To accord with the change of interpretation, the facial make-up of the inn owner was altered. Formerly it had been a deformed shape, with the mouth and eyes askew. He also had rough whiskers, externalizing his character as a villain. The new face was symmetrical and more handsome.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, more of the traditional repertoire was revived, including the martial chou works. Yan Qinggu learned Silver Jug from his master Zhang Chunhua, the disciple of Ye Shengzhang. The thief in the play is Qiu Xiaoyi, who claims to be a “thief with conscience”. He has stolen a silver jug (p.207) from Marshal Yang’s house. However, when he hears that the old servant Zhang has been accused of the theft and has had to sell his daughter to compensate Yang, Qiu returns the silver jug and makes a confession to the Marshal. As a test of his ability as a thief, Qiu demonstrates that he can steal the jug again even when it is under continuous watch by Yang’s servants. Finally, in another development of the plot, Qiu helps Marshal Yang steal an important item from the enemy camp.

Qiu Xiaoyi is played by a martial chou who, as the term indicates, is good at acrobatics and martial arts. In jingju, there are striking differences between the combat movements of the martial clown and the male warrior roles. First, a martial clown moves with his legs bent and uses the “pointing foot” all the time. Second, the scale of his gestures is small and his movements are fast. The male warrior who wears armour costume and boots with high platforms is said to behave like a tiger, while the warrior in short costume (wearing special trousers, a jacket and fat-soled shoes) acts like a leopard. In the same vein, a martial clown moves fast like a cat which climbs, jumps, turns and catches its prey nimbly.35 This feature explains why the chou often acts thieves in the jingju repertoire.

During the interview, Yan Qinggu commented that, in studying Silver Jug from his Master Zhang, a famous reformer in jingju circles (Dong Weixian 1981, 308), he had learnt far more than merely becoming familiar with the play. It gave him the method for dealing with traditional work:

I was young and inexperienced at that time. Our generation is unlucky because much of the traditional repertoire has disappeared with the excellent senior actors. Master Zhang used Silver Jug as an example, showing me what his master Ye had done and what he himself did, and the reasons for these differences. In addition, he helped me adjust some of his own techniques and movements to make them specifically suitable for displaying my strengths. I learned what beautiful means to a clown actor: we are funny, but the funniness needs to be compatible with the character and the story, while our gestures and movements are crisp, light, fast and well-balanced.36

The alteration and addition of physical movements that the master and his disciple worked out together were based on two statements that Qiu Xiaoyi makes in the play: “All bandits call me ‘filying in the sky’” and “I’m a thief with conscience”.37 Sets of the quick somersaults and jumps at which Yan was adept were (p.208) added to display the thief’s “flying” ability in jumping on to the roof or over walls. The combat between Qiu and the two ruffians who forced the old servant Zhang to sell his daughter was altered. More complex co-ordinated action between the three was introduced, while the new sets were tinged with humour as Qiu Xiaoyi was not aiming to kill the ruffians but rather to teach them a lesson. As an actor, Yan felt that his audiences in Shanghai tended to like more light-hearted scenes.

The performance is thus a mixture of acrobatics, humorous display and quickwitted cleverness. A good example is the scene where Qiu Xiaoyi is required to prove his thieving skill to Marshal Yang. The silver jug is placed on the desk in the Marshal’s study watched by a servant (acted by another clown). On the stage there is a structure composed of two tables with a chair placed on top. The chair, about seven and half feet above the stage floor, represents the room’s roof beam and will serve to show Qiu’s flying ability: after jumping onto the two tables, Qiu performs a special handstand on the chair. In order to fulfil the test, Qiu first uses the end of a long rod to distract the servant who is vigilantly guarding the jug. There is about a nine-foot distance between Qiu on top of the chair and the servant. Qiu taps him on the shoulder and then takes off his cap, but the servant always comes back to his object before Qiu can manage to hook the jug. Qiu’s different tricks and the servant’s bafflement about what is happening create a brilliant comic effect. After three complicated failed attempts, Qiu changes his posture: latching himself on to the chair with one leg, and with the other leg keeping balance for his body, he lies horizontally along the top of the chair’s back, which is about four inches wide. He stretches his arms backwards and hooks the jug with the long rod while the servant goes to attend the Marshal’s call (see Plate 6.2). The final theft takes place within seconds:


  • Turning back to the desk shouts. Disappeared!
  • Marshal:

  • What?
  • Servant:

  • The silver jug!
  • Qiu Xiaoyi:

  • On the top of the beam. The silver jug is here!
  • Marshal:

  • Qiu Xiaoyi, come down!
  • Noiselessly, Qiu jumps down by making a backward somersault immediately followed by a forward roll; as he lands on the floor, he strikes a pose, kneeling and using both hands to hold the silver jug above his head. The extremely quiet body movement (the lightness demanded by a chou actor) reflects both the thief’s flying ability and Yan’s excellent acrobatic techniques.

    Recalling his experience of studying Silver Jug and performing it, Yan said:

    Through this play, I learned how tradition is developing and what jingju’s principle of “handing-down and carrying-on” means. I’m sure when I teach my student I will do what Zhang did to me. My (p.209) student’s abilities are bound to be different from mine and I will help him use his pluses. Unfortunately, not many traditional plays are left, and we must try our best to maintain and develop what we have now.38

    Practitioners who have given their lives to jingju, and are determined to stay with it, realize that the situation will not improve overnight. What they can do is maintain the traditional repertoire and try to develop a new one. Their determination is demonstrated in the SJT’s recent work, Death of a Minor Official, an adaptation of Chekhov’s early short story. Yan and his colleagues devised a thirty-minute show to express their understanding of the nineteenth-century Russian satire as well as their insights concerning today’s society. Influenced by the boldness of Shanghai style, practitioners used a foreign story to manipulate a stylized theatre. They were also hoping that, through this innovative piece, they might change the taste of their regular audiences and attract more people to their beloved jingju. After performing at the 2007 Asian Contemporary Theatre Festival, an occasion mainly for spoken drama organized by the Shanghai Spoken Drama Artistic Centre, Yan was excited because he was now reaching out to non-jingju audiences.

    Death of a Minor Official

    This one-man show was directed as well as performed by Yan Qinggu. Death of a Minor Official proved an exhilarating display of Yan’s skills as he spoke, sang, danced, acted and performed acrobatics for thirty minutes to reveal a minor official’s tragicomic misapprehensions about insulting a superior and losing his career — it is really a case of much ado about nothing, but absurdly he dies of it.

    The script39

    The play was written by Gong Xiaoxiong, a graduate in playwriting from the Academy of the Traditional Chinese Opera with an acting background in xiangju (the regional theatre of Hunan province). In Chekhov’s short story The Death of a Civil Servant, the protagonist, having accidentally sneezed on to a superior, frets obsessively over this social gaffe until his fatal collapse. Gong relocated the dramatic (p.210) action to Ming dynasty China and elaborated it into an absurd jingju script of a tragicomic character. Yu Danxin occupies the lowest rank in the county government: official of annals responsible for daily mail. This position has been invented for him in return for a favour he has done a high-ranking inspector who has been sent by the central government to deliver support to victims of natural calamities in the county. (When compiling the genealogy of the inspector’s family, Yu Danxin had cleverly amended the designation of the Inspector’s father from “grave robber” to “archaeologist”.) In the jingju play, the crucial sneeze takes place at a banquet held in the Inspector’s honour, where Yu is mortified that he has spattered the Inspector’s face. Instead of proceeding through the plot chronologically, as in Chekhov’s story, the jingju presents a blend of flashback and action. The sneeze has been pushed into the background, and the play opens with a sequence of delicate songs, speeches and mimic dialogues through which Yu narrates how he got his job and dreamed of being promoted in two or three years’ time, what happened at the banquet, how he was driven out by his wife who had forced him to go and apologize immediately, and his conflicting ideas about what he should do now. To add to Yu’s predicament, he fears that the apology he wrote to the Inspector may have been disastrously misconstrued. An educated Chinese with a penchant for flowery language, he had tried to show how sorry he was by offering exaggerated praise for the grand occasion and the lavish dishes of the banquet. From initial confidence that his pen, which had earned him his current official position, would help him surmount the embarrassing situation, Yu now despairs that the Inspector will read his missive as an accusation of corruption: local people are dying from hunger while the inspector indulges himself at a luxurious feast. Yu is frightened to death, since a sneeze is merely an impoliteness whereas criticism of a high-ranking official is dangerously political. Not only will he lose his career, he might easily be beheaded, and his whole family will be tainted with his crime.

    In his urgency to explain everything to the Inspector face to face, Yu dashes across rivers and streams, climbs up and runs down hills, scuttles along a winding path to avoid passers-by, and finally reaches the “Porridge Shed” in the town where the Inspector is distributing food supplies. However, a huge throng has gathered around the Inspector and Yu feels too embarrassed to apologize before the crowd. Eventually he summons up his courage and shouts out: “I’ve come to apologize! I’m here to beg your Excellency’s forgiveness!” But the only utterance he hears from the Inspector is the demand that those who have committed crimes should be executed. In desperation, Yu assumes that he has been condemned for criticizing his superiors — the most serious crime in the world — and he suddenly falls to the ground and dies. At the very end of the performance, it becomes clear that the Inspector was actually calling for some other person to be beheaded. Yu sits up and sighs: “I went through all that trouble, but he meant someone else. Oh, I’ve died for nothing.” However, he is already dead, so he lies down again.

    (p.211) Stage Presentation

    This is a beautiful and delicate piece of stage work. Learning from the simplicity of the kyōgen presentation, Yan’s directing and stage presentation seemed effortless, and the few small props that he used were well chosen and meaningful. The main decoration of the stage was a jingju official’s black gauze cap hanging down from the ceiling. The cap was significant: not only did it codify the title but it also externalized the inner feelings of Yu Danxin, the minor official. Most black gauze caps have a wing on each side, the precise shape of which indicates the rank or the personality of the official. Good-natured comic roles often wear round-shaped wings. These wings are also associated with a set of stage conventions. When an actor wears such a cap, he can use a head movement — especially the muscles around the ear — to make the wings move up and down or back and forward to express the character’s anxiety or excitement. Yan adapted this technique in the stage decoration. First, he exaggerated the round-shaped wings by making them look like huge coins on each side of the cap. Second, when Yu started worrying about his submitted apology one wing fell, and as he became more anxious the other wing also dropped. The whole cap fell to the floor when Yu died.

    Apart from a traditional stand signifying an official place on either side of the stage, the acting area was virtually empty, giving Yan space to display his skills of running in the second half of the show. A wonderful prop used by Yan was a huge modern magnifying glass attached to a cord around his neck. The incongruence of modern equipment and dynastic costume had comedic effect but also expressed different meanings. It signified Yu’s scholarly nature — most Chinese intellectuals wear glasses — yet through this lens everything became exaggerated, just as Yu enlarged his own troubles by mentally tormenting himself.

    Instead of sitting on the left side, the whole orchestra sat on the upper stage, which had been customary in jingju performance until about the 1920s. Three blinds were used to divide the acting area from the musicians. Before the performance started, the blinds were down completely, and the black gauze cap was hung in front of the middle one. On a loud noise of “Ah-choo”, Yu’s sneeze made before his entrance, the blinds were raised halfway, with the middle one drawn slightly higher. This broke up an otherwise featureless stage layout and made the orchestra visible to the audience, giving the impression of crowds that the plot required. Two of the musicians sitting in the orchestra spoke lines during the performance: one as the porter at the Inspector’s mansion, the other as the Inspector. Yu Danxin had a few exchanges with the porter when he tried to submit his apology, and the incongruity of dialogue between a character in Ming costume and a string-instrument player in a contemporary outfit, as well as between heightened speech and colloquial lines in the Yangzhou dialect,40 made the episode amusing.

    (p.212) In contrast to the simplicity of the set, the lighting was sophisticated, reflecting the Shanghai-style jingju using modern techniques. Yan’s view was that “when we have technical aids to assist our performances, we should make use of them”;41 he insisted that an exquisite presentation was a necessity for the twenty-first-century urban audience, and that modern techniques could help achieve it. Lighting in this production had several functions. First of all, it provided emphasis. Whenever there was an adjustment of the black gauze cap, a lighting change would direct the audience’s attention to it. The spotlight made some of the difficult and demanding physical skills more noticeable; it also highlighted the musician who acted the porter when he spoke to the protagonist. Second, it was symbolic; the contrasting and changing light externalized Yu Danxin’s changing mood efficiently. Third, it helped create different rhythms that were particularly useful for a solo performance (see Plate 6.3). The music enlivened the presentation. Jin Guoxian, the composer, elaborated the jingju musical patterns with the brisk tempo of southern folk melody. He also added three erhu and three sanxian string instruments to the orchestra and made the music richer and more pleasant while retaining its original simplicity.

    Jingju is an art of performers, and therefore the most satisfying part of this thirty-minute show was Yan Qinggu’s acting. Using the expressive skills of singing, speaking, dance-acting and acrobatics, Yan brought home to the audience the protagonist’s fast-changing mood and complex and contradictory feelings: his conceit at being an official; pride in his literary talents; his embarrassment at his misbehaviour at the banquet; and anxiety and fear of losing his position. The high point of the production was Yu’s journey to the Porridge Shed, when he is desperate to apologize to the inspector. He sang:

    • Hurrying, I am stumbling,
    • Anxious, I run bypassing the pool.
    • Avoiding the wide streets, I take the small alleys,
    • I am running all the time to get to the Porridge Shed quickly.
    • Hastily I barge my way through.
    • Speaks. Oh, there are such a big crowds surrounding His Excellency.
    • What can I do?
    • Sighs and sings. I have to wait for my chance to come.
    • Stealthily I follow the crowds,
    • I walk and stop, stop and walk, I play hide and seek.

    The above aria was sung accompanied by various dance sets. Using different steps, including the clown’s signature movement of crouching steps (aizi bu, scuttling forward quickly while crouched down on lifted-heels) and steps taken from puxian xi (another ancient song-dance theatre much influenced by puppetry, popular in the (p.213) Fujian area), together with water-sleeve movements (many of which were adapted from the dan role)42 and movements involving the hem of his gown, Yan danced out Yu Danxin’s difficult journey and his anxiety to see the Inspector.

    This work first took part in the 2007 Competition for Short Performances organized by the Shanghai Publicity Department and the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV.43 The stated aim of the Competition was “to consolidate the administration of the creative works in the arts and literature sector in the city, to enhance the creativity for original works, and to enrich the variety of programmes demanded by festivals and important occasions”.44 This statement illustrates cultural policy today. More space is to be given to creative works, yet they are well controlled. In addition, the artistic work is not intended for general audiences but rather for festivals and special occasions. After the local competition, Minor Official was selected as the Shanghai entrant for the National Short Play Competition in October, organized by the All-China Association of Dramatists. It won three awards: the National Theatre Award, Best Acting and Audience’s Most Favourite Actor.45

    As a spectator wrote in his weblog after seeing Yan’s performance on 26 August 2007, “it is a modern play in the real sense, although the character wore the traditional costume”.46 Minor Official is modern because, instead of telling people what to think, it invites audiences to ponder over a multifaceted contemporary reality. Through their own experiences, audiences could see the “vulgarity” that Chekhov attacked in his original short story, and how one bureaucratic culture travelled to another. They could also see how the jingju practitioners transformed the Russian “little man” (Pitcher 1998, 4) into a tragicomic figure of Chinese literati. The fear of losing his position and being looked down upon by his neighbours and his family placed immense pressure on every scholar to succeed in the imperial examinations. The same pressures arise in twenty-first-century society and lead to serious problems of students applying hi-tech methods to cheat in national exams (Xinhua News Agency (p.214) 2006). The grandeur of the Inspector’s banquet and the corruption that Yu described present an even more familiar story. However, all these ugly contemporary references were not stated explicitly but instead were woven into the beautifully presented comic farce, allowing audiences to choose what lessons they would draw. Even for a spectator who simply wanted to have a little escape from reality, the show offered the fine entertainment of the chou’s performance art.

    Yan Qinggu’s productions considered above exemplify the anxieties confronting jingju practitioners, as well as the efforts that they have made to cope with declining audiences and the fast-changing world. It brings the discussion about the genre in mainland China to an end, but also raises a series of questions. Is money absolutely decisive? Can modern technique rescue a dying theatrical tradition? Will jingju still be jingju in a few decades? The next two chapters will focus on performers in Taiwan who have lived and worked in a different society and therefore have had to respond to different demands in their own unique ways. Their performances will yield a new perspective.


    (1) In a variety show, star performers would perform the last or the penultimate performance. According to jingju history books, only Ye Shengzhang, a famous martial chou, organized his own troupe with himself as the top actor, and acted in the last play for variety shows. In order to match his position as the primary actor in the troupe, Ye created a number of plays using the martial clown as the protagonist.

    (2) A variety of words referring to actor are connected with you: youren, paiyou, youling and changyou. For more details, see Sun Chongtao and Xu Hongtu (1995) and Otto (2001).

    (3) He seemed to have started admonishing the emperor to improve various matters in the court, but very quickly he was only allowed to mock courtiers’ mistakes or behaviour.

    (4) Traditionally, there were no seats backstage. All jingju actors had to sit on costume trunks appropriate to their roles. The trunks were divided into costumes for civilian roles, martial roles and inner costumes or shoes/boots. There was also a trunk for hats, helmets and feather plumes. All the trunks were numbered. Each division was taken care of by specific costume dressers who helped actors put on and take off costumes and headdresses. The division of trunks and assistants has remained to this day.

    (5) Wang Chuansong, a celebrated chou actor, entitled his book on his stage experience as Beauty in the Ugliness.

    (6) Wen is also applied to those plays that focus on arias — wenxi — while wuxi refers to the plays full of combat displays. Again, the jingju orchestra is divided into wenchang (string and pipe instruments for accompanying arias) and wuchang (percussion). Ashley J Thorpe (2007) concentrates on the discussion of the chou role and its sub-types.

    (7) The clown in jingju is played by men. Occasionally, characters belonging to the chou role, especially matchmakers, can be acted by dan performers.

    (8) See appendix 2 for sub-types of the chou. Most books use kaikou tiao (open-mouth jump) as another term for the wuchou. Yan Qinggu does not agree. He thinks the open-mouth jump role is a sub-type within the martial clown who wears a different style of moustache and delivers speeches in a different style (2000, 234).

    (9) For example, on 9 July 2007, two articles were published: “Do you want to play with shares abroad?” and “Increasing the supply of shares with good and high quality”, p. 14. The strong impact of the market can also be seen in the new vocabulary that has been invented in association with the word “shares”. For example, gumin (shareholders), gushi (share market) and chaogu (stirring up shares, meaning buying and selling constantly).

    (10) Apropaganda term was formulated by the Party in the 1980s to express the desirability of combining the Communist ideology with traditional Chinese ethics, covering a wide range from mastering the Communist ideology to everyday behaviour such as speaking politely, respecting one’s seniors, looking after young people, and not spitting or littering in public areas. It is believed that Deng Xiaoping first used the expression after the whole country had undergone a “civilized and polite month”, and then in September 1982 the phrase was officially used in the press communiqué of the Twelfth National Congress of the CCP. Since then the expression has gained more significance in everyday life. At present, every local government recognizes its annual “spiritual-civilized work units” and issues prizes.

    (11) The orthodox Marxist believes that each society is based on the dialectical unity of the economic base and the superstructure: “The economic base decides the superstructure, while the latter reflects the former” (Great Dictionary of Chinese, entry on “Economic base and superstructure,” Xia Zhengnong 2000, 1409).

    (12) The government has adjusted its policy since the end of the twentieth century. It has increased subsidies to certain genres — for example, jingju, kunju, symphony and ballet — which are regarded as highbrow culture. A large variety of regional theatres are still left to run their own course, and we will see later in the chapter that many genres have become extinct.

    (13) The situation analyzed in the text mainly concerns cities. Issues in the countryside are different. According to the Forum organized by the Chinese Theatre in recent years, many privately run troupes of regional theatres have actively performed in villages. Unfortunately, this fascinating subject cannot be dealt with in this volume.

    (14) For this subject, I interviewed a number of people. Apart from those quoted, I also interviewed Feng Gang (head of the Creative Section) on 25 April and 8 August 2007, Sun Chongliang (director of the SJT and head of the newly established Jingju and Kunju Centre) on 20 September 2007, Gong Xiaoxiong (head of the SJT Office and playwright) on 19 September 2007 and Li Zhongcheng on 30 August 2007. As mentioned earlier, he was one of the playwrights for the post-model work The Azalea Mountain, and from 1991–2000 he was appointed the artistic director of the SJT.

    (15) In order to attract audiences, the SJT offers elderly people aged over seventy half-price tickets; the cheapest can be 15 yuan (about £1 according to the 2008 exchange rate).

    (16) Interview notes, 9 August 2007.

    (17) Interview notes, 25 January 2007.

    (18) Interview notes, 1 August 2007.

    (19) There are other issues — for example, how to deal with the TV live-broadcast programme, how to advertise productions, and how to establish the network with fans.

    (20) The Shanghai Spoken Drama Artistic Centre and The Beijing People’s Art Theatre have established a good audience network. In provincial cities, huaju faces similar problems to those of jingju.

    (21) Indigenous theatre companies tend to have more employees than spoken drama companies because they need musicians and a large team for make-up and costume. See note 4 in this chapter.

    (22) One task for the Academy was to use the computing technology to turn its collected audio-visual materials into digital productions or episodes to preserve the cultural legacy and to encourage people to watch online. Debates about how to use these materials have also arisen, because watching productions online might further reduce the number of people who would go to the theatre.

    (23) Li Hongchun, a celebrated actor of the sheng role, claimed that his entire collection of 2,600 jingju scripts was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1985, 88).

    (24) Many deserted jingju for the dream of a better paid or more welcoming career, but the result has not always been positive. Of the forty actors who left the jingju profession, only one did well, owning his decorating business with a small team of employees. Some have ended up in odd jobs, such as porters or vendors. As seen in chapter 2, jingju requires lifelong training, and therefore if people do not continue to practise their basic techniques (jiben gong) they cannot return after they have left the career. In addition, the depressing state of jingju with declining audiences means fercer competition between actors. Interview notes with Yan, 9 August 2007.

    (25) Interview notes, 9 August 2007.

    (26) Neither content nor subject matter is limited any longer to Communist revolutionary history or socialist construction. For example, newly written historical plays which extol reforms or criticize corruption can be politically correct works and highly praised.

    (27) Prize winning in today’s theatre is vital because a large proportion of the government’s subsidies to theatre are given out through awards or in helping companies win the awards.

    (28) In his PhD thesis, Ashley Thorpe briefly discusses kyōgen to underline the invigorative sub-text of the chou role (2003).

    (29) As Laurence Kominz points out: “Much of the physically amusing business in kyōgen is accompanied by onomatopoetic verbalization, expressing human effort or the sounds made by nonhuman objects or beings” (2007, 24:1:242).

    (30) Interview notes, 25 January 2007.

    (31) Detailed discussions on the topic can be found in Ma Shaobo et al. (1999, 275–82) and Tian Gensheng (2005, 52–80).

    (32) In the eighteenth century, the Qing court drama was famous for the extravagance of its stage mechanisms. Lord Macartney wrote in his diary a detailed description of a show to which he was invited by the Qianlong Emperor (Cranmer-Byng 1962, 137–38). Subsequently, such lavishness largely disappeared due to decline of the Chinese economy. The public theatre had never used complicated mechanical work before the Shanghai professional theatres tried to do so at the beginning of the twentieth century.

    (33) Over time, haipai began expanding its scope again, especially towards the end of the twentieth century when people became more interested in localization in arts. Now we can hear people talking about haipai literature, painting, architecture and haipai spoken drama, all of which are imbued with the Shanghainese colour and bold innovation.

    (34) After Li’s revision, which focused on the female disguise and the misunderstanding of the two characters, Zhang Meijuan (1929–95), a woman warrior role in the SJT, took over the work and developed it further by adding more physical skills on a chair (for example, movements done on the seat or on the back of the chair).

    (35) Those who have seen The Crossroads can refer to the two characters in the play to compare the two role types, because the man fighting with the inn owner is performed by the warrior in short costume.

    (36) Interview notes, 18 August 2007.

    (37) Yan Qinggu kindly offered me the DVD of the performance, and I transcribed the lines from the recording.

    (38) Interview notes, 18 August 2007. With Zhang Chunhua’s help, Yan in 2008 revived Buddha’s Orange (Foshou ju), a full-length play developed from Silver Jug, which had disappeared from the stage since 1949. The 2008 version used a largely revised script, which was tailor-made for displaying Yan’s excellent acrobatics. It also expanded the comic elements in the romantic sub-plot.

    (39) Yan kindly offered me the DVD of the performance, and Gong Xiaoxiong, the playwright, sent me the script.

    (40) In the old days, people from Yangzhou came to cities to work in the service trades.

    (41) Interview notes, 18 August 2007.

    (42) Interview notes with Yan Qinggu, 2 September 2007.

    (43) About 120 productions entered the Competition. They covered a wide range of genres, including sung-theatre, spoken drama, opera (Western and Chinese styles), puppetry, dance (ballet and Chinese), song (Western and folk styles) and the folk vocal art forms. Half reached the final (which was held from 25 August to 6 September 2007). The candidates were either from professional companies or from schools. The longest performance was thirty minutes.

    (45) The news was sent to me in an email from Yan dated 7 November 2007. For this production, apart from interviewing Yan Qinggu as noted above, I also interviewed the playwright Gong Xiaoxiong and the composer Jin Guoxian on 19 September 2007, and Li Zhongcheng, a member of the judging panel in Shanghai, on 30 August and 1 September 2007.