There's a moment near the beginning of Jia Pingwa's Qinqiang when Xia Tianzhi, the third brother of four—Xia Tianren has already died on a project to build a reservoir, leaving Xia Tianyi, Xia Tianli, and Xia Tianzhi—recounts a night during the Cultural Revolution, when he heard the song that saved his life... It starts like this: Xia Tianyi's son, Xia Qingyu is building a new house, and Xia Tianzhi has just taken over as unofficial foreman. Lunch is late and Xia Tianzhi decides the workers need some motivation:
Xia Tianzhi said: "Let's listen to some opera! That's better than drinking. Tongue-Tied! Where are you?" The mute was mixing cement. He looked up and exclaimed: "Wa!" Xia Tianzhi said: "Go into my bedroom and get the radio." Tongue-Tied brought the radio out but there seemed to be something wrong with it. The mute smacked the radio a few times, trying to tune in a station playing opera.
Xia Tianli grumbled but he knew he wasn't in charge anymore. He said: "These guys are just like that damn machine, gotta smack 'em around to get them to work." Xia Tianzhi said: "This'll get them moving! When soldiers go into war, they need their propaganda team!" With a final hard slap, the radio crackled to life with the sound of local opera. The workers' mood improved instantly. The bricklayers sang along, letting their trowels clank to the rhythm of the drums. The workers carrying bricks picked up their pace and so did the boys carrying bags of cement. A blob of wet cement landed on the tip of Xia Tianli's nose. Eventually, the opera was drowned out by static and no amount of slapping could bring it back. Xia Tianzhi hummed a tune and said: "It's hot out today. Let me sing Rocking Lake Boat." He sang:
The workers applauded and shouted: "That was great." Xia Tianzhi grinned. Someone asked: "Fourth Uncle, when did you learn that song?" Xia Tianzhi said: "I learned that one during the Cultural Revolution. They locked me in a cowshed and brought me out three times a day for struggle sessions. I didn't have the strength to go on. One night, I got a rope, tied it up in a window frame and planned to hang myself. Right then, I heard someone outside the barn, singing local opera. They had a great voice! I was just about to put the noose around my neck but when I heard that voice, I thought: How can I kill myself, when I haven't learned that song yet? I untied the rope. That opera saved my life! But I don't really do it justice. You have to hear Bai Xue sing it."
I think it gets at what the local opera means to the people of Freshwind (Jia's Yoknapatawpha County), its omnipresence, if that's the right word here—the tune sung to distract hungry bricklayers the same tune that saved a man's life. Opera is sung at weddings and at funerals, but also by the starving farmers waiting in the fields for the reservoir manager to fill the irrigation canals. When Yinsheng castrates himself with a razorblade, he arrives at Zhao Hongsheng's pharmacy to hear the old man singing a snatch of Qin opera.
But a thousand miles away, I'm watching Youtube videos. The 1960 film version of Sandixue or Three Drops of Blood is one of the more accessible ways to experience the artform, and I've been watching it this past week, while working on translation.
The opera is a fairly recent entry in the canon, written by Fan Zidong in the early Republican Era in Xi'an and premiered at Yisushe in 1919, part of a movement to update opera traditions. The founder of Yisushe, Li Tongxuan was involved with Sun Yat-sen's Revolutionary League and with literary modernizers, and Yisushe was conceived as a kind of radical school house, teaching the masses through drama. The theater sat 800 and was visited by Lu Xun; it became an important cultural resource in a city known for leftist activism in the years before the warlord Feng Yuxiang's generals took over. (See: "Xi’an, 1900–1940: From Isolated Backwater to Resistance Center" by Pierre-Étienne Will, available online). Fan Zidong's Sandixue draws from Ji Yun's Random Jottings at the Cottage of Close Scrutiny, a collection of zhiguai ("stories of the strange," as Leo Tak-hung Chan has it in The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts: Ji Yun and Eighteenth-century Literati Storytelling) and other spooky stories of unsolved Ming mysteries, but carries a social message about corrupt officials relying on outdated traditions.
In the opera—and the film tells the story slightly differently—Zhou Renrui's wife gives birth to twins and then dies. Mama Wang helps out and eventually sells the younger son to Li Sanniang. That child is given the name Li Yuchun. The elder son is nursed by Mama Wang and is called Zhou Tianyou. Zhou Renrui goes back to the countryside with his son after going bankrupt but Zhou Renrui's younger brother, Zhou Renxiang, doesn't want to give up any portion of the family's wealth and claims that Zhou Tianyou is not Zhou Renrui's biological son. After Zhou Renrui sues Zhou Renxiang, a county magistrate, Jin Xinshu, proposes a blood test, borrowing a method from Zhou Fei's Biographies of Former Worthies from Runan, in which drops of blood are dropped in water to determine whether or not two people are related. Based on the blood test, the magistrate determines that Zhou Renrui is not the father. Meanwhile, Li Sanniang's biological daughter Wanchun forms a close bond with Yuchun, but before anything can happen, Li Sanniang dies. So, Ruan Ziyong a local thug who wants to marry Wanchun and makes a fake marriage contract in her deceased mother's name. Wanchun goes to the county magistrate, claiming that her mother intended her to marry Yuchun. The same county magistrate uses the blood test again and decides that Wanchun and Yuchun are brother and sister, so he forces Wanchun to marry Ruan Ziyong.
On their wedding night, Wanchun tricks Ruan Ziyong into drinking too much and she escapes. Zhou Tianyou comes back to look for his father. Sometime around then, the two brothers meet and team up to fight the invading Mongols invade, and the two brothers join up to fight. Mama Wang goes looking for Yuchun and Wanchun follows. They meet the broken Zhou Renrui. Sometime before or after that, on the way to pray at Mount Wutai, Zhou Tianyou saves a woman, Lianxiang, from a tiger and marries her.
Eventually, Mama Wang and Renrui end up in front of the same magistrate, who rules that Renrui's wife must have been unfaithful and that he's got no case. But, after smashing the Mongols, the two brothers have become politically powerful and return just in time to order Jin Xinshu dismissed from his office.
The film was made in 1960, after two performances of the opera in Beijing in 1958 and 1959 were praised by Zhou Enlai and other top leaders. There were several attempts around that time to stage major productions of Qinqiang operas, and provincial authorities out west in Xi'an wanted to get some on film, too.
The first film to come out was Huoyan Ju or A Flame Foal, in 1958, directed by Liu Guoquan and Zhang Xinfu (harder to find online, but the video above is of a 1960 film of a more straightforward staging of the opera). As the actors were shooting scenes for the film at Changchun Film Studio, the Chairman himself happened to stop by, bullshitted for a while about his love of Shaanxi opera, reminisced about Yan'an, and got his picture taken (for more about this: "How Qinqiang went from the stage to the silver screen").
Around the same time as Huoyan Ju and Sandixue, there were films of Liang Qiuyan (above is not the film itself but a far superior film of a performance of the opera) and Yi Ke Hongxin, A Red Heart, updates on the Meihu tradition. Liang Qiuyan is about a young woman, Liang Qiuyan, who defies tradition and her own father to pursue an affair with Liu Chunsheng, and Yi Ke Hongxin deals with the politics of cattle in the rural Northwest. The Meihu style is a Shaanxi tradition that borrows from Qinqiang, and not quite in the tradition of the operas above, but the stories are more contemporary and the performances less traditional.