For the last year or so, I’ve been attempting to watch every film made in the People’s Republic of China between roughly 1988 and 1992. This is easier than it sounds. Part of the appeal of watching and writing about these films is that the vast majority of them have seen no serious criticism. There’s occasionally writing in Chinese, but it’s usually confined to a few notes in a film magazine, noting the cast and the director. In English, outside of any picture screened at foreign festivals—and even including the bulk of those films—there’s rarely a single review.
There are reasons for that: the movie industry was in the doldrums and nobody was going to see these movies, let alone taking them seriously, and it was hard to find them outside of bootleg VCDs, since quite a few were rarely screened and got erratic distribution.
The other day, I went to watch an opera. I mean, I went to stream an opera online. Since I translated Jia Pingwa’s Qinqiang 秦腔 I’ve had some interest in Shaanxi’s local opera. I even went to see some productions when I was in Xi’an in the last couple years. But so, when I went to find out more about what I was about to watch, I found that nearly nothing had been written about it in English.
There are reasons for that: this is an artform with a long history, but it hasn’t made a dent in the Occidental consciousness. The academic and popular writing on Chinese opera focuses mainly on Beijing opera 京剧 and Shaoxing opera 越剧. Most writing in Chinese focuses on those two forms, too. There are complicated reasons for that, which are not worth discussing here.
I feel like I should include some kind of further pitch—why you would want to sit through a three hour Shaanxi opera 秦腔—but I don’t have one. For me, I like the music and I like the costumes and the stories are engaging once I get the basics. It’s an important, living artform that has a history stretching back centuries. You could dedicate your life to discovering everything there is to discover about Shaanxi opera.
Knowing the basic story is the key, though. So, here, my idea is to tell the story behind a popular Shaanxi opera 秦腔 drama. This story appears in other operatic traditions, but it's best known as a Shaanxi opera.
It's also mentioned in Jia Pingwa’s novel, so if the translation is ever released, you might it helps your enjoyment of the book.
I think knowing the story is the only way to sit through an opera. I was watching an interview with young people about local opera in Shaanxi and the ones that didn’t care for it said about the same thing: “I have no idea what they’re singing about.” You can pick up the story as you go along, but it can be tough.
I’m not an expert on Shaanxi opera. I’m sure there will be errors.
This is another benefit of nobody having written about them extensively before: I can make errors and anyone that knows better will probably appreciate my effort enough to offer a correction, or they’ll write me off as a rank amateur without digging deeper, or they’ll write something themselves...
I'm going to start with The Fiery Stallion 火焰驹.
Sometimes a film version can be the best way to get a grip on the story, since they tend to simplify things and emphasize narrative to fit the form and the runtime, but the 1958 version of The Fiery Stallion is somehow more confusing than sitting through a production of the opera.
I couldn’t tell you the actual source of the opera’s narrative. Most of these are adapted from historical or traditional stories. But this one is credited to Li Shisan 李十三 (Li Fanggui 李芳桂) (1748-1810).
All of my knowledge of Li Shisan comes from Chen Zhongshi's 陈忠实 famous short story about him—"Li Shisan Turns the Millstone" 李十三推磨—which imagines him as a failed bureaucrat that becomes a passionate but impoverished writer, relying on handouts from locals. He made a living selling scripts to shadow puppet players—these were more specifically píyǐngxì 皮影戏, and even more specifically wǎnwǎnqiāng píyǐngxì 碗碗腔皮影戏, but I’m not qualified to say much more than it refers to a specific strain of Shaanxi opera popular in Weinan 渭南, which is where Li Shisan lived and worked, accompanied by a shadow play with characters made from animal hide.
The Chen Zhongshi story ends Li Shisan’s death, hounded by men acting on the Jiaqing emperor's call to root out obscenity in the arts. Whether or not that was the case, I only have the Chen Zhongshi story to go on.
The setting of The Fiery Stallion is Bianliang 汴梁, I believe, which is almost where modern day Kaifeng 开封 is (I think the changing course of the Yellow River necessitated the move, among other things, but, again, I'm not an expert), so probably sometime in the Northern Song (960-1127). One evil imperial minister—Wang Qiang 王强—is conspiring to stitch up another minister—Li Shou 李绶—by attacking his son—Li Yanrong 李彦荣.
Now, I'll pause here to say that I'm using clips from a production by the venerable Sanyi Society 三意社, filmed last year for CCTV-11, the national broadcaster's xìqǔ 戏曲 channel, devoted to opera, drama, etc.
The subtitles are my own and they tend toward glossier translations that lose a bit of the poetry of the original. The point is to get to know the story, though.
Wang Qiang has conspired to make it look as if Li Yanrong 李彦荣 has disgraced himself while fighting at the northern border, possibly defecting to the other side. Since there’s no reliable communication with the remote garrison, it’s hard to confirm the details of Li Yanrong’s campaign. He reads a proclamation that Li Shou will be imprisoned, his possessions confiscated, his house sealed, and his family expelled from the capital. Yanrong's mother—referred to throughout as just Mother Li 李母, I believe—his wife—begs for mercy, but eventually she takes Yanrong's wife—Zhou Ruiju 周瑞菊—and his younger brother—Li Yangui 李彦贵—and flees for Suzhou 苏州.
Their reason for going to Suzhou—at least several weeks’ travel away, especially as they’re on foot—is that Yangui is engaged to a young woman—Huang Guiying 黄桂—that lives there. Since the two families are joined by the engagement, Yangui hopes to be welcomed into her home.
The opera shows us the horrible journey they make, then it cuts to Huang Guiying and her maid Yunxiang 芸香 in Suzhou.
It’s one of the more famous scenes from the opera, and this duet aria is often performed as a piece by itself. When you watch it for yourself, you'll appreciate it more. But we're just telling the story here. In the opera, it introduces us to two central characters and shows us their relationship: Guiying was wasting the afternoon in her room, pining after her Yangui, but pragmatic and empathetic Yunxiang has dragged her out into the garden to show her the flowers. (In this production, it’s Ma Lulu 马路路 playing Yunxiang and I think she’s pretty great.)
Guiying is clearly still in love with Yangui, and hoping to eventually join him in the capital. She has no idea of what’s happened to him. But Guiying’s father—Huang Zhang 黄璋—has learned of the unpleasantness. He vows not to let his daughter marry the brother of a traitor. Right as he’s breaking it to his Guiying that the engagement will be called off, Yangui shows up, seeking refuge.
With his daughter and her maid listening in from the corridor, Huang Zhang breaks it to Yangui that the engagement is off. Yangui doesn’t quite get it at first. He asks how Huang Zhang could suddenly change his mind, since he had personally helped arrange the marriage.
Huang Zhang hands Yangui twenty taels of silver and tells him to get out. Not only is the engagement off, but Yangui, his mother, and his sister-in-law are left with nowhere to stay.
The section from Guiying and Yunxiang in the garden to what happens after Yangui arrives takes up more time than anything else in the opera, so I'm simplifying things greatly.
The next scene shows us Yangui in simple clothes. Here, the actor does a good job, I think, of transitioning from the smooth-cheeked dullard princeling to a man almost adjusted to life on the streets of Suzhou. He tells us about the state of himself and his family after being expelled from the capital and his former father-in-law's home. They seek refuge at a temple and he goes out on the streets of Suzhou, carrying water to earn money.
This is another scene sometimes sung as an aria, and it also gives its name to another version of the opera, performed in other traditions, called simply Selling Water 卖水.
It’s Yunxiang that spots him first. She’s out in the garden and sees him staggering up the street. None of the main characters in the opera accomplish much, but marginal figures like Yunxiang push things forward.
If not for her, Yangui might go on dragging water around town, and Guiying might go on mooning around the estate—but Yunxiang invites him into the garden and they arrange a secret rendezvous.
The two lovers and their matchmaker in the garden are unaware that their plans have been overheard by Wang Liang 王良, Huang Zhang’s right hand man. He rushes to tell Huang Zhang what he knows and the two men conspire to disrupt the meeting.
The next scene is an introduction to Ai Qian 艾谦, a horse dealer that happens to be a friend of the Li family, hanging out in Suzhou. He’s another seemingly marginal character that pushes the narrative forward. The fact that he’s a horse dealer also suggests that we’re going to find out why the opera is named The Fiery Stallion.
And back to the rendezvous.
On a moonless night, Yangui approaches, calling out to Guiying. Yunxiang—coming in Guiying’s place because she’s been kept from leaving—arrives from the other direction, calling out to Yangui.
Before they can find each other in the darkness, Wang Liang finds Yunxiang, stabs her, and drops the blade by her side. Hearing her cries, Yangui rushes over. Wang Liang emerges from the shadows and demands to know why Yangui killed the poor girl. He’s been framed!
Yangui gets trussed up and dragged off to prison. His execution date will be Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节.
It seems as if Yangui will be put to death, since his family no longer has any power, and the powerful Huang Zhang is pulling the strings. Li Yangui's mother breaks down, lamenting the injustice. But she’s overheard by Ai Qian, the horse dealer. He revealed in his first soliloquy that he owes the Li family a favor, and this seems like the perfect time to repay it.
He has a horse—the Fiery Stallion—he says, that will be able to carry him out to the northern border and back. He vows to get help.
Ai Qian takes off for the border. No matter how fast the horse is, it's going to be a long, treacherous ride, and there is always the danger that might fall into the hands of Wang Qiang's men.
We eventually get a scene of him in Li Yanrong’s camp, sorting things out, but he still has to make it back.
He still hasn’t returned by Yangui's execution date. We see Guiying, dressed in mourning clothes, seemingly on the brink of sanity, clutching a blade and preparing to end her life beside her lover. She meets Yangui's mother on the road to the execution grounds. Yangui’s mother is furious at her, suspecting that she and her father conspired to have her son executed. She slaps Guiying. But it gets sorted out eventually. They head to the execution grounds together.
This isn’t a tragedy, so you can guess how the rest of it plays out.
There's some final drama with Yangui tied to a stake, meeting his family for a final time, with Guiying taking out a dagger and trying to cut her own throat. But Ai Qian and Yanrong show up at the last moment.
Yangui is saved. Justice is restored. We have a happy ending.
My idea is that now you can go and watch the full production.
The scene of Guiying and Yunxiang in the garden is beautiful by itself, but it’s all the more impressive when you know that Guiying’s lover is in flight from the capital and that Yunxiang is doomed to be murdered in an alley by another member of the household. Guiying twirling in her mourning clothes is beautiful without context, but it’s more significant if you know that she’s concealing a dagger that she will try to use to slit her own throat at her condemned lover’s feet.
I’ve simplified the plot, but now you can pick up the subtleties. You have some foundation, I hope.
The production these clips have been pulled from was performed by the Sanyi Society and filmed in Xi’an last year for CCTV-11. You can watch it here, as long as the link works.