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Modern Chinese writers’ bonds with traditional opera

YU WENXIU and JIANG HUIBO | 2022-04-15 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A scene from the Peking opera, “The White Snake” Photo: CFP

Traditional Chinese opera is a treasure of Chinese culture, unique in world culture due to its distinctive characteristics and aesthetic style. Chinese opera has penetrated into Chinese people’s lives. It is not only popular with average citizens, but also has many fans among the literati. Many writers in modern China have shared a bond with traditional Chinese opera. Traditional opera has given them enlightenment and education. Most of their literary accomplishments and inspiration stem from the “theater.” They also participated and contributed to the creation and inheritance of Chinese opera to varying degrees.
Tian Han
Tian Han (1898–1968) [a renowned Chinese playwright and writer] is considered one of the early founders of huaju [a form of modern vernacular drama]. His major huaju plays include “Death of a Famous Actor” and “Spring Melody.” Tian was also deeply involved in writing Chinese opera librettos. His librettos, represented by “Romance of the Western Chamber,” “The White Snake,” “Xie Yaohuan,” and “Guan Hanqing” [A story of Guan Hanqing (1241?–1320?) is considered by many critics to be the greatest playwright of the Chinese classical theater] have become new classics of traditional Chinese opera. Among modern Chinese writers, Tian is regarded as the most accomplished and influential writer of Chinese opera. 
When studying at sishu [China’s traditional private schools], Tian began to read classical novels and plays. “I love plays so much that they have been essential for me since I was a child,” Tian said. In his hometown, Changsha County, Hunan Province, the Xiang opera [a major local opera in Hunan Province] and shadow plays were popular in Tian’s childhood. From the age of 5 or 6, he started to watch Chinese opera with elders. In 1912, 14-year-old Tian imitated the Peking opera “Sanniang Jiaozi” (“Lady Sanniang Instructing Her Son”) and wrote a libretto titled “Xin Jiaozi” (“New Version of Lady Sanniang Instructing Her Son”), which was published in the Changsha Daily. 
Most of Tian’s plays were written during the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and after the founding of the PRC in 1949. His dramatic literature is based on traditional Chinese art. Through extensively drawing on the artistic experience of modern and ancient times, in China and elsewhere, Tian formed his own style. He creatively inherited and developed the art of traditional Chinese opera. In response to the problems of traditional operas, such as attaching too much importance to famous opera players while ignoring the quality of librettos, Tian and other insightful people actively advocated putting a high premium on the literary nature of librettos, and called for an opera production system grounded on librettos.  
Tian showed his determination with actions. His plays not only expressed new ideas and new directions, but also made great innovations in Chinese operas’ dialogue, lyrics, structure, and characterization. Many famous opera artists favor his plays. The Peking opera master Zhang Junqiu once said: “The ‘Romance of the Western Chamber’ written by Tian Han is the most satisfying play in my life.” 
Tian’s opera achievements have improved China’s dramatic literature overall, and promoted the art of traditional Chinese opera to advance with the times. His remarkable contribution to the development of traditional Chinese opera can be seen from a comment by the renowned Chinese playwright Xia Yan: “Tian Han is ‘Guan Hanqing’ in modern times, and I call him ‘the soul of Chinese opera’ in private.”
Lao She
In the past, at the mention of Lao She [Lao She was the pen name of Shu Qingchun (1899–1966), a great Chinese novelist and dramatist], people often discussed his novels and huaju plays. What has hitherto been ignored is Lao She’s achievements in traditional Chinese opera. His daughter once said: “My father loves Peking opera. He not only learns and sings Peking opera, but also understands this art very well.” 
Lao She wrote many librettos, including for Peking opera and Pingju opera [an operatic form which drew inspirations from the Hebei clapper opera and Peking opera while integrating other vernacular performing arts in northeastern China]. He also conducted theoretical explorations on Chinese opera. Lao She’s adaptation of traditional opera is also an integral part of his artistic achievements, but this aspect has been neglected by academia. 
Lao She loved traditional art, and was devoted to making the past serve the present. During the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, in his article “How I Write Vernacular Literature,” Lao She wrote: “Both traditional opera and guci [drum ballad, a Chinese folk art form] are old things, but they are still alive. We write to give these living things some new blood to make them advance and make them useful in the war.” In the Peking opera “Zhonglie Tu” (“The Valiant Ones”) adapted for wartime, Lao She transformed the traditional idea of loyalty to the monarch into the concepts of “nation as the primacy,” and loyalty to the country and people, so as to inspire people to protect their motherland.
After the founding of the PRC in 1949, in order to meet the needs of cultural construction, the whole country launched a reform movement of Chinese opera with the core of “reforming opera, participants, and the system.” “Reforming opera” required the removal of inferior work from Chinese opera librettos and performances. As a member of the opera reform team, Lao She actively provided proposals and opinions on the reform of Chinese opera, and published many articles exploring the reform. He opposed creating and performing the opera in an old way, and advocated refining the Chinese opera art and fashioning it with new ideas and styles, so as to create emotional resonance with the audience in the new era. Meanwhile, he believed that the opera reform should try to avoid the extremes of “radicalism” and “conservatism.” “We must take a very serious attitude in making historical operas,” he said. Lao She also suggested opera reformers “do their best to organize the librettos, stripping them of what does not make sense, then slowly polishing the contents.”
Lao She’s ideas were also reflected in practice. When adapting traditional operas such as “Qingxia and Danxue” and “Wang Baochuan,” he tried to integrate and balance the mainstream social discourse with folk aesthetic tastes to create new-style “people’s literature and art.” Lao She’s opera adaptations eliminated superstition and other feudal ideas, highlighted the attack on oppression, and called for upright officials who really care for common people, showing his deep love of the people and the nation.
Zhang Henshui
The famous novelist Zhang Hen shui (1895–1967) favored Peking opera. He not only loved watching, talking about, and commenting on Chinese opera, but also portrayed the life and fate of opera artists in the old days in many works. Interestingly, many times he performed Peking opera as an amateur performer in Beiping [another name of Beijing used from 1928 to 1949]. 
Zhang’s obsession with Chinese opera was fully reflected in his life and works. It is said that when Zhang lived on a very low income, with only one dayang [a general name for the silver coins in China from 1912 to 1949] left after paying for rent and household supplies, he would spend all his remaining money to watch the joint performance of three famous opera performers—Mei Lanfang, Yang Xiaolou, and Yu Shuyan. 
In his literary creation, Zhang also paid special attention to the subjects related to opera artists. From 1929 to 1940, Zhang wrote over ten novels depicting opera performers, such as Fate in Tears and Laughter, The Long and Dark Night, and Two Stars. With the keen social insight of a journalist and the deep perception of a novelist, Zhang described the joys and sorrows of opera performers, actors and actresses, who struggled at the bottom of society. In these literary works are embodied Zhang’s deep understanding of the society at that time, rich literary and artistic connotations, and historical value.  
Zhang’s son, Zhang Wu, once described his father’s amateur dramatics performances in his memoir, In Remembrance of My Father Zhang Henshui. In 1931, the media industry in Beiping organized a charity fundraiser for flood victims. Zhang played Chong Gongdao, a kindhearted and funny character, in the grand finale of the Peking opera “Nü Qijie.” At that time, as an editor of the World Daily and World Evening News in Beiping, and a well-known writer, Zhang’s total immersion in the performance of “Nü Qijie” became breaking news and was reported by various newspapers. In the 1930s and 1940s, Zhang also performed many times in private gatherings of media personnel and Chinese New Year galas, which was a popular topic in the cultural and art circles.
Whether in their lives or in their careers, these writers dedicated themselves to the inheritance and innovation of Chinese opera with their enthusiasm and efforts. Their literary careers benefited from and promoted traditional Chinese opera.
Yu Wenxiu (professor) and Jiang Huibo are from Heilongjiang University.