I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
- Anna Akhmatova
Time for another video featuring the artistry of Shen Tiemei (沈铁梅), the Sichuanese opera star from Chongqing who will appearing at the Lincoln Center Festival at the end of July in Guo Wenjing’s opera “Feng Yi Ting”. Previously, we saw her do a humorous turn as a sex-starved nun uncowed by prospects of hellish torments. Turning from comedy to tragedy, we’ll watch her play the role of Lady Sun (Sūn Shàngxiāng, 孙尚香) in the scene, “Offering for Guan Yu”, （祭关羽） from the Sichuan opera “Three Offerings at the Riverside“ （三祭江）。
The story for this opera, like so many in the Chinese repertoire, is taken from the Three Kingdoms Saga. Lady Sun is the beautiful and fierce sister of the King of the Southlands, Sun Quan. She is a tough cookie – skilled at swordplay and with a posse of warrior maids. (Nowadays, this riot grrrl is a popular figure in anime and video games.) To cement a military alliance, Sun Quan gave his sister in marriage to a claimant to the imperial throne, the duke and warlord Liu Bei. Both the military and marital union failed. Breaking her marriage vow to Liu Bei, Lady Sun returned to the Southlands when relations between the two warlords soured. The warriors Zhang Fei and Zhao Zilong prevented her from taking Liu Shan, her son with Liu Bei, with her.
The Sichuanese opera “Three Offerings at the Riverside”, is set in the Southlands Empire after Lady Sun has left Liu Bei. “Offering For Guan Yu” is the second of the three. Red-faced Guan Yu was one of Liu Bei’s most trusted and most accomplished generals. In later centuries, Lord Guan was revered as a deity. His cult was especially popular during the Qing dynasty, and temples devoted to him keep busy to this day.
Lord Guan met his death at the hands of the Southlands general, Lü Meng. Sun Quan was at first inclined to be merciful with prisoner, but was convinced by his advisors to have Lord Guan executed. Transformed into a spirit, Guan wrought a terrible revenge on his enemy:
“Sun Quan personally poured out wine and presented it to Lü Meng.
Lü Meng received it and was about to drink, when he dashed the cup to the ground and instead seized Sun Quan with one hand. “Green-eyed scamp!” he screamed. “Red-whiskered rodent! Have you forgotten me? Or not?” The assemblage looked aghast. Everyone moved to rescue Sun Quan, but Meng knocked him to the ground, strode to his throne, and seated himself upon it. Meng’s eyebrows arched, his eyes grew round and prominent as he bellowed, “I have crisscrossed the empire for thirty-odd years since defeating the Yellow Scarves, only to have your treacherous trap sprung on me. But if I have failed to taste your flesh in life, Lü Meng, I shall give your soul no peace in death – for I am Guan Yunchang, lord of Hanshou precinct!”
Fear-stricken, Sun Quan led the assemblage in offering obeisance. But lo! Lü Meng collapsed on the ground, blood ran out of his orifices, and he died… Thereafter Sun Quan was tormented with anxiety over the execution of Lord Guan.”
(translation by Moss Roberts)
Lady Sun secretly steals away to the river side to offer sacrifices to the fallen Lord Guan. As Lord Guan was the sworn brother of her (separated) husband, Lady Sun would be obliged by custom to perform this act of reverence. But there is, I think, another, unspoken reason why Lady Sun wants to memorialize Lord Guan. As she speaks, we might guess that the mighty general’s example is weighing heavily on her mind.
Her oration concisely summarizes an early episode from Lord Guan’s career (described in Chapters 25-27 of Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms Saga): Lord Guan, having sworn brotherhood with Liu Bei, is captured by the evil minister Cao Cao. Thinking Liu Bei dead, Lord Guan agrees to serve Cao Cao as custom demands. Minister Cao tried mightily to win the affections of his new general, showering him with gold, fine robes and fine women. But when news reaches Lord Guan that Liu Bei still lives, the general tried to gain audience with Cao Cao to officially take leave from him. Crafty Cao Cao kept trying to put off Lord Guan by hanging “OUT FOR LUNCH” signs outside his council doors. Eventually, Lord Guan got fed up and left Cao’s camp, resigned his position, and supended his seal of office from the rafters of the entry hall. Lord Guan took with him Liu Bei’s two wives, captive since Liu Bei’s defeat at Xuzhou. After encounters with friend and foe, Guan and his two charges were once again reunited with Liu Bei.
Reading between the lines, we can guess why Lady Sun should choose this story to commemorate Lord Guan’s life. Guan Yu’s fidelity to Liu Bei, even in the face of Cao Cao’s luxurious gifts and fulsome blandishments, serves to underscore Lady Sun’s own betrayal of her husband. Lady Sun doesn’t declare her own remorse to the audience. But her guilt is nonetheless palpable to the audience that knows her story. After her third and final offering by the river, made upon receiving news of Liu Bei’s death, Lady Sun drowns herself in its swift currents.