4 x 4

Hey – do you remember last week’s post on Beijing opera and poetry?  (Hint: it’s here.)  I ask because the information there is useful in picking out some interesting details from yesterday’s video “The Small Reception“.  Got it?

Now that you’re back, this is Lü Bu’s introductory speech, or yǐnzi (引子).  Yǐnzi are short, introductory poems of 2 to 4 lines which set forth some fundamental aspect of the character, mood, or situation.   They’ve been a feature of Chinese opera since the 13th century.   Here are Lü Bu’s opening words:

1. 虎牢关前威名震,

Before Tiger Trap Pass, my fame shook the earth,

2. 辅佐相父辖群臣。

Assisting my father, the Prime Minister, I am the bureaucrats’ boss.

3. 王司徒赠与我金冠一顶,

Wang, Minister of the Interior, rewarded me with a golden crown,

4. 乘闲暇到府上拜谢盛情。

In a spare moment, I have come to the manor to give thanks for such kindness.

As we have seen, poems in Beijing opera nearly always fall into complementary pairs of lines.  In this quatrain we have two such pairs.  Musically, lines one and three end with incomplete, open cadences.  They are answered by full musical cadences at the ends of lines two and four.  Lines two and three are linked conceptually, like a classic Tang-era jueju  – Lü Bu is describing honors bestowed upon him.  All in all, it is a concise quatrain which also gives us a lot of useful backstory.  But watch what happens in performance:

There is a nearly minute-long break between lines 3 and 4, while Lü Bu and Wang Yun go through some stage business and exchange greetings.   When Lü Bu finally delivers the last line of his speech, he is no longer addressing the audience but instead speaking with Wang Yun.

At some point in the past, I suspect, this opening scene was performed differently.  Lü Bu would have approached the center of the stage, delivered his four lines of introduction to the audience, and only then entered Wang Yun’s house.  The current manner of performing these lines represent a refinement to the older tradition – instead of neatly separating “aria” from action, the music and drama are allowed to smoothly dovetail into one another.    By the time the “aria” has finished, the conversation between Lü Bu and Wang Yun is already underway.

This pattern is repeated a number of times in “The Small Reception”.  Here is Diao Chan’s opening speech:

1. 轻移莲步出兰房,

With dainty step and supple gait, I leave the ladies’ chambers,

2. 怀揣香饵到华堂。

Entering the grand hall, I bear the bait within my breast.

3. 含羞不语娇怯样,

Shy and silent, this frail maid seems a fragile figure,

4. 深施一礼站一旁。

With proper ceremony, I stand to one side.

Another neat quatrain (lines two and three are joined conceptually by references to Diao Chan’s cunning plan) is once again interrupted before the final line is sung.   Diao Chan enters the hall where Lü Bu and Wang Yun sit.  She directs her final line half to them, half to the audience.

Later on in the scene Lü Bu proposes a toast to the assembled company:

1. 深感司徒情意大,

I feel deeply, Minister, your kind affections,

2. 又蒙小姐的美意佳。

Let us enjoy this young lady’s fine graces.

3. 忙将斗酒来饮下,

Let us raise our cups and drink our fill,

4. 神思昏昏心如麻。

Let us becloud our thoughts and quicken our hearts.

Lü Bu, intoxicated in equal measure by the wine and Diao Chan,  becomes increasingly unsteady while singing his third line.  His voice trails off and eventually he loses his train of thought altogether.   Only after Wang Yun’s gentle reproach does Lü Bu snap out of it and sing his final line, observing all the necessary social (and musical) proprieties.

Diao Chan, setting the honey trap, acts as though she is equally smitten with him.

1. 温候威名杨天下,

Lord Wen’s name is praised all over

2. 闺中闻听常羡夸。

Even in the women’s quarters, one hears of the court’s great admiration for him.

3. 满腹情思难讲话,

I am so filled with emotion that it is difficult to speak,

4. 两腮红晕无话答。

With blushing cheeks, I smile silenty.

Clever Diao Chan imitates Lü Bu’s stupefied speechlessness.   Her demure silence after her third line is enough to leave Lü Bu smitten.  Again, it is up to Wang Yun to, gently but firmly, bring this lovey-dovey business to a halt.

This pattern of interrupted conclusions occurs a couple of more times in the final scene, during Lü Bu and Diao Chan’s declarations of love.  Before he finishes his final line, Lü Bu falls on bended knee to swear he would die for her.  Diao Chan’s interrupts her couple to allow some stage business (her co-conspirator Wang Yun sneaks onto the scene to “catch” the lovers) before she, too, throws herself to the ground to offer her oath of fidelity to Lü Bu.

Not every Beijing opera relies so heavily on quatrains like these, and not every one of them makes such a point out of interrupting them before they finish.  But the short arias of “The Small Reception” provide excellent examples of how Beijing opera can blend poetry, music, drama and gesture into a single Gesamtkunstwerk.

“The Empty City Stratagem” 2: Patter songs, Beijing-style

Previously, we took a look the most popular number from the Beijing opera “The Empty City Stratagem”: “I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon Mountain.”  Today, we’ll examine the opera’s second-most-celebrated excerpt, “Standing on the city walls, admiring the mountain scenery.”

Any fan of Italian bel-canto opera will tell you that the heart of the genre, its yin-yang, is the pair of contrasting movements cantabile and cabaletta.  The slow, lyrical, reflective cantabile (“song-like”) is followed by an up-tempo cabaletta (“little couplet”) expressing agitation, exaltation or determination.

While the sequence of tempi and song-types in Beijing opera is more varied than in Italian bel-canto, there is still a marked tendency for long monologues by characters to begin slowly and end quickly.  Sometimes, there is a slow-burn – the musical pace quickens with each successive turn of the plot, like a finale from an opera buffa (the final scene of the modern classic The Unicorn Purse ,锁麟囊, would be one example).  Just as often, there is a neat division between slow and fast arias.  Such is the case with “I am a carefree fellow…” and “Standing on the city walls…”

As we saw last time, the poetry for the slow-tempo aria “I am a carefree fellow” was quite regular – only twice were the 10-syllable lines stretched out to include an extra syllable.  The poetry for the quick-tempo “Standing on the city walls…” , on the other hand, clearly plays fast and loose with the traditional poetic rules.

1-2. 我正在城楼观山景,耳听得城外乱纷纷。

3-4. 旌旗招展空翻影,却原来是司马发来的兵。

5-6. 我也曾差人去打听,打听得司马领兵往西行。

7-8. 一来是马谡无谋少才能,二来是将帅不和失街亭。

9-10. 连得三城多侥幸,贪而无厌你又夺我的西城。







The lengths of the odd-numbered lines vary from 7-10 syllables, with most of them containing 8 syllables.  The lengths of the even-numbered lines vary much more dramatically, from 8 to a tongue-twisting 17 syllables.

This is typical: slow arias tend to feature balanced couplets that are the very model of lyrical propriety, while the verses of fast arias frequently run helter-skelter across the page.  One reason for these different poetic styles can be found in the music of Beijing opera.

Recall that Beijing opera melodies repeat themselves every two lines.  As with the 12-bar-blues, repetition becomes the mother of invention.  Slow arias overcome the musical limitation by varying the tunes: they can be ornamented, shrunk, or developed and stretched to greater length, all while keeping each line’s syllable count relatively fixed.  The caesuras within each line of poetry can be filled with instrumental interludes of greater or shorter length, depending on the dramatic situation.

At a quick tempo, however,  there are fewer opportunities to vary the length of a musical line, so the lines themselves are often of irregular length.  A fast aria sung to a regular succession of 7- or 10-syllable lines would run the risk of producing an unwelcome sing-song effect.  Changing the syllable count produces musical variety.

Looking again at the Chinese text of “Standing on the City Walls…”, we notice that the odd-numbered lines tend to be more regular in length than the even-numbered lines.  Naturally, the music for these couplets reflects this difference.  Each pair of lines begins in a rather stereotyped fashion.  As the couplet progresses, the music accompanying the words becomes more individual, more varied as it approaches a cadence on the final syllable.  The rule of thumb is: odd-numbered lines are usually even, even-numbered lines can be quite odd.

Though the lines in a fast aria can sometimes be spun out to improbable lengths, their internal structure is still derived from the 3-part, 2-caesura division of the line we noted with the slow arias.  Recall that the 10-syllable lines of “I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon Mountain” were divided into groups of 3+3+4 syllables, with short (or sometimes long) pauses between each segment.

The poetry of “Standing on the City Walls…” is based on the traditional structure of a 7-syllable line.  Here an extra syllable is often added to the traditional 2+2+3 structure to produce lines of 3+2+3 syllables.

1.我正在         城楼            观山景,

wǒzhèngzài  chénglóu    guānshāntíng,

I am at          city walls   looking at the mountain scenery,

2.耳听得     城外                       乱纷纷。

ěrtīngde      héngwài               luànfēnfēn.

Hearing      outside the city  disorder everywhere.

3.旌旗         招展                空翻影,

jīngqí          zhāozhǎn       kōngfānyǐng,

Banners     flutter             shadows tumble,

4.却原来是             司马        发来的兵.

quèyuánláishì       sīmǎ        fāláidebīng

It must be that     Sima         troops sent here.

At a quick tempo, an extra syllable or two can be added to the 2+2+3 scheme without doing much violence to the overall feel of the line’s tripartite form.  Sometimes the extra syllables help clarify the meaning a bit: “I am at” and “Hearing” could have been expressed using the 2-syllable forms wǒzài (我在) and tīngde (听得) instead of the 3-syllable forms Zhuge Liang sings.  Sometimes the break in poetic form can help intensify the character’s expression:

7. 一来是       马谡            无谋少才能,

yīláishì          mǎsù          wúmóushǎocáinéng,

First              Ma Su        is talentless and planned poorly,

The final part of the line is expanded from three syllables to five, allowing Zhuge Liang to multiply Ma Su’s faults and to emphasize the fact that Ma Su is, indeed, a blockhead.

There is another method for expanding the lengths of lines, and that is by simply adding on more 3-, 4- or 5- syllable units to the end of a line.  Such lines no longer have the 3-part division we’ve been looking at before, but might contain 4, 5 or more small cells of text, each cell forming a complete syntactic unit and slightly set apart from its neighbors.  For example:

18. 为什么     你犹豫不定           进退两难,            所为的何情.

wèishénme  nǐyóuyùbùdìng,   jìntuìliǎngnán, suǒwéidehéqíng.

Why             are you hesitating,        in a dilemma         what kind of feeling?

Instead of a standard line length of 2+2+3 or 3+3+4 syllables, we end up with a Frankenstein verse constructed of 3+5+4+5 syllables.

If you don’t speak Chinese, these considerations of verse-length and verse-structure might seem arcane and irrelevant.  But the variations in line length, the caesuras and rhythm of the traditional three-part verse line, all have audible consequences for the music.  If you know a little something about the structure of the verse, the structure of the music becomes a bit clearer to you as well.  We’ll discuss that next time.

Here is the aria text in full, with translation:

1-2. 我正在城楼观山景,耳听得城楼乱纷纷.

1. Standing on the city walls, admiring the mountain scenery,

2. I hear below there is noise and confusion everywhere.

3-4. 旌旗招展空翻影,却原来是司马发来的兵.

3. Banners and flags flap in the breeze, their shadows tumble about,

4. This must certainly mean that Sima’s army has arrived.

5-6. 我也曾差人去打听,打听得司马领兵往西行.

5. I had sent scouts to every corner,

6. To learn whether Sima’s armies were marching westward.

7-8. 一来是马谡无谋少才能, 二来是将帅不和失街亭.

7. One came to tell me about talentless Ma Su’s poor plans,

8. A second came to tell me that armies could not hold Jieting.

9-10. 连得三城多侥幸,含而无厌你又夺我的西城.

9. Your brigades were quite lucky to take three of our cities,

10. Out of insatiable greed, you now want to take Xicheng.

11-12. 诸葛亮在敌楼把驾等,等候了司马到此谈啊,谈,谈,谈心.

11. Zhuge Liang waits with his command on the turret,

12. Expecting the arrival of Sima here, talking, talk, talk, talking about arrangements.

13-14. 西城外街道打扫净, 预备着司马好屯兵.

13. Ensuring the streets of Xicheng are swept spotless,

14. Getting all in ready to station Sima’s soldiers.

15-16. 诸葛并无有别的敬, 早预备下羊羔美酒犒赏你的三军.

15. Zhuge Liang could offer no less mark of respect,

16. I have prepared some fresh mutton and tasty wine to reward your victorious three armies.

17-18. 即到此就该把城进,为什么你犹豫无定,进退两难,所为的何情.

17. This was all arranged for your arrival in the city,

18. Why this hesitation and uncertainty, can you really feel yourself in a pickle?

19-20. 左右有琴童人两个,我是又无有埋伏又无有兵.

19. To my left and right are lads assisting on the zither,

20. I have no hidden troops or guards.

21-22. 你莫要胡思乱想心不定,来来来请上城楼来听我抚琴.

21. Don’t just stand there dazed and confused,

22. Come! Come! Come into the city and hear me strum the zither!

“The Empty City Stratagem” 1: On Poetic Form in Beijing opera

In the beginning there was the word, according to Genesis, and so it is too with Beijing opera.  An understanding of the forms of Beijing opera’s poetry (a tradition shared with many types of other, regional operas in China) is helpful in appreciating the structure of the arias, their meaning and their music.

In certain respects, the tunes of Beijing opera more closely resemble the African-American 12-bar blues than they do an operatic score composed by Mozart or Verdi.  The blues generally have a fixed poetic structure, with two short lines followed one long one, which is repeated over and over:

My baby’s gone and left me, and now I’m all alone,

She just up and left me, and now I’m on my own,

Damn shame she’s gone away,  I gotta get my front lawn mown.

Blues singers spin countless variations on this basic form, tailoring the traditional blues melodies to capture the meaning or feeling in each stanza of poetry.  Paradoxically,  the simple design sustains a variety of expression.

Now let’s take a look at the first two lines of Zhuge Liang’s important “aria”, “I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon Mountain.” (Beginning around 30:20 on the video below…)


I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon mountain,
Relying on yin and yang, it is child’s play to protect heaven and earth.

the lines of each aria are usually 7 or 10 syllables long.   Following precedents firmly established in the “new style” classical poetry of the Tang period,  the lines usually falls into three discrete parts.   This division resembles the “foot” of Western poetry (for example, the five iambic feet that make up the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s verse.)  Unlike the “foot”, which propels itself forward on waves of sense of strong and weak beats, the three parts of each line of Beijing opera poetry are marked by pauses, or caesuras.  Seven-syllable lines are divided  2+2+3, ten-syllable lines are divided 3+3+4. Each of these segment forms a complete syntactic unit: noun-phrases, verb-phrases, adjectival phrases and so on.

1. 我本是               卧龙山                     散淡的人,
Wǒ běn shì          wò lóng shān              sàn dàn de rén,
I am                Sleeping Dragon Mountain  carefree fellow,
2. 凭阴阳                     如反掌                 保定乾坤.
píng yīn yáng             rú fǎn zhǎng          bǎo dìng qián kūn.
Relying on yin and yang   it is child’s play    to protect heaven and earth.

The caesuras within lines and between lines of poetry are frequently audible in performance,  even if you don’t understand Chinese.  The singer usually pauses for a moment while the instruments play a short (or long) interlude.    Individual lines can be stretched out musically, or they can be run together, but by and large they sustain a regular rhythm that at times can be hypnotizing.

These lines of poetry usually appear in pairs.  In English translation, this parallelism is emphasized by placing commas at the end of odd-numbered lines and periods at the end of even-numbered ones.   Musically, the odd-numbered lines end on some sort of incomplete cadence, while the even-numbered ones end with a conclusive return to a tonic, or home, note.  (We’ll talk about these notes another time… they’re different for male and female characters.)

In the new-style poetry of the Tang era, these paired lines were concatenated to construct four- and eight-line poems (jueju and lüshi).   Shared rhymes, syntactic similarities and metaphoric parallels or contrasts  all can help bind these two-line units together into a larger poem.

Beijing opera arias sometimes employ this 4- or 8-line classical structure,  but just as often the poetry is constructed out of an irregular series of 2-line units.  Such is the case with “I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon Mountain.”

1-2.我本是卧龙山散淡的人 , 凭阴阳如反掌保定乾坤。

I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon mountain,

 Relying on yin and yang, it is child’s play to protect heaven and earth.  

3-4.先帝爷下南阳御驾三请, 算就了汉家业鼎足三分。  

The previous emperor left Nanyang, three sought the imperial carriage,

Leaving the Chinese realm torn between three contending factions.

5-6.官封到武乡侯执掌帅印, 东西战南北剿博古通今。

An imperial order arrived for me, Lord of Wuxiang, to wield the commanding seal,

Battling east and west, ambushing north and south, using wisdom of the Ancients and Moderns.

7-8.周文王访姜尚周室大振, 诸葛亮怎比得前辈的先生?

King Wen of Zhou visited Jiang Shang, great things happened for the state of Zhou,

How could Zhuge Liang hope to compare with such  illustrious forebears?

9-10.闲无事在敌楼亮一亮琴音, 我面前缺少个知音的人。  

Reclining on the turret, I strum my zither for a bit,

Alas, I lack an audience of connoisseurs!

The first four lines contrast Zhuge Liang’s sovereign mastery of the Taoist mysteries (lines 1-2) with the previous Emperor’s failure to hold the Chinese realm together (lines 3-4).   Lines 5-10 form another group: Lines 5-6 describe Zhuge Liang’s command in the battles of the Three Kingdoms.  Lines 7-8 offer the historical parallel: King Wen of Zhou sought out the wise military advisor Jiang Shang, just as Liu Bei (claimant for the imperial throne) sought out crafty Zhuge Liang.    In lines 9-10, Zhuge Liang maintains the pose of false modesty expressed in line 8.

(Eagle-eyed readers will have noted that lines 8 and 9 have 11 syllables each, divided 3+3+5.  Such licenses are permitted in this sung poetry.  The effect here is to draw out the conclusion a bit longer and also to offer Zhuge Liang an opportunity for a bit of vocal display on the phrase “strum my zither”.)

“I am a carefree fellow from Sleeping Dragon Mountain” is taken at a relatively broad tempo (mànbǎn, 慢板).   The poetry of these slow arias usually sticks pretty closely to traditional forms.  Tomorrow, we will look at some other arias from “The Empty City Stratagem” and see how the poetic rules warp a bit when driven at high speed.

Just What Is a Nine Dragon Spot?

Back in the days before TV and movies had title sequences, back in the days before theater or opera performances had printed programs or libretti, back in the days before posters were printed up and tacked on walls, theatrical troupes needed some way of introducing characters and situations to audiences.   The conventions surrounding the Nine Dragon Spot are one solution to that problem.

In Beijing opera, it is common for important or imposing male characters (young warriors, wise advisors, evil tyrants, and so on…)  to make a great impression on their first appearance.  Entering from stage right, they halt at a point half-way upstage about half-way right of center.  There, at the Nine Dragon Spot (jiǔ lóng kǒu, 九龙口), they pause for a moment and execute a series of characteristic gestures.  They may draw attention to their helmets, their beard, their eyes, their clothes.   Martial figures may lift a leg to demonstrate physical prowess.  Agitated characters might wiggle their face about.   You might think of this introductory series of poses (liàngxiàng, 亮相) as functioning like a movie poster, giving us a moment to take in the costume, makeup, and bearing of the character coming in.  Like the portraits in Harry Potter, they move!

From the Nine Dragon Spot, the character proceeds slowly down an imaginary catwalk to front and center stage.   At some point along the way, the actor will deliver a couple of introductory lines (yǐnzi,引子), a concise poetic motto which tells the audience something about his character, his situation or his frame of mind.    Every one else on stage stands still – this is a moment for the actor and the audience alone.

The conventions associated with the Nine Dragon Spot are Chinese opera’s way of saying “Hello”.

below: a video of some entrances from the Beijing opera “Nine River Spot” (九江口) illustrating a few ways the approaches to and from the Nine Dragon Spot can be handled.