Saturday at the Chinese Opera: The Empty City Stratagem (空城计)

It’s general-versus-general in this classic episode from the Three Kingdoms Saga.  The crafty military strategist Zhuge Liang has led an expedition in the northern kingdom of the Wei.  Cao Rui, the king of Wei, has sent a pair of fearsome generals, Zhang He and Sima Yi, to drive him back.  Against his better judgement, Zhuge Liang lets Ma Su, the boastful blowhard, take on the defense of the crucial town of Jieting.   Ma Su ignores Zhuge Liang’s battle plan and uses one of his own devising.   Ma Su bungles everything – he loses Jieting and his troops scatter in disarray.

Zhuge Liang has holed up with his trusty general, Zhao Yun (Zhao Zilong) and a much smaller group of soldiers at Xicheng.  Sima Yi hears that Xicheng is practically unguarded.  Will Sima Yi and his enormous army capture Zhuge Liang, take Xicheng, and put an end to the military aspirations of the kingdom of Shu?

“The Empty City Stratagem” is a the central act of the three-act opera “Shi-Kong-Zhan” (失空斩), which takes its name from the titles of each of its acts: “Losing Jieting” (Shī Jiētíng,失街亭), “The Empty City Stratagem” (Kōng Chéng Jì, 空城计), and “Executing Ma Su”, (Zhǎn Mǎ Sù,  斩马谡).

Yu Kuizhi (于魁智) plays Zhuge Liang.  Mr. Yu is one of the leading performers of old-man (laosheng) roles in Beijing opera today.   He is the Vice-President of the National Beijing Opera Theater as well as its Artistic Director.

4 thoughts on “Saturday at the Chinese Opera: The Empty City Stratagem (空城计)

  1. Pingback: “The Empty City Stratagem” 1: On Poetic Form in Beijing opera | Nine Dragon Spot 九龙口

  2. I like how Sima Yi is overthinking the whole thing. The entire plan is custom-tailored for him.

    Some other folk would have said, “Zhuge Liang is really a carefree fellow. The city is empty! I go in!”
    Or, “Zhuge Liang suggests the city is empty, I bet he thinks I’ll think the city is not empty, but I won’t take the bait, the city is empty indeed. I go in.”

  3. There is an old Jewish joke:

    Two Jews, Ratz and Kahn, are standing on a train platform in Poland. Ratz asks Kahn where he is going. Kahn replies that he’s going to Minsk.

    Ratz cries out, “Aha!” and points a big finger right at Kahn’s chest: “You’re just saying that you’re going to Minsk so that I’ll think you’re going to Pinsk. But as a matter of fact, I happen to know that you ARE going to Minsk – so what’s the point in lying?”

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