“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.

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

  1. Pingback: “The Empty City Stratagem” 2: Patter songs, Beijing-style | Nine Dragon Spot 九龙口

  2. Pingback: 4 x 4 | Nine Dragon Spot 九龙口

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