Exit the Dragon

The Chinese New Year is fast approaching, so to ring out the old Year of the Dragon, I’ve decided to subtitle the classic Beijing opera “The Wandering Dragon Toys with the Phoenix” (Yóu Lóng Xì Fèng, 游龙戏凤) , also known as “Meilong Garrison” (Méi Lóng Zhèn, 梅龙镇).*

The story is set around the year 1517.  The Ming Emperor Zhengde has left the capital incognito to survey life on the Northwestern frontier, where skirmishes with Mongols were a regular occurrence.  Arriving at Meilong Garrison, Zhengde enters an inn run by a young brother and sister.  Zhengde, in disguise as an army captain, orders the brother to keep the night watch.  The Emperor, who doesn’t mind taking his pleasures where he finds them, is quite smitten with the inn’s proprietress, the pert Li Fengjie (Plum Phoenix-Sister).   Nor is she immune to his charms.  A game of erotic cat-and-mouse ensues.  In the end, Zhengde reveals his imperial dragon robes to the awed Li Fengjie.  He plans to make her his Empress, and she invites “the wandering dragon to sleep in the phoenix nest.”

The real-life Emperor Zhengde (1491-1521) was a good deal more hapless and maladroit than this stage version might suggest.  Even his father, the Emperor Hongzhi, could not overlook the shortcomings in his favorite son: “He is intelligent, but he is still so young and is too fond of ease and pleasure…”  Upon ascending the throne at age 15, Zhengde played hooky from his tutors, handed over his duties to a series of unloved eunuch ministers,  wenched and wined.  His incompetent reign was notable mostly for a never-ending series of rebellions and assassination plots.   He managed to burn down the entire palace complex of the Forbidden City by improperly storing the gunpowder needed for his beloved mock-battles.  As in the opera, Zhengde did enjoy traveling in disguise.  From 1517 onwards he made a few rounds of the northern Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces.  The North seemed to exert a magnetic attraction for him – he preferred living in Mongolian-style yurts to residing in traditional imperial palaces.

So far as I know, the first appearance in print of the play “Meilong Garrison” is found in a c. 1728 collection of seventeen operas “The Tales of the Ancient Cypress Hall” (“古柏堂传奇”) by the scholar-official Tang Ying (唐英, 1682-1756).   Most the plays in this collection are in the very old Zaju (杂剧) style, which dates back to the 12th century.  Both Zaju and Kunqu opera were popular with the Qing court in the 18th century, and Tang Ying’s collection was surely destined for court performance.  Tang Ying likely adapted the story of “Meilong Garrison” from an opera in circulation among the clapper-opera companies of Northern China.

In the mid 19th-century, the ascendant form of opera in the capital was no longer Zaju or even Kunqu, but Beijing opera.  The companies cultivating this young, dynamic style often raided the “classics” in their search for libretti.  Many of the plays from Tang Ying’s “Tales of the Ancient Cypress Hall” were transformed into Beijing operas during this era.  In addition to speeding up the action and enlivening the music, the Beijing-opera version of “Meilong Garrison” also changes the character of the story in one important respect.   In the mid- to late-19th century, the reigning stars of Beijing opera were the actors who played “old men” – beginning with the three worthies (Cheng Changgeng 程长庚, Yu Sansheng余三胜,  Zhang Erkui张二奎) and extending through “the later three worthies” (Tan Xinpei摊鑫培, Wang Guifang汪桂芳, and Sun Juxian孙菊仙).    These “old men” characters elevated the tone of Beijing opera, lending greater dignity and moral seriousness to the high-spirited and occasionally improper proceedings.    It was only natural that the role of Emperor Zhengde should be assumed by one of these leading “old men”.  In the process, the twenty-something sybarite Zhengde was transformed into a much more mature figure.  Watching the Emperor Zhengde on the Beijing-opera stage, we can almost believe he is the capable ruler he proclaims himself to be.   This opera has remained a favorite with actors of “old men” characters, providing them with a rare and welcome opportunity to relax a bit, flirt, and engage in some highly-suggestive banter.

The other star of the show is the perky, nimble “flower-girl” (huādàn, 花旦).   In the last half of the 19th century, these quick-witted, vivacious coquettes were the most popular of the female roles.   In the 20th century, the “huadan” lost her pre-eminence in favor of the more dramatic and sentimental “spring-clothes” women (qīngyīndàn, 青衣旦).  But as Luo Rongzheng’s lively performance demonstrates, the “huadan” is still perfectly capable of holding the stage on her own.

This comic opera contains a lot of puns which were difficult to translate into English.

*Phoenix-Sister has her feathers ruffled when Zhengde sarcastically praises her modest home (“My, oh my, what an enormous room this is.”)  Fengjie demands that he carefully look over her good set-up, 家, which in this case might mean either her home or her person.   In the event, Zhengde’s minute inspections are confined to the latter.

*When Li Fengjie warns Zhengde that he will have to compensate (péi, 赔) her for the damaged table, he changes the subject to drinking companions (péi jiǔ, 陪酒).   There is more than a little double-entendre here as well, since in olden days such “drinking partners” often continued their companionable duties in the bedroom…

*When Zhengde finishes one cup of wine, he smacks his lips and proclaims “干” (gān), which means empty as in “干杯” (gānbēi, “empty your cup!”)  But gān is also the first word of “f*** your mom” as well as the last syllable of “nerve”.  Fengjie hurls both at the emperor, crying out: “motherf***ing nerve” (gānnǐniángde xīngān, 干你娘的心肝).

*The final minutes of the opera have a tricky play on words based on 舅(jiù), which can mean either your mother’s oldest brother or your own brother-in-law.  The pun cannot be translated into English – I could only throw up my hands and cry “Uncle!”.

The beautiful and nimble Luo Rongzheng (Luō Róngzhēng, 罗戎征) sings the role of Li Fengjie.  She currently stars in “huadan”  roles with the Beijing Opera Troupe of Zhejiang.  Already a seasoned actress, Luo undertook additional study in 2011 to refine her craft.  When Luo sang this opera (along with a couple others) last year in Beijing, she told the press: “These roles were taught me by Lǎoshī Liu Changyu (Liú Chángyú, 刘长瑜).  I hope these performances constitute a satisfactory “final exam”.  I had originally studied “Qingyi” roles. I couldn’t even walk a proper circle in the “huadan” style.  Studying with teacher Liu, I thoroughly learned the fundamentals, and I gradually began to understand how the actor’s external appearance allows people to understand the character’s psychology.”

Her partner, Zhang Jianguo (Zhāng Jiànguó, 张建国), is our Emperor Zhengde.  Zhang currently heads the Third Beijing Opera Company of Beijing.  A leading performer on the national stage for more than 20 years, he has been the recipient of many awards, including the coveted Plum Blossom award in 2002.

*This opera also suitable for Valentine’s Day.  It’s a two-fer!

7 thoughts on “Exit the Dragon

    • Ahoy there, Bertrand – long time no see! Nice to be back here in San Francisco.
      And thanks for the link. I’m enjoying reading about Fern’s Big Beijing Adventure!

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