“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.

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.