While we’re on the subject of poses, let’s take a look at one of the opera world’s most kick-ass Tai Chi routines: the athletic conclusion to the Kun opera scene, Drunken Pounding at the Mountain Gates.
Warning: If you’re already feeling guilty about your lax exercise regimen, don’t watch this glute-cramping, leg-splaying video.
Lu Zhishen (Lǔ Zhìshēn, 鲁智深) is one of rough-and-tumble heroes of the classic Ming novel Tales of the Water Margin. Lu, a crude, violent but righteous army captain, has killed a venal butcher who has been extorting money from a poor lass and her father. Hiding from the law, Lu is brought by friends to a monastery in the Wutai mountains. There, with a new name, new clothes and a new home, he might escape unjust punishment which awaits him in town.
Hijinks ensue. Too boisterous and unmannered for temple life, Lu wanders out of the monastery to find some place to booze it up (alcohol is forbidden to Buddhist monks). In the first half of “Drunken Pounding at the Mountain Gates”, Lu meets a wine-peddler and, by dint of tricks and force, gulps down the entirety of the peddler’s two buckets of wine.
The second half of the opera scene shows Lu returning late at night to the Wutai Mountain Monastery. Dead drunk, Lu finds the gates locked to him. Blitzed out of his mind, Lu recalls the imposing images of the 18 Arhats (saintly figures who have achieved Nirvana) which flank the Great Temple Hall. Carried away by his state of intoxication, he assumes the form of each one of them – mostly while perched on one leg.
Drunken Pounding at the Mountain Gates is just one scene from a larger play, now lost, Tiger Purse Accusation (Hǔ Náng Tán, 虎囊弹) by the 17th-century writer Qiu Yuan (Qiū Yuán, 丘园). This scene was so popular that it continued to be performed even when the rest of the original opera was forgotten . In the 18th century mega-novel, A Dream of Red Mansions (think Austen on steroids), the opera plays a conspicuous part at the 15th-birthday celebrations of the lovely and quick-witted Xue Baochai:
When the feast was ready, the Lady Dowager told Baochai to select another opera, and she asked for The Drunken Monk.
“You always choose something rowdy,” objected Jia Baoyu.
“You’ve been watching operas all these years for nothing if you don’t know how good this is,” retorted Baochai. “Besides being spectacular it has some magnificent lines.”
“I never could stand noisy shows,” he persisted.
“If you call this noisy that just shows how little you know about opera,” she rejoined. “Come over here and let me explain. This opera has the most stirring arias sung in the northern mode Dian Jiang Chun, which needless to say is an excellent melody; and the verses set to Ji Sheng Cao are quite superb, did you but know it.”
Baoyu edged closer then and begged her to recite them to him.
“Dried are the hero’s tears.
My patron’s house left behind;
By grace divine
Tonsured below the Lotus Throne.
Not destined to stay,
I leave the monastery in a flash,
Naked I go without impediment;
My sole wish now
To roam alone in coir cape and bamboo hat,
And in straw sandals with a broken alms bow!
To wander where I will.”
Baoyu pounded his lap to the rhythm of the verse and nodded appreciatively, loud in his praises of these words as well as of her erudition.
“Do be quiet and watch,” said Daiyu. “Before we’ve seen The Drunken Monk, you’re playing The General Feigns Madness.”
This set Xiangyun giggling.
(translation by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang)
The opera seen by the giggling teens in the gardens of the Red Mansion differs from the opera as it is done today. Indeed, the changes are sometimes so substantial that the title for the opera no longer seems entirely apt. While Lu Zhishen is certainly drunk in the video above, there is no gate, and consequently no door-pounding.
In Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhang’s 14th-century novel Tales of the Water Margin, the drunk Lu Shizhen smashes the monastery gates and wreaks havoc in the temple. He commits act after act of sacrilege – upon reaching the sleeping quarters he vomits all over, munches on a roasted dog’s leg (which he also shoves in the faces of the vegetarian monks), and then precipitates a battle royale with the assembled monks and servants, using as a staff the leg of the Buddha’s altar table in the meditation room.
Some performances of “Drunken Pounding at the Mountain Gates” clearly lead up to this irreverent fracas. But the version seen here falls within a specific, Hunanese, Xiang Kun (Xiāng Kūn, 湘昆) tradition of the opera established by the great Tan Baocheng (Tán Bǎochéng, 谭保成) (1924-1999). Tan learned the opera from his teacher and uncle Tan Songyue (Tán Sōngyuè, 谭松月) . At the time, the older Tan only performed 7 or 8 Arhat poses, and he did them standing on both legs.
This was much too easy for the young Tan Baocheng – he decided to make a real showpiece of the scene by performing it on one leg (“Single-Legged Golden Rooster”, 金鸡独立) and increasing the number of Arhats to 18 (one of the standard Arhat-counts in traditional depictions). Tan Baocheng visited temples and monasteries to examine a variety of Arhat images and to find models for imitation. Tan Baocheng’s performance of this difficult scene made him famous. Studying the role with Tan in the 1950s, Hou Xinying (Hóu Xīnyīng, 侯新颖) spent every waking moment standing on one leg.
Athletic virtuosity is only one component of Tan Baocheng’s “Drunken Pounding at the Mountain Gate.” The 18-Arhat routine might be called “animated iconography”. As Tan Baocheng explained “The whole scene is made up of two parts. The first part [the encounter with the wine-peddler] portrays a man; the second part [Lu imitating the Arhats] portrays a god.” Though Buddhist strictures might disapprove of alcohol, some Chinese scholars considered intoxication a path to transcendence. In Tang poetry, there are the Eight Immortal Sages of the Cup (饮中八仙). Movie buffs might be familiar with Jackie Chan’s classic film Drunken Master. If there’s any pounding going on in Tan Baocheng’s version of The Drunken Monk, it’s at the gates of heaven.
Chinese opera has its share of stage gods and men/gods. One of the most popular and revered spirits of the Qing dynasty, the Three Kingdoms general Guan Gong (关公), was frequently depicted onstage. Star performers of the Guan Gong role were praised as 活关公 – “incarnations of Guan Gong”. Tan Baocheng took the character of Lu Zhishen and set him on a path to sainthood.
The Tales of the Water Margin are set in a topsy-turvy society where law-givers are often villains and the outlaws are heroic. The Hunanese Kun (湘昆) tradition heightens the contradictions of Lu’s character. Drunk yet impossibly graceful, boorish yet righteous, Lu breaks every single vow of a Buddhist monk while approaching immortality. Part devil, part saint, Lu Zhishen charms us with all his inebriated ineffability.
ABOUT THE PERFORMER: Celebrated Kun opera star Cao Zhiwei (Cáo Zhìwēi, 曹志威) is famous for his performance of drunken monk Lu Zhishen. In 2003, Cao graduated from the Hunan School for the Arts. From 2003 – 2010 he was a member of the Hunan Kunqu Opera troupe. In 2010 he left Hunan to join Nanjing’s Jiangsu Kun opera troupe.