Lovestruck Nuns in Hell: Shen Tiemei

I’ve been thinking that this blog needed an estrogen boost.  Luckily,  New York’s Lincoln Center Festival is about to give us a good dose..

Noted Chinese composer Guo Wenjing (郭文景) is premiering a new opera,  The Phoenix Pavilion based on a traditional Sichuanese opera of the same name.  Starring as the femme fatale Diao Chan (貂蝉) is the Sichuanese opera star Shen Tiemei (沈铁梅).   The performances run from July 26 through July 28.

Aside from the occasional panda or dish of spicy, dry-fried intestines, Sichuanese culture doesn’t often come to American shores.    For that reason, blog posts this week will be dedicated to the opera’s leading lady as well as traditional versions of the Diao Chan story from Sichuan, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shaanxi.

We’ll start with one of Shen Tiemei’s signature roles, the young nun pining for freedom in the scene “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures.”  (思凡)   The plot itself requires little explanation – the little nun has been packed off to the convent by her family.   Outside the gates one day, she meets a young man.  Since that time, she hardly knows who she is or what she’s doing.   One thing is certain: this nun would brave hellfire to cozy up with a handsome lad.

In the Chinese movie “Farewell My Concubine”, the old teacher repeats the traditional maxim: “Men fear the opera “Night Flight”, women fear the opera “Thinking of Worldly Pleasures”.  Though this version of the scene Is a bit on the short side, it’s still a bravura piece for a “little lady “ (小旦) or “flower girl” (花旦) performer.    It is a role to made for seducing audiences.  Indeed,  it’s worth recalling that up until the early 20th century, theater companies often had other, offstage, uses for some of their actors.

Shen Tiemei here performs in the High-Singing style of Sichuanese opera (高腔川剧) – vocally exuberant and accompanied only by percussion.  You can practically smell the mountain air in her voice.

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.

Happy Birthday Chen Hongxiang, or On Revolutionaries and Romantics

Happy 35th Birthday to honey-voiced Chen Hongxiang (Chén Hóngxiáng, 陈洪翔), one of the star young-man (xiǎoshēng, 小生) performers of Fujian’s Minju (闽剧) opera tradition.

Having won competitions almost continuously since the age of 14, the charismatic Chen is particularly well-known for his craft in broadening the scope and depth of the traditional xiǎoshēng roles.  At the tender age of 25, he won acclaim as the aged general-prince Liu Bei of the Three Kingdoms saga.  His performance of Cui Yunlong from the comic opera “An Official’s Demotion” (贬官记) was notable for its blend of clown (chǒu, 丑) and young-man performing styles.  Since 2003 he has been a member of the Fujian Experimental Minju troupe.

This studio-produced video gives a good idea of his voice’s sweetness – but I’d like to post here a less elegantly shot, but nonetheless stylish and interesting, video from a 2011 live performance.

“Farewell Letter to My Wife” (别妻书) is based on a famous story from the Xinhai revolution.  When in 1911 revolution broke out across China, the young scholar Lin Juemin (Lín Juémín, 林觉民), returned from his studies in Japan to his native home in Fujian.  After reuniting briefly with his wife, he left to participate in the Guangzhou uprising where he was arrested and killed.  His letter on parting with her (Chén Yìyìng, 陈意映) has been reckoned a tender classic of modern patriotic Chinese literature.

Politics aside, revolutions (be they Chinese, French, or Pandoran) often make for good melodrama.  The most celebrated scene from this Min opera is “Gazing by the Wife at Lamplight” – on the eve of his departure, Lin Juemin tries to resist waking his wife.  A beam of light from a single lamp illuminates her features, which he studies with rapt devotion.  In the end, Lin is overcome with passion – he rouses his wife for a final goodbye.

The opera “Farewell Letter to My Wife” is about 10 years old.  It was restaged last year to coincide with the centenary of the Xinhai revolution.  In taking over the role, Chen Hongxiang thoroughly revised this scene to emphasize Lin Juemin’s love for his wife and to bring the tragedy of romantic separation into greater focus.    The original libretto retains some of the storm and stress of revolutionary rhetoric, highlighting the tribulations faced by the couple and the Lin Juemin’s sacrifice of domestic bliss for the welfare of the people:


Looking at her, I see some spots of gray, she already has lost some of the bloom of her former days.

Though her hair is still a lustrous black, specks of grey are starting to run rampant.”


Gazing at her, I can see that age has left its mark, yet she still has the moonlit glow of former days.

Contemplating her speckled, tousled hair, it still seems to float like a cloud of ink.

In the first version, Lin mourns the cares which cause his wife’s beauty to fade; in the second version, she almost seems untouched by time.


Having gone for years to study in distant lands, it was very difficult for her to manage the family affairs.

To spend several years giving my all for the people, how many more cares will burden her?

 How strong is her mind and body? She may become tired and dispirited from too much work!

 She had been such a simple and naive spirit, but because of me she is now full of cares.

 Her poetry used to be elegant and refined, but because of this leave-taking, every sentence speaks of heartbreak.”


My darling!

 On my dearest’s exquisite little mouth, a fine down already lies upon her lips.

 How many times will I hear her gentle speech, like listening to a mountain spring burbling forth?

 How many times will I hear her poems and songs, like listening to the cadence of heavenly verse?”

The first version has echoes of the storm-and-stress of revolutionary operas; the second version continues Lin’s ode to his wife’s charms.

Chen Hongxiang’s romantic scene deftly softens the contours of the revolutionary background.  Is this a trend in the handling of the country’s legacy of political operas?

Drunken Monk, Flirting Teens

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.

Baochai declaimed:

“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.