Uphill Battle

Some tweets I have run across in the past few days…

“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.

Tan: Rested and Ready!

Another interview, this time with the young-ish singer Tan Zhengyan.   There will be a special video for those who read to the end.

Tan Zhengyan is a Beijing opera performer of “old-man” roles, a principal performer of the Beijing Opera Theater, and a first-rank national artist.   Born in 1979 to a theatrical family, he is the inheritor of the Tan tradition handed down over seven generations.  His paternal grandfather is Tan Yuanshou (谭元寿), his father is Tan Xiaoceng  (谭孝曾).   He studied at the Beijing Opera School, the National Opera Conservatory and the Fourth China Beijing Opera Graduate Course for Outstanding Young Talents.   In 2005, he was awarded a gold prize at the Chinese Central Television Grand Competition for Young Performers of Beijing Opera.

Tan Zhengyan belongs to the seventh generation of performers in the Tan-school.  “Little Seven Tan” sports a cheerful exterior and a dazzling smile, but few can guess the burdens placed on him by the weight of the illustrious family tradition and the inheritance of Beijing opera’s future.  He participated last week in a forum for representatives of the Beijing and Tianjin opera artists.  On the 28th he will perform “The General and Minister Reach Accord” with the young actor Fang Xu (方旭) at the National Grand Theater.

Offstage, Tan Zhengyan spend his time with charitable activities.  His positive outlook is infectious to those around him.   He says, “If it lies within my abilities, I’m ready to help anybody.”

New Capital News:  Coming from the house of Tan, you’re practically doomed to bear a lot of responsibility and pressure.  Do you feel that sense of mission?

Tan Zhengyan:  I’ve felt it since I was 8 years old.  I knew I was made for Beijing opera, that I would do it for my entire life.  Ever since I was little, I was surrounded by people who drilled into me: “Zhengyan, you have to pick up the big flag of the Tan school, accept Beijing opera as your inheritance.”  I have sacrificed a lot as a child of “Tan”.   The “Tan” name never gave me a sense of superiority.  Instead, it’s given me pressure and abuse.

New Capital News: Do you have doubts about your own abilities?

Tan Zhengyan:  I’m a pretty happy guy, and I’m usually pretty optimistic.  The more other people find fault with me, the more energy I have to overcome difficulties.   I’m also aware of my own shortcomings.   I’ll even listen to nasty remarks made about me on the internet, if those remarks have some sense to them.   When I first started reading things on the internet, it was very different.  There were a few times I couldn’t stand it.  I’d write a letter of resignation, go home and tell people that I was leaving the family business.

I am not very good at expressing myself, and many people can’t really understand my plight.  There are three generations of Tans at the Beijing opera houses.  From a young age, I also wanted to join the opera houses, but at that time I couldn’t get in because of the quotas.  It took some good luck and coincidences before I could get in.

New Capital News:  How do you handle the pressure?

Tan Zhengyan: I swallow lots of little hardships, endure lots of little troubles.  I think it’s all worth it when I hear the crowd in the audience yell “bravo”.  My fan club is called “Got Rock, Got Faces” [yan = 岩 = rock]:  if Tan Zhengyan appears someplace,  people show up to watch.  I used to keep at this business because of my Tan family name, but nowadays I have the feeling that I keep at it because of these fans.   Whenever I’m the most dispirited, they’re always there to encourage me.

Another way I have for blowing off steam is through charity.  I’m usually involved in a few charitable projects.  I hope to inspire other young Beijing opera performers and opera fans to do it with me all together.  You don’t do good things to get some sort of favor in return –  through acts of kindness to move other people’s hearts to good.

New Capital News: In your day-to-day business, are you able to rely on your friends to help publicize Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:  I can.  The folks in my circle have come to enjoy Beijing opera.  There are people who don’t really dislike Beijing opera, but they think it’s something only old people listen to. They don’t even want to go into the auditorium!  The people I’ve brought to see Beijing opera have immediately fallen in love with it.   They need to be talked into it, I need to pay for their tickets out of my own pocket – if that doesn’t work, then I just forget about it.

New Capital News: Younger generations seem to listen to Beijing opera less and less.  What’s your view of the situation?

Tan Zhengyan:  Everyone has so much pressure at work, they want to find ways to lessen that pressure.  They don’t want to ponder things.  They want music that lets them shake off their cares.  Beijing opera, with its archaic grammar, has a lot of language in it that makes you scratch your head.

I get really annoyed by those folks who don’t watch Beijing opera, who say they don’t understand the staging, who say they don’t understand the music.  Beijing opera is an art – it is something you come to appreciate.  It’s not a matter of “understanding” or “not understanding”.  Moreover, everyone nowadays uses captions.  You can understand every word of a Jay Chou song?  The Cantonese songs of Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung – you really can understand those? 

New Capital News: So what would tell people is the significance of Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:  In Beijing opera there is the thought of Confucius and Mencius, there are thoughts of loyalty and filial piety.  They really can educate a person.   The ancients really had a sense of righteousness which people now lack.  If it’s allowed to fall away, not only will Beijing opera come to an end, but all of Chinese traditional culture will come to an end as well.  For example: “Orphan Zhao” – I saw the movie where Cheng Ying gives the child to Tu Angu only by mistake.  But in the Beijing opera it’s not like that at all.  The play is called “Picture of Eight Justices”.  Very few people understand why you would want to help a child who is entirely unrelated to you, but I am able to understand it very well.

This is one reason I love Beijing opera: it has its source in life, but it exceeds life.  It’s artistry is in every respect extremely beautiful, extremely precise.  I think that everybody’s life would improve after a few years if they took the time to appreciate the beauty of Beijing opera – I’ve felt that way for some time.    That’s why I can’t stop trying to popularize Beijing opera.


My grandfather is not very articulate.  When I make a mistake, sometimes he doesn’t tell me directly about it, but instead leaves it up to my father. 

I grew up with my grandmother.  As a child, I didn’t have a lot of contact with my grandfather.  Only when I graduated from the drama school did I have more contact with him.  By that time he already seemed like an old child.  He likes to collect foreign wine.   Once I came back from France and brought a bottle of wine with me, like a kid he perched on the sofa to see what it was I was putting on the counter.  Now he is quite old.   His mind has slowed, his body has slowed.  But even though he is very old, he is still very dignified.

There was never any pressure when performing with my grandfather, I always felt excited an at ease.  There was one time when we had finished performing that my father came to me to say that my grandfather was quite pleased!  Then my grandfather came in and offered some congratulations to the other performers, thanked them all and left.  He didn’t say a single word to me.  I asked my dad: were you telling me the truth just now about my grandfather’s feelings?  My father said: your grandfather’s like that – he can be very happy without praising you to your face.   I gradually came to learn that when I gave a poor performance, my grandfather would praise me, to offer me encouragement.

New Capital News: You are 1.85 meters tall.  That can be a help in spoken drama and on television series, but is it a limitation in Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:   Not necessarily.    If you’re taller than other people, you have to work harder, you’re not as flexible.  The vocal cords are longer, too, and that can affect the voice.  But all of this can be perfected with constant effort.  Our stages nowadays are so big, it’s a certain help to be so tall.   I often say that the Chang-An Theater is built for me! [Laughs]

New Capital News: You have also performed in a few television serials.  What affect has that had on your performance of Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:  I always like to find some way to “stay ahead of the curve” in Beijing opera.  For one thing, by performing on television you can gain a certain amount of celebrity.  Pu Cunxin, Song Dandan, and Yang Lixin first gained fame in television and movies.  When they returned to the spoken stage, they brought their audiences with them.  I too think that I could bring some of my television fans over to my side, to get them to come to a theater to watch Beijing opera.  For another thing, you can learn a lot of new techniques by acting on television.  In school I arranged a few small works, performed in some new things, I thought it would be just like that.  But on the set, the director just gives you a general idea of how to do things – it’s not like Beijing opera where you imitate your teacher’s every movement.  When I got in front of the camera, I had no idea what to do – I had no idea how to use my hands, they didn’t give me any rule or style to follow.  I was completely alone.  Beijing opera actors lack the ability to rely on themselves to create a character.

Afterwards, I met up with some friends from the television business and learned from them how to create and perform.  After this, both audience members and professional reviews have said that my onstage characters are different from others’.  I’ve been able to blend in a little of my own understanding.

Chen Ran reported for the New Daily News.

And now for the special video I promised you.   The Tan family, grandfather Tan Yuanshou, father Tan Xiaoceng and son Tan Zhengyan, together perform Zhuge Liang’s well-known aria “I am a carefree fellow from Wolong Mountain”, from the opera “Empty City Strategy” (空城计).   We’ll be discussing this aria, this opera and this character in greater depth in the next couple of weeks.  But for now, just enjoy the family reunion as the Tan-clan take the stage.

Star Wars

Placido Domingo’s international opera competition Operalia (“like the Olympic games for opera singers”), held this year in Beijing, has just ended.  It’s easy to imagine that veteran Beijing opera star Li Hongtu (李宏图, video below) had something like Plamingo in mind when he gave the following interview to the Culture and Creative Industries Weekly (文化创意产业周刊)

Li Hongtu: “Beijing opera needs to “create stars””

A few days ago, the curtain came down on the very successful Tianjin stop of Beijing’s Beijing-Opera Theaters’ tour “Singing Travels”.   Even so, the director of the Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Company, Li Hongtu, is filled with apprehension at Beijing opera’s future.  The commercialization and marketing of Beijing opera is still a big problem for the industry.  Li Hongtu believes that only when the Beijing opera companies can make “stars” and “celebrities” will they be able to grab the attention of younger people and cultivate an audience that is accustomed to paying for Beijing opera – changing Beijing opera from something “offered” to something “sold” and setting it on a path towards marketization.  Reporter Jiang Mengwei interviews Li Hongtu.

JMW: The country’s support for Beijing Opera has always been strong, why haven’t Beijing opera troupes been very profitable?

Li Hongtu: In recent years, the country’s support for Beijing Opera has reached its highest level ever.  But looking at things from the point of view of a Beijing Opera company,  the substantial levels of government support aren’t always applied in the ways that would be most crucial.  The country has been developing Beijing opera culture at the macroeconomic level, spending a lot of resources on the maintenance of  opera companies and fewer resources into developing professional guidance for the opera companies to allow them to  enter the marketplace and publicize themselves better.    We also need more introspection: for many years, Beijing opera troupes have principally concerned themselves with questions of repertoire and casting, and devoted little time to thinking about Beijing opera’s position in the marketplace.

JMW: Are the opera companies looking for some kind of government support, for special help earmarked for these “crucial” purposes?

Li Hongtu: For many years, opera companies neglected to learn how to create stars, how to create brand identity.  The capital’s Beijing opera companies relied for 20 years on the three famous stars Du-Wang-Li (Yang-school old-man performer Du Zhenjie, Zhang-school prima donna Wang Rongrong, and Ye-school young-man performer Li Hongtu).    Nowadays, Beijing’s opera companies don’t have any such “stars” or “celebrities” among their young performers.    Because of this, the opera companies not only need to help young performers learn their repertoire, they also need to guide them on how to use the media, to learn from television, film and music how to make stars, how to draw more attention from the public to Beijing opera, how to create a new wave of enthusiasm for Beijing opera.

In addition to this, I would hope for the public good that the government would increase its material support for Beijing opera.   We have been sticking to our plan of bringing Beijing opera into campus life, but a single performance of opera includes lighting, props, transportation costs of at least 60,000 RMB.  New operas and big operas can cost 110,000-120,000 RMB.  The pressures are enormous.  With government support for these campus performances only covering about 15,000-20,000 RMB, we can’t make ends meet: the crew and cast lose their enthusiasm and the level of the performances consequently drops.

We also hope the relevant government departments can assist the opera companies’ enterprises, providing policy support and tax incentives.  For Beijing opera companies to expand into the consumer sector, we need to be able to provide cheaper, even free , tickets to attract audiences that have not yet experienced Beijing opera.  Because of this, we need active participation in Beijing opera’s enterprises, we need substantial support to arouse enthusiasm for these enterprises.

JMW: What kind of support is needed to create “stars” and “celebrities”?

Li Hongtu: In 2010, the capital’s Beijing Opera theaters gave a total of 583 performances.  Each performance was personally “set up” by me – very rarely do other people invite us to come perform.   This is because we don’t have high-profile celebrities and stars.  Every Beijing opera performer has to go through 8-10 years of training, 20-30 years of performance before they have an opportunity to become known by the wider public.   It takes a lot of time to cultivate a singer and their reception in the meantime is not wide.   If there is not a good publicity machine in place, we are going to see fewer and fewer Beijing opera performers.

Regarding Beijing opera, it’s a case of “a fragrant wine still needs an appealing bottle”.  Beijing opera needs to concern itself not only with innovative creations, but more importantly with the operation of market forces.  In this, the abilities of Beijing opera performers are limited.  They are trained in performance skills and developing characters that are easy to grasp.  Few have the ability to exploit their market potential.  Because of this, we will only be able to create big stars and famous celebrities when the opera troupes themselves have firmly established their own brand names, when the opera houses have really tried to use market forces.  In merging Beijing opera with modern methods, we can win a new lease on life.

JMW: Aside from government and corporate support, what other reforms are Beijing opera troupes contemplating?

Li Hongtu: There are many issues, including how to get young talents into top form, how to make our industry bigger and stronger.  Right now, every Beijing opera troupe usually has to rely on personal connections to make performance opportunities happen.   These are the business methods of a small workshop.  The models and climate are fundamentally lacking for us to scale up our activities.  Many years ago, when the average person only had tens of RMB in their pocket, the leading performers at the Mei Lanfang theater earned a thousand RMB.  But today, the income for talented young performers of Beijing opera is not high.  There are some young performers who are having quite a hard time living in Beijing – this could lead to a serious loss for Beijing opera.

However, the essence of Beijing opera is still developing new work, creating outstanding new productions.  Strong content guides us today, not a blind chasing after money or business opportunities which would lower the standards of the art of Beijing opera.  This is a principle to which we must always adhere.