Long buried in obscurity and hardly known among Chinese opera connoisseurs, Liuzi (or Willow) opera from the Shandong province made its debut in Hong Kong earlier this week. This five-century-old opera, widely believed to have vanished after the Cultural Revolution, struggled against overwhelming odds to survive to this day.
The success of Sun An Presenting Memorials, the signature play of Liuzi opera, almost brought the art to its grave. Written in 1956, it tells the story of Sun An, an upright mandarin in the Ming dynasty, who presents three petitions to the emperor daily to condemn prime minister Zhang Cong. The teenage emperor, virtually at the beck and call of Zhang, chastises Sun and forbids him to petition again. Undaunted, Sun brings his wife and child, who first put their family before the people, to the court for an audience, only to be sentenced to death. Finally, grand marshal Xu Long, whose ancestors helped found the nation, storms the palace with the imperial mallet bestowed by the late emperor, brings the puppet ruler to his senses and gives Zhang a sound beating.
Soon after the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Sun An and the Peking opera Hai Rui Dismissed from Office were denounced as two “poisonous weeds”─a veiled attack of the Communist Party by rebels affiliated with capitalists. The Liuzi Operatic Troupe was expelled from Jinan, the capital city of Shandong, to a rural township; its director, playwright and musician were tortured to death.
A brief look at contemporary Chinese history may offer clues to why Sun An was censured. The Great Leap Forward, an ultra-radical reform programme spearheaded by Mao Zedong, brought a catastrophic famine to the nation from 1959 to 61, allegedly costing 38 million lives. Yet what kept gracing the newspaper’s front page was incessant propaganda reiterating that “Harvests soared with improved farming methods,” where girls were seen sitting happily on piles of rice stalks on the field. Made into a film in 1962 which took the whole nation by storm, Sun An might appear to have blown the lid off the scam. Decidedly political in character, the Cultural Revolution was an attempt by Mao to weed out his rivals from the Party. Little wonder the play came under fire for alluding to what Mao had done to the purged defence minister Peng Dehuai. What’s more, the puppet emperor is played by a role type called wawa sheng, or a teenage young man, to act out the character’s utter impotence. That was likely to enrage the Red Guards, the millions of students mobilized by Mao as tools of political persecution. The final scene where Xu Long boldly challenges the emperor no doubt stroke a raw nerve since Mao, after the fiasco of the Great Leap Forward, was feeling increasingly intimidated. Once lauded by the authorities, the play was labelled, ironically, as a subversive parody by the same persons.
After the Cultural Revolution, the troupe was cleared of its “crimes,” but was shaken to its foundations and many members left. Today, the Liuzi Operatic Troupe of Shandong is the only surviving group in China with just 80 persons, including administrative staff. Lu opera, a relatively infant and immature regional opera coming on the scene in the early 20th century, has been considered the representative genre of Shandong; Liuzi opera, the 500-year-old big brother, has sadly sunk into oblivion. In fact, the Liuzi vocal style was widely known as one of the four major operatic tunes in early Qing, capturing the whole eastern China. Folk tunes and ditties of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties formed the integral part of its music fabric, and its long history has made the art aesthetically accomplished and elaborate.
Compared with Peking opera and Kunqu, hailed as the “national” operas, regional operas are much more down-to-earth and have a stronger folk flavour, but may at the same time appear crude and rough. Liuzi opera, with its rich tradition, is at once delicate and refined. “Courtiers hitting the emperor” is not a rare scene in Chinese opera. For instance, the Peking opera Hitting the Dragon Robe sees the empress dowager ordering the impartial Judge Bao to give the unfilial emperor a good beating. A veteran knowing all the dos and don’ts of court etiquette, the cautious judge lets his boss down easy by asking him to take off his dragon robe, and hitting it instead as a gesture of punishment. On the Liuzi opera stage is however an uninhibited Xu Long who never hesitates to go the extra mile. Regional operas, thriving mostly in the rural provinces, are mostly shaped by the aesthetic sensibilities of the peasants, their major audience. The high officials, supposedly awe-inspiring, are often portrayed with a comic sense of innocence. In the scene where his petitions in defence of Sun An are turned down, the disgruntled Xu writes in the last one, “No matter what, I demand your pardon. Give your consent! Consent! Consent!” He goes to even greater lengths when the petition is torn into pieces: “I won’t spare the unruly emperor! Wield my mallet and you will be off to hell!” Such devil-may-care attitude, the most endearing trait of the Shandong people, is also mirrored in their art.
What Sun An does offer is more than the rustic beauty of regional operas. In scene six, Sun An is seen drafting another appeal at the expense of his life, only to be stopped by his wife who pleads on her knees for their infant son and the widowed mother-in-law. After a hard struggle, Sun reminds the imploring wife of a tragic scene they saw together─a distraught widow drowned herself after her husband and son had been murdered by the minister, a plight with which Sun’s wife instantly empathizes. Deeply moved, she changes her mind and orders the servant to prepare three coffins for the entire family. Psychological subtlety and complexity of the character, which many Western critics find wanting in Chinese opera, is depicted in graphic detail; the noble qualities in human nature are brought to the fore after a series of moral struggles, free of any attempt at tear-jerking. A well-written script as this is hard to come by in Peking opera, which tends to emphasize performance over literature.
I am thrilled to see that Liuzi opera, which is really worth recommending, went down very well with the Hong Kong audience and critics alike. A chance to perform here is nothing unusual for some big opera troupes, but can mean life or death for a regional opera which is just scraping by. LCSD is making a good effort to offer new delights to Chinese opera fans in Hong Kong─a bracing scene indeed in a crumbling city where history and tradition is nothing compared to high rises, malls and Starbucks.