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Seeking a Place in the Sun: A Note on Peking Opera in Taiwan

Author: Shen Diau-long, 2021年12月16日 10時06分

評論的展演: Sunlight after Snowfall (快雪時晴)

Production: Sunlight after Snowfall 《快雪時晴》
Venue: Opera House, Weiwuying, Kaoshiung 高雄衛武營歌劇院
Time: October 3rd, 2021

      It is said that when Puyi (溥儀 1906 – 1967), the last emperor of China, was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, he tried to carry away in his luggage the calligraphical masterpiece Timely Clearing After Snowfall (快雪時晴帖, hereafter Snowfall) by Wang Xizhi (王羲之303–361 CE), perhaps the most esteemed calligrapher in Chinese history. In the end, this ancient work was discovered by the new Republic’s military police and confiscated on the grounds that it was “a part of a legacy passed down from our ancestors, and no single individual, even Puyi, can own such a national treasure.”[1] Following that incident, Snowfall was safely locked away in the Palace Museum (故宫博物院, established in 1925) in Beijing and certified as a national treasure. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the Nationalist government was forced to move Snowfall, together with countless other Palace Museum treasures, to the south and southwest of China to prevent them from falling into the hands of the invading Japanese. After World War II, the Chinese Civil War erupted again, and in 1949 many national treasures were moved again, this time to Taiwan. Only after 1965 was Snowfall finally put back on the regular display in the new founded National Palace Museum in Taipei (國立故宮博物院, hereafter NPM), where it remains as "national treasure" today.

      Wang Xizhi was born in the north of China during the Western Jin Dynasty (西晉, 265 –316 CE), but later in his life, after nomads invaded his home province in the early 4th century, he was forced to flee to the south, to the newly established Eastern Jin Dynasty (東晉, 317 – 420 CE). His calligraphical piece Snowfall was originally no more than a personal letter, only 28 Chinese characters long, that Wang sent to a friend. This letter begins with the description of a sudden clear sky after an enormous snowfall, which, in one interpretation [2], evokes Wang’s wish to pass through the tempestuous period of war and dislocation and finally settle into a calmer, clearer life, with a sense of belonging in a new home. This interpretation suggests that it was a struggle for northern native Wang Xizhi to settle in the south, giving the letter an unsettled and restless tone. This exquisitely written letter was loved and treasured by later generations of calligraphic connoisseurs, including two Chinese emperors: Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (唐太宗  598–649 CE) and Qianlong (乾隆帝1711–1799 CE) of the Qing Dynasty; and of course in modern times it remains esteemed as a “national treasure” in the NPM.

      It seems to me that it is the history of the wandering fate of Wang’s personal letter that inspired the 2007 production Sunlight after Snowfall (快雪時晴hereafter Sunlight) produced by the Taiwan-based Peking Opera troupe Guo Guang Opera Company (國光劇團)The Peking Opera can be traced back to local folk drama in the southern part of mainland China, and only became popular in the court of Beijing during the Qing Dynasty at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, it has held a more prominent position than other Chinese local operas. After 1949, when the Nationalist government lost the war against the Communists in mainland China and retreated to Taiwan, Peking Opera came to be used officially for two purposes. One was domestic; the opera functioned as an apparatus for promoting the dominance of Chinese culture in Taiwan and quietly underpinning the government’s ideology of someday retaking the mainland. The other was diplomatic; the Nationalist government used the opera as a tool to assert its international role as the legitimate heir and protector of Chinese tradition during the Cold War. Presented for public display as a “national treasure” only preserved in Taiwan, Peking Opera started to be known as “National Opera” (國劇) in Taiwan in the 1960s.[3]     

      However, such a “national” coronation also brought the Peking Opera more unsettling complications in decades to come.  Since the democratization and Taiwanization of Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s, the rationale for viewing Peking Opera as a “National Opera” superior to all other regional opera traditions in Taiwan, has been questioned and attacked. As different observers have sensed outspokenly or tacitly, the legitimate survival of Peking Opera in Taiwan may depend on how well it can connect with local audiences and build a truly Taiwanese foundation on which to “settle” itself. To be or not to be? the question demands an appropriate response. Sunlight represents one of the attempts “to be” and to settle the Peking Opera in Taiwan against a background of still unresolved historical complications.

    Sunlight’s plot, by playwright Ju-fang Shih (施如芳), is as follows: Wang Xizhi’s friend, General Zhang Rong (張容) dies in a battle to recover northern lands shortly after receiving Wang’s Snowfall letter, which angered Zhang due to Wang’s implied wish to settle in the South. Zhang dies with his patriotic mission unfulfilled, so his restless soul embarks on a journey through time and space to seek the hidden meaning in his dear friend’s letter. His soul roams through the Eastern Jin, Tang, Southern Song, and Qing dynasties, winding its way from his home province through destinations near and far before arriving in contemporary Taiwan. Along with Zhang’s spirit searching for Wang’s letter, there are two other threads to the story. One concerns a mother of two boys who grow up to become pawns in the armies of rival warlords during an ancient war for dominance; the warlords’ wanton cruelty forces the two brothers to take up arms against each other, breaking their mother's heart. The other thread weaves in the late 1940s, following the tragic experience of two "mainlander" Chinese (Chinese who followed the Nationalist government to Taiwan after 1949) who are drafted into the civil war between the Nationalist and the Communist Party and die in battle, with their families shattered. Through witnessing such stories, it finally dawns on Zhang Rong’s spirit why Wang Xizhi chose to re-settle in the South.

      These manifold threads that interweave the past and the present seem to tell the audience a simple truth: ordinary people are easily subject to tragedies brought on by the actions of powerful regimes. If burdened with resentment and unwillingness, their souls may wander forever, finally finding release only after surrendering their attachment to the ambitions of other people. The release of the complex and entangled emotions is epitomized in a scene that takes place inside Taipei’s National Palace Museum near the end of Act 3: an elderly mainlander couple stands gazing at Wang Xizhi’s Timely Clearing After Snowfall. They admire the calligraphic masterpiece handed down from 1700 years ago and reflect on their old roots in the mainland and new roots in Taiwan, letting out a sigh of self-recognition before leaving the stage: “Wherever we are cherished, we feel at home”.

     Perhaps, it is this confession-like message of requiring the mainlander to identify with Taiwan as their homeland that has led some critics to complain that its plot tends to be “too politically correct”.[4] However, one can also see this comment as pointing out exactly the meta-meaning of Sunlight: if Peking Opera has been considered detached from local Taiwanese life in its propagandistic and politically charged past, Sunlight reflects the fact that, despite democratization and Taiwanization, political and cultural Chineseness and Taiwaneseness are still pressing topics in Taiwan. Direct government control and censorship of the arts surely has disappeared, but political considerations, consciously or unconsciously, might still adhere to many commissions of (not only) performing arts. As such, what has been suspected must now be clarified: by satisfying the needs of responding to both supporters and detractors (some of who may wish to argue about political correctness), Sunlight has become attached to Taiwanese local life in the inescapable here and now. 

     From a musical point of view, Sunlight stands upon another kind of foundation dear to local audiences in Taiwan: Western classical music. Since the end of the 19th century, Taiwan has received Western music through school education, concerts, and recordings introduced through their Japanese colonizers (1895–1945). In Taiwan, Western classical music is supposed to be performed on indoor proscenium-style stages in a refined and subdued atmosphere, markedly different from the raucous drums, gongs, and horns that accompany traditional folk music performed outdoors on streets, in temples or at open festivals. This rather “Western” way of appreciating music was carried over to Peking Opera performances when they got officially institutionalized in Taiwan. In this style of staging, Western classical music and Peking Opera can cooperate and both find the possibility to engage a broader and different audience in Taiwan. 

     The Western orchestral music composed by Chung Yiu-Kwong (鍾耀光) for Sunlight has been called “symphonic Peking Opera” (交響京劇) by some local music reviewers.[5] This signature style of Western music –  “sym” (together) “phony” (sound) –  is immediately apparent at the beginning of Sunlight’s overture, as I discovered when I heard it on October 3. The delicate and layered sound of orchestral music and the pizzicato of the harp is easily recognized by an audience familiar with Western opera, classical music, or soundtracks for movies or TV series. Overlaid on that background, a leisurely solo by a huqin, with its distinct timbre, draws the listener into the legendary ancient world. 

     In addition, Zhang Rong’s first-act song “Lament on Chaos and Death” (喪亂之歌), sung by renowned opera veteran Tang Wen-hua (唐文華) on October 3, demonstrates a mix of Western and Peking Opera styles. As Zhang Rong gestures angrily, the Western stringed instruments punctuate his anger with a tremolo, before gradually blending into the other symphonic instruments. The intense sound of the strings creates a sense of excitement, which only later merges into the actual body of the song, and soon gives way to the sound of Peking Opera’s traditional strings and more rapid, strident drumbeats, pulled along by the emotions of the singer during long and winding stretches of coloratura. As Tang’s voice shimmers and undulates through the lyrics, Western orchestral music asserts itself at in-between moments, dodging and weaving among the distinctive instruments from the Peking Opera.

     The coordination of symphonic music and Peking Opera’s stylized movements can be seen in the scenes of Zhang Rong and his comrades on the battlefield. The expressive movements and dance, which are customary in Peking Opera martial arts scenes (武場), are here accompanied by a harsh but voluminous orchestral painting of the tense battlefield that brings to mind orchestral effects by Stravinsky.

    The most moving song in the production is undoubtedly “A Mother’s Heart is Like a Plowed Field” (娘心一畝田) from the second act. The regular, soothing rhythm and simple melody of this song immediately appeal to the heart, gently embracing the audience like a lullaby. More specifically, “A Mother's Heart” is first sung employing the traditional accent of Peking Opera by acclaimed leading lady Wei Hai-min (魏海敏), in the character of a mother from ancient times. This is followed by Western bel canto soprano singer Jeannie Chiang (蔣啟真) in the role of a modern mother. At the first hearing, this unique juxtaposition of sounds and images onstage from two singing traditions hovers between truly bold and merely acceptable, challenging the audience to move beyond acceptance or rejection of either tradition. However, this also marks the extraordinary musical quality of the song “A Mother’s Heart”: while catching the audience at once with its simplicity, the song treads outside traditional musical boundaries, and experiments in ways that few other Peking Opera or Western opera productions might dare.

     Sunlight, which premiered in 2007, was staged for the fifth time in October 2021 (following performances throughout Taiwan and Hong Kong in 2017, 2018, and 2019) in National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying, 衛武營).   Although the Western orchestra and chorus have differed with each revival, the orchestra conductor (Chien Wen-pin, 簡文彬) and lead singers have largely remained the same. While enjoying the show for the first time, I felt that the tried-and-tested Guo Guang ensemble had clearly accumulated enough experience to radiate calm and confidence onstage. I had been told that people would cry watching the performance, and I did briefly hear the very soft sound of sobbing in the audience. As the child of a mixed “mainlander” and Taiwanese family, I find that the plot also touches on some darker, deeper realities: could the permission in the sunlight demand the amnesia of the familial wandering history? Light rays from the sun hitting objects cast shadows. Beyond that elusive personal associations, the public reaction to Sunlight has been vigorous. Judging from news reports that sound like advertisements, reviews both critical and positive, and individual commentaries by a host of bloggers over the years, Sunlight has generated what is probably the largest reaction ever to an opera in Taiwan, be it Western or other local opera, and the 2021 revival has continued to trigger discussions on the Internet. It arouses reactions that need be to voiced. With Sunlight, Guo Guang Opera Company may have found a Peking Opera production with the sensitivity to electrify a local audience. 

      After the performance, I jumped in a taxi to go to the train station. My driver seemed to be in his 60s and a native of Kaohsiung in Southern Taiwan. Seeing that I had just stepped from the theater, he started chatting with me about his daughter, who had joined a Taiwanese Opera (歌仔戲) group in her college years. Through that operatic experience, she eventually picked up an appreciation of Peking Opera as well, and it was at her urging that the driver himself had also come to see this year’s production of Sunlight. While the show was in rehearsals, he had several times driven singers and musicians back and forth from the theater to their hotel, listening to them arguing in his car about things on the stage. I asked the driver what he thought of the show in general. He didn't seem to be at all impressed by Wang Xizhi's calligraphical masterpiece Timely Clearing After Snowfall or the deeper messages the “symphonic Peking Opera” Sunlight after Snowfall conveys, but became immersed in his memory: “I can't really explain it, but somehow I feel like I enjoyed the music much better than the Peking Operas I’ve heard before.” This unfiltered reaction from a local taxi driver in Southern Taiwan may attest to the fact that Peking Opera in Taiwan has started securing a place in the sun.


[1] 莊嚴,《三堂清話》,1980。22。

[2] This is the interpretation that the production Sunlight adopts.

[3] More detailed accounts in Nancy Guy’s Peking Opera and Politics in Taiwan, 2005. 

[4] http://www.dgnet.com.tw/articleview.php?article_id=380&issue_id=75

[5] https://read.muzikair.com/tw/periodicalArticles/8cb5268f-ef41-496e-856f-59c2e07a998d


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