‘Auspicious Union of Dragon and Phoenix’
Longfengchengxiang is a story in traditional Peking Opera that tells of how military strategist Zhuge Liang saved Liu Bei with strategems in three brocade sacks.
The famous traditional Peking Opera Longfengchengxiang (An Auspicious Union of a Dragon and a Phoenix) is derived from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The story is set against the background of the tripartite confrontation of the three kingdoms of Wei (AD 220–266), Shu (AD 221–263) and Wu (AD 222–280) before and after the downfall of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–220). Sun Quan (AD 182–252, founder of the Kingdom Wei) and Zhou Yu (AD 175–210, a military general serving under Sun Quan) plotted “a seduction scheme” against Liu Bei (AD 161–223, founder of the Kingdom Shu) in order to recover Jingzhou, a militarily strategic pass from the Shu Kingdom. However, Zhuge Liang (AD 181–234), a wise and resourceful military strategist serving under Liu Bei, sees through the trick and thin, enabling Liu Bei to escape danger with his “stratagems in three brocade sacks.” The story ends with the happy wedding of Liu Bei and his safe return to Jingzhou. Longfengchengxiang, with its multiple characters, involvement of various roles in Peking Opera, with participation of famous artists as well as the auspicious theme, has become “a grand auspicious show” mainly popular at festivals and grand ceremonies.
Meeting Trick with Trick
Romance of Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (c. AD 1330–1400, novelist of late Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty) is China's first fulllength and novel with each chapter prefaced by a couplet as a summary of its content. It is also a masterpiece among historical fiction novels. Set against the vast social and historical background in the third century, the novel displays frequent confrontations in turbulent times. Longfengchengxiang originated from the novel. To be specific, it is created based on the 54th chapter of the novel, whose title is “State Mother Wu Meets the Bridegroom in a Temple; Imperial Uncle Liu Takes His Bride to the Wedding Chamber.”
In the time of the Three Kingdoms, Jingzhou was a place of military significance. Zhuge Liang wrote the “Long Zhong Dui” (“Strategies composed at the place of Longzhong”) that to unify the country, Liu Bei had to occupy Jingzhou first and form an alliance with the Wu Kingdom before heading toward Central China in two ways of attacking Cao Cao. Later, Liu Bei and Sun Quan did form an alliance and together fought against Cao Cao in North China.
After Cao Cao failed in the Chibi Battle, Liu Bei occupied the Shu area (or today's Sichuan), and ordered general Guan Yu to guard Jingzhou's several counties which were under his control. Among several counties occupied by the Shu Kingdom, Nanjun was lent to Liu Bei by Sun Quan for Liu's temporary stay and recuperating Liu's troops. Liu Bei had spent numerous efforts before he managed to attain his purpose of “occupying Jingzhou without returning it to the Wu Kingdom.” However, as time went on with changing circumstances, Lu Su (AD 172–217), a subordinate of Sun Quan, repeatedly asked Liu Bei to return to Jingzhou, yet this proved to no avail. On learning that Liu Bei's wife had just passed away, Sun Quan and Zhou Yu conspired in plotting “a seduction scheme.” They pretended that they were willing to let Liu Bei marry Sun Shangxiang, Sun Quan's younger sister, with the intention of controlling Liu Bei and forcing him to return to Jingzhou after luring him to cross the Yangtze River to welcome his bride.
Zhuge Liang saw through this, and decided without hesitation to meet this trick with his own. He offered plans to Liu Bei. Liu Bei accepted and paid a visit to Qiao Xuan, father of two beauties of Da Qiao and Xiao Qiao and the father-in-law of Zhou Yu. The purpose of Liu Bei's visit was to make Qiao Xuan persuade Sun Quan's mother, Wu Guo Tai (“State Mother Wu”) to consent to marriage. Qiao Xuan advocated the marriage between Liu Bei and Sun Shangxiang, and made efforts to push the matter when he met Wu Guo Tai, who finally agreed to meet Liu Bei in the Sweet Dew Temple. As soon as Sun Quan learned this, he ordered his general Jia Hua to ambush the Sweet Dew Temple to assassinate Liu Bei. However, Zhao Yun saw through the plot. After Wu Guo Tai met Liu Bei in Sweet Dew Temple, she became satisfied with Liu Bei, and agreed to let him marry her daughter Sun Shangxiang. Sun Quan never expected that his “seduction scheme” would come to nothing but contributed to the marriage.
Later, Sun Quan and Zhou Yu came up with a second plan—to lure Liu Bei by offering him palaces and beauties. However, Zhuge Liang had prepared a second stratagem in the brocade sack. Following the stratagem, Zhao Yun released the false message that Cao Cao was planning to attack and occupy Jingzhou. Liu Bei was anxious to return to Jingzhou with Sun Shangxiang. Sun readily agreed, bade farewell to her mother Wu Guo Tai and was
ready to set off with Liu Bei. On learning this, Zhou Yu hurried to deploy troops to intercept Liu Bei. However, troops were ordered by Sun Shangxiang to withdraw and to not take further actions. Then the boats prepared by Zhuge Liang came to Liu Bei's rescue and his people, who returned to Jingzhou safely and joyously.
Persuading Wu Guo Tai at Sweet Dew Temple
Longfengchengxiang is actually the title for two excerpts— Sweet Dew Temple (also named A Seduction Scheme) and Returning to Jingzhou, telling the story of the marriage between Liu Bei and Sun Shangxiang, with the plot starting in Sweet Dew Temple and ending in Luhuadang. According to the book Jingju Zhi Bianqian (Changes and Development of Peking Opera) by Qi Rushan (1877–1962, playwright and scholar), Fushou Troupe at the end of the Qing Dynasty was the first Peking Opera troupe to perform. It was not until the period of the Republic of China (1912–1949) that Longfengchengxiang became its common title. The dragon in the title refers to Liu Bei of the Shu Kingdom, and the phoenix refers to Sun Shangxiang, the princess of the Wu Kingdom, with their marriage represented as auspicious.
In Sweet Dew Temple, following Zhuge Liang's arrangement of meeting trick with trick, Liu Bei crosses the Yangtze River to the Wu Kingdom to welcome his bride. As the story goes, Liu Bei is 48 years old, who is considered older than the appropriate age for marriage, when Sun Shangxiang is only 18 years old. So State Mother Wu says to State Elder Qiao, “I do not know about this imperial descendant of Liu Bei. Please ask him to meet me in Sweet Dew Temple tomorrow. If I am not satisfied with him, you go ahead with your plan. If I am satisfied with him, I will allow him to marry my daughter.”
Qiao Xuan offered Liu Bei a beard colourant and managed to deal with the circumstances. His following words in favour of Liu Bei become the climax of the scene. “I beg My Highness not to mention killing, and please allow me to tell the story from the beginning. Liu Bei is the descendent of the Prince Jing of Zhongshan, so he has the bloodline of the imperial family of the Han Dynasty…the army generals serving under Liu Bei are peerless; and Zhuge Liang is quite good at deploying schemes. Taking Liu Bei's life is not difficult, but if you do so, his fellows will not let you off easily. If they come over to fight for revenge, both kingdoms of Shu and Wu will be hurt and Cao Cao of the Kingdom Wei will get advantages. Therefore, I would like to persuade My Highness to agree upon the marriage.” This section in the tune of Xipi Yuanban (original version of Xipi melody in traditional Chinese operas) sung by State Elder Qiao still enjoys popularity today. The performance of State Elder Qiao's role by the famous Peking Opera artist Ma Lianliang (1901–1966) has a free and smooth style. With his vigorous and deep voice and variety in vocal tune, Ma has displayed the status and characters of State Elder Qiao. Today, his performance is considered excellent and peerless.
There are two major schools with different performance styles in Peking Opera, one being the Northern School (or “Beijing School”) represented by performers in Beijing, the other being the Southern School represented by Shanghai performers. The performances of Longfengchengxiang are mostly of the Northern School version. In the Southern School version, there is a classical performance pattern called “wuyin Liantan” which means that several roles take turns in singing one or more lyrics.
In the Sweet Dew Temple performance staged by the Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company, there are as many as 68 lyrics sung in the form of wuyin Liantan, representing a major achievement made by the Shanghai Troupe in displaying the artistic quintessence of the Southern School of Peking Opera. Today, rehearsals of Longfengchengxiang not only explores the quintessence of Peking Opera, but also enriches the Peking Opera's repertoire and offers more performance opportunities for its actors.
Returning to Jingzhou under False Pretenses
According to traditional customs, all households would paste New Year paintings on gates, walls of their houses in Spring Festival and on other festive occasions. One of the commonly-seen themes of the New-year Paintings of Yangliuqing Town of Tianjin is “Returning to Jingzhou.” Depicting attractive scenes in the Peking Opera show, the paintings are quite popular. Starting with Sweet Dew Temple and ending with Returning to Jingzhou, the story is a complex plot. The recounting of the story is not complete without the mention of the plot of “stratagems in three brocade sacks.” In the excerpt Returning to Jingzhou, Zhuge Liang sees through the “seduction scheme” set by Sun Quan and Zhou Yu, and decides to face trick with trick. Before Zhao Yun escorted Liu Bei to cross the Yangtze River, Zhuge Liang left “stratagems in three brocade sack” to him, telling him to open the sacks in times of difficulty and follow stratagems to rescue Liu Bei.
After crossing the Yangtze River, Liu Bei and Zhao Yun opened the first sack. Following the plan inside the sack, they dispatched 500 soldiers to purchase pork, lamb and fruits in local markets and circulated news in the city that Liu Bei and Sun Shangxiang would be married. To ensure the plan's success, they also paid a visit to State Elder Qiao to gain his support. State Elder Qiao thought highly of Liu Bei, and considered the marriage between Liu Bei and Sun Shangxiang was well-justified and would generate advantages. On the other hand, Zhou Yu never expected that his seemingly witty trick would fail to work and cause twice as much loss. In other words, Liu Bei would marry Sun Shangxiang, and the soldiers of the Wu Kingdom would be defeated. After learning that his trick failed to work after the meeting in Sweet Dew Temple, Zhou Yu conspired with Sun Quan to have palaces built for Liu Bei. Their intention was to indulge Liu Bei in sensual pleasures to dissuade Liu from returning to Jingzhou. Aware of danger, Zhao Yun opened the second sack. Following the plan inside it, Zhao Yun lied about the military's situation to Liu Bei, stating that Cao Cao dispatched half a million soldiers to occupy Jingzhou, creating an urgent circumstance. On learning this, Liu Bei was greatly surprised and worried as expected by Zhuge Liang, and wanted to return to Jingzhou immediately with Sun Shangxiang, who was a sensible woman, willing to follow Liu Bei. She said, “Today is New Year's Day, when people pay homage to their ancestors by visiting their graves. I will go to the palace and tell my mother that we will perform an homage ceremony by the riverside. Then we will hire two small boats and cross the river in secret.”
In the palace, after seeing tears on her daughter's face, State Mother Wu learned what her daughter and son-in-law would do is more than pay homage to ancestors by the riverside. Out of love for her daughter, she agreed and said, “To return to Jingzhou, you have to pass Chaisang, but Zhou Yu will never allow you to do so. You can take this precious sword which belonged to your father. For anyone daring to stop you, just kill them and go.” Then Sun Shangxiang and Liu Bei set off for Jingzhou. After learning of Liu Bei's escape, Sun Quan and Zhou Yu dispatched generals to intercept the couple. At a critical moment, Zhao Yun had no other way but to open the third sack. Following the plan inside it, Sun Shangxiang reproached the generals who later withdrew the troops. Boarding the boats prepared by Zhuge Liang at the riverside, Liu Bei returned to Jingzhou safely.
Regardless of dissuasion, Zhou Yu continued following Liu Bei until they reached the outskirts of Jingzhou, and confronted the soldiers of Kingdom Shu arranged by Zhuge Liang. At Zhuge Liang's order, two generals— Huang Zhong and Wei Yan staged an ambush within Jingzhou City and made a surprise attack against Zhou Yu's troops. After being defeated in the battle, Zhou Yu retreated to Luhuadang, where he was ambushed by Zhang Fei. Zhang Fei was waiting for him disguised as a fisherman. Zhou Yu was first caught and then released by Zhang Fei. On realising his failures and losses, Zhou Yu was so irate that he vomited blood, yet had no other way but to return in shame. In the excerpt Returning to Jingzhou, there is a famous aria by Sun Shangxiang in Xipi Yuanban on her first appearance, which expresses her tender feelings and mood swings. With the music accompaniment of Jinghu Huaqiang (florid ornamentation in Peking Opera with the Peking Opera fiddle of Jinghu), the singing is all the more impressive. With heart-stirring singing, beginning with “In former times Liang Hong and Meng Guang made a perfect couple”, together with the artist's performance featuring both tenderness and power, Sun Shangxiang's role as a woman with adamant will underneath a fragile appearance.
Famous Artists in the Grand Show
The title of Longfengchengxiang alone delivers a pleasing message. It is honoured as “the auspicious show” in Peking Opera, and is frequently performed on the Peking Opera stage in the New Year. In the past, it was a must-see Peking Opera to celebrate family reunions during Spring Festival and other festivals. Despite hardships and frustrations, a happy ending eventually comes. The show involves participating roles in Peking Opera. With the appearance of almost all important characters of the Wu Kingdom and the Shu Kingdom in Romance of Three Kingdoms, the opera presents many spectacles. All roles in sheng (main male roles), dan (female roles), jing (male roles with painted faces) and chou (clown roles) have excellent performances, and the singing, recitation, acting and acrobatic movements of the performers are all fascinating in their own ways. There are both civilian roles and fighting roles, with the former emphasising song, while the latter emphasises fighting. The recitations are particularly noteworthy.
Take the role of Sun Shangxiang (role of “qingyi,” one of the main divisions of the female roles in Peking Opera) as an example. In her wedding chamber, she sings a lengthy aria in manban (slow tune). When bidding farewell to the State Mother Wu in the palace of the Wu Kingdom, her singing and acting are profound. In returning to Jingzhou, she circles around on the stage with Liu Bei and Zhao Yun. All these performances are rooted in hard work and acting experience. Many famous artists have performed in the show. For example, Tan Fuying played the role of Liu Bei, Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yanqiu played the role of Sun Shangxiang, Ma Lianliang played Qiao Xuan, Yang Xiaolou played Zhao Yun, Ye Shenglan played Zhou Yu, Hao Shouchen and Yuan Shihai played Zhang Fei. These artists, from different schools of Peking Opera, have displayed their own talent. In Longfengchengxiang, there is the common practice of several artists co-playing one role, mainly in sheng and dan roles. In the past, most Peking Opera artists participated in performing. With so many artists involved, the show is excellent and attractive, bringing auspiciousness to festivals and occasions. The show has since become a common choice for festive and ceremonial occasions with its longlasting popularity.
Li Li and Li Hong from Tianjin Peking Opera Theatre playing Sun Shangxiang (left ) and Wu Guo Tai in Longfengchengxiang