The Embroidered Kylin Pouch
Suo lin nang ( The Embroidered Kylin Pouch), a popular Peking Opera repertoire, premiered in Shanghai in 1940. It has become a classic play of Cheng Yanqiu, one of the great dan (female role) actors of Peking Opera.
Suo lin nang ( The Embroidered Kylin Pouch), a popular Peking Opera, tells the story of two brides: Xue Xiangling, from an affluent family, and Zhao Shouzhen, who wasn't. The two crossed paths on their wedding day at the Chunqiu Pavilion, where Xue kindly offered an embroidered pouch with a qilin ( kylin or Chinese unicorn) pattern to Zhao after learning of her family's destitution. The opera centres on the pouch and conveys human kindness.
On April 30, 1940, Suo lin nang premiered at the Shanghai Golden Grand Theatre. Cheng Yanqiu (1904–1958), one of the “Four Great Dan (female role) Actors,” played the lead role of Xue Xiangling. After its debut, the opera became a big hit in Shanghai, and despite having been performed onstage 25 consecutive times, audiences were left wanting more.
The opera was written by dramatist Weng Ouhong in the 1930s and was prepared for Cheng Yanqiu. Cheng's elegant and unusual singing aria and beautiful posture made the play popular among audiences. It was sung for a long time and became a representative play of the Cheng School of Peking Opera.
Hu Chengpu’s Story
The Peking Opera Suo lin nang is based on a story from the novel Zhi zhu tan, a sketchbook on history and literary reviews written by Qing (1644–1911) dramatist Hu Chengpu, which was set in Anhui Province.
The two brides met at a pavilion on their wedding day. One came from a wealthy upbringing, while the other was from an impoverished family. Initially, because they were each on the verge of leaving their parents, both were sobbing. After a while, only the poor bride continued to weep. The rich bride asked her why, and the poor bride replied, “I'm from a poor family and my husband is also poor.” Without revealing her name, the wealthy bride showed sympathy for the other bride's family at that moment by giving the poor bride an embroidered kylin pouch that her grandmother gave her. Then they separated and went on their ways.
After arriving at her husband's home, the poor bride opened the pouch, discovered there were two bars of gold inside, and then told her husband how she got it. The couple used this treasure to conduct business and made a huge profit. Although they didn't know who or where the person was who gave her the pouch, the couple was very grateful. As a consequence, they built a room that was arranged like a memorial hall, where they placed the pouch. Once the poor bride accumulated a lot of money, she gave birth to a son, and they started looking for a nanny, but they still hadn't found the right person. The bride, previously wealthy, in contrast, lived a difficult life, as both her mother and her husband's family suffered many disasters over the years.
One day, the son of the poor bride had a matchmaker who recommended the bride, who was once rich, for the position. The two girls got along like sisters, but neither was aware of the events that occurred in their past. A year later, the girl who was previously rich saw the pouch, which reminded her of old times. She explained, while crying unwittingly, that she gave the same pouch to a poor bride on her wedding day many years ago. The bride who was previously poor was happy and told her husband. The next day, they invited their neighbours, the father of the bride who used to be rich, and the head of the clan to a banquet, where they bowed to express their gratitude. The couple insisted on giving all their property to the other bride. The girl replied, refusingly, “If I kept the pouch, it would've made no difference.” The guests praised the couple's way of handling the matter; and, ultimately, the couple gave her half the family's fortune.
At the end of the novel, quoting Qing Dynasty scholar Zhu Qingchuan, the author said, “This story would make an excellent play if it was adapted by Hong Sheng and Kong Shangren, playwrights of the early Qing Dynasty.” In the 1930s, the Peking Opera artist Cheng Yanqiu delegated responsibility to playwright Weng Ouhong.
In the 1920s and 1930s, intellectuals often frequented theaters to meet famous Peking Opera actors that they wanted to write plays for. This is also how Weng Ouhong became acquainted with Cheng Yanqiu. The first play he wrote for Cheng was titled Weng tou chun. One day in 1937, Cheng invited Weng to his home. After talking, Cheng asked Weng to write him a comedy, since he performed in too
many tragedies, such as Jinsuo ji ( A Tale of Golden Locks), Huangshan lei ( Tears of Misery in Mountains) and Chungui meng
( The Parting of a Newly-wedded Couple). Weng hesitated at first, but after reading materials Cheng brought with him, which happened to be the novel Zhi zhu tan, he accepted. The story only had an outline, with unnamed characters.
At this time, a friend from Shandong who was visiting Weng told him that in Shandong, on the eve of a daughter's wedding, the mother usually prepares a pouch filled with gold and silver to give the daughter. The pouch was named “qilin nang (kylin or Chinese unicorn pouch),” signifying a wish for the couple to have a son. Aware of this tradition, Weng named the opera Suo lin nang. In his hands, the story quickly transformed into a thought-provoking comedy.
Weng Ouhong’s Adapted Story
Weng Ouhong wrote over 100 screenplays, the most well-known including Suo lin nang, Jiang xiang he ( The General and the Chief Minister Reconciled) and Danao tiangong ( Havoc in Heaven). Based on the story of Zhi zhu tan, the adapted story took place in Shandong Province with a rich girl named Xue Xiangling and a poor girl named Zhao Shouzhen. Several other characters were added to ensure that the story was fully developed.
In the story, Xue, from a wealthy Dengzhou family, was getting ready to marry Zhou Tingxun. On the eve of her wedding, her mother gave her a pouch full of jewellery, signifying her good wishes for the newly-wedded couple. On her wedding day, Xue got caught in a rainstorm while en route to the groom's house, so she took shelter with her maids and servants at the Chunqiu Pavilion, where she met Zhao Shouzhen, also a bride, though she was from a poor family. Zhao was weeping with sorrow in response to her downtrodden destiny, which is when Xue offered her the pouch. Once the rain stopped, they both went their separate ways.
Six years later, Dengzhou was hit by flash floods, separating Xue from her family. Xue escaped to Laizhou where she encountered Hupo, her maidservant. Hupo took Xue to a local relief site set up by the ministry councillor Lu Shengchou and got her a bowl of porridge. Lu just so happened to be hiring a maid for his son, Lu Tianlin, and Xue accepted the job. One day, when the boy was playing a game, he threw a ball into their attic. Xue went to find the ball, but instead saw her unicorn pouch. After learning what happened, the Lu family treated Xue as a distinguished guest, and with their help, Xue was finally able to reunite with her family.
Cheng Yanqiu was satisfied with Weng's adaptation, so he played the role Xue Xiangling when the opera made its debut in Shanghai in 1940, as well as when the play was again performed in the Chang'an Grand Theatre located in Beiping (today's Beijing) in 1941. It became Cheng's representative play.
Cheng founded the “Cheng School” of Peking Opera. Born into a Manchu family in Beijing, his original name was Cheng Lin, but he changed it to Cheng Yanqiu in 1932. Cheng began studying Peking Opera at age six, first learning wusheng (a martial arts role) from Rong Diexian, and then huadan (a female role) from Chen Tongyun, by virtue of his elegance and composure. He also learned to perform qingyi (a middle-aged female role) from Chen Xiaoyun, owing to his excellent voice, and performed in Da yingtao
( Picking up Cherries) and Yutangchun
( Springtime in the Hall of Jade).
He performed on stage at 11 years old, and he joined other actors, such as Liu Hongsheng and Sun Juxian, in performances of Sangyuan jizi ( A Child Left in the Mulberry Garden) and Yuanmen zhanzi ( General’s Son to Be Executed).
In 1917, when he stopped performing for a while, he studied drawing and calligraphy. He also studied under Peking Opera extraordinaire Mei Lanfang, received instructions from Wang Yaoqing, read literary works and was involved in other art forms. In 1927, the newspaper Shuntian shibao organised China's first selection of top dan actors. Cheng shared the honour of being one of the “Four Great Dan Actors” with Mei Lanfang, Shang Xiaoyun and Xun Huisheng.
After becoming one of the “Four Great Dan Actors,” Cheng developed his own methods of performing using eye contact, long sleeves and martial arts. He presented a series of innovative techniques and had a unique performance style, which gradually formed into the “Cheng School” of Peking Opera. The 1920s to 1930s was the period when Cheng's performance and creativity matured. As a writer, actor and director, Cheng created patriotism repertoires such as Wenji gui Han ( Wen Ji Returning to Han), Huangshan lei and Wang Shu jian ( The Perish of Shu).
Later, Cheng focused on performing tragedies, including Qingshuang jian ( The Sword of Emerald Ice), Dou E, Biyu zan
( Green Jade Pin), and Mei Fei ( Concubine Mei), and successfully created a group of vivid characters. However, Cheng's talents weren't limited to tragedies; he was innovative and inventive in his artistic creation. He valued rhythm and developed a unique way of singing based on his own voice. The characters he performed were often serene and graceful.
Cheng strictly adhered to phonological rules. The tune and tempo varied with a developing plot and emotional characters. He put high demands on integrating voice and emotion. His performance was detailoriented and emphasised the beauty of stage art. Dramatist Zhang Yihe said of Cheng's singing: “It is an elegant, distinctive tune from which people can sense the endless fickleness of the world, that is both warm and melancholy, and attractive to Shanghai audiences.” In Suo lin nang, Cheng sang with emotion and combined singing with postures, creating a classic stage play.
Cheng Yanqiu’s Classic Opera
The Peking Opera Suo lin nang starring Cheng Yanqiu became a classic onstage performance. Cheng Yongjiang, the son of Cheng Yanqiu, explained how popular the opera was at the time. He recalled, “During the war of resistance against the Japanese, my father noticed that ‘ behind the vermilion gates of the rich, meat and wine go to waste, but along the road are the bones of the poor, who have frozen to death,' and he had the good intention to ‘get mansions covering ten thousand miles to house all poor scholars and make them beam with smiles.' With this in mind, my father invited Weng Ouhong to adapt a story from Zhi zhu tan into an opera. Weng spent two years improving the lyrics and tone with guidance from Wang Yaoqing. The opera was staged 25 times, and each time the theatre was packed.” Today, the video of Cheng's performance has been lost, but the 1946 recording when Cheng performed still exists.
After Cheng Yanqiu, actors from the Cheng School continued to perform in operas, such as qingyi actors Zhang Huoding and Chi Xiaoqiu. Chi Xiaoqiu, a famous dan Cheng School actor recalled, “In the early 1980s, I learned Cheng style performing from Wang Yinqiu, a student of Cheng Yanqiu. I was only 16 years old at the time, so it was very unfamiliar to me. Suo lin nang was the first opera I learned at the Cheng School. Wang taught me every aspect, including lyrics, tune and movements. I performed in the opera about 1,000 times over 30 years.” In Chi's opinion, the opera's lyrics, ideas, and artistic bent were attractive to both listeners and performers. It has enjoyed popularity for 70 years, proving Cheng's forward-thinking concepts.
Traditionally, the lyrics of a Peking Opera are succinct and strictly organised, with seven or 10 characters per line. However, Cheng Yanqiu produced lines of various lengths based on the situation and characters involved. For example, when Xue takes shelter at the Chunqiu Pavilion, the lyrics go like this,
“I sit in the sedan chair and can tell it’s dark outside,
I hear the wind blow, thunder rumble, and see lightning flash.
The whole way is a torrent of rain.”
When Xue realised there was a bride in the other sedan chair, she sang: “The bride in the sedan chair must know great sorrow,
She sheds tears, sobbing intermittently, Just like a cuckoo bird, singing sadly.”
With the rising and falling in cadence as well as its mild and agreeable tone, Cheng style performances convey human kindness and the charm of Peking Opera.
In addition, Xue's lines when she sees the other bride's simple sedan chair are classic lyrics that have been widely remembered. Xue sings:
“Outside the Chunqiu Pavilion it rains heavily,
Weeping can be heard amid the rainstorm.
Through the curtain, I see another sedan chair,
Carrying another bride to her husband’s home.
On this big day, there should be laughter and joy,
Why does the bride shed tears? Now, I have learned,
Not all brides are from wealthy families. There is poverty and hunger; There is disappointment and misery.”
When her maid Mei Xiang tries to persuade Xue to keep the pouch instead of giving it to Zhao, she says the blessings of a qilin can't cause a woman to give birth to a son, but accumulating kindness can help the wish come true. After Xue finally reunites with her family, she sings,
“I recall days gone by like a dream. Looking back, there were so many times death had clutched my throat. Thanks to the kindness I gave her then, Now the goodness finally rewards me.”
As one saying goes: “toss a peach, get back a plum (in return)” Suo lin nang spreads kindness and the idea that “one good turn deserves another.” Generations of actors from the Cheng School have passed it on, and continue to do so.
Stage photo of the Peking Opera Suolinnang ( The Embroidered Kylin Pouch)