The Em­broi­dered Kylin Pouch

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhou Fu­jing Edited by Greg S. Vanisky Pho­tos by Mao Yu

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.

Peo­ple say,

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)

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