Wulongyuan Graces Opera Stage
Peking Opera Wulongyuan adapted from Water Margin is about how Song Jiang kills Yan Poxi. Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang’s performance has made Wulongyuan a repertoire of Zhou’s Qi School.
Water Margin has been long admired by audiences, and those heroes in the fictitious story who enforce justice on behalf of Heaven have been praised widely. As popular topics for playwrights, their stories have been adapted into operas, hence the popular “Water Margin Opera.” Wulongyuan is a classic opera adapted from Water Margin, telling the story of how Song Jiang kills Yan Poxi (also known as Yan Xijiao) in their residence Wulongyuan.
Wulongyuan was adapted into Peking Opera as early as the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). During the Republic of China period (1912–1949), Wulongyuan became a repertoire of the Qi School created by Zhou Xinfang (1895–1975, a Peking Opera actor who specialised in the old male role). The Qi School plays an important role in the Shanghai School of laosheng (old male role), with Zhou considered one of the greatest grand masters of Peking Opera.
Murder in Wulongyuan
Stories of Water Margin have spread widely and become frequent topics of storytellers since the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279). As early as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), an orating script entitled Dasong xuanhe yishi (“records of the Xuanhe period during the Song Dynasty”) by author unknown documented the history of the Xuanhe period during the Song Dynasty in details. The book is divided into ten chapters, of which the fourth chapter is about Song Jiang and 35 others gathered in Liangshan, and then they were repressed by Zhang Shuye, becoming the first work related to Water Margin.
As zaju (variety show) became popular during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), zaju about the Water Margin stories also appeared, and the number of characters in Liangshan increased from 36 to 108. Since then, people have indulged in elaborating on stories of those 108 heroes. At the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), novelist Shi Nai’an (c. 1296–1372) finished a fictitious vernacular version based on the heroic stories in oratory scripts, zaju and folklore, hence Zhongyi shuhu zhuan ( Water Margin).
During the Wanli period (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty, a bookshop specialised in printing plays and novels printed Water Margin in Hangzhou for the first time, hence the Rongyutang edition of Water Margin. After that, many bookshops began publishing this masterpiece, making it known to all, especially the story about how Song Jiang kills Yan Poxi.
In the story, after learning about Chao Gai, Wu Yong and other people taking birthday presents of an official by strategy, the government dispatches troops to arrest them. At that time, Song Jiang, an official of Yuncheng County, sends a secret message to Chao Gai regarding their situation. Therefore, Chao and his men went to Liangshan to elude the troops. Then the chief of Jizhou Prefecture sends troops to attack Liangshan, but is defeated by Chao and his men, astonishing the royal court. Therefore, the court sends a new prefecture chief to suppress Liangshan and informs each county to arrest Chao and his men. When Song Jiang gets the order from the court, he feels worried at the thought of Chao killing the soldiers. He orders his secretary Zhang Wenyuan to inform each township of the order from the royal court, then goes on a solitary walk.
Song runs into the matchmaker Wangpo as soon as he goes outside the county government. Wangpo points at Yan Poxi and tells Song that Yan and her family come from Dongjing (present- day Kaifeng in Henan Province). Yan is a pretty 18-year- old girl and a talented singer. After she and her family come to Yuncheng County, her father dies of an illness. Yan can’t afford her father’s funeral. Wangpo hopes that Song can help them buy a coffin to bury Yan’s father. Song agrees, and gives Yan half a kilogram of silver.
One day, Yan comes to express her thanks to Song, and finds out that Song is still single, so she asks Wangpo to make a match for them. Song refuses to the match at the beginning, but is later persuaded by Wangpo. After that, Song buys a residence in the county and some furniture, and has Yan and her mother settle down there. At first, Song and Yan sleep together each night, but he doesn’t go there frequently later somehow.
Another day, Song and his secretary Zhang Wenyuan come to the residence to eat a meal. However, Zhang and Yan exchange flirtatious glances with each other. When Song isn’t in, Zhang goes to the
residence again to have illicit intercourse with Yan in secret.
Song learns about their relationship, but doesn’t pay much attention to it, as he thinks that Yan isn’t his loving wife arranged by his parents. He doesn’t go to see Yan for a few months. One evening, Liu Tang, one of Chao Gai’s men, comes to Yuncheng to visit Song with a letter and five kilograms of gold for gratitude. However, Song keeps the letter and one gold bar, and puts them in his waist bag. After seeing Liu off, Song goes back home. At that time, Yan urges Song to stay at the residence, and Song agrees.
After drinking liquor at home, Song and Yan have nothing to say to each other. At around 10 p. m., Yan goes to bed and lies down. Song, even unhappy, also goes to the same bed after taking off his coat and belt, and placing his bag and knife by the bedside.
At around 4 a. m., Song gets up and walks outside. He soon realises that he leaves his waist bag at his home, so he goes back to fetch it. However, Yan has already found the letter and gold bar in Song’s bag, and threatens Song that she will inform the royal court. Song gets angry, and threatens her with a knife to shut her up. Yan screams, “Help, Song’s killing me!” When Yan screams again, Song presses on her with his left hand, and stabs Yan’s throat with the knife in his right hand. In case he fails to kill Yan, Song stabs her again. Yan’s head falls down on the pillow. The story “Song Jiang kills Yan Poxi” had since spread, being adapted into plays.
Wulongyuan and Zhou Xinfang
At the end of the Qing Dynasty, the story was adapted into a Peking Opera; Yan Poxi was renamed Yan Xijiao, and her residence was called Wulongyuan, hence the opera’s title. The play is a traditional opera highlighting both sheng (male role) and dan (female role), and has been praised as an exemplary Peking Opera.
In the opera, Song Jiang takes
Yan Xijiao as his concubine, and builds Wulongyuan for her to settle down in. However, Yan has illicit intercourse with Zhang Wenyuan. One day, Song comes to Wulongyuan without knowing Zhang has already been there. Yan manages to hide Zhang from Song. At that time, Song has heard the scandal about Yan and Zhang, so they have a dispute, and Song leaves Wulongyuan angrily, swearing that he will never come back to Wulongyuan. Yan and Zhang plan to be together, so they decide to murder Song when condition permits.
Chao Gai sends Liu Tang to visit Song with one letter and five kilograms of gold. When Song encounters Liu by chance, he hurries to accept the letter and a gold bar, and puts them in his waist bag. After that, Song urges Liu to return to Liangshan.
On his way back home, Song runs into Yan who comes to find him. Therefore, Song has to go to Wulongyuan with Yan. The next morning, Song hurries to put on his clothes, and his waist bag drops to the ground when opening the door. When Yan wakes up, she finds the letter and gold bar. When Song comes back to fetch his bag, Yan admits that she picked it up, and takes the opportunity to threaten Song to divorce her and allow her to marry Zhang. To regain the letter, Song agrees. However, Yan claims that she will give the letter to Song at the county government after she receives the divorce letter. Song has nothing to do but kill Yan out of his own safety.
The opera is fascinating, noted especially Song Jiang’s performance. It is also a repertoire of Peking Opera artist Zhou Xinfang and his Qi School. Zhou was born to an artistic family in Cixi, Zhejiang Province in 1895. He learned opera performance from his father at age 6, made his debut onstage and took on the stage name Qilingtong ( seven- yearold boy) at age 7, and learned a lot about both young and old male performances of the Shanghai School from Wang Hongshou ( 1850– 1925, an opera artist). At age 12, he changed his stage name to Qilintong ( kylin boy). Zhou came to Beijing in 1863. He joined Xiliancheng Opera Troupe, and performed with other opera masters, such as Mei Lanfang ( 1894– 1961), Lin Shusen ( 1897– 1947) and Gao Baisui ( 1902– 1969). Zhou later returned to Shanghai, and performed with Tan Xinpei ( 1847– 1917), Li Jirui ( 1879– 1938) and Jin Xiushan ( 1855– 1915) with more mature acting.
Between 1915 and 1926, Zhou performed in different theatres in Shanghai, and rehearsed several classic operas. He also went to Beijing and Tianjin twice to promote operas to northern audiences. In 1925, Zhou took the lead in applying dramatic techniques to Peking Opera. During the War of Resistance against Japan ( 1931– 1945), Zhou actively participated in salvation activities, and performed in patriotic operas to arouse patriotism from audience members.
To relieve victims, Zhou and some other people from the cultural circle jointly performed the drama Thunderstorm in 1940. Zhou portrayed Zhou Puyuan, and his performance has been unanimously praised by the press. In 1943, Zhou was elected president of Shanghai Performers Association, and supported Peking Operarelated activities, such as supporting the progress of Peking Opera and organising salons for artists. In 1944, Zhou took over the Grand Golden Theatre as director. After the victory of the War of Resistance against Japan, the theatre became a meeting place for progressives from literary and art circles. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Zhou created and performed new plays, including Hai Rui shanghsu (“Hai Rui’s Expostulation to the Emperor”). In 1952, he participated in the 1st National Drama Watching and Performance Conference, and was awarded for his performance in Xu Ce paocheng
(“Xu Ce Runs into the Royal Palace”). In 1955 and 1961, the Ministry of Culture, China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and China Theatre Association jointly organised performances to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mei Lanfang’s and Zhou Xinfang’s acting career, and the 60th anniversary of Zhou Xinfang’s performing career respectively.
The Peking Opera Wulongyuan is Zhou’s
most representative play. As early as 1920, Zhou performed in Quanben Wulongyuan (“the full-length edition of Wulongyuan”) at Shanghai Dangui Diyitai Theatre, and created Liu Tang xiashu (“Liu Tang Sends the Letter”) aside from Nao yuan (“Creating a Tremendous Uproar in Wulongyuan”) and Sha Xi (“Killing Yan Poxi”). The climax of the opera is Song Jiang killing Yan Poxi. The scene when Song Jiang gets intolerable and combative with a sweating face has become a classic one on the stage. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou adapted Wulongyuan again to highlight Liu Tang xiashu, showcasing Song’s sympathy for Chao Gai and his men, and foreshadowing Song’s murder of Yan. Talented at both singing and acting, Zhou left many classic performances that won universal praise. Liutang xiashu and Zuolou sha Xi (“Killing Yan Poxin in the Building”) were included in the colour film Zhou Xinfang’s Stage Art shot in 1961.
A Unique Performing Style
Aside from Peking Opera Wulongyuan, Zhou’s repertoires also include Xu Ce paocheng, Xiao He yuexia zhui Han Xin
(“Xiao He Chases Han Xin under the Moon) and Dong Xiaowan. In terms of singing, Zhou learned from Tan Xinpei, Sun Juxian ( 1841– 1931), Wang Guifen ( 1860– 1906) and other opera masters, performed with prominent fellow artists, achieved mastery through comprehensive study, and created his own style.
Zhou had a hoarse but deep voice, which helped shape the Qi School’s major feature. His singing was similar to spoken language, lively yet simple. He paid attention to acting, and strove to demonstrate the character’s personalities through singing, speaking, acting and acrobatic fighting. He also made good use of artificial whiskers, garments and props to shape the character. No matter which character Zhou portrayed, he was a natural onstage, making each of his actions, gestures, moves, winks and facial expressions fit into the story’s context. For example, the way he pushed and pulled a knife in and out of Yan Poxi was exclusive to Song Jiang in the Peking Opera Wulongyuan.
Zhou’s performance not only expressed traditional Peking Opera, but absorbed the performing styles of local opera, film and drama to further innovate it. All this contributed to Zhou’s status as a representative of the Shanghai School of Peking Opera. Featuring a bleak yet vigorous singing, Zhou excelled at expressing emotions. The singing of the Qi School has its own pattern and reflects real life, creating a strong rhythm and onstage presence.
In Wulongyuan, Song Jiang’s attitude towards Yan Xijiao changes from pity, indulgence, and tolerance to anger after learning of Yan’s disloyalty and threats. Though Song has mixed feelings in the play, the Qi School succeeded in portraying the story in vivid detail. After Song kills Yan in despair, his panic-stricken look was represented well by Zhou Xinfang.
Zhou’s performance of Song Jiang in Wulongyuan has become an onstage classic, noted for his sweating face. The Qi School created by him has also contributed to Peking Opera, turning a brilliant page in the history of Chinese drama.
Song Jiang (left) and Yan Poxi in the Peking Opera Wulongyuan