Reviving Love Amid Disaster
The Peking Opera Yutangchun, a popular play, tells the romantic story of Wang San and Su San ( Yutangchun) with romantic charm.
In Peking Opera circles a common saying went: “Despite the decline of opera, city dwellers are all competing to sing Yutangchun ( The Story of Su San).” The Peking Opera Yutangchun, a popular play, tells the romantic story of Wang San (the third son of a high official surnamed Wang) and Su San (known as Yutangchun) told with delight.
Affection for Yutangchun
Yutangchun is a classic traditional opera that originated from a real-life event during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). In the opera the prototype of Wang San is Wang Sanshan of the Wanli period of Ming (1573–1620), a native of Yongcheng County, Henan, who passed the highest imperial exam in 1601. In 1622, Wang Sanshan took on the post of provincial governor for Guizhou. One year, he was sent to Shanxi to investigate a case; in the investigation he rehabilitated Su San, who had been wrongly accused, and took her as his concubine.
The archives of the Su San case were preserved in Hongdong County, which were, later, plundered by Japanese army. In 1931, Xiju yuekan ( The Opera Monthly) of Shanghai published the article “Textual Research into ‘Yu Tang Chun”' which says: “The story of Yutangchun is not fictional.” The famous writer A'ying also said, “The story might have taken place in the early years of Emperor Wanli in Nanjing and Shanxi. Its hero and heroine both came from real life.”
As for Yutangchun, the most popular account is Yutangchun Luonan Fengfu ( Yutangchun Encounters Her Beloved One in Distress) by Feng Menglong (1574–1646), a prominent writer in Suzhou.
Feng expanded the story to more than 20,000 characters, compiling it as the twentyfourth story of his book Jingshi tongyan (“stories to caution the world“). The story soon took shape. In the story, Wang Jinglong, the third son of Wang Qiong (minister of the Ministry of Rites), and Su San ( Yutangchun) fell in love at first sight. Thereafter, Wang spent a great amount of money staying together with Su San in her boudoir. Soon he used up countless ingots of gold and was driven out of the brothel by the procuress; Su San helped him return home. After that, Wang studied hard and passed the imperial exam. Su San was sold by the procuress to Shen Hong, a travelling merchant of Hongdong County. Later, Shen's wife Lady Pi, who conspired with her lover Zhao Jiansheng, poisoned Shen to death; and laid the blame on Su San. The county magistrate, having accepted bribes, extorted a confession from Su San by torture and consigned her to a cell. After Wang passed the imperial exam he was appointed by the emperor as procurator-general of Shanxi. Although he was ordered by his parents to be engaged to Minister Liu's daughter, he still cherished Yutangchun. Having filled the post, he checked out the details, saved her life by redressing the case, then married her.
Because of Feng's works, Su San's story became known and playwrights began to adapt it. Until the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Yutangchun was adapted into a Kunqu Opera and was performed on stage. It sounds melodious, sentimental, and rich in the aura of life. During the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1821–1851), in the materials quoted in his book Hankou congtan ("collected writings at Hankou"), writer Fan Kai (1765–1844) mentioned Li Cuiguan, an artist of Tongcheng County, Hubei, singing the opera when he joined the Rongqingbu Troupe in Hankou. In 1802, the Sanqing Troupe performed the Peking Opera Yutangchun; but Wang Jinglong (or Wang San) in the work of Feng Menglong had changed into Wang Jinlong.
A Staged Classic
Yutangchun includes “Visiting Prostitutes,” “Temple Fair,” “Being Sent under Escort,” “Joint Trial,” “Visiting the Prisoner,” and “Reunion.” They nearly contains all the beat modes of xipi (one of the major tunes in traditional Chinese operas) from female roles in Peking Opera, such as xipi liushui (tune quick in tempo), xipi yaoban (a stylised tune of slow singing at a quick tempo), xipi daoban (stylised tune usually preceding an integrated singing part), and xipi yuanban (basic type of tune). In this opera, Wang Jinlong, son of a higher official, swears to live together with famous prostitute Su San till their hair turns grey; but because he has laid out all his money, he is banished, only to live in the Lord Guan Temple, penniless and frustrated. At this message, Su San rushes to the temple to offer him gold, so that Wang Jinlong returns to Nanjing. Later on, the procuress sells Su San to Shen Yanlin, a rich merchant of Shanxi, as a concubine. Shen's wife, Lady Pi, who commits adultery with Zhao