Chi­nese opera cel­e­brates Jianzhen’s jour­ney to Ja­pan

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - By CAI HONG in Tokyo cai­hong@chi­ YOSHINORI MATSUDA / PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A China-made opera, Jianzhen’s Jour­ney to Ja­pan, pre­miered in Tokyo on Tues­day, the an­niver­sary of the Chi­nese monk’s ar­rival in the coun­try 1,263 years ago.

The opera’s di­rec­tor, Xing Shimiao, calls it “a mere co­in­ci­dence”.

But the re­turn of the Chi­nese monk caused a stir in Tokyo as Jianzhen, or Ganji as he is known in Ja­pan, is a house­hold name in the is­land na­tion. He is still revered as Ja­pan’s bene­fac­tor.

The pro­duc­tion by Jiangsu Per­form­ing Arts Group made the full-house Bunka­mura Or­chard Hall in Tokyo’s Shibuya roar, with for­mer Ja­panese prime min­is­ter Yukio Ha­toyama as the first per­son to stand and ap­plaud.

“It is phe­nom­e­nal that ac­tors from Jianzhen’s an­ces­tral home­town of Yangzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince, put his story on Ja­pan’s stage tonight,” says Ha­toyama.

“What he had brought to Nara still has an in­flu­ence on Ja­pan to­day.”

The opera high­lights Jianzhen’s six at­tempts to go to Ja­pan from 743 to 753.

At the age of 14, Jianzhen be­came a dis­ci­ple at the Dam­ing Tem­ple in Yangzhou. Jianzhen’sJour­ney­toJa­pan

At 21, he trav­eled to Chang’an, China’s cap­i­tal dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty (618907), where he ap­pren­ticed un­der many well-known monks.

He be­came well-versed not only in Bud­dhism, but also in lit­er­a­ture, art, medicine, ar­chi­tec­ture and sculp­ture.

With its pros­per­ous econ­omy and strong na­tional power, the Tang Dy­nasty was a mag­net for for­eign­ers, and the re­la­tion­ship between China and Ja­pan was close.

Ja­pan sent reg­u­lar del­e­ga­tions mainly con­sist­ing of monks, stu­dents and in­tel­lec­tu­als to China in the hope of

bring­ing back its rich and var­ied cul­ture.

The opera starts with a Ja­panese monk, Yoei, who stud­ied Bud­dhism in China.

Ja­panese Em­peror Shomu, who as­cended the throne in 724, de­voted huge sums of money to cre­ate mag­nif­i­cent Bud­dhist tem­ples and ar­ti­facts through­out the realm. Dur­ing his reign, Bud­dhism vir­tu­ally be­came Ja­pan’s of­fi­cial state re­li­gion.

Bear­ing the em­peror’s edict, Yoei in­vited Chi­nese monks well-versed in Bud­dhist teach­ings and pre­cepts to teach in Ja­pan. More im­por­tantly, the em­peror wanted them to es­tab­lish an au­then­tic Bud­dhist Or­di­na­tion plat­form, which was ab­sent in Ja­pan.

In 742, Yoei vis­ited Yangzhou where he im­plored Jianzhen to lec­ture in Ja­pan.

De­spite five failed at­tempts, the last of which left him blind from an in­fec­tion, Jianzhen’s re­solve to go to Ja­pan did not die.

In 753, the strong-minded monk joined a Ja­panese emis­sary’s ship head­ing for Ja­pan. Af­ter sev­eral months, the group fi­nally landed at Kagoshima, the south­west­ern tip of Kyushu Is­land, on Dec 20, 753.

Jianzhen reached Nara in the spring of 754. In 759 Ja­pan’s im­pe­rial court granted Jianzhen a piece of land in the western part of Nara. There he founded a school and also set up a pri­vate tem­ple, Toshodaiji.

Dur­ing his 10-year stay in Ja­pan, Jianzhen in­tro­duced Ritsu Bud­dhism or monas­tic rules to Ja­pan. He and the Chi­nese monks who trav­eled with him in­tro­duced Chi­nese el­e­ments to Ja­panese cul­ture, in­clud­ing Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy, sculp­ture, ar­chi­tec­ture and medicine.

Jianzhen died in 763. A dry­lac­quer statue of him made shortly af­ter his death (and there­fore thought to be in his like­ness) can still be seen in Toshodaiji in Nara.

“I’m heart­ened by his mag­nif­i­cent spirit and willpower,” says Tian Hao­jiang, who plays Jianzhen in the opera. Tian is the re­cip­i­ent of the Den­ver Univer­sity Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

The stage was beau­ti­fully de­signed with pen­dant, elas­tic strips of white cloth, which eas­ily served to rep­re­sent sea, or a tem­ple or a prison.

The main mem­bers of the opera’s pro­duc­tion team made sev­eral trips to Ja­pan, in­clud­ing the route Jianzhen trav­eled from Kagoshima to Nara, to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the great monk.

“The story of Jianzhen’s jour­ney to Ja­pan shows us de­ter­mi­na­tion, faith and courage,” says the opera’s com­poser, Tang Jian­ping. “I like to tell his story in an op­er­atic way, an in­ter­na­tional lan­guage.”

His mu­si­cal mes­sage in­cludes Ja­panese bal­lads. Tang uses two zheng (stringed plucked in­stru­ment) — a Chi­nese one rep­re­sent­ing Jianzhen’s home­sick­ness; a Ja­panese one for Yoei, who was home­sick for Ja­pan. Tang says the two zheng rep­re­sent a kind of con­ver­sa­tion between China and Ja­pan.

Tang’s mu­si­cal ap­proach was well-re­ceived by the Ja­panese au­di­ence, though the opera was sung in Chi­nese with Ja­panese sub­ti­tles.

Shogo Arai, gover­nor of Nara prefecture, says he did not ex­pect that the story of Jianzhen’s tri­als and tribu­la­tions to be pre­sented in such a won­der­fully mu­si­cal way. “The per­for­mance tonight is a perfect in­ter­pre­ta­tion,” he says.

Dam­ing Tem­ple’s Mas­ter Renru, who was in­vited to join the per­for­mance, sat on the edge of the stage recit­ing Bud­dhist scripts dur­ing the opera.

The opera was staged in Nara on Thurs­day and Fri­day, and will be staged in Ky­oto on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day.

The story of Jianzhen’s jour­ney to Ja­pan shows us de­ter­mi­na­tion, faith and courage.” Tang Jian­ping, com­poser


Ab­dul Latif Khan has played a ma­jor role in help­ing a Chi­nese car­pet com­pany to achieve growth in Qing­hai prov­ince.


Mas­ter Renru from Yangzhou’s Dam­ing Tem­ple, where Jianzhen was a dis­ci­ple, ac­com­pa­nies the per­for­mance. The opera is now tour­ing Ja­pan.

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