A Mortal Case Caused by a Jade Bracelet
Famensi (“Famen Temple”), a well-known classic Peking Opera, has been performed for over two hundred years since the birth of Peking Opera.
Famensi (“Famen Temple”), a wellknown classic Peking Opera, has been played constantly for over two hundred years since Peking Opera began, and never fails to impress audiences. Since the end of Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Peking Opera artists such as Cheng Changgeng (1811–1880), Yang Yuelou (1844–1889), Sun Juxian (1841–1931), Tan Xinpei (1847–1917) and Ma Lianliang (1901–1966) have performed the play frequently onstage.
“My last name is Liu, my first name is Jin and my courtesy name is Chunhua. I was born in Yan'an Prefecture, Shaanxi. At age seven, I was castrated and entered the imperial palace two years later. I began to serve the former emperor when I was thirteen years old. After his death, I helped Emperor Zhengde ascend the throne.” This was Liu Jin (a painted-face role called xiaohualian) who recited his lines. The play went on to reveal how he judged the murder case fairly but unintentionally.
A Case of Injustice
During his reign, Emperor Xiaozong (1488– 1506) of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) placed eunuchs in important positions and ordered the eunuch Liu Jin (1451–1510) to assist the crown prince Zhu Houzhao (Emperor Wuzong, reign: 1506–1522). Liu Jin made every attempt to flatter the crown prince, and was valued highly. When the crown prince ascended the throne, he changed the era name to Zhengde. Appreciating the services Liu Jin made in the old days, the emperor put Liu Jin in a position of chief, making him the most powerful eunuch at that time. Liu Jin was from the area of Xingping, a county in Shaanxi.
Favoured by the emperor, Liu Jin as well as seven other eunuchs like Ma Yongcheng formed the “Eight Tigers” with Liu Jin as chief. With great power in hand, Liu Jin began accumulating wealth. On one occasion where an officer got promotion, Liu Jin asked him for “celebration money,” but his demand failed to be fulfilled. He dismissed the official immediately. At that time, official Liu Yu took on the position of governor. He bribed Liu Jin with 10,000 taels of gold and offered him tens of thousands of silver later on, and he finally advanced to Minister of the Board of War. Liu Jin's exclusive right irritated Li Mengyang (1473–1530), one of the “Earlier Seven Masters.”
In 1506, Li Mengyang presented a petition to the emperor asking the court to remove the “Eight Tigers” from positions for the crimes they made to “eliminate potential threats and make the country prosper.” However, Emperor Wuzong ignored the petition, which gave Liu Jin the opportunity to punish Li Mengyang and send him to jail. Behind bars, Li Mengyang wrote messages to his friend Kang Hai (1475–1540) for help. Kang Hai was righteous, despised power and wealth, and was famous for poetry and drama.
After Li Mengyang was imprisoned, Kang Hai had to brace himself to visit Liu Jin. Learning of Kang Hai's arrival, Liu Jin hurried out to greet him and honoured him as a distinguished guest. Kang Hai interceded for Li Mengyang, whom Liu Jin agreed to release out of regard for Kang Hai. In 1510, Liu Jin was executed by the court. Kang Hai was listed as his partisan due to former acquaintance. At that time, the reinstated Li Mengyang framed Kang Hai for association with Liu Jin for self-protection, which hurt Kang Hai. Since then, Kang Hai “withdrew from civil service, abandoned himself to nature, gathered a wide range of actors, created songs and ballads, directed the music and costumes, played pipa
(a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument) himself and established a theatrical troupe” called the “Kang Troupe,” becoming the earliest troupe of Shaanxi Opera. Kang Hai also wrote Liu Jin into his play because he came from the same place with Liu Jin.
As Peking Opera grew in popularity after the mid-qing Dynasty, Liu Jin began to appear onstage. He became best known for the play Famen Temple. During the reign of Emperor Xiaozong of the Ming Dynasty, Song Guoshi, who passed the imperial examination at the county level, sent his son Song Xing'er to the family of Constable Liu Gongdao to work as a farmhand due to his bitter poverty, and betrothed his daughter to Fu Peng, the hereditary commander in Shaanxi, but without a wedding ceremony.
One day, Fu Peng encountered Sun Yujiao when coming to Sunjiazhuang and fell in love with her at first sight. He left the jade bracelet on purpose, later picked up by Sun Yujiao. He didn't expect that Matchmaker Liu discovered his secret. The greedy Liu took one of Sun Yujiao's embroidered shoes, intending to act as matchmaker for her and Fu Peng, but the shoe was stolen by her son Liu Biao, a notorious villain. He used the shoe to blackmail Fu Peng. The constable Liu Gongdao tried to persuade him, but Liu Biao refused to make up. That night, Liu Biao went to find Sun
Yujiao, but mistakenly killed Sun Yujiao's aunt and uncle. He attributed the murder to Liu Gongdao by leaving the head of Sun Yujiao's aunt in Liu's yard.
Frightened, Liu Gongdao ordered Song Xing'er to bury the head. But Liu Gongdao was worried about leaks, so he ended up killing Song Xing'er and burying him along with the head in a cinnabar well. Sun Yujiao's family reported the case to the court. Zhao Lian, the magistrate of Meiwu County, enquired about Sun Yujiao's bracelet and Sun told him the truth. Zhao Lian put Fu Peng and Sun Yujiao in prison. However, there was still no indication of the whereabouts of the head of Sun Yujiao's aunt. Zhao Lian arranged a meeting for Fu Peng and Sun Yujiao and ordered his assistant to eavesdrop on their conversation, which made him realise that he misjudged the case and gave rise to much bewilderment.
At that moment, Liu Gongdao came and reported that Song Xing'er stole his property and escaped, which convinced Zhao Lian that Song Xing'er was the murderer. Zhao Lian ordered to have Song Guoshi and Song Qiaojiao arrested that night and commanded them to hand over Song Xing'er. Song Qiaojiao didn't believe that her young brother would have committed such a crime and questioned Zhao Lian in court. Unable to answer, Zhao Lian imprisoned Song Qiaojiao on a charge of challenging the officer. In prison, Song Qiaojiao met Sun Yujiao and everything became clear. Song Guoshi ransomed Song Qiaojiao with the money the Fu family was granted. In order to gain her father's justice, Song Qiaojiao cried out her grievance on the same path where Liu Jin accompanied the empress dowager to Famen Temple to offer incense.
Song Qiaojiao elaborated on the whole incident in the Buddhist hall. Liu Jin decided on a whim to order Zhao Lian to review the case, supported by the empress dowager. Zhao Lian finally told the truth, arrested
Liu Gongdao and Liu Biao and reviewed the case. At last, Liu Biao and Liu Gongdao were condemned to be beheaded while Matchmaker Liu received 30 whips of the rod. The empress dowager also promised Sun Yujiao and Song Qiaojiao to Fu Peng. This story was staged by playwrights for a long time.
Masters in Classics
The adaptation of Famen Temple into Peking Opera gained popularity. In addition to Peking Opera, Famen Temple has been included in Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hunan, Han, Sichuan, Anhui, Henan and Hebei operas. In 1845 during the Qing Dynasty, Yang Jingting from Tongzhou, Beijing compiled the book Dumen Jilue (describing the customs and operas of Beijing) which introduced the scenery and customs of Beijing and many classic plays including Peking Opera— Famen Temple, the earliest found record. The book also gave an account of twenty-six performers of laosheng from eight troupes at that time. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, Famen Temple became one of Empress Dowager Cixi's favourite plays.
The complete Peking Opera Famen Temple is a major one, consisting of a series of acts such as “Picking up the Jade Bracelet,” “The Cinnabar Well” and “Meiwu County,” which can be performed separately. The play features numerous characters, complete roles and rich and distinct personalities, turning out to be a classic among traditional plays. As a rare ensemble cast, the play stresses importance to singing, orating, and acting, each with its own focus. The older generation of Peking Opera masters such as Tan Xinpei, Qiu Shengrong (1915–1971), Yuan Shihai (1916–2002), Tong Zhiling (1922–1995) and Yan Jupeng (1890–1942) all tried out for the play, proof of its popularity and influence.
Famen Temple became a notable play with characters and roles due to efforts made by several generations of performing artists. The video version of Famen Temple that enjoyed wide popularity was the one made in 1950 starring Yang Baosen (1909–1958), Wang Quankui (1911–1987), Zhang Junqiu (1920–1997) and Zhan Shifu (1919–1968).
In 1951, the audio version played by Tan Xiaopei (1883–1953), Hao Shouchen, Hua Huilin (1913–1964) and Xiao Changhua was released. The most famous audio version was recorded by Ma Lianliang, Qiu Shengrong, Zhang Junqiu and Xiao Changhua in 1958. Ma Lianliang, Qiu Shengrong and Zhang Junqiu at their artistic peak put on an impressive performance in such an ensemble cast where all roles known as sheng (main male role), dan (female role), jing (painted-face role) and chou (clown role) demonstrated their skills.
The character Zhao Lian played by Ma Lianliang gave a full play to the style of “Ma School.” Qiu Shengrong, the top artist that played painted-face roles ( jing), took the role of Liu Jin, a painted-face eunuch. The spoken
part revealed his solid foundation. He didn't wear whiskers as Liu Jin was an influential eunuch, but he painted his mouth and face red to indicate Liu Jin's rough characteristics and compelling power.
Zhang Junqiu, founder of the “Zhang School,” played the role of Song Qiaojiao and set a high standard in both singing and oration. His complaints about the injustices her brother suffered were accompanied with clear enunciation brought an artistic entertainment to the audience. Zhang Junqiu's performance outshined his contemporaries.
The most memorable character was Jia Gui, played by clown perfomer Xiao Changhua, whose performance set the highest standard for little painted-face roles of xiaohualian in Peking Opera while Jia Gui became the prototypical sycophant in traditional Chinese operas. Supporting roles such as Matchmaker Liu played by Zhao Liqiu, Liu Gongdao played by Ma Fulu (1900– 1969), Liu Biao played by Zhang Hongxiang (1916–2007), Song Guoshi played by Ma Shenglong, the empress dowager played by Geng Shihua, Sun Yujiao played by Ma Yanfen and Fu Peng played by Ru Fuhua all gave outstanding performances.
Reviewing the Case
The Peking Opera Famen Temple featured a tense pace of plot and comic tone, which proved successful over the last century. Although the play was about a court case, it was full of humour and sarcasm. The four characters in the play became well known. Zhao Lian who attained the position of county magistrate by passing the imperial examination was a careless officer but adept at bribery, surviving punishment. Despite being ignorant, Liu Jin acted arbitrarily and judged cases on occasion. Song Qiaojiao still came to the rescue of her fiancé even though he committed a crime due to another woman. Jia Gui took every opportunity to please the officers and even asked the county magistrate for bribes. The four characters left an unforgettable impression on audiences and became a legendary classic.
“Picking up the Jade Bracelet” is the first act of the play, incorporating huadan, xiaosheng and choudan roles. Due to its loose connection with the following, it formed a separate act favoured by the audience. The highlight of the play began with the empress dowager offering incense to Buddha.
Though Famen Temple included the whole roles of Peking Opera, the leading role of Liu Jin wore a red mask which he gained by judging the case fairly in Famen Temple. The play had complete roles of sheng, dan, jing and chou, and even the supporting cast gave a great performance. Moreover, the roles of Jing and Chou recited their lines plainly. Liu Jin didn't have many lines but spoke them throughout the play, a rare scene in Peking Opera.
After the empress dowager gave the order to go to Famen Temple, Liu Jin and other retinues together with the empress dowager kept still, leaving the time for the honour guard played by the walk-on roles to sing Yiguanqian (“moving of an officer”) and formed a series of scenes as if walking to Famen Temple. The walkon roles sang as they walked in an imposing manner. When the song ended, it implied that the procession arrived at Famen Temple.
It was the unique expression technique of space and time in traditional opera. Humour used throughout the play often amused the audience. When Liu Jin escorted the empress dowager with the company to Famen Temple to pray for immortality, the folk girl Song Qiaojiao made a sudden appearance along the way. Liu Jin was angry and said, “Where is the local officer? How dare the young girl! Kill her!” Jia Gui immediately gave the order but was stopped by the empress dowager.
“It is wrong to kill people in the Buddhist hall,” said the empress dowager, “Go and see whether she has a plaint form.” Liu Jin obeyed but scolded Jia Gui, “How dare you kill people in the Buddhist hall!” “My fault,” Jia Gui pretended to make an apology. Liu Jin continued to ask, “Whose idea is it?” Though still fresh in his mind, Jia Gui replied, “Who knows!” It always made the audience smile.
When Song Qiaojiao learned that her fiancé had been tortured into confessing to the county magistrate, an idea came to her that no matter what difficulties came, she would complain of the injustices to the empress dowager. After listening to the statement in the “Buddhist Hall,” the empress dowager ordered to review the case. Liu Jin played by Qiu Shengrong, once complained, “Who would have ever predicted the case!” Jia Gui added, “How to deal with such an unexpected case!” Liu Jin asked, “How?” Xiao Changhua who played the role of Jia Gui used to reply in a dialect, “It's up to you!”
Liu Jin took it seriously and enquired, “Which county does Famen Temple belong to?” “Meiwu County,” answered Jia Gui. Liu Jin ordered, “Call the county magistrate!” The dialogue performed by Peking Opera masters Qiu Shengrong and Xiao Changhua placed the image of Liu Jin and Jia Gui at an artistic peak.
Though Xiao Changhua and Ma Fulu previously performed as clowns, they had to play supporting roles as Ma Lianlaing, Tan Fuying, Zhang Junqiu and Qiu Shengrong. Other supporting roles were also impressive, though they never played in leading roles. Together they made the classic Famen Temple into a masterpiece.
The rebels led by Liu Jin exposed him to mortal danger. However, the story of his reviewing of the case in the Mahavira Hall was passed down through the years and gained fame as a classic play.
Ling Ke, from the Tianjin Peking Opera Theatre, playing Zhao Lian (the man who kneels) in the Peking Opera Famentemple
Liu Shuyun playing Sun Yujiao in the Peking Opera Pickingupthejadebracelet