Love on a Snowy Night
Return on a snowy night( fengxueye guiren ), a melancholic and moving story by playwright Wu Zuguang (1917–2003) has been adapted for film, television and the stage more than 70 years since its first release.
During the Republic of China period (1912–1949), two miserable people meet by chance, get to know each other and finally fall in love. However, the couple have no chance to get married and in the end the man dies one snowy night.
In 1942, young playwright Wu Zuguang (1917–2003) wrote the modern play Return on a Snowy Night (Fengxueye guiren), which tells the tragic love story of a doomed couple; the title of which was inspired by a Tang poem.
During the Dali reign (AD 762–780) of Emperor Daizong of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), poet Liu Changqing (AD 709–785), held a post in Huaixi, but was maliciously accused of embezzlement by Wu Zhongru, the Surveillance Commissioner of E’yue, and so was imprisoned. Fortunately, Miao Pi, the Investigating Censor, was an astute man who uncovered the truth and lessened his punishment, demoting him to the position of Sima Official of Muzhou Prefecture. In a state of hopelessness, Liu visited Mount Furong in Hunan Province one snowy night where he stayed at a poor man’s house. On hearing the dogs barking when the man returned home, he composed the poem “Staying at a Cottage of Mount Furong on a Night of Snow”:
When the mountains lurk dim in the pale dark,
The cottage of shabby looks stands lone in twilight.
By the wattle gate now I hear dogs loudly bark,
The master has come home in the snow of night.
In the 1,000-plus years that have followed, this famous Tang poem has remained popular, with its final line often being cited.
In 1942, when the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression had reached a stalemate, Peiping (presentday Beijing) had been invaded and occupied by Japanese forces, and the nationalist government had moved from Nanjing to Chongqing, the 25-yearold playwright Wu Zuguang wrote his play Return on a Snowy Night. The work describes the joys and sorrows of Wei Liansheng, a famous actor in Peiping, and several other characters living in that turbulent era. Unfortunately, the couple in Wu’s story are not as lucky as the master returning home during the snowy night in Liu Changqing’s poem, and instead do not meet again.
During the Republic of China period, one snowy night, a man stumbles into Su Hongji’s garden in Chongqing through a gap in the partly collapsed outer-wall. Grasping hold of a withered cherryapple tree, he seems to be searching for something lost. This man is Peking Opera actor Wei Liansheng.
Two decades earlier, Wei Liansheng appeared in Chongqing performing in the dan female role, his performances captivating both dignitaries and common people alike. Wei was very sociable and would often help his poor neighbours, so was highly respected by others. Chief Justice Su Hongji, who had become rich by smuggling opium, was leading an easy life with his second wife Yuchun, who had been born into poverty and reduced to working as a prostitute, until he redeemed her. Yuchun is clever and yearns for her freedom even though she now leads an affluent life. She often thinks: “All these years, I stayed where I didn’t want to stay, did what I didn’t want to do, said what I didn’t want to say and saw people I didn’t want to see ... What kind of life should a person lead? … How is a person just muddling along any different from a cat or dog?” She knows that she is “a rich man’s plaything” and yearns to escape and become an independent, self-supporting person who is free and respected.
When learning Peking Opera, she gets to know Wei Liansheng, a blacksmith’s son who is kind and always ready to help others. She tells Wei about her miserable life and invites him to her quarters when Wei Liansheng visits Su’s house to perform for his birthday. As Yuchun and Wei have similar experiences and are both rich men’s playthings without any dignity, they empathise with each other and fall in love, deciding to elope together so they can be free. Wei Liansheng, a popular actor liked by dignitaries, is enlightened by Yuchun and wants to flee with her so he can lead a truly free life. He plucks a crab-apple blossom from through the window and presents it to Yuchun.
Wei Liansheng’s senior fellow apprentice Li Rongsheng leads a rich life and is kind and sincere. Li says: “It’s better to live without too many cares. The more you know, the more problems you’ll have.” On the evening before Wei plans to elope with Yuchun, Li tries to persuade Wei by saying:
“Think about how lucky you are! You’re so young, but already so well-known and favoured by numerous dignitaries. You’re a lucky guy. Why did you decide to quit your job? Do you know how many envy you? You should be content with your lot.” Li Rongsheng is content with what he has. However, Wei is not.
Unexpectedly, Wei’s plan to flee is discovered by Wang Xingui, who now works as Su Hongji’s housekeeper as a result of Wei’s recommendation. An ungrateful villain, Wang tells Su. Just as Yuchun is about to leave with Wei, Wang hires some thugs to prevent her from going anywhere. Faced by such an abuse of power, Wei Liansheng straightens his back for the first time in his life and announces: “From now on, I, Wei Liansheng, shall cut off relations with all dignitaries I know.” As a result, Wei Liansheng is driven out of the city. Before leaving, he and Yuchun bid farewell to each other. He says to Yuchun: “Don’t worry. I may die of poverty, cold, hunger or hardships, but I will be always happy.” From then on, the couple live far apart from each other. In his later life, Wei leads a peripatetic life in poverty away from his home and Yuchun is sent to another official named Xu Fucheng.
Two decades later, poor and ill, Wei Liansheng returns to his hometown, attempting to find remnants of the place he once knew. However, although the things are still there, the people are no longer the same. Finally, Wei dies under the eaves of a house in the snow. Coincidentally, Yuchun, also returns to this old place accompanying Xu Fucheng and disappears on that snowy night without a trace.
Return on a Snowy Night was written in 1942, during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. Instead of directly addressing the Chinese people’s resistance against the Japanese invaders, the play focuses on something rooted deeper in the national consciousness— the awakening of humanity. Love and opera are merely the vehicle for the play which deals with topics such as resistance and enlightenment. Wu Zuguang wanted to use a love story to discuss truths about life.
Wu Zuguang was born into a prominent scholar-official family in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province in 1917. He was a child prodigy and became famous in literary circles when he was just 18. In total, he wrote 50-plus books, including plays, prose, political essays and works on calligraphy. His notable works include Return on a Snowy Night, Huaweimei (Flowers as Matchmaker) and The Selected Works of Wu Zuguang. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Wu served as vice president of the China Writers Association and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. His wife Xin Fengxia (1927– 1998) was a famous Pingju opera actress. In 1955, at the invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), Wu Zuguang, made the black-and-white The Goddess of the Luo River and the colour Mei Lanfang and His Stage Art films about the Peking opera master Mei Lanfang (1894–1961). In 1956, Wu also made the colour film Tears on a Barren Mountain based on the opera performer Cheng Yanqiu (1904– 1958). However, the modern play Return on a Snowy Night was always the work he was most satisfied with.
In 1944, Wu Zuguang’s Return on a Snowy Night premiered to great acclaim in Chongqing, and the Kaiming Bookstore published the script the following year. In 1948, Wu Zuguang personally directed the film version, which was released by Ta Chung Hwa Film Enterprise and was shown to packed cinemas. A melancholic, tragic and touching love story filled with suspense, Return on a Snowy Night moved audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
In the 70-plus years since its first release, this melancholic and moving story has been adapted for film, television and the stage. Famous theatre director Ren Ming, who was also moved by the play, staged Return on a Snowy Night at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing. In December 2012, the NCPA chose to stage the modern drama to mark the fifth anniversary of the centre’s opening.
The crew behind the NCPA’S Return on a Snowy Night production were some of the most talented people working in Chinese theatre, film and television. Director Ren Ming infused the play with ideals gained from his 30-year artistic career, and the actors and actresses,
such as Feng Yuanzheng, Yu Shaoqun, Cheng Lisha and Liang Danni, jointly presented audiences with a poetic, aesthetic and thought-provoking play. As far back as 1982, when Ren Ming first read the script to Return on a Snowy Night shortly after being admitted to the Department of Directing of the Central Academy of Drama, he excitedly decided to direct the play in the future. Ren Ming understands this play intimately, explaining: “Every character in Wu Zuguang’s play, whether it be an official, an actor or a nobody, is true to life. From the very start, we decided to present this play and its characters authentically and accurately in order to reproduce the brilliance and complexity of human nature.” He continued: “Directing Return on a Snowy Night has been a dream of mine for the past three decades, and this dream has finally come true. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this dream is now over.”
The NCPA’S implicit, realistic and poetic version of Return on a Snowy Night, characterised by a touching ending, deeply moved all those in attendance. In October 2014, at the invitation of the National Theater and Concert Hall ( Taipei), the NCPA sent the original production team to Taipei, where the play was staged four times. Local audiences appreciated the work for “unfolding gradually” and hailed it as “extremely impressive.”
Wu Zuguang’s daughter, playwright Wu Shuang, once commented on the play, saying: “My father repeatedly modified the play, especially its ending. The play produced by NCPA follows the first version of the play, emphasising human nature and appearing slightly poetic. I really admire that.” In 2017, Return on a Snowy Night was staged again to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wu Zuguang.
On a Snowy Night
The NCPA’S production of Return on a Snowy Night is simple and realistic, with well- designed staging. The realistic and poetic settings shift between a magnificent mansion and poor courtyard, then to a resplendent, crowded theatre, recreating the appearance of Peiping during the Republican period and giving audiences an immersive experience. During the performance, audiences can appreciate the contrasts between the festive atmosphere during a feast scene in Su Hongji’s courtyard, the extravagant backstage in the Opera theatre, as well as the primitive simplicity of Wei Liansheng’s house particular to those found in old Beijing.
However, this modern play with five acts, does not boast a complex plot or themes. The first and last acts are set on the same snowy night and tell the end of Wei Liansheng and Yuchun’s story. The middle three acts focus on their tragic love story that took place two decades earlier, recounting their first meeting and romance. With its unconventional structure, Wu Zuguang depicted the temperaments and inner worlds of Yuchun and Wei Liansheng, bringing out their misery, struggles, awakening and resistance. Wu naturally narrates the story of how these two lonely, enslaved and then awakened souls approach each other and fall in love in a pure way.
After watching the play, famous writer Xiao Fuxing said: “This play was not woven into a gorgeous brocade. It’s like an old and plain theatrical costume, stained by travel and sweat, but nonetheless still elegant. The ending of the play is especially impressive: After Liansheng dies amid the falling snow and then comes back to life, his dancing in the snow dressed in red and holding a folding fan is incredibly touching.”
At the end of the Ren Ming-directed drama, Yu Shaoqun, playing the part of Wei Liansheng, danced in the falling snow in contrast with the scene in which Wei, poor and ill, dies in the snow. This sight is extremely thought-provoking. Famous actor Feng Yuanzheng explained that Yu Shaoqun was chosen for the part because of his particular talents. In addition, this was the first modern play, and also classic role, which Yu had played. The handsome and refined Yu Shaoqun, who had learned Chinese Opera since childhood, was praised by audiences as being “born to play Wei Liansheng.” Cheng Lisha, who played the part of Yuchun, has portrayed many unforgettable female characters on the stage of the NCPA, including Yun’er in Wangfujing and Empress Dowager Cixi (regency: 1861– 1908) in Yangshi Lei ( The Lei Family). She played the part of Yuchun exquisitely, as a character who is sweet-natured and thinks like a typical modern woman, movingly presenting the love between Yuchun and Wei Liansheng as well as their joint resistance.
In Return on a Snowy Night, Wu Zuguang revealed “poverty behind popularity, and misery behind smiles.” As he himself said: “I wrote this play because I’d been considering a question for a long time: what do people live for? And what kinds of lives should they lead?” Wu Zuguang was an insightful man. Not satisfied with realistically depicting the original appearance of society and life, he probed into the intrinsic values and revealed truths about life.
The unique charm of Return on a Snowy Night lies in its poeticism and ability to provoke thought. Wu Zuguang was accomplished in classical arts and able to create artistic scenes that can add lyricism to a play. He advocated the use of poetic implication to make plays more artistic, saying: “Implications allow you to say what you mean without actually expressly saying it in your work.” In this play, highly artistic scenes can be found everywhere, but the most typical ones appear in the first and final acts. The whirling snow at dusk, the snowcapped buildings, the partly collapsed outer-wall and the flowering trees combine to create a melancholic scene.
“By the wattle gate now I hear dogs loudly bark / The master has come home in the snow of night.” On that snowy night, Tang poet Liu Changqing waited and finally the master came home. However, regrettably, Wei Liansheng and Yuchun did not get to meet each other one final time. The play Return on a Snowy Night tells a dreamlike tale set in the bygone Republican period, in a story that is both tragic and melancholic.
Returnonasnowynight performed by the National Centre for the Performing Arts