Love on a Snowy Night

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Weix­ing Edited by David Ball

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.

Doomed Love

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.

Fa­mous Play

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

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