Hearing the Awakening of the Great Reformer
In 1996, the year after the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre was established, the historical play Shang Yang was staged. It vividly portrays the life of Shang Yang (c. 395–338 BC), a great reformer in Chinese history.
In 1996, the year after the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre was established, the historical play Shang Yang was staged. It vividly portrays the life of Shang Yang (c. 395–338 BC). He was a great reformer in Chinese history and many of his reforms are depicted in the play. It has amazed numerous audiences with its tremendous momentum and profound theme. The play is a classic in the repertoire of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre and an enduring masterwork.
“Shang Yang’s reforms must be enforced, but Shang Yang must be gotten rid of.” After the death of Shang Yang, his reform measures prevailed in the State of Qin, enabling the state to become the greatest power among the Seven Powers of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), hence ushering in the powerful Qin Empire. It took as long as 15 years for Shang Yang to go from preparatory work to premiering on the stage. The work eventually paid off, and it has become a classic. To this day, Shang Yang remains popular on the dramatic stage.
Leaving Wei for Qin for Political Reform
The State of Qin developed slowly during the early Warring States Period and was situated on the western frontier. As a result, it was often despised by other vassal states. In 385 BC, Duke Xian of Qin (reign: 384–362 BC) launched a series of reforms. He enacted a household registration system and abolished the institution of burying the living with the dead. He also set up four counties, which weakened the privilege of the nobility. Thanks to his reform measures, Qin showed signs of recovery. In 361 BC, Duke Xiao of Qin (reign: 361–338 BC) succeeded to the throne. Distressed by the fact that the vassal states treated Qin with contempt and feeling it was a burning shame, he made up his mind to continue down the path of reform that his father embarked on. Later, he issued a talent-seeking decree. Soon, a man in his 30s came to the State of Qin from the State of Wei. The man was Wei Yang (also known as Shang Yang), who was a descendant of a lumpen noble family of Wei. He met with Duke Xiao of Qin and contributed his ideas to make Qin more powerful.
Wei Yang’s family name was Gongsun. He was keen on studying the philosophy of the Legalist school ever since childhood. He went to Qin to look for a better position and met Duke Xiao of Qin. Duke Xiao approved of Wei’s reform plan. From 356 BC to 350 BC, Wei launched two rounds of reform. He performed meritorious service so the duke gave him a promotion and granted him the title of Lord Shang. Wei Yang became known as Shang Yang historically. In the course of his political reform, Shang Yang set up a system of granting ranks of nobility based on military exploits. The more enemies someone killed, the greater the reward. As a result, the ability of the Qin army was greatly enhanced. In describing the combat of the Qin army, the Records of the Grand Historian states: “The Qin warriors took off the armour and clothes of their enemies, taking their heads in their left hands and holding the living captives under their right arms.” Shang Yang stressed the importance of agriculture and restrained commerce, implemented the county system, punished those who were related to or friendly with those who had committed an offence and unified weights and measures. However, his political reform infringed upon the interests of the old nobility. At the very beginning, the reform was opposed by old guard forces, such as Gan Long and Du Zhi. After Duke Xiao died, King Huiwen of Qin (reign: 338–311 BC) succeeded to the throne. Shang Yang was killed by the king but his reforms continued. They were carried out for 18 years and enjoyed popular support in the State of Qin. Formerly a backward state, it became the most powerful of the Seven Powers during the Warring States Period and laid a solid foundation for Qin Shi Huang’s unification of the other six states.
The story of Shang Yang carrying out reforms has been told for over 2,000 years. People have various views about him. In 1982, Yao Yuan, a postgraduate from Nanjing University specialising in theatre, planned to compose a historical play based on Shang Yang’s reforms. After seven years of preparation, he finally completed writing the script in 1988 when he was 38 years old. Yao said he chose this theme because there was some space in which he could use his imagination and he enjoyed the beginning of reforms in China. After the script was completed, it was left unused for eight years. Yao was trying to get
it staged during this time. He visited almost all the eminent theatres in China. Eventually the play was staged in Shanghai.
In 1995, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre was established. When the historical play Shang Yang premiered in Shanghai the next year, it caused a great flutter. It was staged by the centre and directed by Chen Xinyi. The play became a representative work of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. It covers Shang Yang entire life from his birth to his tragic death, demonstrating the miracle he created to make the State of Qin strong and prosperous in 19 years. The play is an epic work. After the debut, Yao stated: “I believe that Shang Yang will never be behind the times, though it was shelved for many years, because it is about history, life and Chinese culture, which has solidified through the centuries.”
Yao said that he incorporated some of his own ideas when interpreting history and writing the play. “I felt very contented when I saw Shang Yang, Jiniang, Hannü, Jing Jian, Prince Qian and Zhao Liang come to life under my pen. This is because everyone has his or her historical basis. They are active in accordance with their own logic. In a word, historical facts are ‘longitude,’ and character logic is ‘latitude.’”
The success of Shang Yang has earned Yao a great reputation. Throughout his life, he wrote many classic plays, the most representative of which include Xialiba Ren (“Popular Literature or Art”), Li Dazhao, Fa Zidu (“Fall of Gongsun Zidu”) and Mati Shengsui (“Women on the Long March”). In addition, he wrote a screenplay entitled Da Zhuanzhe (“Great Transformation”) and took part in the editorial work of TV plays such as Guojia Shiming (“National Mission”) and Lishi De Tiankong (“The Sky of the History”).
The Unconquerable Mind
In Shang Yang, Jiniang, a concubine of the prince of the State of Wei, gave birth to a boy named Wei Yang. The prince asked a seer to practise divination for the new-born. The seer asserted that the child was of demon origin. As a result, Jiniang and Wei were deserted in wildness. Wei and Jiniang survived by sticking together and helping each other from then onward. When Wei grew into a sensible and understanding child, Jiniang told him that she was his adoptive mother. She hoped Wei would not be a slave like her but a free man.
Ten years passed. One day, Wei was pasturing cattle when he was seen by Jing Jian from the State of Qin and Gongshu Cuo from the State of Wei. Jing Jian felt Wei was not a person to be trifled with and wanted to take him away. However, Gongshu insisted that Wei stay in Wei and work as his retainer. To sever the connection between Wei and Jiniang, Gongshu intimidated Jiniang into scooping out her eyes.
Soon, Wei became an adult. Prince Ang of Wei became his most intimate friend. Ang told Wei that their friendship was immune from conflicts of interests. He gave up his beloved Hannü, who was Wei’s confidante. Ang told Wei in secret that the prime minister had recommended Wei to the King of Wei. The prime minister said to the king that Wei Yang was so talented that he could be a competent prime minister. If the king did not want to put him into an important position, it would be better to kill him. In view of this, Prince Ang gave Wei a bag of money and advised him to flee as soon as possible. Wei did not leave right away though. He went to the sickbed of the prime minister and thanked him for his recommendation. He also bitterly rebuked the prime minister for his jealousy and suppression against him for years. The prime minister advised Wei to flee as soon as possible. Unexpectedly, Wei did not follow his advice though.
After the death of the prime minister, Wei sought protection in the State of Qin. Three years later, with the recommendation of Jing Jian, Duke Xiao of Qin eventually called together all his ministers to debate with Wei. Wei argued heatedly with them and finally gained the upper hand in the debate. The duke resolutely decided to invite him to formulate strategies to make Qin more powerful. After the debate, some ministers including Zhao Liang, Shi Jiao and Meng Langao volunteered to assist Wei. Reform measures infuriated noblemen like Gan Long, Gongsun Jia and Zhu Huan though. Zhu judged Wei as a heavenly hound and Prince Si as a heavenly horse according to celestial phenomena. According to Zhu, Prince Si and Wei would be incompatible. Later, Duke Xiao of Qin chose an auspicious day on which Prince Si was to
be designated as the crown prince of Qin. When Grand Preceptor Qian invited him to the ceremony, Prince Si, however, refused to be the crown prince, saying that Duke Xiao of Qin was bewitched by Wei. The duke foamed with anger. Zhu said that this was an ill omen. He pressed Wei for a solution. According to the new law, Wei cut off the left foot of the Grand Preceptor for negligence of duty. His accomplice Gongsun Jia tried to justify the grand preceptor. Wei removed the latter from office and decided that Zhu’s hair be cut as punishment.
King Hui of Wei regretted that he had not followed Gongshu Cuo’s advice to kill Wei, as his army was frequently defeated by Qin. In an attempt to sow discord between Wei and Duke Xiao of Qin, King Hui of Wei decided to negotiate peace with Qin and present Hannü, a beautiful woman, to Duke Xiao of Qin. Later, when he saw Jiniang, who appeared suddenly, Wei bent down on his knees to ask for punishment. Wei wanted to ask the Duke to set Jiniang free. Jiniang immediately mentioned that she was not Wei’s biological mother. She did not want Wei to redeem her at the cost of his peerage. Wei decided to repay Jiniang in the future. Hannü, who had become the wife of the king of Qin, learned from Jing Jian that all the ministers in the Qin court knew she was a confidante of Wei. She became laden with anxiety. Wei implemented the law very harshly. He once beheaded 700 criminals at once. Zhao Liang could hardly put up with this, so he decided to resign from office and go back to his hometown.
Hannü asked Jing Jian to persuade Wei. Jing Jian said that he could do nothing. It happened that Wei passed by. Jing Jian relayed a message for Hannü. At the same time, Zhu came over to practise divination on Hannü. Wei soon hurried over, and Zhu Huan cursed him. In a violent rage, Wei killed Zhu. Hannü sank into Wei’s arms. Duke Xiao of Qin happened to arrive at that moment and saw what happened. He did not blame Wei though. Instead, he said that he could not set aside state affairs just for the sake of a beautiful woman. The duke abandoned Hannü, who threw herself into the river and died. Wei screamed and became determined to make the State of Qin reign over the whole Central Plains.
Later, the states of Qin and Wei were at war once again. Wei Yang took part in battle. Prince Ang was the commander in chief of the state of Wei. As Wei’s army men outnumbered Qin’s warriors, Wei Yang knew that he could only win victory by coming up with an artful scheme. He decided to invite Prince Ang to the camp of Qin’s army and take Meng Langao as a hostage. If the negotiation with Ang was unsatisfactory, Wei Yang would kill Meng. Luckily, Meng was ready to sacrifice himself for Wei Yang. Later, Prince Ang arrived at Qin’s camp. Wei Yang demanded Wei submit itself to the rule of Qin. Prince Ang, bitterly rebuking Wei Yang for breaking faith, was shot dead. Meng was beheaded in Wei’s camp. In face of the deaths of Prince Ang, his old acquaintance, and Meng Langao, his best friend, Wei Yang shouted, “I have no way of retreat ahead. I can succeed only if I win victory.”
Wei Yang launched an attack against states in the Central Plains and won a great victory. The monarch of Qin granted him a fiefdom of 15 cities and made him a marquis. From then on, Wei Yang became known as Shang Yang. Zhao Liang braved death to admonish Shang Yang to retire at the height of his official career. Shang Yang refused though. Zhao Liang became disappointed and left. After the death of Duke Xiao of Qin, Prince Si succeeded to the throne. Prince Qian, Jing Jian, Gongsun Jia and others began to work on state affairs together. They proposed “carrying on Shang Yang’s reforms and getting rid of him.” Prince Si agreed and issued an edict that Shang Yang be killed. Later, Jiniang told Shang Yang that she was proud of giving birth to him. He thought she was a worthless creature who fanned the flames of disorder. Shang Yang realised that Jiniang really was his biological mother though. Shang Shang and Jiniang got into a carriage and the horses that were attached to it galloped on the open country. Jiniang shouted loudly that Shang Yang was not only his son but also the son of common people and slaves. Eventually, the mother and son were shot dead by a volley of arrows.
A Representative Historical Play
Shang Yang depicts the sacrifices Shang Yang made regarding family, love, friendship and his ideals. It narrates the vicissitudes of the great reformer from birth to his death over 2,000 years ago.
Shang Yang has been staged more than 100 times throughout China from its debut in 1996 to 2003, including in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in Singapore. It has been well received. In 2003, the play was selected as one of the Ten Quality Plays of the National Stage Art Classics Project and has become a firstclass, historical play of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. Yin Zhusheng became very well-known for his portrayal of played Shang Yang also.
In 2007, to reinvigorate this historical play, Yang Shaolin, General Manager of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, decided to use new actors to rehearse the play once again. The average age of these cast members was under 26. After a competitive process, actors and actresses including Wei Chunguang, Sun Ningfang and Sun Yizhou were selected for the youth version of Shang Yang.
In 2015, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre rehearsed Shang Yang with a galaxy of famous stars, including Yin Zhusheng and Liu Peng, a young actor who played Shang Yang, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Chen Xinyi was the chief director. Director Zhao Xiaoqian was in charge of rehearsals. The staff members, actors and actresses practised industriously and constantly strove for perfection, hoping to reproduce the legend of Shang Yang. The play was staged on February 24, 2017. After nine performances in Shanghai, it was staged at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on the evening of March 15, 2017.
Shang Yang has experienced a splendid trajectory of over 20 years from its debut in 1996 to the birth of the youth version in 2007 and later the birth of the classic version in 2017. It is a legendary, historical play that has been passed down through the generations.
A scene from Shang Yang, staged by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre