Jinju: a Time-honoured Performing Art
Jinju, or Jin Opera, originally from Shanxi Province, has a history of over 200 years. Jinju boasts a deep catalogue of plays—around 400 in all.
Jinju, or Jin Opera, originally from Shanxi Province, has a history of over 200 years. Jinju boasts a deep catalogue of plays, around 400 in all. One such work, Beating the Princess (Da jinzhi), is widely viewed as the most humorous and lively. The appeal of Jinju finds vivid expression in Beating the Princess; with the play’s popularity, Jinju has begun to move closer to the centre of the Chinese opera stage, drawing greater attention to the storied genre.
Origin and Development
Jinju, a significant variety of traditional Chinese opera, has a lengthy past. This time-honoured opera can be traced back to the ancient arts such as ballad and dance, acrobatics and comic dialogue. As early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC), in the vicinity of Pingyang of Yaodu (today’s Linfen, Shanxi Province), such narration began to spread in The Song of Tossing Sticks (Jirang ge) and The Song of the Highroad (Kangqu ge). Emperor Shun worked to persuade the people to energetically develop these productions and develop music and dance to enrich social customs. Shi Kuang, a musician of the State of Jin during the Zhou Dynasty (11th century–256 BC), was adept in musical compositions and performance—“like a red-crowned crane singing with neck outstretched and dancing trippingly.” Moreover, the folk musical dances Melody of King Lanling Commanding and Fencing (Lanling wang ruzhen qu) and Song of Bing Prefecture (Bingzhou ge), staged in Taiyuan (capital of Shanxi Province) during the Northern Qi Dynasty (AD 550–577), boasted great artistic appeal in both content and expression.
In the late Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) and early Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), zaju (poetic dramas set to music), a mature operatic form, flourished with excellent artistic creations and performances, ushering in the first golden age of Chinese theatrical history. Shanxi, with its profound cultural and artistic tradition, became one of the places where Northern zaju took shape and won popularity. That period witnessed the birth of many famous Taiyuan zaju playwrights, such as Li Shouqing, Liu Tangqing, Qiao Ji, Luo Guanzhong and Li Wu. The zaju plays they produced that have been recorded in historical documents total as many as 27 volumes, including Wu Yuan Playing the Vertical Bamboo Flute ( Wu Yuan chuixiao) and Executing Han Xin (Zhan Han Xin) by Li Shouqing; The Story of White Rabbit (Baitu ji) by Liu Tangqing; The Predestined Marriage (Liangshi yinyuan) and The Story of the Coin (Jinqian ji) by Qiao Ji; and The Wind-cloud Meeting (Fengyun hui) and Interlocking Remonstrance (Lianhuan jian) by Luo Guanzhong. These plays span tragedy, comedy, serious drama, farce, full-length plays, opera highlights and life-based plays. Known for their wide range of themes and rich content, some of the plays tell about historical stories, others about gifted scholars and beautiful ladies; some sing the praises of wise emperors and virtuous ministers, while others revolve around Confucian scholars and immortals, wizards and Taoists priests.
The rise of zaju facilitated the construction of theatres on a large scale as well as changes in shape and structure. Shanxi is currently home to 2,886 ancient stages, 70 percent of which are wooden structures built before the Yuan Dynasty. These stages were divided by a curtain into a front stage and back stage, which was not only conducive to performance preparations and scene changes, but also allowed the audience to focus their attention on the performance in front of them. Performance, theatrical make-up, costume and stage design all came to maturity and were standardised during this time.
While the singing tune of Northern zaju still lingered, bangzi qiang (Chinese local operas performed to the accompaniment of wooden clappers) rose to prominence around the Yellow River Delta during the late Ming and early Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. After developing for over 100 years, bangzi qiang was deeply rooted in this fertile land. Bangzi qiang popular in Taiyuan and Jinzhong (in Central Shanxi) began to adapt itself to the local culture and tastes; by the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (reign: 1851–1862) of Qing, a new genre of drama began to take shape— Jinju, also known as Zhonglu bangzi. Jinju is the result of the long-term blend of Puzhou bangzi, Jinzhong yangko
( yangko is a popular rural folk dance), Qitai yangko, Taiyuan yangko and folk ballads. As the operatic tunes of Jinju combined local customs with folk ballad vocabulary, jinju held great appeal to audiences in Jinzhong, becoming a popular dramatic genre in Taiyuan. Since its birth, Jinju, a symbol of the local culture, has always been sung on Taiyuan stages.
The tunes in Jinju include luantan (Chinese opera melodies other than Kunshan and Yiyang melodies), Kunqu Opera tunes and yuediao (Henan and northern Hubei tunes). Jinju performers prioritise singing skills. Their singing is characterised by bold and unconstrained high-pitch tones and rapid tempos with the distinctive features of the Loess Plateau. There are over 160 types of fixed tunes in Jinju, and a band consists generally of nine people, who fall into two categories— wenchang (string and wind instruments in Chinese operas) and wuchang (percussion instruments in Chinese operas). The former is mainly centred around bowed string instruments accompanied by erxian
(a two-stringed plucked instrument), sanxian (a three-stringed plucked instrument) and sixian (a four-stringed plucked instrument). The latter involves small drums, big cymbals, gongs and wooden clappers. The major roles in Jinju include dasanmen and xiaosanmen. The former refers to xusheng (elderly bearded male character), zhengdan (young or middle-aged female character) and dahualian (a role with a fully painted face). The latter refers to xiaosheng (the young man’s role), xiaodan (the young female role), and xiaohualian (clown in Chinese operas).
Jinju Merchant Troupes
In 1798, Yue Caiguang founded the Yunsheng Troupe, one of the first
traditional opera schools in Jinzhong. During this period, as Qinqiang (Shaanxi Opera) performances were prohibited in Beijing by the Qing imperial court, artists in the capital gradually began to join local troupes. Some of these performers became teachers of the theatrical arts. The teachers of the Yunsheng Troupe were selected from these actors and actresses. With rigorous training, the Yunsheng Troupe produced the actors and actresses who pioneered Jinju. Famous performers included Shi’erhong, Manjinghong, Xieyanhei and Yehuchou. In the early years of Emperor Tongzhi’s reign (1862–1875), Yue Caiguang passed away. Without an inheritor, the Yunsheng troupe disbanded.
It was a pity that the Yunsheng Troupe ceased to exist. However, the trailblazing artists witnessed the emergence and maturity of Jinju. In fact, the origin, success and popularity of Jinju were inextricably linked with Shanxi’s merchants. As early as the Ming Dynasty, merchants in Shanxi left their footprints all over the country. Some even went as far as Europe and other Asian countries. Feeling homesick, they would spend large sums of money inviting troupes from their hometowns to give performances. Later, their clients were invited to watch Jinju performances as well. After these Shanxi merchants became wealthy, some returned to their native land, greatly advancing the development and prosperity of the local economy and culture. For the sake of both their reputation and their family interests, many merchants in Jinzhong spent generously to establish Jinju troupes.
Wang Yue, a wealthy merchant in Niedian Village, Yuci District (in today’s Jinzhong City), was a 10thgeneration descendant of the Wang Clan. According to An Overview of the History of Merchants in Shanxi: Volume of Jinzhong, the Wang Clan gained fame and fortune beginning in the Wanli reign (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty. The period from Emperor Qianlong to Emperor Guangxu (reign: 1875–1908) of Qing was the clan’s heyday, during which time it operated over 200 firms throughout the country. With capital exceeding 10 million taels of silver, the Wangs were one of the 10 richest Shanxi commercial families in the late period of the Qing Dynasty.
Wang Yue and his brother Wang Zhu jointly established Xiehe Xin and Xietong Qing (two firms engaged in the exchange and transfer of money) in 1853 and 1856. Headquartered in Pingyao, they enjoyed a high reputation in the financial circles of China. Wang Yue was crazy about Zhonglu bangzi ( Jinju). He lived in an era when Bangzi Opera, and Zhonglu bangzi in particular, was thriving, and had been a theatre fan since childhood. Not only was Wan Yue a guest of honour of the Jinju troupes in Yuci County, he also invited the troupes to perform at his home. There was once an ancient stage in his courtyard; in front of the stage and on its flanks were spectator stands set up exclusively for Wang’s family members. Still, all this was not enough to satisfy the merchant’s desire. Later, he set up a troupe of his own during the reign of Emperor Tongzhi. This was named Sixi Troupe, and became renowned throughout the district.
Subsidised by Wang Yue, the Sixi Troupe boasted an array of actors and actresses and won popularity wherever it performed. Moreover, it enrolled a great number of famous actors and actresses who were invited from Puzhou by Wang Shouxin, acting troupe master. Furthermore, Wang Yue purchased a complete set of theatrical boxes (containing costumes and paraphernalia) from Suzhou and invited from Taiyuan Hong Ji’er, a famous drummer, and Yang Youqing, a famous accompanist. After an intense rehearsal period that lasted a whole winter, the Sixi Troupe debuted during the Spring Festival the next year and became a hit. From then on, the troupe was renowned not only in Yuci, but also throughout Jinzhong.
Ding Guoxian was the first actress to wear artificial whiskers on the stage of Jinju. Like a bright pearl of the artistic realm, she worked wonders in the history of Jinju. In her nearly 50-year artistic career, Ding worked tirelessly to leave behind a lasting artistic legacy. She pioneered the “Ding-school” singing tune, which has assumed a significant position in Jinju circles, and it is said
that in her time, “among the ten shengs (main male roles), nine sang in the style of Ding Guoxian.” The Ding-school, with its whiskered sheng, ultimately became the most influential of the Jinju schools.
Ding Guoxian studied the performing arts since the age of seven. At the beginning, she played female roles, but she later turned to elderly bearded male roles. Since the very start of her artistic career, Ding Guoxian chose an untrodden road. Soon after she began to learn performing arts, she took to the role of sheng with whiskers. Hoping to break away from the conventions of Jinju stage performance, Ding, as a female, attempted to portray the imposing image of manhood. This required not only courage, but also superb skills. To this end, she observed the manners and behaviours of various men and imitated their gestures and expressions. So devoted was Ding that she wore her hair short, dressed in men’s clothes and hats, and walked in crowds like a man. She boasted a melodious, bold and unconstrained voice, sonorous but without a hint of female vocals. Moreover, her acting was true to life, possessing feminine meticulousness but undeniably masculine overtones. Debuting at the young age of 13, she amazed the Jinju world. In the mid-1930s, Shanghai Pathé Records made phonographic records of her performances, after which Ding Guoxian won the title of “King of Bearded Male Roles of Jinju” and became well-known throughout the country.
Peking Opera influenced Ding Guoxian most of all. When speaking of Ding Guoxian absorbing the essence of Peking Opera, one will inevitably think of her exchange with Ma Lianliang, a famous Peking Opera performer. In 1938, Ding and her troupe went to Beijing for an exchange tour. As she was popular in Shanxi, many Shanxi expatriates in Beijing came to watch her performance. Ma Lianliang was among the audience. After watching the performance, he went backstage to pay a visit to the crew and talk with Ding Guoxian. Strangers to each other as they were, Ding and Ma appreciated and respected one another. Once, Ma Lianliang invited Ding Guoxian to watch The Four Graduates (Si jinshi), staged jointly by him and the four Peking Opera masters (Zhang Junqiu, Ye Shenglan, Liu Lianrong and Ma Fulu) of the Fufeng Troupe. After the performance, Ding Guoxian lauded the work and expressed her hope to put it on Jinju stage.
Two days later, a hand-written copy of The Four Graduates was sent to Ding Guoxian. Receiving the script, Ding revved up rehearsals. Rehearsals completed, she asked Ma Lianliang for advice. Ma offered his input without reserve; with amazingly high comprehension, Ding immediately understood. Soon, her portrayal of Song Shijie reached a new artistic high. Days later, Ding Guoxian staged Shanxi Bangzi—the Four Graduates at the North China Theatre, attracting a massive audience. The part of Song Shijie, played by Ding Guoxian, reflected Ma Lianliang’s performing style to a degree. However, Ding’s singing was more sonorous, inspiring and dignified. The performance was a huge success and drew waves of applause from the audience.
In plays like Beating the Princess and The Empty Fort Strategy (Kongcheng ji), Ding Guoxian successfully portrayed characters of different statuses, personalities and experiences— notably the part of the emperor of Tang in Beating the Princess, which became a Jinju classic. Chinese operatic art reached its zenith in the 1950s. In this period, Ding Guoxian achieved a high degree of proficiency in the Jinju performing arts. In 1972, Ding Guoxian passed away in Taiyuan. However, her Ding School and plays remain popular. The Jinju tunes of the Ding School are vigorous but not rigid, beautiful but not showy, and sweet and agreeable but not vulgar, amazing audiences with their peerless artistic accomplishment. In the course of a single performance, Ding School performers lay stress on acting skilfully with beautiful singing and rich emotion, elevating the performing arts techniques of the bearded male role in Jinju to a new height. Indeed, all this has exerted profound influence in the development of Jinju.
In 1955, Beating the Princess was made into a film, which won great popularity nationwide. Thanks to the widely sung Beating the Princess, Jinju, with its distinctive features— full-fledged roles, equal stress on singing and acting, compact plots, grand spectacles, splendid attire and enchanting music—is popular all over the world today.