Monday, February 12, 2007

The most beautiful book in the world. My visit to Mei LanFang’s memorial house.

Mei LanFang (梅兰芳) is the icon of chinese theatre; of course the Chinese stage has got big figures, great players, wonderful masters but nobody compares to the fascination the Chinese government and the Chinese people feel for Mei LanFang. You can’t talk about Chinese theatre without talking about him. Mei LanFang brought Beijing Opera (京剧 jingju) (1) to an international level; he was the first to do international tours and, most importantly, the first to develop relationships and exchange ideas with the greatest scenic artists of his time: Gorky, Stanislavsky, Nemirovich-Danchenko, Eisenstein, Meyerhold, Chaplin, Bernard Shaw, Gordon Craig, Brecht, Tadashi Aoki, Enosuke Ichikawa and many others, who strongly influenced him, and who were in turn influenced by him.(2)

Mei LanFang was a revolutionary and even a creator of new styles and views inside the Chinese theatre, specially Beijing Opera; he created a different style of acting well known in China today as one of the more remarkable, fine and original schools. Even without those contributions, Mei LanFang was simply a genious on the stage; specialized in Dan feminine roles from his adolescence (3), he was the prototype of good acting, discipline and perseverance; his figure and chanting were applauded, his dance and playing surprised anyone because of its beauty and perfection; ordinary people simply loved him, as did many in power. He seems to have been a man who knew how to keep good relations with the powerful, but that doesn’t mean that the changes in China didn’t touch him. As a legendary figure, he was lucky to pass away in 1961, a few years before The Cultural Revolution, and not witness how most of his legacy in Chinese theatre and his own image were trampled and erased from the map of Chinese history for almost ten years, accused of being a remnant from Capitalist and Aristocratic times before the Communist Revolution. It was not until the end of the 70’s that Mei LanFang and all of those destined to die in that Mao’s wrong social experiment that they retake a preponderant place in the Chinese History of Art and, even more so, our man is raised to the level of a real hero. Visiting his memorial house becomes a patriotic experience.

Mei LanFang’s memorial house is located in the middle of a famous Hutong (4) in the Xicheng district of northwest Beijing. That traditional building, with a courtyard and rooms around it was his home for only the last 12 years of his life (1949 to 1961), when he enjoyed fame and success, long after the world recognized for the fist time his greatness in the 20’s and 30’s; but the place is worth the visit only because he lived there, because you can know about him and reflect on his legacy. It is a museum, ¿what is left to be found in a traditional Beijing house when the past Cultural Revolution burnt and destroyed everything? (5) It seems that the high status of Mei LanFang’s family gave them the opportunity to keep some of Mei LangFang’s possessions: paintings, books, furniture on exhibit in the house rooms (visible from the windows in the walls); many photographs (no originals), videos of some performances (6), recordings of his voice, and some costumes, that kind of marvelous costumes so characteristic of Chinese Opera and China itself.

Between the curiosities one can see there is a big poster showing dozens of photographs of Mei LanFang’s hand gestures and finger postures that he redesigned or created new for the young lady role (Dan), as well as body postures for seating down, moving tables, carrying chairs, etc.

At the end of my visit I went to the small souvenir shop full of dusty glass cabinets selling fans, card decks with images from Chinese Opera, post cards, and some books; one in particular caught my attention: Mei Lanfang's hidden book of historical drama images. The employee repeated: -Zheige henhao! Henpiaoliang!- ( This a good one, very beautiful!) I wanted to look and I asked for it; while I looked amazed at the pages and illustrations, the shop-keeper told to me that some years ago this book had won in Germany the prize to the most beautiful book in the world; Chinese people usually make up stories to sell anything to foreigners , but this time I was beginning to believe the story; I could notice that many of the illustrations were reproductions from ancient paints, depicting different characters, roles and makeup patterns; I also noticed a special Chinese way of binding luxury or important books, where books are split in two parts inside a very beautiful cover and are stitched with very noticeable strings; the text was impossible for me to read, written as it was in traditional Chinese characters, such a shame! (though some would say not being able to read it doesn’t really matter, since it’s a Chinese contemporary writing).

I thought a little bit before buying it; but that book was really beautiful, in my point of view a piece of art.

Now, holding it while I’m writing, I smile: ¿Why not play with the idea that I really bought, inside Mei LanFang’s house, the most beautiful book in the world?

(1) Peking Opera, now known as Beijing Opera; though in mandarin or putonghua it’s called Theatre of the Capital or Jingju 京剧。 This is not the time to want to change things, but I always think about Chinese Opera as a Traditional Chinese Theatre, the word “Opera” puts an emphasis on singing, but Jingju can’t possibly exist in the basence of many others elements: choreography, acting, acrobatics and voice as speech. Mei LanFang, for instance, possessed a great voice, difficult to imitate, but his legacy also includes a way to look at roles, movements, choreographies, as well as the details of his corporal work on the stage.
(2) There is an article, published on internet, in the Théàtre du Soleil’s site, which could clarify the influence of Mei LanFang in Western performing arts: “Mei Lanfang : procès et utopie de la scène occidentale” by Georges Banu.
(3) “Farewell my Concubine”(霸王别姬 bawangbieji) is one of his most important performances.
(4) Hutong (胡同) literally means alley, but the word remits to a whole traditional neighbourhood that may contain countless small alleys.
(5) The main part of chinese art pieces had already been taken away by the Chinese nationalists and are currently on exhibit in the museums of Taipei, Taiwan. Many others were trafficked away. Most of the theatrical pieces left are costumes and musical instruments of dubious origin.
(6) The video I watched on that occasion was precisely “Farewell my Concubine” (霸王别姬 bawangbieji), with the scene where the concubine (MeiLanFang) performs the sword dance, killing herself at the end of it. Mei lanFang was more than 60 years old at the time. The video I post is the same I saw in the Mei LanFang's Memorial House, just a few seconds from a documentary gotten in Beijing.

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