Friday, November 9, 2007

Beijing Opera (Peking Opera): Baidicheng 白帝城

Baidicheng (白帝城) is one of several Beijing operas inspired by the original text atributed to Luo Guanzhong (罗贯中) (1), the epic novel Sanguo Yanyi ( 三国演义 ) ‘Romance of three Kingdoms’. Written more than 600 years ago, the novel describes a Chinese epic (in verse) of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries when the country was divided in three kingdoms.

Baidicheng 白帝城, which literally translates as City of the white Emperor (2), sets just a short part of this novel on stage, where Liu Bei 刘备, one of the three emperors of the divided country, is defeated in a terrible battle, resulting terminally ill; the Opera finishes with Liu Bei asking (singing of course) his main assistant to go and find his son and take care of him before Liu Bei’s imminent death.

This was the first time I could ‘consciously’ see an Opera based on Sanguo Yanyi ( 三国演义 ) ‘Romance of three Kingdoms’, and differentiate it from the other sources which nourish Beijing opera.

Beijing Opera has 4 fundamental literary sources:

1- 三国演义
Sanguo Yanyi “Romance of three Kingdoms”

2- 水浒传
Shui Hu Zhuan “Water Margin” or “Outlaws of the Marsh”(3)

3- 西遊記
Xiyouji “Journey to the West” (4)

4- 封神演义
Fengshen Yanyi “Creation of the Gods” (5)

Every one of these novels is part of the popular Chinese mythology; Chinese people, even without reading the original texts, know very well their characters and heroes, and
all their adventures; there are films, cartoons, children’s tales, novels, short stories, songs, and operas which talk about those characters. So, all a Beijing opera spectator needs is just a few points of reference to place the character in one moment of the story, after some sung verses they know where the hero is and what is happening there; anything else is theatricality and aesthetic pleasure.

As in many Chinese operas, the story of Baidicheng 白帝城 is only a pretext for expressing poetry, singing and beauty within the traditional Chinese theatrical code: the opera is full of singing and one special moment (about 15 minutes long) of military battle with acrobatics and martial arts. Costumes and makeup have a very high quality level of beauty, and they are really impressive because of their colourfulness and brightness.

The opera was performed at the Chang’an Theatre in Beijing (I’ve already talked about this venue). There seemed to be a special interest in this production because of the figures performing that night; in my ignorance of Chinese opera stars I could only recognize the name and figure who played Liu Bei 刘备, Zhang Jianguo 张建国.

This time I was accompanied by a Mexican group interested in Chinese culture, among them the sinologist Flora Botton (a scholar from El Colegio de México), and Tadeo Berjón, the Mexican Consul, who could understand a little bit more of the text and the story itself. Even then their approach was still limited, first of all because they are not specialists in Chinese Opera and, even with their knowledge of Chinese language, they were not familiar with the language written there.

Most Beijing Operas were written at least a hundred years ago (some even 300 hundred years ago) and many of their texts are absolutely incomprehensible for Chinese people living today; to know the story thanks to popular mythology doesn't mean understanding the text itself. But in comparison with my last visits to Chang’an and thanks to my companions, I could understand more than usual and enjoy this performance differently. (6)

Learning how to enjoy Beijing Opera in China is only for connoisseurs, it is a world outside the modern Chinese way of life, it is indebted to the past and we have to think about history each time we are going to listen it. Even then, not always the opera and its connoisseurs allow entry to their world. Rogers Darrobers says:

“Cette société, autant que toutes les autres fermées aux étrangers, est sans doute ce que la Chine possède de plus semblable à ce que nous appelons le: “monde”; on n’y entre que par goût personnel, pour le plaisir de se divertir avec des gens d’esprit; enconre faut-il y être admis par les initiés.” (7)

I recorded two exceptional moments :

Battle Scene.

Liubei’s first Aria.

The same videos in Youtbe:



(1) Luo Guanzhong 罗贯中 (1330 - 1400) novelist and playwright, very important in the development of Chinese fiction.
(2) It could be: The Imperial white City. A simple search in Google could be the answer.
(3)Written by Shi Nai’an 施耐庵 (1296 ~ 1371).
(4)Written by Wu Cheng’en (1500–1582 ).
(5)Written by Xu Zhonglin 许仲琳 (1567-1620 ).
(6) I’m more interested in the structure of movement and in the way of learning, but of course there is no way to understand those points without the comprehension of the stories.
(8)Roger Darrobers. “Opéra de Pékin”. Éditions Bleu de Chine, Paris, 1998.

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