Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mr. Li making Xiaweidian shadow puppets at Mentougou Museum.

Mentougou is known as a Communist-era historical point in China, a rich area in coal extraction, but also it is famous as the place where one style of Beijing Shadow Puppets is made, known as Xiaweidian or Beijing west school.

Xiaweidian, a village in Mentougou district, is home to the west school and has a long tradition of carving and playing shadow puppets. -Beijing's "west school" style puppets are coated with water color, not the usual tung oil and offer a slightly different viewing experience-, experts say.

During Summer 2008 Mentogou Museum has an exhibition of 700 hundreds puppets from diferent parts of China, and the highlights of the exhibition are precisely those puppets from Beijing Xipai Xiaweidian School. (1)

Master Li, the last of a long lineage of puppeteers from Xiaweidian, showed to me how to do the final steps in the elaboration of two Xiaweidian Puppets I bought from him.

Mr. Li making Xiaweidian Shadow Puppets. Mentougou Museum, China. July 2008.

Mr. Li making leather shadow puppets

the same video in Vimeo

Mr. Li making "Xiaweidian" Shadow Puppets. Mentougou Museum. from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.

(1) There will be another post about the exhibition.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tamasaburo performing in Beijing, a second part.

Some impressions come with time...

It’s more than a month since Tamasaburo’s performance of Mudanting, The Peony Pavillion, and I think it is a good time to recall and then express new impressions if they are any.

Tamasaburo in Beijing, "Mudanting"

Again, intelligence.
Tamasaburo’s version of Mudanting started with a Japanese style introduction, and actually not with "Mudanting" instead he introduced himself performing a portrayal of a famous chinese character, Yang Guifei the concubine, only for this first scene. Tamasaburo’s version then is constructed from the kind of ritual entrance of any Kabuki Classic performance: a chorus chanting, the main character doing her entrance very slow, getting all the public’s attention through her first movements. I was recording video but I was watching only Tamasaburo’s movements, listening to the music and to the choir; when someone from the staff asked me to turn off my camera I was surprised I was still recording it.

This kind of ritual was a very clever introduction; it showed the Chinese spectators that the actor on the stage was a Japanese figure, performing in his own style and introducing himself to all of us with the humility of an outsider and with respect. After that he could perform Kunqu because he didn’t appear as someone “coming to teach”; he, talking with actions, had come to be a cultural diplomat, to share his artistic skills with the finest and most magnificent performing Art in China. He knew very well the Chinese spectator.

I also remember how Tamasaburo shared the main role, Du Linang, with two other Chinese actors, they were younger and very well trained. We could see and even compare movements, voices and beauty. Tamasaburo is a star, but he was performing the role as any other young player. That was an opportunity for enjoying this kind of role (an actor performing a female character) for the first time in my life; I enjoyed those three different ways of performing (as they were three) with their voices, with their movements and their beauty.

Beyond any technical skill or talent, a glimpse of intelligence can become the origin of success.

While I was spying him, he stopped talking and looked at me.

I wanted to say sorry because of the video issue (though you may not believe me, in China there is no problem to take photographs during a performance of any Chinese Opera, wherever you are), but I didn’t find the guy of the staff inside the theatre, so I went out and looked for him in one of the beautiful courtyards. Then, while I was talking with the guy, I noticed that there was a big fabric screen dividing the courtyard. Soon I was alone I went through to discover that it was the part the theatre prepared for the cast to refresh themselves, to smoke or to receive people. And that was what Tamasaburo was doing. I saw him talking with a group of Chinese, kind of bored, respectful, listening to them and using a translator to keep the conversation.

The man was there, without costume or makeup, only with a tiny shirt and that white foundation used by any female makeup designer.

He was talking with the group of Chinese, neither him nor anyone else noticed I was there, so I concentrated on his figure and gestures. I’ve always loved the idea of seeing any genius as a human being, a real human being, and that evening I had the chance to do it again. I remember how feminine his figure was: thin, tall and solemn. And then, my brain instantly started recalling any transvestites I had seen in my life; how silly of me! But the white face, the net covering his hair and his attitude, everything reminded me of those people. I had to put my thoughts in order and relocated his image on the stage on a first plane in my memory, and recalled those videos of him I had seen.

In the middle of this absurd game of unconscious comparisons, while I was spying him, he stopped talking and looked at me; it was only for a second (maybe less), but he stopped and looked at me. All I could perceive in his eyes was tranquility and, of course, seriousness. Then everything returned to normalcy, he was talking again with the help of the translator.

I didn’t use my camera, I simply couldn’t do it; if he were performing on the stage..., but no, he wasn’t. I was there without any permission, it seemed embarrassing, no, impolite, rude of me. It was a very private moment, like a naked man trying to rest after a busy day. It was nonsense.

Helping to build the myth

A Japanese friend commented to me about Tamasaburo’s life and how some Japanese see this artist. She told me Tamasaburo wasn’t part of any Kabuki family, so he wasn’t part of Kabuki’s tradition. What did this mean? Well, I looked at some internet pages and some books and it seems that Japanese respected him more because he had to work harder than others to reach the place he enjoys today. Kabuki actors who belong to a certain lineage of families are heirs to the style and work of their fathers, they have “the blood”, so a big part of the way ahead is already prepared, they only have the obligation to work with persistece to be part of the Kabuki tradition. Actors like Tamasaburo have to convince others with work, with talent, with professionalism and, of course, with their artistic values.

She also told me that Tamasaburo had a poliomyelitis problem in his left hand, so his work for getting such skills as a Kabuki actor was even harder! He broke the myth people usually have about the impossibility of becoming an actor or dancer (Kabuki onnagata players are both) if the aspirant has such physical problems.

I can’t assure the veracity of her comments, but I must accept that I want to play the game of helping to construct a myth (or destroying one?). I have enjoyed so much as a spectator of Tamasaburo’s work on stage that I am sure he is walking rapidly through the way of myths even without my help.


Creation in my life has always been linked to the pleasure of being a spectator. If I have created something in my life it has been thanks to seeing or listening to something extraordinary before. I am not looking for imitation of the biggest, I am enjoying what some people call “inspiration” but by the biggest, and I love it. After seeing them perform, after crying, trembling, laughing or getting deep in my own self I can write or picture anything I want, without them my artistic life would be unbearable.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Beijing Opera: Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳. Plates from The Drunken Beauty 贵妃醉酒

Introduction: a book as a source.

During my first six months living in Beijing I was trying to buy any Chinese book about Beijing Opera translated to English, specially about Mei Lanfang work, but my finding was limited to some simple books aimed to foreign common readers for a better understanding of Beijing Opera. Of course I found several books in Chinese, impossible to read (my Chinese was and is awful) but with marvelous pictures and illustrations.

It was in February 2006 when I found at the Foreign Languages Book Store in Wangfujing street a bilingual collection-book called (in his English version) “A Collection of Illustrative Plates Of Beijing Opera Performed During Mei Lanfang’s Visit To The United States”. This was one of my happiest moments inside any Chinese bookshop, I had in my hands the first “readable” book written by a Chinese author with not only important information but with real documents about the way Mei Lanfang prepared and performed plays, in this case during the 1930-tour to USA.

This book also put on his real place Qi Rushan, researcher, theorician, dramaturgist, and stage director who side by side with Mei Lanfang transformed the face of Chinese traditional theatre and made a revolution from inside. Thanks to him Mei was able to reach the top of the world of big stars of beginnings of the 20th Century. (1)

But ¿what does this book has inside? And ¿why did this book put on his place the name of Qi Rushan ? I will answer these questions with a direct quote from (the editor) Wang Wenzhang’s preface (2):

Mei Lanfang’s visiting performance in U.S. causes such an éclat that is certainly the fruit of his consummate artistic accomplishment which he persistenly pursues. The view is widely accepted to explain and evaluate the historic significance of the visiting performance in U.S. However, not a few people know the experience that Mei Lanfang and his companies had made a series of detailed and comprehensive designs and preparations before the visiting performance. Among these include Mr. Qi Rushan, the organizer and prmoter of the visiting performance to U.S., who is in charge of the introduction and publicity of Peking Opera.

Mr. Qi Rushan received well education on the traditional Chinese culture even as a child and made wide journey for business throughout Europe when he was young. He goes deep into Western drama due to the often visits to theatres. Mr. Qi Rushan assists Mei Lanfang to set up the art of Mei School
(3) when he came back to China. He contributes his life to the research of Chinese traditional opera and makes the relevant work turn from so-called “vulgar” research to academic study with true significance.

Mr. Qi Rushan on the behalf of Nation Opera Association invites famous painters to draw everything able to be shown by paintings in relation to Peking Opera from Peking Opera costume, facial makeup, props, musical instruments, dancing shape and theatre, add introduction in both Chinese and English and finally make them scroll of paintings easy to hang up as to “diffuse the Nation Opera to abroad” and to make the American audience understand Peking Opera through a direct way at a greater depht. It is easy for the American audience to understand Peking Opera.

The total of 183 scroll of paintings and 1987 plates to some extent become an encyclopedia of peking Opera knowledge but also display vividly the aesthetic principle of Peking Opera performing art.

“A Collection of Illustrative Plates Of Beijing Opera Performed During Mei Lanfang’s Visit To The United States collects and publishes the majority of Peking Opera paintings drwan before Mei Lanfang’s visiting performance in U.S. 70 years ago. The total of 1092 paintings is preserved by the Academy of Chinese Traditional Opera (forefather of the Art Academy of China). The rest of the paintings about theatre houses are lost before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and hard to find. (…) ”

Plates of Guifei Zuijiu “The Drunken Beauty”

Synopsis of the text:

Yang Yuhuan, better known as Guifei (Imperial Concubine of the First Order), is the consort most favoured by Emperor Ming Huang (685-762 AD) of the Tang Dynasty. She is invited by the emperor to admire the flowers and have a drink at the Pavilion of One Hundred Flowers. As appointed, Guifen comes to the pavillion with her entourage of palace maids and eunuchs. She waits a long time but the emperor fails to appear. She finally gets word that Ming Huang has returned to the Western Place Court to visit Meifei, another concubine. Disappointed and resentful, she has no alternative but to drink alone. She becomes bitter when she recalls how she was doted on in her early days at the Palace. Wine aggravates her sadness and makes her quite drunk. She returns to her quarters, helped by the maids, cheerless and lonesome.

Inside the book we read:

note: It is a difficult text, it seems the translation was made by an inexpert translator, so, please, make an effort.

It originates from Drunken Concubine Yang during the reign of Emeperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty and appears on the stage of Beijing Opera from Han Opera in the first years of Emeperor Guangxu. It is a one-act song and dance drama. There are many complicated postures such as holding a cup in the mouth (4), sleeping fish and drunken walk (5). The role has been played by military ‘dan’ (female role). In 1914, mei lanfang learnt the play from Lu Sanbao when he was at yowen troupe (6). With the accumulation of stage experience and thoughts, Mei Lanfang made many innivations in the traditional performing style of the play. He did away with performing on stilts and change ‘huashan’ role to play. He threw away vulgar and obscene performance and words (7) after concubine Yang and paid attention her depressed feeling in the forbidden palace. He enhanced techniques of song and dance. Each singing sentence was untited with postures and expressions in his eyes. It made the image of Concubine Yang dignified and appearing in all her glory. Since that, the Drunken beauty had a new meaning of thought. All the pictures depict main dance postures in Act One Drunken Beauty and Act Two.” (8)

Plate 3: 惊鸿 (Jinghong) Frightened Swan.

Plate 5: 羽集 (Yuji) Congregated Birds.

Plate 7: 指蓬 (Zhipeng) Pointing to Penglai the fairy Mountain.

(1) Now I’ve found some other fantastic books, in French and English (and even translated some articles from Chinese), which have given to me a deeper view of the importance of this interesting actor. Qi Rushan was hidden by Chinese art historians because during the revolution he decided to flee and to stay in Taiwan and not in the new Communist China.
(2) It is a real direct quotations that could have some mistakes for those scrutinous of the language. Bilingual book doesn’t mean written in two languages, so written first in Chinese the book was translated by a Chinese translator with his skills on hand.
(3) The Mei School in one of the “styles” of performing which made school in China after the success Mei Lanfang had during these years.
(4) “holding the cup in the mouth” is a posture (chain of actions) which is easy recognizable in the full-version film.
(5) “Drunken walk” is a posture (chain of actions) easy recognizable in the full-version film.
(6) Photograph showing Mei Lanfang and his teacher Lu Sanbao:

(7) It seems that because of the nature of the subject, a drunken spiteful concubine, the play was, before Mei, performed as a parody of drunk women, and people used to go with the expectation of seeing obscene moments on the stage.
(8) Page 320. “A Collection of Illustrative Plates Of Beijing Opera Performed During Mei Lanfang’s Visit To The United States” Collected by the Arts Academy of China. Wang Wenzhang, chief editor. Culture and Art Publishing House. Beijing, China. 2005.

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