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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I'm writing a Master´s thesis on the topic Mei Lanfang and the key to his success. I've also come to the conclusion that Qi Rushan plays a significant part in it. My problem is that I can’t find enough accessible sources that would make a clear statement on this thesis. As you own the book “A Collection of Illustrative Plates Of Beijing Opera …” would it by any chance be possible for you to scan in and send me the paragraphs that put Qi Rushan “on his real place”? Some additional references would be helpful as well (numbers of the pages on which the paragraphs can be found). I would really appreciate it. I will also welcome any other book references.

    Thank you for your help.

    Magdalena Hofmann

    My email address:


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