Popular in Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan, Chuanju (Sichuan opera) is the major form of local opera in southwestern China. A combination of several local opera forms, such as kunqu, gaoqiang, huqin, tanxi and dengxi, it developed around the middle of the Qing Dynasty. Its most characteristic feature is its high-pitched singing style. The repertoire is very rich, totaling over two thousand items. The scripts are of high literary value and are noted for their humor. The acting style is meticulous and very expressive.
History of Chuanju
During the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a chaotic period of frequent armed conflicts, the population in Sichuan sharply declined in the wake of violent wars, natural disasters, and devastating plagues. By 1680, only about 500,000 people had survived. The Qing government ordered immigrants from other provinces to go into the vast, scarcely populated province. It was a large-scale migration in both demographic and cultural terms. From then on, Sichuan became a "melting pot" for different cultures, with natives and immigrants living side by side. With the immigrants pouring in and guildhalls of various provinces being established, Sichuan began to enjoy economic prosperity. At the same time, folk art forms and characteristic melodies and performing arts from across the country all flourished there. For a long period that followed, different art forms blended with the local dialect, customs, folk music, and dances, giving rise to a new regional opera with Sichuan characteristics—the Chuanju.
The mature Chuanju has five characteristic melodies. Dengdiao evolved from local folk songs and Duangongxi, an ancient folk opera, whereas the other four types of melody gradually took shape after being introduced into Sichuan from other regions. Kunqiang, or Kunqu, was introduced from Jiangsu Province in the early days of the Kangxi reign (1662-1722) of the Qing Dynasty. Gaoqiang is a variation of Yiyangqiang from Yiyang, Jiangxi Province. Art troupes that specialized in Gaoqiang started to perform in Chengdu at the beginning of the 18th century. Tanxi, otherwise known as Gaibanzi, finds its origin in the Qinqiang Opera of Shaanxi Province that uses the two-stringed huqin as its main instrument. This spread to Sichuan with rebels led by Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong at the end of the Ming Dynasty and matured after a long period of evolution. Huqinqiang is a general term used in Sichuan to refer to Erhuang and Xipi melodies that originated in Anhui, Hubei, and Jiangxi provinces. This took shape in Sichuan during the Qianlong reign (1736-1796) of the Qing Dynasty.
By the mid 19th century, the five characteristic melodies had all been localized in Sichuan, laying the groundwork for them to be incorporated into a single opera. Against the backdrop of social reforms in the early 20th century, artists from various opera troupes founded the Chengdu Sanqinghui Opera Society and began to offer an extensive range of performances on a permanent basis at the Yuelai Teahouse in Chengdu, marking the advent of a Chuanju and its featuring of the combination of five characteristic melodies.
Chuanju underwent renewed development between the 1950s to the mid 1960s. The artists revised and staged a large number of fine traditional plays such as Willow Shades, The Jade Hairpin, The Colored Mansion, Tale of the White Snake, Tale of Yingnu, The Autumn River, Examining Footsteps in the Snow, and Meeting Between Brothers in the Wutai Mountains, performances that received great approval at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Dushiniang and Governor Qiao Arranging Marriages were made into movies that were shown around the country.
Since the 1980s, extraordinary changes have taken place in Chinese society. In step with the times, Chuanju has made a new headway. A large number of invaluable Chuanju files were rescued and put under protection. In particular, audio-visual records were produced of senior artists' representative plays. Some ten series of provincial-wide Chuanju contests were held, during which many young actors and actresses came to the fore. Many newly written historical and modern plays as well as revised traditional plays, such as Pan Jinlian, Yi Danda, The Fourth Girl, Sister Tian and Zhuang Zhou, Waking up from the Red Mansion Dream, and The Living Ghost, were staged, winning wide acclaim from audiences.
Since the 1990s, Chuanju has been thrust into the limelight in the Chinese performing artists' community. Excellent plays with the names Changing Face, Ripples on Dead Water, Scholar in Bashan Mountain, Shangangye, Chinese Turandot, and Good Man in Sichuan as representatives, reflect, to a certain extent, the trends in the development of modern Chinese theater.
Over the past century many Chuanju playwrights have distinguished themselves for their competence, insightfulness, and ingenuity. Earlier authors such as Huang Ji'an, Zhao Xi, and Yin Zhongxi, and later ones such as Li Mingzhang, Wei Minglun, Xu Fen, and Tan Su have all made contributions to the development of Chuanju with their respective masterpieces.
A large number of actors and actresses have also been honored for their fine performances: Tang Zilin, Xiao Kaichen, Yang Sulan, Jia Peizhi, and Tang Guangti in the Sanqinghui Society of the early 20th century; Zhang Decheng, Peng Haiqing, Zhou Mulian, Yang Youhe, and Zhou Qihe in the 1950s; and Xiao Ting, Lan Guanglin, Ren Tingfang, Liu Yun, Chen Zhilin, and Tian Mansha in the 1980s. All of them were recognized for their devotion to art and outstanding performing skills.
Chuanju: Full of Wit and Humor
Another characteristic of Chuanju is its comic effect and the optimism it conveys. Through Chuanju, one can have a glimpse of the Sichuan people's attitude toward life and their witty personality.
Comedies constitute the majority of operas in the traditional Sichuan repertoire. These plays cover a wide range of subjects from historical stories, folklore, and mythology to love affairs. There are satirical comedies such as The Arranged Marriage, Gift Robe, Mad Monk Whipping Qin Hui, and Three Puzzles for the Bridegroom, as well as humorous comedies such as Forcing a Nephew to Take the Civil Service Exam, The Autumn River, Master Qiao's Adventures, and Examining Footsteps in the Snow. Comedies such as Yingxian Hostel, Writing Essays, A Traveler's Romance in a Village, Seeing the Doctor, Painting Plums, One Shoe, and The Flour Jar are also well liked by audiences because of their funny dialogues, characters, and plots. Humor is one of the primary factors that have led to the long-lasting appeal of Chuanju.
Statistics show that about one third of the 1,300 or so existing operas are adapted from comic works of the Nanxi Operas of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and Zaju Operas of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) as well as the serial dramas of the Ming and Qing dynasties, a proportion that is rare for other regional operas. It is no exaggeration to call Chuanju a kingdom of comedies.
This distinctive feature is illustrated not only by the great number of comedies in Chuanju but also by the opera's overall comic effect. Generally speaking, playwrights are first and foremost responsible for the success of these comedies. However, the success of many of the funny characters in Chuanju can be attributed to the skill of the actors. In other words, the comic effect of Chuanju is created by the actors rather than the playwrights. In a sense, the history of Chuanju comedies has been written by generations upon generations of outstanding clown actors.
It is generally believed that the strength of Chuanju lies in its young male roles, young female roles, and clown roles, among which the last category is of paramount importance. Many prominent clown actors such as Yue Chun, Fu Sanqian, Yan Bingzhang, Tang Guangti, and Zhou Yuxiang rose to stardom before the 1960s. The characters they played, some with ugly appearances but kind hearts, some with beautiful appearances but evil hearts, and others being ugly in both appearance and mind have all left a deep impression on the audiences.
Chuanju's overall comic effect is realized through conveying serious ideas humorously and performing tragedies as if they were comedies. Uproar in the Court of the Qi State, taken from a story in The Romance of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, was originally a tragedy. However, the famous Chuanju playwright Huang Ji'an creatively turned it into a comedy. The story tells about an ugly power struggle among princes while their father, King Huangong of the Qi State, lies on his deathbed. The play exposes the dark, sinister personalities of the characters in a comic way through the vivid depiction of a dramatic conflict within the royal family. However, the opera does convey some tragic sentiments, which makes audiences lost in thought after they have had a good laugh.
Since the 1950s, modern Chuanju has carried forward this tradition and created many new comic characters. In The Story of a Scholar, a play adapted from a traditional opera by Xu Fen and Yu Jun, which tells about the poignant fate of the educated in ancient China, was transformed into one that is full of comic conflicts. The play features an idiot savant named Ni Jun, who does not realize his stupidity until he makes a series of foolish mistakes.
Distinctive Performing Skills
Distinctive performing skills are also responsible for Chuanju's popularity and the widespread acclaim it has received at home and abroad. These include the unique singing style in the characteristic melodies of Gaoqiang, delicate acting, and rich and amazing stunts. In Chuanju, the actors are required to perform on the basis of actual lives, characters, and plots. They are expected to abide by established rules but should not be restricted by them. Under this principle, Chuanju has developed its many characteristics with the persistent efforts made by numerous creative artists.
Gaoqiang is the most special among all five characteristic melodies of Chuanju. Traditionally, Gaoqiang performers sang without musical accompaniment. However, by drawing on other forms of folk art, the artists upgraded traditional Gaoqiang into a new characteristic melody form that features a combination of vocal accompaniment, gong, and drum beating to the singing. The vocal accompaniment, which is provided by a group of singers, is a unique feature of Chuanju.
Like other regional operas, Chuanju has five kinds of roles—sheng (male role), dan (female role), jing (painted face male role), mo (middle-aged male role), and chou (clown role)—to fit different characters. Within each kind of role, there are many subcategories. For example, the chou is further divided into many types such as clowns in official gowns, old clowns, and clowns good at martial arts. The complex division is attributed to the large repertoire of Chuanju and its extremely rich characters. Also, in Chuanju, there is a complete set of acting techniques such as the use of fans, wigs, fingers, and the movement of eyebrows and eyes.
Chuanju is distinguished for its remarkably sensitive acting. On the basis of play scripts that lay a sound groundwork for graceful performances, the actors enrich the personalities of the characters and reveal their inner feelings. Forcing a Nephew to Take the Civil Service Exam starred by Xiao Ting is a representative work. While recuperating and studying in his aunt's Taoist temple, Pan Bizheng, a young student, falls in love with a pretty Taoist nun, Chen Miaochang; an affair that is deemed morally unacceptable at the time. On discovering the affair, the man's aunt, who loves him but does not want to see the discipline of her temple violated by the couple, compels him to take part in the imperial civil service exam at the capital city of Lin'an. Before his departure, the lovers bid farewell to each other in the worship hall. In full view of others, they are not able to pour out their affection to each other. You can imagine the complicated feelings of sorrow, hatred, bitterness, and intensified mutual attachment that overwhelm the couple in this special setting. Committed to the delicate portrayal of the inner feelings of the characters, Xiao Ting made the most of the various acting techniques of Chuanju and gave a wonderful performance.
Stunts are another special method used in Chuanju. A consummation of the artists' long-term accumulation of experience on and off the stage, the stunts performed are both a matter of skill and art. Producing surprising yet plausible effects, Chuanju stunts bring audiences an unforgettable experience. The special stunt method is generally used to describe the characters' inner feelings as required by the plot development and theme of the play.
There are many kinds of stunts in Chuanju such as face changing, knife hiding, and robe manipulating, all of which are highly demanding, unpredictable, and breathtaking. Changing face is recognized as a remarkable feat of Chinese artists worldwide. The mysterious stunt has an enduring appeal to audiences. It also helps reveal the inner world of the characters. In Tale of the White Snake, while fighting with Bai Suzhen, a beautiful lady transformed from being a white snake, the God of Purple Gold Cymbal changes the color of his face from white to red, to black, and then to blue before anyone knows it. At the same time, the smile is turned into a fierce and terrifying facial expression. This impressive stunt fully illustrates the god's cruelty and hypocrisy.
In Pirate Xiao Fang, starred in by Peng Haiqing, a famous Chuanju actor, the stunt of knife hiding is used. Xiao Fang, played by Peng, is a brutal pirate. When his wife happens to see him victimizing others, he tries to hide his long knife quickly on himself so that she will not see it, a magical stunt that is sure to make a stir among the audience.
Manipulating a robe is an acting technique unique to Chuanju. In Chuanju, the xiaosheng (young male) role has three basic props: a fan, a ribbon, and a robe. The robes the actors wear are made from thin cloth in a light color with a long cut. By manipulating the robe as they kick their legs and make other body movements, the actors express various emotions of the characters such as happiness, anger, sadness, and joy effectively and vividly. With this creative use of these robes, the xiaosheng actors in Chuanju look more charming, elegant, and scholarly than their counterparts in other operas.