What is it about the feebleness of men in traditional Chinese theater? The emperor stands by, saying nothing and looking apologetic, while his councilors suggest that it would probably be for the best if his beloved concubine were to kill herself. The scholar Xu Xian stumbles over himself, trying to escape from his loving wife, White Snake, whom he has betrayed to a monk. Once she arrives, mournful and angry, he bad-mouths the monk and re-pledges his love. Not to mention all the scholars who run off to attend the imperial exams and forget about their wives, or the long-suffering courtesans who supported them. The women are left sitting at home taking care of the scholar’s parents, starving, choking on rice husks. And after his parents have died, they beg their way to the capital to find him, at which point they are imprisoned in mills or banished into remote servitude by the relatives of the scholar’s new wife. Or maybe a letter is forged, telling them they are abandoned, and they throw themselves in the river.
Thank God for a woman with a backbone: in Du Shiniang at Taipei’s Metropolitan Hall theater, we had in a single forty-minute scene not one but two specimens of the weak-willed and morally flaccid male on show. The show was part of a visit from the Hebei Provincial Clapper Opera Troupe, and though the other two scenes were competent martial performances, they consisted mostly of castle-storming. That was acrobatically first-rate, but provided little to chew on for people who are of a more narrative bent. (One does expect, however, to read an explanation someday soon of why a patriarchal society enjoyed having so many theater pieces starring female generals, soldiers, and assassins. Granted, they’re often either looking for or seeking to avenge fathers and husbands, but it still seems to be a phenomenon worthy of investigation.) In any event, if you want to see what happens when certain theater characters don’t get news from their husbands for a couple of months, A Woman Kills Her Way through the Four Gates is a good place to start.
But I suppose everybody was really there to see Xu Heying, the head of the troupe, in her signature role as Du Shiniang. The story, drawn from a seventeenth century piece of fiction, seems to have been popular in various narrative and theatrical genres from the later Qing, it seems especially in northern genres. As the story begins, Du Shiniang is in an expectant mood: “The sun is setting/but the boat has not arrived yet. Ever since I bought my way out of the brothel, I have been travelling from the capital with my beloved Li, sticking to each other as close as shadows.”
Now, Xu is no longer in the very green of youth. For one thing, since she is the head of the troupe, and, as the projector informed us, “All-China People’s Representative” i.e. a parliamentarian in Beijing. (Major Chinese theaters are state-owned, and so their heads necessarily hold political positions, which, unlike theater administrators almost anywhere else, give them the political clout necessary to keep their theaters operating. But, on the other hand, does a Taipei audience really want to be informed that our heroine, the betrayed courtesan, is a high-level Chinese Communist Party cadre in civilian life?) This is enough to suggest to even the least accomplished mathematician that she cannot be under forty, and I have it on reliable authority (i.e. Baidu Baike) that she is in fact fifty-one. It is also extremely obvious that she is in the prime of health, at the apex of her career, and in every way attractive, but the fact remains that the audience knows all the same that the character is meant to a very young woman, all but an adolescent, and that the performer is, well, a good deal older than that. (I looked it up, and in the piece of fiction she is in fact nineteen.)
The result is an effect that I have found often, which I am calling (working title!) the double body. On stage, there is the body one sees and also the body that is being represented, indicated, pointed towards. For a character type like the courtesan, the body being represented is first and foremost the standard of beauty, the absolute ne plus ultra of pulchritude, which justifies the plots, most of which presuppose that the woman is desirable by way of perfection i.e. beauty. (Men, on the other hand, are usually desirable because of perfection aka scholarly feats—another aspect where traditional Chinese assumptions about masculinity and male desirability lie rather distant from any system of Western aesthetics.) And then there is the real body, the one that is actually seen, the one the performer is disposing of in steps and gestures and vocal production.
Is the double body particular to Chinese theater? I suppose not entirely—puppets could be defined as abstracted double bodies—but even without going that far, one could have the same effect, for instance, with many performances of the heroines Western opera—a faded Salome or Carmen,for instance, still needing to be an emblem of seduction. But—the belief starts off suspended and peripheral to the Western opera body anyway—the voice is so central that when, say, an enormous non-Asian Calaf meets an oversized, non-Asian Turandot, the aesthetic experience is focused on the dueling voices, rather than the impossible fairytale China (or Bohemian Paris, or papier-mâché Rome) where desirability is always a fiction sketched out in the music. There is still the duplicity—but it is often not situated in the body anyway—it’s often more of a question of believing the evidence of what one hears (transcendence) versus what one sees (a pretext of a geography, a stand-in for flesh).
But a xiqu performer’s body—always controlled, always mobile, and never at ease—is a tool, the same as the voice—in fact, the xiqu performer is playing various instruments (the hand, the eyes, the feet, and the voice) to create an oeuvre—a collection of decisions and messages (she is a one-woman orchestra!).
This is what lies behind talk of xiqu as comprehensive and is also the reason why directors are often felt to be an intrusion from other stage forms and theater histories—since the work is on, in, and enacted by the body of the performer. That body is no longer twenty years old—it cannot be twenty years old in order to be any good. And the double vision works, has its own poignancy, because the story is about rejection and incomprehensible betrayal.
Xiqu training is rigid enough (the repertoire fixed enough) and the result coded and evocative enough that the initiated viewer places the ideal maiden, scholar, or serving maid over the actual performer, lays it over the actual performer. (And this is another point—when I think of the ideal Tosca, I think of a particular singer—say, Callas; when I think of the ideal Du Liniang, I think of…Du Liniang—some character that all the interpretations of her aspire to andindicate, without being realizable. I don’t think there is a real performer who embodies her, but there is an ideal one that all represent imperfectly.)
This is why one can often tell fairly clearly what is a good xiqu scene, even when poorly performed and vice versa, whereas a bad production of a Western opera or play is often inconclusive, because the piece can’t emerge beyond the limits of a production, for better or for worse.
Back at the Metropolitan Hall theater, Du Shiniang is finding out that her beloved Li has sold her. After the initial shock, she hypothesizes (not implausibly, in the xiqu world) that this is an invention of Li’s, to see whether she truly loves him or not. “Are you testing me?”
He responds, “Why would I test you?” then declares that he is tired and wanders off into their tent to sleep. (Of course, dramatically speaking, we need her alone for her soliloquy, but the almost magnificent selfishness of the man who sells his beloved and—ah me, so tired—then has to go have a little lie-down is very effective in its own right.)
The following sequences, where Du tries to make sense of her abandonment—recounting her sacrifices, lamenting Li’s faithlessness, writing a letter to explain herself, and dressing herself in her finest robes for her marriage to the rich man—were very powerful, particularly when—having arrayed herself in the marital red—she examines herself in the mirror and bursts into tears. But it was gratifying (and here, I wonder if Northern genre female characters in general have more gall, nerve, and vertebrae) to find her, when confronted with the two men, not pleading or sorrowful but angry and assertive.
As Li greedily accepts the box, too heavy with lucre for him to carry, Du fishes out various valuable ornaments that could have helped tide them over, and remarking upon them sarcastically, casts them one by one into the Yellow River, to the desperation of both men. (The bare Chinese stage here is powerful, for the audience can see the objects strewn along the riverbed, which the men lust for helplessly.) Then she throws herself into the river, (for, of course, she is the jewel above jewels). The men, after a moment of dumbfounded horror, begin to quibble over whether or not Li should get to keep the price Sun paid for her.
Since the scene ends there, it hardly matters—in any version of the complete narrative—that the two men will die of convenient illnesses and a third, upright one will be rewarded with mysterious treasures that erupt from the river. Who cares? One of the great strengths of xiqu is to privilege the moment over the narrative line. So what if it will be set right, ultimately, off-stage, in a moral sense? (On the preceding night, in The Wrong Done to Dou E,the punishment of the several villains occurred very suddenly and lasted about ten seconds, after an hour or so of a wronged ghost and her non-ghost father lamenting their fate.)
Happy endings are afterthoughts. What matters is now, and the performance of now. And in this case, now is this: all men want is money, and any amount of love can be bought off by enough gem-stuffed cases. Somehow, the sorrow and the anger of Xu, in her double body, had nothing dated about it. The story, alas, makes just as much sense today, and anywhere, as it did in this seventeenth century story. But at least, this time, someone revolted; at least there was some outrage before it all went south.