Opera of the Dragon and Opera of the Phoenix

A story of China’s northern traditional Opera and southern traditional Opera:

The cases of Yu Opera 豫剧 and Suzhou Ping Tan 苏州评弹. I will explain the differences between northern and southern operas through one specific performance from each of the 2 opera forms.

Yu Opera: Hua Mulan 花木兰

Suzhou Ping Tan: Qin Huai Jing 秦淮景

How do northern opera differ from southern opera in their portrayal of progressive female characters? I will take a look at Hua Mulan as an example of northern opera, and Qing Huai Jing as an example of southern opera. Specifically, I have chosen the performance of Mulan by Master Chang Xiangyu in 1956 and the performance of Qing Huai Jing in Zhang Yimou’s 2011 movie “The Flowers of War”. I want to see what some different ways northern operas and southern operas use when they are trying to construct a progressive female character. I will take a look at three components of these performances: the background of the performances, the clothing of the main female characters, and the styles of singing.

I argue that in Hua Mulan, it seems that northern opera tends to portray progressive female characters in a very straightforward manner without any reservations. This corresponds with the cultural image of the north as a place being tough and direct. In contrast, I argue that in Qin Huai Jing, it seems that southern opera tends to portray progressive female characters in a more metaphorical and embedded way. This corresponds with the cultural image of the south as a place being more soft-hearted and smoother. Both northern and southern operas are able to effectively portray progressive female characters in their own unique ways and strategies.

I am interested in this comparison because I am curious to see how the difference between northern and southern culture has influenced the style of performance in both operas when it comes to portraying a similar type of character. As a proud northerner, I would like to see how different my culture is from the south.

Hua Mulan 花木兰: When a woman leads an army 当女子走上战场

Mulan argues about women’s contribution to war mobilization.

I picked the Henan Opera interpretation of Mulan’s story because of Henan Opera’s representative nature of the field of northern operas. Henan Opera heavily absorbed singing and performing styles from other northern operas such as Qing Qiang 秦腔 and Puzhou Bangzi 蒲州梆子, which means it was created based on a diverse mix of northern performing cultures (Wang, 2017). In addition, Henan Opera is representative of northern operas because of its rural outlook. Since northern China has historically been more rural than southern China, what was popular in the rural north was indeed truly popular. Since Henan Opera was largely born out of amateur groups and traveling performers, it is very much an Opera form for the enjoyment of the common people. Therefore, Henan Opera can be said to represent a stereotypical north: the north that was rural, wild and straightforward (Wang, 2014).

The story of Hua Mulan is about a young woman named Mulan who substituted to serve in the military for her elderly father. She did so by dressing up as a man and act in masculine ways. During her military service, she fought bravely against the northern nomads and eventually was promoted to the rank of general. She was offered a ministerial post by the emperor after the war, but she refused and returned home to care for her parents. Finally, her trench-mates found about her disguise and were amazed of her bravery and intelligence. This storyline is very much different from a typical southern opera storyline about women. Unlike southern opera which focuses heavily upon the “elaboration of feelings” 言情 (Jiang, 2011), northern opera often tells the stories of women through a background of collective sentiment and patriotic acts instead. Henan Opera’s interpretation of Hua Mulan is a very good example of this kind of expression of collective and patriotic sentiment. Instead of focusing on the personal emotional struggles of Mulan, the Henan Opera version focused on her bravery and her sacrifice for the country and her family.

With a very distinguishing background and storyline, Hua Mulan also demonstrates a progressive female character with the style of clothing that Mulan wore. One of the main plots in Hua Mulan was that Mulan dressed up as a man when she went to fight on the front. In the 1956 opera movie, we can see clearly that Master Chang wore a typical male military uniform in order to portray Mulan. Mulan’s clothing is very similar not if exactly the same as her male colleagues. Expect for the short sections at the beginning and the end of the movie, Mulan looked like a man for most of the performance. This shows that Henan Opera demonstrates the power of Mulan as a woman by applying a type of clothing that exerts an image that was traditionally considered as powerful: an image of male militarism (Li, 2012). This outlook of Mulan in the uniform constructed for the audience of an image of a woman that was extremely extraordinary not only for her time-period but also for her gender. This image was also very comprehensive and lively because of the usage of this stereotypical “powerful” outlook. This is not to say that Henan Opera had to make a woman look powerful by making her look like a man; this is to say that Henan Opera used a masculine outfit to highlight the unusual bravery of a woman and to highlight the will of Mulan to break gender roles to fight for a noble cause.

With a great background and a powerful outfit, the image of Mulan was solidified and popularized for Master Chang’s excellent singing style. In the opera movie, there is one section that is particularly famous. It is the section when Mulan argued with a male colleague about women’s contributions to the war mobilization efforts. Muland, dressed up like a man, argued strongly about how women produced food and clothing for the military so the soldiers could fight to win and how women had fought in wars historically in many battles. During this section that is less than 2 minutes, Mulan’s singing style was as northern as any northern singers could imagine getting. Firstly, the music is very simple and rhythmic. Secondly, Mulan pronounced words very clearly without using dangling sounds and prolonged ending-sounds. Thirdly, Mulan annunciated very openly and wildly, making the singing part very powerful and distinguishing (Li, 2012). With this kind of singing style, the image of Mulan as a progressive female character who fights in a war and argues for her own gender is not only clearer, but also more powerful in multiple dimensions.

These 3 elements show that Henan Opera does not shy away from expressing the part of female identity that was against what was stereotypical. This shows that Henan Opera is indeed using the performing techniques that are typical of northern operas: a background that expresses a collective sentiment, clothing that was against the stereotypical female image, and singing style that overtly demonstrates power and dignity.

Mulan ready to argue

In Hua Mulan, it seems that northern opera tends to portray progressive female characters in a very straightforward manner without any reservations. This corresponds with the cultural image of the north as a place being tough and direct. The background of the story is also very supportive of the “heroine” figure, with Mulan winning the war and even receiving commendations from the emperor. This shows that northern style strips away some of the stereotypical female actions and traits usually seen in southern operas in order to present an authoritative figure.

Qin Huai Jing 秦淮景:When women became soldiers 当女子成为战士

13 Heroines sing before going into battle.

I picked the Suzhou Pingtan interpretation of Qing Huaijing because of Suzhou Pingtan’s representative nature of the field of southern operas. Suzhou Pingtan is representative of southern operas firstly because of its typical usage of the southern dialect of Wunong Ruanyu 吴侬软语. Wunong Ruanyu is considered by many Chinese people as the single most typical representation of “The Southern Dialect” 江南话. Secondly, as Jiangnan 江南 was more urbanized, Suzhou Pingtang was born out of a very much urban environment as a performing format that targets primarily the urban elite. In contrast to the more straightforward and wild nature of the rural north, the urban south is considered to be more sophisticated and metaphorical. Instead of expressing a common sentiment or patriotic attitudes, Suzhou Pingtan expresses individual sentiments such as love and romance. Many Suzhou Pingtan plots are similar to that of Yue Opera’s interpretation of Hedda in that these plots focuses primarily on the personal conflicts of women with their loved ones and their personal enemies.

The version of Qing Huaijing I picked is a very interesting one. This particular performance is near the end of a movie called “Flowers of War” by Zhang Yimou. The 13 women who sang Qing Huaijing at the end were once 13 prostitutes in Nanjing. When the Japanese Imperial Forces occupied Nanjing, they sought refuge inside a catholic church that housed many female students. At the end of the movie, the Japanese army requested the 13-surviving female students to sing for them. In order to save these female students from the inevitable treatment of rape, the 13 prostitutes disguised themselves as students and decided to assassinate the Japanese officers by hiding broken glass pieces in their coats. Before they leave for their battle, these prostitutes decided to sing Qing Huaijing for the female students.

Qing Huai Jing itself has nothing to do with war nor bravery. The lyrics are entirely about complimenting the beauty of the city of Nanjing. On the surface, whether it’s song or the performance of the song, there is nothing but an image of a beautiful southern woman entertaining her male guests with a pipa and a soft voice; however, considering the movie itself and the background of the singers, the purpose of the song is no longer about the beauty of Nanjing. Although one may say that the “Flowers of War” is not an opera movie like Hua Mulan, I believe that since this scene with Qing Huaiqing is the single most powerful scene for most audiences, the opera component can be said to be the highlight of the entire film. To put it in another way, the opera itself was used to finish the construction of the 13 powerful progressive female characters.

The background of this performance is very contrastive in that these women were singing a very “yan qing” song while they were about to go face the brutality of Japanese soldiers. This shows that the southern portrayal of progressive female characters is more than just showcasing power. The usage of Suzhou Pingtan here is meant to create an environment of “depressive beauty”凄美. In this case, the brave act of these 13 women was actually exemplified by this rather feminine song. This is because the audience knows that they are for sure going to be killed, but they nevertheless calmly performed for the students as if they were still going to come back. Although Mulan’s parallelism between a powerful background and a powerful performance was very effective in creating a progressive female figure, Qing Huaijing’s contradiction between a powerful background and a “weak” performance was also very effective in showcasing the soft side of “bravery” and preservation of femininity at a time of crisis.

In terms of clothing, this short performance of Qin Huaijing has two different styles of clothing. In the beginning part, the 13 women dressed in very plain dark gray coats; in the second part, the 13 women dressed in very flamboyant and feminine qipaos. The dark gray coats are meant to demonstrate their bravery in disguising as those students to fight against the Japanese; the qipaos are meant to demonstrate the spirit that even though they are about to face death, they are still able to keep their identity as southern women who love to dress fancily and sing beautifully. This contrast between plain clothing and feminine clothing shows that Suzhou Pingtan maintains a sense of the feminine identity while constructing a progressive female character. Although dressing up in qipao is not as intimidating as dressing up in a male military uniform, the act of self-sacrifice of these 13 women is just as great as the act of self-sacrifice of Mulan (Liu, 2015). In a sense, the clothing style of southern operas like Suzhou Pingtan presents progressive female characters less formalistically, but more metaphorically.

Finally, the singing style of Suzhou Pingtan is very much a typical southern style. Pingtan singers are typically young women. Unlike many female characters in Henan Opera that sing in a more masculine voice to demonstrate power, since most of Pingtan’s stories are about “yan qing”, Pingtan singers usually use softer and more feminine voices to demonstrate these stories of personal feelings and romantic love. In addition, since Suzhou Pingtan is traditionally performed to a male audience in places of elite entertainment such as night clubs and high-end prostitution houses, its singing style reflects a type of femininity that came from the imagination of a traditional male musical taste. To use such a style of singing may seem inappropriate for a movie about the Nanking Massacre; however, I believe the contrast between the feminine voice and the strong imagines of these heroines is what successfully constructed a progressive female character.

Traditionally, soft singing and prostitutes are linked with the fall of a dynasty. In Du Mu 杜牧’s poem “Bo Qin Huai 泊秦淮”, there is a famous verse that says “prostitutes don’t feel sad for the tragedy of the fall of the country” 商女不知亡国恨. This verse refers to the biased belief that these women are somehow indifferent to the greater national sentiment; however, in this scene with Qin Huai Jing, the soft female voice is not sung by women who are indifferent; it is sung by women who are making a difference. The singing style here is used to argue against this traditional belief: when men in power retreat and abandon their capital, it is actually the prostitutes who step up to save the nation. In this case, the femininity in their voices shows that physical weakness does not translate to spiritual weakness.

The difference between northern opera’s portrayal of progressive female characters and southern opera’s portrayal of progressive female characters is relevant to our class in two cases. The first case is with Yue Opera’s Hedda and Qin Huai Jing. As we have learned in class, Yue Opera represents a style of opera that was created based on the urban culture of Shanghai. This urban environment and the largely female audience determined that southern operas are more likely to portray progressive female characters by still maintaining the general feminine outlook of characters. In both Qin Huai Jing and Hedda, the main female characters all are aspirational and trying to be independent of their generally male-dominated lives. In both cases, even though the physical looks and the singing styles remain to be feminine, the stories still show that these women have their own goals in life. Even though in both cases these women ended up with a tragic result, they all tried very hard to reach their goals. In Hedda, Haida dressed up at the end in bright red, a color traditionally associated with a woman on her wedding day. In Qin Huai Jing, the 13 heroines dressed up at the end in colorful and slimming qipaos, a sign of prosperity and entertainment. Therefore, both Hedda and Qin Huai Jing actually demonstrated the powerful nature of these women right before their respective endings with an extremely overt display of femininity.

The second case is with Hua Mulan and Dynamic Yunnan. We can make a connection between Mulan’s powerful display of bravery and the open defense of her own gender with the straightforward representation of female sentiments in many of Dynamic Yunnan’s performances. In this case, both Hua Mulan and Dynamic Yunnan demonstrated a sense of progressive femininity; this means that even though some traits of femininity still remain in performance, these traits are no longer just male-imagined soft voice and qipao; these are feminine traits that truly represents women. For example, Mulan’s argument with her male colleague is a great example of something would not be permitted by her parents, her neighbors, nor her husband. Similarly, the overtly expressive nature of the mating dances in Dynamic Yunnan would also have been inappropriate in the eyes of emperors and governors. What Hua Mulan and Dynamic Yunnan demonstrate is another different kind of expression of femininity: it is the kind of expression that is wild and unpolished. It is not an expression that one would see in a Shanghai Theater; it is an expression one will see in the mountains of Yunnan or villages of Henan.

The contrast between Hua Mulan and Qin Huai Jing not only shows the difference between northern and southern operas; it demonstrates a larger national identity in the expression of progressivism and femininity in Chinese performing cultures. Northern Opera is very straightforward while southern opera is more metaphorical; however, both in their own ways, are able to successfully portray progressive female characters in an age of “new socialist womanhood”. Both examples show that it doesn’t really matter who is from the north and who is from the south; a wild village girl named Mulan would march on the frontline and 13 artistic prostitutes would use broken glass pieces to fight the Japanese. In a time of a national crisis, a rough northern woman dressed up in a dirty male uniform and a loving southern woman dressed up in the most beautiful qipao imaginable is both heroines.

Last song before the battle

In Qin Huai Jing, it seems that southern opera tends to portray progressive female characters in a more metaphorical and embedded way. This corresponds with the cultural image of the south as a place being more soft-hearted and smooth. The background of this performance is very contrastive in that these women were singing a very “yan qing” song while they were about to go face the brutality of Japanese soldiers. This shows that the southern portrayal of progressive female characters is more than just showcasing power.


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