About 800 years ago, scholars in Yongjia (today's Wenzhou) in east China's Zhejiang Province organized a club called Jiushan Shuhui.
Here, they turned a story of an inconstant man into China's first play script "No 1 Scholar Zhang Xie."
Long feared lost, the script was rediscovered by a Chinese intellectual Ye Gongchuo in a London antique shop in 1920. Ye bought a lost volume of "Yongle Encyclopedia with Annotations" which contained the script.
So what is the oldest Chinese local opera like? You can find out in China National Peking Opera Theatre's new production "No 1 Scholar Zhang Xie," which will be staged at Chang'an Grand Theatre from Friday to Sunday.
Poor intellectual Zhang Xie is attacked by bandits at Wujishan Mountain on his way to the capital city to sit for the highest level of civil service examinations and subsequently falls ill.
An impoverished woman helps him and they become husband and wife, with the neighbouring old couple acting as go-betweens. However, after Zhang passes the examinations, he turns against this rather unattractive woman from a poor family, not only abandoning her as he leaves to take up an official position, but even trying to murder his unfortunate wife.
Luckily, she is saved from death by a senior official Wang Deyong, who adopts her as his daughter. Finally, she forgives Zhang and the opera ends happily with the two reunited.
The theme of a man who abandons his wife after gaining fame and fortune is a common one in old Chinese local opera. The company chose to stage it because "it is the oldest and most intact of extant Nanxi scripts and the one that retains the greatest number of the genre's original features," said Wu Jiang, president of the national Peking Opera company.
Oldest theatrical genre
Nanxi, or the Southern Drama, a multiple-act form that emerged in Yongjia, is considered the earliest theatrical genre in China.
Also known as Yongjia Zaju or Wenzhou Zaju, the relatively crude art form features most of Chinese local opera's characteristics, telling a complicated story with singing, speech, acting and dancing.
Exactly when Nanxi originated is a matter of some dispute. Zhu Yunming of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) believed it emerged after the reign of Xuanhe (1119-25) just as the court fled southwards (1127). But in "Nanci Xulu (Record of Southern Plays)," Xu Wei indicates that this particular type of play first developed in the Guangzong period (1190-94) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
There is a discrepancy of several decades between these two periods, but it would not be too far from the truth to say that Nanxi developed during the 12th century.
One main feature that distinguishes the original Nanxi from today's local operas is that a performer of hangdang (characters) plays several roles in one play.
The Peking Opera version of "No 1 Scholar Zhang Xie" has been able to retain this traditional feature.
Its five key performers are Jiang Qihu, the sheng or male character, Li Haiyan, the dan or female character, Liu Jinquan, the jing or painted face character, Zhen Jianhua, the mo or secondary male character, and Kong Xinyuan, the chou or clown. They play a total of 20 roles and even act as stage props and set.
For example, in one scene, mo and jing play the neighbouring couple and chou plays their naughty son. In another scene, which describes how Zhang seeks refuge in a temple after being assaulted by the bandits, the jing, the mo and the chou take on the characters of a deity, judge of the underworld and minor demon respectively.
The three improvise and indulge in buffoonery to great comic effect, with the mo and the chou even serving as the two panels of the temple door.
The new production also takes on some other features unique to Nanxi - having the mo character narrate the play at the beginning and sing in the zhugongdiao to describe the plot.
Kong Xinyuan, the veteran chou actor, also directs the play.
From folk songs
He said the tunes used in "No 1 Scholar Zhang Xie" come from popular folk songs and chanted fables such as zhugongdiao and changzhuan, religious music (Buddhist and Taoist), court music and poetic rhymes from the Tang and Song dynasties.
"Actually, the music and melodies of Nanxi were mainly compiled from the well-known tunes, local songs and village ditties of the time," Kong said.
"Nanci Xulu" suggests that the songs and ballads in Nanxi that were characteristic of the Song era were not court-ordained, but came from the alleys and lanes of the towns and villages.
Musically speaking, Nanxi casts its net widely, drawing its strength from tunes popular among the common people.
"Peking Opera, like many other genres of China's traditional performing arts, is facing a tough challenge these days as we try every means to compete in the fast-changing entertainment world. Many people are experimenting with modern reforms to these centuries-old arts. This new version of China's oldest play is one such experiment," said Wu, the opera company's president.
"We have managed to strike a balance between authenticity and innovation, between sophistication and popularization. We hope audiences will see Chinese operas yesterday, today and tomorrow through the show," he said.
(China Daily April 22, 2003)