Adding Eyes to a Dragon (畫龍點睛)

Date: January 20, 2013
Location: Sunbeam Theatre, Hong Kong.

Near the end of the Beijing opera, “Adding Eyes to a Dragon”, there appears a moment when Emperor Li concludes that governance failures abound in his sprawling empire, and that much remains to be done: “吏治不清大唐江山難久長…閉目塞聽官風民情難執掌…任賢才共大計重振朝綱 / The empire shall not last if not administered well…blindly listening to field reports is hardly good governance…strong talent must be recruited to reform the government” (Youtube). That moment is celebrated in any anthology of Beijing opera, not only for its robust yet exquisite Ma-clan (馬派) artistry, but also for its naked exposition of the piece’s raison d’etre – a Beijing opera vehicle for making a political point.

That point was first made in 1990, not long after corruption and increased inflation pressures disgruntled a nation and led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. The political elite, seeing a real threat to their power, set in motion a series of reforms in the 90s that formed the basis of today’s modern China. “Adding Eyes to a Dragon” is a product of that period, not unlike how model operas were ideological vehicles during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, in which ideology and the promise of change were just as important as change itself.

The story, originated from The Book of Tang Dynasty “新唐書”, focuses on Ma Zhou (馬周), a policy whiz who dares to criticize the Emperor and would rather labor in anonymity than be the political machine’s yes man: “不逐蝇利不担心…不伺候昏君 / I won’t play their game of corruption…I won’t work for an idiotic leader”. Emperor Li, impressed by Ma’s straight-shooting frankness and hoping to include the reform-minded Ma in his government, begins an adventurous trip to personally recruit Ma. It is during this trip that the emperor discovers all the societal ills and corruption embroiling his nation, culminating in that famous moment when his determination to reform becomes iron-clad.

The relationship between Ma and the emperor gains prominence not merely because Chairman Mao famously remarked, in his Notes to Chinese History, that the incorruptible Ma was one of Chinese history’s finest political operators, but also because Mao’s successors amidst the ruins of the Tiananmen Square incident urgently needed something to rally a nation. Interestingly, the opera includes a feminine figure and a metaphor for the common folk, Zhang Siniang (張四娘), who despite her dubious past and her gender was resolute not only in forging her own path in love but in standing up against evil power. Her eventual sacrifice emboldens Ma and the emperor to do good.

The current production, a 2011 revival of the one done in the early 90s, aims to ensure that the opera’s artistry gets a generational make-over, now that the previous performers are way into their retirements. The stellar cast of Zhang Xinyue (張馨月) as Zhang, Chen Junjie (陈俊杰) as Ma, Huang Baixue (黄柏雪) as the evil politician and Zhu Qiang (朱强) as the emperor, is young, energetic, and all flag-bearers of their respective performing clans. Zhang’s fluid stage movements and tender vocals reveal her Mei-clan lineage. Chen’s portrayal of Ma is a fiery showcase of Qiu-clan flamboyance, while Huang’s characterization of a scheming, devilish, win-at-all-cost politician has hallmarks of the quintessential Beijing opera clown. Zhu, presently the superstar flag-bearer of Ma-clan artistry, embodies both the sophistication of an empire leader and the everyday sense of the common man. “Adding Eyes to a Dragon”, though not strictly speaking a model opera (which by definition must be conceived during the Cultural Revolution), has all the elements to be a most fine one. The timing of this revival also conveniently matches the generational leadership change in Chinese politics: political pundits should take note.

Youtube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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