Date: May 2, 2011
Location: Changan Theater, Beijing.
Background. The Migrating Bird / The Peacock Flies Southeast (alt.) is based on an epic poem written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.). The poem, with exactly 356 phrases, each having exactly five characters, is considered by many to be the first narrative poetry in the Chinese language. The story begins by introducing a married couple: Liu Lanzhi (刘兰芝), a lovable housewife, and Jiao Zhongqing (焦仲卿), a government official. Jiao’s mother never quite approves of their matrimony, and is openly choleric towards her daughter-in-law. Eventually, she also manages to orchestrate their divorce, after which Liu is sent back to her hometown and slated to be remarried to the son of a high government official. Vowed never to be remarried again, Liu decked out in splendid matrimonial wear and, just before the wedding, drowned herself to death. After learning of Liu’s death, Jiao was devastated and later also committed suicide. The Chinese title, “孔雀东南飞”, comes from the first two verses of the poem: “孔雀东南飞，五里一徘徊”, which refers to how migrating birds in mid-flight often turn back to look for each other. These two verses, coupled with the final stanza (see below), set the tone for the relationship between the two characters:
“两家求合葬，合葬华山傍 / 东西植松柏，左右种梧桐 / 枝枝相覆盖，叶叶相交通 / 中有双飞鸟，自名为鸳鸯 / 仰头相向鸣，夜夜达五更。”
“The two finally reunited, in adjacent burial grounds / Cypress and phoenix trees standing by in eternity / Branches intertwined, leaves mingled / Therein rest two birds, a pair of mandarin ducks / To each other they listen, till the wee hours of the night.”
Performance. Chen Moxiang (陈墨香), one of the most prolific Beijing Opera scriptwriters and a frequent collaborator with Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋), adapted the poem into the standard opera repertory in 1932. Chen’s version was generally faithful to the original poem, only slightly altering the ending to allow the lovebirds to be reunited one last time, before they held hands and drowned together. Chi Xiaoqiu (迟小秋), as Liu, was fearless in her portrayal and impeccably fluid in her delivery. Her on-stage agility, coupled with the acute crispiness of her phrasings offered a model exhibit of Cheng-clan artistry. Bao Fei (包飞), as Jiao, was authoritative and focused, and weaved through some of his difficult lines with apparently very little effort. Mei Qingyang (梅庆羊) provided some comic relief as the theatrical muse playing Jiao’s mother. A playful conversational interchange between Mei and Chi’s characters marked the dramatic focal point of the evening, in which the elder tried to embarrass the younger by assigning the younger the impossible task of placing a lamp in a small room with very little space, only later to realize that in the process the elder could not offer a counter-solution and thereby putting herself in an awkward, frying-in-her-own-grease moment. The ebb and flow of the dramatic energy between the two, coupled with swift circular stage movements, epitomized the strength of the cast and clarity of the night’s execution.
The story is nothing less than a direct criticism of feudal society where parental wishes trumped individual choices back in the days (and I can safely say that some flavor of this feudal society is still prevalent in today’s rural China). The ending was depressing, but necessary as a means to set free from the historical status quo. Perhaps in an attempt to lift the audience out of such morbid melancholia and end the night on a more positive note, Chi sang a highly-charged encore from Magnolia (玉堂春), to rapturous applause.
Chi Xiaoqiu, in Bird (on Youku).