Let’s hear it for composer Guo Wenjing and director Li Liuyi, who are updating Peking Opera with modern staging and effects. Their production Heroine Trilogy, centered around the lives of three of China’s historically gutsiest females, will top off the Beijing Music Festival, a round of classical treats including Tannhauser and aVerdi/Puccini Gala.
Now, under-30s or the otherwise unseasoned may well ask: Why not let sleeping art forms lie? Why update what has been largely relegated to tour-filler for blue-haired visitors to China? Youngsters, try to understand that your house music came from Pink Floyd fiddling with their synthesizers during pot breaks. And your dismayingly long-lived rap was originally the self-promotion of crack dealers seeking to corner their neighborhoods’ market. The point is, new sounds and styles spring from unlikely sources, to fade and be reborn.
It’s fitting that Peking Opera should be reborn with tales devoted to female heroes. For centuries, female roles have been mostly limited to painted girly-men tiptoeing and squeaking about the stage in abject subservience to the male characters. Anyone who’s lived in China a while, and those who haven’t, but have witnessed her women’s volleyball team or Michelle Yeoh’s right foot in action, should know better. Chinese women are tough, so tough that Confucian society made a point of keeping them under wraps, even going so far as to cripple their feet so they would stop marching to the teahouse to drag their husbands home by the ear. Heroine Trilogy will feature the lives of the following three world-class tough guys, er, gals.
“Well then now. You think your Kung Fu’s quite good, eh? I’d say, you’ll never defeat my Heavenly Gate of Seventy-Two Moves, I’d say. Hahahaha!”
Apparently this sort of chop-saki dialogue goes back at least to the Song Dynasty, when an invading Liao general, so convinced of his aforementioned maneuver’s invincibility, bet the Song they could not stand against it for one hundred days. The stakes – northern China. What red-blooded Chinese male can resist a little wager? The Song accepted, depending on the prowess of the Yang brothers, mighty generals all, but helpless in the face of the Heavenly Gate formation.
As both the deadline and the loss of a united China loomed, Song general Lu Zhong heard of an old master in the nearby mountains who had the secret for defeating the Liao’s formidable offense. Venturing thither, he finally found not Samo Hung in a cheap grey wig and mustache, but a young woman, Mu Guiying. Her father, the master, had died, but not before teaching her the counter to the Heavenly Gate.
It’s not hard to conjure the barbaric Liaos’ derisive laughter on seeing a girl lead the Song Army, or their ensuing chagrin as she proceeded to do as daddy taught her, guiding her generals through each of the seventy two moves with the composed ferocity of a Pat Riley on Ritalin. Also aware that a man without food is a man without heart, she had a secret detachment burn the Liao supply line. Stunned and starving, the Liao capitulated, leaving Mu Guiying to revel in her Joan d’Arc style victory.
Liang’s tale smacks at first of Pretty Woman. The progeny of a wealthy family fallen on hard times, Liang Hongyu was compelled to sign on as an army prostitute. Whereas Julia Robert’s character had little but an astonishingly capacious mouth to her credit, Liang Hongyu was not only highly literate but possessed of enormous strength, able to bend a strong bow and drill a rabbit’s eye at a hundred paces.
Her charms were not lost on general Han Shizhong, who noticed her serving wine at a post-battle bacchanal. She in turn was intrigued by his pensive, introspective nature, so different from that of the raucous brutes around him. She got the fairy tale; he married her, and thus the chick-flick portion of her life ended and the war film portion began. No one knows how many times she beat her new husband at arm-wrestling before he allowed her to join him on the battle field, but he never had cause to regret it. She added to her martial prowess drumming and flag-waving, skills honed as a courtesan and turned to strategic benefit in directing troops. In one memorable encounter, she drummed with such John Bonham intensity that her eight thousand soldiers defeated a Xiong Nu force of one hundred thousand.
OK, Han Shizhong once had cause to regret it. When he was framed for the capital crime of releasing the enemy, Liang Hongyu ignored his protests of innocence and stormed off to the emperor’s court to sanction her husband’s execution. The emperor, touched by a fealty that transcended marital vows, called off the beheading. Come to think of it, Liang Hongyu probably knew that would be the upshot all along. If women find men easy to manipulate, an experienced prostitute must find them little different from marionettes.
Alright, we’ll wait for you to banish the Disney image from your mind, the sloe-eyed Barbie doll that animators just slap different colors and costumes on depending on the theme. Here’s a more appropriate image: Bea Arthur. After all, Mulan spent a full dozen years solely in the company of soldiers, who bunked and (once a year) bathed with her, who never even suspected her of having two X chromosomes until she retired and they surprised her at home before she could change out of her dress.
It’s a shame that heroines must be sold as beauties as well. Are we that superficial, that valor has no place in a female unless she’s comely to boot? With no sons to replace him in the draft, and Tiger Balm for his aching joints as yet uninvented, Mulan’s aged father allowed his daughter to step in. There’s no way the ruse would have succeeded had Mulan looked more like Guo Jingjing than China’s female weightlifting champ (bet you don’t know her name, either). But step in she did, allowing her father to remain at home listening to cross-talk shows and taking long backward walks in the park.
However, we can’t fault Disney, much as we like to, for Mulan‘s premise: young women stepping out of constrictive societal roles and being unashamed individuals. If that means female weightlifting champs and androgynous Supergirls, so much the better. Getting used to the unconventional is the only way we get treats like revamped Peking Opera.
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