A Beloved Chinese Classic Gets a Weightless Adaptation
A little over two decades ago, kunqu was teetering on the brink of extinction.
Rooted in the local culture and music of the Yangtze Delta city of Kunshan, kunqu grew rapidly during the mid- to late-Ming dynasty (1368-1644), becoming far and away the most popular form of Chinese opera. Classic works like “The Peony Pavilion” and “The Peach Blossom Fan” captivated audiences of all backgrounds, from the imperial court in Beijing to laborers on the streets of east China.
The rise of competing opera forms, including Beijing and Shaanxi opera, together with the upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries, eventually eroded the cultural dominance of kunqu. By the early 2000s, the number of practitioners on the Chinese mainland had dwindled to an estimated 800 working across just seven dedicated troupes.
The turning point came on May 18, 2001, when UNESCO added kunqu to its first-ever “masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” list. What followed were two decades of concerted efforts on the part of both the state and the public to revive the art form. Troupes consistently churned out new shows, often playing on the perceived elegance and class of live kunqu performance. And much to the envy of other traditional art practitioners, the market for kunqu has boomed in response, especially among the middle class and educated young people who see it as a way to signify their taste and discernment.
But can kunqu enjoy a commercial and popular revival without selling out?
Not if “Six Records of a Floating Life” is any indication. Adapted by the acclaimed playwright Luo Zhou and produced by the Shanghai Grand Theatre, “Six Records” is based on a collection of autobiographical essays of the same name written by Shen Fu. One of the best-known accounts of ordinary Chinese in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), it recounts the simple yet rewarding life Shen shared with his wife, Chen Yun, known to her family as Yunniang.
It’s easy to see what attracted Luo to the story. At first glance, “Six Records” seems a perfect fit for a kunqu adaptation. Born in the mid-Qing period, Shen spent much of his life with Yunniang in the eastern commercial hub of Suzhou, not far from Kunshan. And their story is as beautiful as it is tragic. Although Shen, a failed scholar and businessman, was barely able to support their family of four, the love he and Yunniang felt for each other almost leaps off the page. When Yunniang dies, four years after the family was driven from their home, he sells his possessions and relies on charity from friends to buy her a coffin.
Almost none of these details make it into the kunqu adaptation. Instead of an aging, downwardly mobile scholar, Luo opts to dress Shen in the colorful costume of the jinsheng character, a kunqu archetype representing a handsome young man. Yunniang is likewise portrayed as a guimendan, or virtuous young maiden, rather than the more appropriate zhengdan middle-aged woman archetype.
On stage, their lives are those of carefree young nobles. They share a candlelight dinner, take a moonlit stroll to a pavilion, and sail on Lake Taihu, drinks in hand. The only mention of money in the whole play comes when Shen’s landlady doubles his rent. He immediately agrees. “How generous!” she exclaims. “He’s so in love.”
It’s a remarkable betrayal of the source material. Neither Shen Fu nor Yunniang were rich. Yunniang lost her father when she was four, plunging her family into poverty. And far from being an illustrious, high-ranking scholar, Shen failed at just about everything he tried.
Their life together, even in the best of times, was a constant struggle to stay afloat. None of this was off-limits for Shen, who writes candidly in his essays about the time he and his wife had to share a bowl of porridge after being forced from their home, his debts, and the hollowness of an empty stomach. He borrows a light at an inn to dry his wet shoes and socks, only to later discover that half of his sock has burned away.
It’s a far cry from boat trips on Lake Taihu. But no character suffers more in the adaptation than Yunniang. In the original “Six Records,” Shen writes of a beautiful and intelligent woman, a virtuous wife who nevertheless possesses an unexpected liveliness of spirit. She and Shen weather the storms that beset their relationship as best they can, but their mutual respect for one another never wavers.
Implicit throughout the text is Yunniang’s discomfort with traditional gender norms. It’s a remarkable character sketch, one that led the 20th century Chinese inventor and novelist Lin Yutang to call Yunniang “one of the loveliest women in Chinese literature.”
But the play reduces her to little more than a plot device. Yunniang’s spirit appears on stage to help Shen put his memories into words, and together they revisit familiar scenes against the backdrop of his developing manuscript. Once Shen completes his work, however, her spirit fades. The result is a perfect encapsulation of the male gaze: Stripped of self-will and agency, Yunniang exists only as a passive object of Shen’s affections.
It’s a remarkable turn of events. Writing in a highly patriarchal society, Shen describes a woman who challenged gender norms and lived fully, if not always happily. Two centuries later, a female playwright takes that same character and twists her into a shallow foil for her male protagonist.
These safe, middle-class friendly adaptations of classic texts are increasingly common on Chinese stages and screens. Still, it’s hard not to mourn the missed opportunity here. Kunqu was once for the common people, for the misfits, and the losers. It portrayed the various ongoings of town life and the full spectrum of human emotions. Now, it’s obsessed with the elegance and beauty of traditional life and culture, even at the expense of fidelity to its source material.
If the day comes when only jinsheng and guimendan roles are fit to take the kunqu stage, when the only love fit to be shown is between the young, beautiful, and wealthy, we’ll have nothing to blame but our own obsession with affluence, consumerism, and candy-coated history. Middle-class audiences admire Chinese opera for its “elegance.” But I see no elegance in dressing up banal values as fine art.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: A stage photo from “Six Records of a Floating Life,” 2019. From @上海大剧院 on Weibo)