Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Escorting Lady Jing Home: A Journey of Chinese Opera, Gender, and Politics

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Escorting Lady Jing Home: A Journey of Chinese Opera, Gender, and Politics

Article excerpt

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A masterpiece!

In 1960-61, the Northern Kunqu Opera Troupe of China (Beifang Kunqu Juyuan; hereafter, Beikun) created Escorting Lady Jing Home (Qianli Song Jingniang; hereafter, Escorting), a masterpiece of kunqu theatre that is still regularly performed and enthusiastically embraced by twenty-first-century audiences (Chen 2010). 1 Dramatizing a journey that Zhao Kuangyin (926-976), the founder of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1125), allegedly took with Lady Jing, Escorting tells a substantive story that has deeply touched Chinese hearts and minds, and triggered numerous discussions, both causal and serious. 2 The story has not only appeared on kunqu stages, but lias also been performed as cartoons, TV shows, movies, and regional Chinese operas. There is even a Jingnianghu (Lake Lady Jing)-a tourist theme park built at a scenic site outside Handan in Hebei Province, China- celebrating Jing's historical/fictional trip home.3

Reviewing the expressive features and reception history of Escorting, one asks what has made it appealing and relevant for over fifty years. How and why? An obvious answer is that Escorting tells an entertaining and romantic story that triggers critical and diverse negotiations about Chinese opera, gender, and politics. To illustrate this answer, this essay will discuss Escorting's historical and dramatic sources; its production genesis; and its multimedia expressions, which prompt the audience to see, hear, and confront their Chinese and gendered selves, realities, and imaginations on and off the kunqu stage.

This discussion unfolds on the basis of the following methodological assertion: for international scholarship on Chinese music to advance, it needs to develop a bank of detailed and technical data about Chinese masterpieces,4 namely a canonized corpus of works that a multitude of Chinese audience, critics, and performers find aesthetically appealing, technically exemplary, culturally and historically informative and relevant, and conveniently serviceable for various social and political agendas. Without such data, discussions of Chinese music are more intellectual than practical. Contemporary Chinese music audiences, performers, and critics always discuss their music in terms of works with specific features and meanings, a fact to which their numerous online and in-print publications attest, and that fieldworkers of Chinese music and culture observe.5

Kunqu, a 600-year-old genre of Chinese opera, has been nationally revived since the 1990s, and is now blossoming with not only popular performances but also dynamic discussions about the genre's history, performers, repertory, styles, and national-cultural significances. Kunqu fans emotionally and intellectually engage with specific works and performances, critiquing whatever features they objectively and subjectively find appealing, meritorious, or unsatisfactory. They negotiate kunqu with traditional but evolving paradigms and interpretations, which depend on cultural and historical knowledge, and which do not always align with international and scholarly interests.

To facilitate conversations between kunqu practitioners within China and music specialists throughout the world, this author presents a case study that exercises his dual role as a kunqu enthusiast and a self-appointed intermediary-translator for cross-cultural dialogues about Chinese music and culture.6 To discuss Escorting in Chinese and non-Chinese terms, and to evoke kunqu practitioners' evolving and inclusive hermeneutics about the genre as theatre and cultural heritage, this author employs a broad analytical framework and some evaluative terms. With such tools, the author strives to realistically analyse and representatively discuss kunqu in general and Escorting in particular.

For this essay, I present data collected from both published sources and personal communications with kunqu performers, critics, scholars, and audiences whom I have met in a decade-long process of fieldwork trips, conferences, and other formal and informal encounters. …

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