Dancing the Red Lantern: Zhang Yimou's Fusion of Western Ballet and Peking Opera

By Hsiao, Li-ling | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Dancing the Red Lantern: Zhang Yimou's Fusion of Western Ballet and Peking Opera


Hsiao, Li-ling, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Zhang Yimou's Dance of the Red Lantern

On a dimly lit stage, an old man lifts a cane and lights the red lanterns. Accompanied by the spare sound of ringing bells, the lanterns gradually rise like an ascending curtain and reveal a stage space for the dance of red lanterns performed by a corps de ballet dressed in blue. A female voice, singing in the style of the Peking opera, gradually becomes audible. This prelude opens Dahong denglong gaogao gua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or, as it is better known in the West, Raise the Red Lantern. The performance combines elements of ballet, modern dance, and Peking opera. (1) The conflation of East and West governs every creative aspect of the ballet, which explains why it has been acclaimed equally in China and throughout the world.

The ballet is the brainchild of Zhang Yimou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (b. 1951), who made his name in the West as the director of the renowned Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Zhang won the best director award at the Venice International Film Festival in 1991, and the film received an Academy Award nomination as best foreign film in 1992. Subsequent films like Shanghai Triad (1995), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2005) sealed Zhang's reputation as a giant of world cinema, while his direction of the extravagant opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing made him an international celebrity. Given his penchant for stunning visual pattern, Zhang's interest in the highly stylized media of opera and ballet is hardly surprising. The ballet--his first--premiered in Beijing in 2001 and has since played in Europe and America. A revised version of the ballet, featuring the National Ballet of China, with music by Chen Qigang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and choreography by Wang Xinpeng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Wang Yuanyuan appeared on video in 2005, encouraging an assessment of what Zhang has both achieved and failed to achieve.

A Plot for All Media

The story of the Red Lantern originates in a novella titled Wife and Concubines [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] by Su Tong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (b. 1963) published in 1990. (2) Su Tong's novella tells the story of a nineteen-year-old college student, Songlian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], who marries into a rich household and becomes the fourth concubine of the much older master. The novella centers on the vicious competition and relentless jealousy governing the household world of the wives, concubines and maids, and on the friendship that develops between Songlian and the elder son of the master, Feipu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which verges on transgression. As these two plot lines progress, Songlian increasingly withdraws into solitude and self-confinement, while the abandoned well in which several concubines have died looms threateningly outside her room. Her attempt to distance herself from the intrigues of the household, however, does not prevent her from striking back after being slandered, resulting in the death of her maid and the loss of her master's favor. After witnessing the adulterous third wife's death by drowning in the well, Songlian loses her mind and becomes an invalid inmate of the household.

Zhang Yimou's film brings a stunning visual aestheticism to Su's story, while engaging in a significant plot revision. In the novella, Songlian attempts to remain above the petty intrigues of the household, but in the film she quickly succumbs to something devious and dark in her own nature and becomes as fully Machiavellian as the other women. The film thus assumes a moral and dramatic weight missing from the novella: Zhang's Songlian is no mere innocent victim of circumstance, but a complex moral agent whose downfall is largely her own doing. In both novella and film, Songlian is the unintentional victimizer of the maid, but in the film she is the effective murderer of the third wife, whose infidelity she reports to the treacherous second wife, knowing, in some recess of her mind, that her tale is the death warrant of a competitor. …

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