The Drunken Concubine

Peking Opera as a genre contains a diverse array of pieces and is distinguished from other genres through its use of the Pekingese dialect, also known as Mandarin (“The Peking Opera”). Presented here is a 1956 recording of the renowned piece The Drunken Concubine. The Anhui-born artist Wu Hongxi purportedly composed the piece in the early 19th century, but generations of artists have continuously modified the details, granting the piece a rich assortment of artistic forms including comedic cross talks, face painting, singing, dancing, and acrobatics (Lai). Although the opera presents a story completely from Yang Guifei’s female perspective, no women traditionally acts in this theatrical masterpiece.

Certain phrases in the opera, such as “‘beauteous things’ ‘[begotten]’ by ‘Heaven'” in Yang’s self-introduction, are borrowed from Bai Juyi’s “Song of Lasting Pain” (Owen 442). However, unlike Bai’s poem, The Drunken Concubine concerns itself with events before An Lushan’s rebellion and focuses only on Yang as the main character, without featuring any actor playing Emperor Xuan of Tang. Furthermore, unlike Bai’s version of the emperor who devotedly loves Prized Consort Yang, the emperor in the opera spends the night away in the Western Palace with some other woman, leaving a saddened and slightly piqued Yang drinking alone at the Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers (Lai). Influenced by alcohol, Yang breaks a number of behavioral norms for women in the palace, angrily yet lovingly nicknaming the emperor “Li the Number Three Son” and playfully taking the hat off Eunuch Gao, whose face is painted like a clown, after bantering with Gao and Eunuch Pei (Mei 32:16-43:38). Featuring somewhat frivolous comedy, this piece is intended to simply entertain the viewers, as indicated in a piece of advice from Pei, Gao, and a half-drunk Yang: “Living in this world is like a spring night’s dream . . . so just seek happiness on your own and drink a few cups” (Mei 16:17).

A sad reality, however, proves evident in how the opera has been traditionally produced. Out of the fear that the intermingling of sexes would promote immorality, social conventions of Qing Dynasty forbade women from watching and participating in Peking Opera, except for those pieces performed at temples for female viewers only (“The Peking Opera”). As a result, Yang Guifei has always been played by men who put on stereotypically female traits, such as covering one’s face with a fan when drinking and holding out “orchid fingers,” a hand gesture supposedly showing feminine grace. One should admit, nevertheless, that the training process for these actors proves extremely rigorous, and Mei Lanfang who played Yang in the video above at the age of 62 deserves the most heartfelt applause for his masterful skills.

Works Cited:

Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, The. “Jingxi.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc, 18 Oct. 2016, https://www.britannica.com/art/jingxi.

Lai, Xinxia. “Tan Shi Shuo Xi–Gui Fei Zui Jiu 谈史说戏—贵妃醉酒 [Talking about History and Speaking about Theatre–The Drunken Concubine].” Nankai University, 23 Feb. 2007, http://news.nankai.edu.cn/gnjt/system/2007/02/23/000004611.shtml.

Mei, Lanfang. Jingju Guifei Zuijiu Mei Lanfang 1956 京剧《贵妃醉酒》梅兰芳 1956 [Peking Opera The Drunken Concubine Mei Lanfang 1956]. 1956. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87uK2z3dNsI&feature=youtu.be.

Orchid Fingers. https://b-ssl.duitang.com/uploads/item/201111/01/20111101174444_ryj4k.thumb.1400_0.jpg. Duitang. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature : Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

“The Peking Opera.” Chinavine, https://chinavine.uoregon.edu/subject/the-peking-opera/. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)

A VHS cover for Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Even though Princess Yang Kwei-Fei was filmed in Japan and released in the year 1955, it stays true to the historical details of the Yang Guifei story in many ways. After a brief flash-forward showing the elderly Emperor Xuanzong mourning his lost Precious Consort, the action of the film opens with a younger Emperor coping with the death of his beloved Empress Wu-Hui (perhaps a conflation of the historical emperor’s former favored consort Wu Huifei and his wife Empress Wang, who both passed away before Yang Yuhuan became Yang Guifei, here pronounced in the Japanese fashion as Kwei-Fei). The film also later shows the gratuitous decadence of Yang Guifei’s three elder sisters and the corruption of Yang Guifei’s ambitious male uncles and cousins, which later would so anger the populace and drive the soldiers of the imperial guard to their murder. These details beyond the figure of Yang Guozhong were not emphasized in the earliest literary versions of the story, such as “Song of Lasting Pain,” though they were relevant to the actual history of the Yang Guifei tragedy. The film, though, also stresses the Emperor’s preference for pleasure in the form of music-making and admiring the beauty of nature over the suffocating formalities and rules of court life, the spirit of which is included in “Song of Lasting Pain.”

The emperor clearly prefers making music over the stuffy affairs and rules of court, as in this early scene. 6:06.
Yang Guifei emerges from her bath. The Emperor does not observe her during this scene, however, unlike other tellings of the story. 37:30.

The film also introduces elements unique to it, however. At least among fictional interpretations of the Yang Guifei story, the Emperor is usually depicted as uninterested in governance and foolish in his old age. Although the emperor is frustrated with the constraints of his royal world, the film instead depicts the Emperor as a good person, merely a romantic who craves sincere companionship, which is how the true-hearted Yang Yuhuan wins his heart (not by being seen naked while bathing). Even further and more unusually among fictional interpretations, though, the Emperor is shown to be a concerned and ethical ruler even during this era of his reign. When a concubine has been sentenced to death for the crime of meddling in politics, he argues against it, saying laws should serve the people and must be questioned if they are unfair. In addition, when Yang Guifei questions the power granted to her relatives, he replies that he has his reasons for his favor, and this is proven true when his former premier is shown to be old and sickly. Thus, he proves in a very Confucian way his suitability to rule. Although these scenes demonstrate that women should not be allowed to affect the political sphere, the Emperor’s sympathetic characterization contrasts with the chaos that prevails in the final scenes of the film, the events of which are more tragic than seemingly just.

Yang Yuhuan is discovered at her uncle’s restaurant by An Lushan. 13:25.
Yang Guifei talks alone with An Lushan, scandalizing the court. Far from engaging in an affair, though, she rejects his propositions out of hand. 58:17.

The beginning of the story, too, is injected with new elements, such as hints of Cinderella. Far from originally being a wife of Emperor Xuanzong’s son Li Mao, the Prince of Shou, Yang Yuhuan is first discovered by An Lushan working like a servant in her cousin’s restaurant after the death of her mother. An Lushan, in this version actually a rather dashing though ambitious lady-killer rather than a fat vulgarian, brings her to court, thinking her physical similarity to the late Empress Wu-Hui will be a useful tool to gain imperial favor if she is accepted as a prized concubine. When she refuses to either use her influence to promote him from provincial governor to a more central court position or run away with him (far from starting an affair with him, as in some versions of the story, or being involved in an artificial mother-son relationship, as in the history), he decides to make a move for the throne itself, stirring up the rebellion that would lead to her death.

In many ways, though, Yang Guifei’s ascent from peasant to the most beloved imperial concubine in the film feels not Disney, but very Japanese. It reminds us of the rainy-night conversation in Chapter 2 of the Tale of Genji, when Genji and his friends discuss the merits of a beautiful woman found in an out-of-the-way place; her sincere and earnest characterization, too, makes her seem like several of the maligned, heartsick women discussed in that scene. This change, though, serves to inject the story with a compelling arc that makes it feel like a modern film, even though it originated centuries ago.

Despite this, that this story was made into film even as Japan was beginning to enter a post-war period of Western-style modernity—Japan would join the United Nations just a year later, in 1956—is a testament to its lasting power. Just like in the original “Song of Lasting Pain,” the film ends on a mystical note, with Yang Guifei’s voice guiding the dying emperor into the afterlife, where they will be together for all time. As the Emperor says, laughing with joy, their “happiness shall know no end.”

The Emperor and Guifei escape together one night to enjoy a common festival. Here, the Emperor plays while Guifei twirls and dances in a scene reminiscent of “Feathered Coats, Rainbow Skirts,” a typical element of any Yang Guifei story. 46:46.

Here is a link to the full movie

Works Cited

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, Daiei Film and Shaw Brothers Studio, 1955. Youtube, “Yôkihi – Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955) Kenji Mizoguchi,” Z plan, 12 December 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCOuLTEVGNg.

Rain on the Wutong Tree / Rain on the Paulownia Tree

A statue of Bai Renfu / Bai Pu in Zhengding. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Rain on the Wutong Tree (also translated as Rain on the Paulownia Tree) is one of the three extant plays written by Bai Pu (1226-1307) in the early Yuan dynasty. It tells the story of Yang Guifei, Emperor Xuanzong’s infatuation with her, and her demise of as a result of An Rokshan’s rebellion; however, it has a different focus than the Song of Lasting Pain” or its prose “Account.” There is no magical journey into heaven to speak to the spirit of Yang Guifei, guaranteeing a future reunification for the couple in the afterlife. Rather, after Yang Guifei’s death, tragically performed on-stage all the way until the final act is carried out, she is never heard from again except in a dream. Perhaps this is due to the constraints of theater, but the aging Emperor is left instead only with his memories, his regrets, and the sound of the rain falling on the branches of the wutong tree, disrupting him from the dream.

Indeed, in this version of the story, the lovers’ affair is not so otherworldly as the Emperor himself would like to believe. The Precious Consort participates in a duplicitous affair with the fat, conniving An Rokshan after being raped by him (though this latter detail is removed from some versions of the play). The “affair” plot point appears in other tellings of the Yang Guifei story, though it more often does not appear, and understandably. Without this development, the story is a more tragic and pure love story, but with it, the story becomes much more focused on the hubris of Emperor Xuanzong: his lack of focus on the affairs of court (“Wearied of setting on order the affairs of court / All I want to do is / Drink heartily in Zhaoyang Palace . . .” [121]), his inability to recognize good and loyal ministers (“My eyes do not recognize people for what they are,” referencing a line thought to have actually been spoken by the historical Xuanzong, “If I had listened to Zhang Jiuling [about being suspicious of An Rokshan], none of this would have ever happened” [135]), and his obsession with a woman who may not even love him back. The first half of the play is full of dramatic ironies that the audience would instantly recognize, such as, “Sir [Zhang Jiuling], don’t act as if you were Wang Yan recognizing Shi Le for what he was.” This refers to Wang Yan’s prediction that a young Shi Li would “disorder the empire,” which would be proved right when Shi Li went on to found the Latter Zhao dynasty (117).

Yang Guifei does request that Xuanzong pledge a vow of eternal love, which he does beneath the wutong tree on the night the celestial lovers Buffalo Boy and Weaving Maiden are said to make their once-a-year rendezvous. This dream-like conversation is the central scene in the play. Whether Yang Guifei’s feelings toward the Emperor in this version of the story are earnest, though, remains unclear; she performs one substantial dialogue (120), but delivers few additional, short lines thereafter. Instead, the play remains very much concerned with the experience and especially emotions of Emperor Xuanzong. In addition to monologues and dialogues, much of the story is told through Xuanzong’s poetic songs. He is the only one who sings, and does so at length and passionately, and never more than the final scene of the play, in which he describes in roughly four pages of text the grief the sound of the rain on the wutong tree evokes in him. Ultimately, the play serves less to celebrate the love between the Precious Consort and Emperor, but to showcase the Emperor’s outpouring of love and grief, the tragedy of his life. It displays its version of the story realistically, and therefore vividly and painfully, with no release from the tragedy at the play’s conclusion. Confucianism is invoked in just the second line of the play (113), and the play, like the story itself beyond it, indeed adheres to a Confucian ethic. Xuanzong’s obsession with Yang Guifei tipped the yin yang balance between public and private, duty and pleasure, and male and female power, both in the family and in the government. Tragedy of this scale, then, seems like the only natural outcome.

Works Cited

Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals: Eleven Early Chinese Plays. Translated and Edited by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema, Hackett Publishing Company, 2010, pp. 105-154.