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
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.
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.