AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 379

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Session 379: Operatic Genre-Crossing and Visual Adaptation in the Shadow of Wartime China

Organizer: Kenny K. K. Ng, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong

Chair: Xiaomei Chen, University of California, Davis, USA

Discussant: Xiaomei Chen, University of California, Davis, USA

This panel looks into the inter-media and cross-cultural problems in transforming Chinese operatic performances on stage and screen. It explores the notion of operatic genre-crossing as intertextual visual experience and audience manipulation, prompting experimental fusions of performative arts and visual media by tapping opera’s indigenous legends, performance codes, linguistic registers, and musical features. The panel includes historical cases of operatic transplants that flourished in the shadow of wartime from Mainland China to colonial Hong Kong. Various panelists view operatic adaptations as pioneering acts of generic crossover, as cultural agents endeavored to hurdle aesthetic problems in adaptations and entertain ideological positions in historical realities. Liang Luo and Lanjun Xu deal with opera reform and opera filmmaking respectively in Communist China during the Cold War. By reinventing classic mythologies or rewriting sentimental love stories, the artists sought to forge new Chinese identities and exert ethical and emotive appeals on mass audience both within and beyond China. Xiangyang Chen locates the folk-oral traditions of Cantonese opera films and investigates the affectively powerful and commercially successful screen transplants within Hong Kong’s dialectal popular culture. Kenny Ng’s paper goes beyond the operatic and the cinematic to examine the changing formations and receptions of Fei Mu’s operatic film styles as critical ways for launching cultural critiques. The panel therefore recovers multifaceted operatic transformations in dialogue with China’s aesthetic, humanistic, national, and cosmopolitan cultural projects, and will relate to such issues as emotion, cinema aesthetics, visual adaptation, music and dialect, gender and performance, folklore and historical memory.

The Reincarnation of the White Snake in the Shadow of the Cold War
Liang Luo, University of Kentucky, USA

As early as in the late 1960s, Joseph Levenson has described the Chinese 1950s as exemplifying a “communist cosmopolitanism.” Rather than looking at the adaptations of Western plays on the Chinese stages as did Levenson, I examine how the seemingly traditional form of Beijing Opera played a key role in the search for “a nationalistic, scientific, and democratic new culture” in the early years of the People’s Republic. The case in point is Tian Han’s rewriting the story of the white snake into a Beijing Opera from the 1940s to the 1950s, a personal endeavor intrinsically connected with the national drive of opera reform during that transitional decade. The search for a “new democratic” Beijing Opera, I argue, resulted in a populist, humanistic, and internationalist new operatic culture, which not only consolidated the nascent communist national identity, but also linked the Chinese 1950s to a spectrum of utopian artists and activists in the context of the Cold War. Reading Tian Han’s generic crossings between the cinematic and the operatic together with his contemporaries Joris Ivens (in East Germany) and Paul Robeson (in the United States), I argue that the reinvention of the white snake as Beijing Opera in the 1950s not only charts a Chinese avant-garde’s transformation under Communism, it also invites the return of the cosmopolitan and the international of the 1920s into the allegedly monolithic 1950s, and strikes a conversation between the contradicting orientations between fantasy and reality, and between the artistic avant-garde and socialist realism.

Love between the Theatrical Heaven and Cinematic Clouds: A Study of the Chinese Mythology Opera Film The Heavenly Match (Tianxian pei)
Lanjun Xu, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Shi Hui directed The Heavenly Match in 1955 to attempt a filmic adaptation of the Huangmei opera, a regional opera from China’s Anhui province. Considered as the forerunner of the Huangmei diao opera film in the 1950s and 1960s, the opera film created tremendous success in mainland China as well as among the pan-Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia in the Cold War period. This paper will study the film’s experimental contributions in inter-media adaptations from theatre to film in terms of spatial construction, music, setting and camera work. In particular, I will examine the ways in which the theatrical conventions for representing “the heaven” and “the fairy” were re-imagined cinematically, inventing the genre “mythology opera film (shenhua gewu gushipian),” the concept used by the director himself. The paper highlights the uses of “clouds” and the “fan” in the film, and looks at how they help create the complexity between the two spaces: the heaven and the lower world. In the second part of my paper, I will probe the political meanings of sadness triggered by this love story during the Cold War period. Examining the revision processes of the adaptation, I study how the folktale about the filial piety of the male protagonist Dong Yong changed to a tearful love romance between a peasant and a fairy on the screen. The paper will thus ask how such changes significantly contributed to the film’s popularity in diasporic Chinese communities.

Affect, Folklore and Cantonese Opera Film
Xiangyang Chen, New York University, USA

This paper studies affect in Cantonese opera film, a critically understudied genre that can nevertheless shed illuminating light on the relations between folklore, popular forms and cultural identity. The turn to legends and other popular culture materials in 1950s Cantonese opera films embodies a selective representation of history, in which affect functions to craft a consensus of popular attachment to the past while bringing it up to date with 1950s Hong Kong cultural conditions. Cognitively speaking, affect solicits emotional response and investment on the part of the spectator. Aesthetically, affect is powerfully represented through the close-up, a shot dis-embedding the image from theatrical conventions and making itself a resonant, autonomous image of affection. While some of these images in the romance genre focus on sentimental love as an ideal, others express human desire, demonstrating a shift from the concern with the abstract idea to the bodily realm of the individual. This paper further studies the relation between affect and the folk-oral nature of opera films. Usually denoting popular oral representations, folklore in the Gramscian sense refers to “a conception of the world and life” of a subaltern class, here the Cantonese demographic in Hong Kong. The paper further explores the affective investment in folk-oral traditions and the cultural resonance in 1950s Hong Kong by studying the examples of The Nymph of the River Lo (1957) and Legend of the Purple Hairpin (1959).

Restoring China: Uses of the Past in Fei Mu’s Operatic Cinema
Kenny K. K. Ng, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong

Obsessively committed to fusing opera and film in moviemaking, Fei Mu warned in 1941, “We take the risk of running both film and opera if we handle the issue improperly.” This paper examines the enigma of Fei’s cinematic-operatic innovations, his obscurity in film history, and his posthumous status. It traces the operatic factors as inspiring sources for inventive filmmaking in two of his postwar productions. The paper first studies the partnership of Fei and Mei Lanfang in collaboratively making A Wedding in the Dream [Shengsi hen] (1948), China’s first color movie. Fei attempted to reconcile the realistic tradition of cinema with the figurative nature of Chinese theater, made possible by the advent of new technologies, in order to carve out creative potentials for a new opera film. The paper delves into the historical symbiosis of Chinese opera and film, seeing Fei’s operatic filmmaking as an entrepreneurial act of trials and failures. The paper then demonstrates how Fei deployed the evocative power of opera to deliver a masterly cinematic performance in Spring in a Small Town (1948), leaving an indelible trademark of native Chinese cinema on the minds of later-generation filmmakers and critics. It explicates how chance factors and both deliberate and expedient artistic choices contributed to the film’s operatic-stylistic appeals. Inquiring into the critical canonization process of Fei’s oeuvres, this paper ultimately challenges the national-cultural discourse and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s remake, which have revived the cinematic memory to establish a distinct identity of Chinese cinema and film aesthetics.