Abstracts (English)

Panel 1: The Making of Dream of the Bridal Chamber and Beyond

GUO Baochang, Director based in Beijing
HOU Yong, Cinematographer based in Shanghai
TAO Qingmei, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Panel 2: Transmedial Approaches

Moon Gate in the Air: Opera, Film, and the Hypallage of Media

Ling Hon LAM, UC Berkeley

This paper begins with a magic moment from Guo Baochang’s “New Concept” opera film Dream of the Bridal Chamber (Chungui meng, 2005): a halo is projected up on the backdrop forming in the nightly sky a virtual moon gate, from within which the moon gradually emerges until fully overlapping the gate’s moon-shape contour. The moon gate, as a mediating frame, becomes what it is supposed to mediate—the moon itself. What should sit on the ground is hanging in the air; conversely, what should have come from outside (the moonlight) is strongly suggested to be projected from inside the bridal chamber. These multiple layers of illusion and dislocation sum up not only the aesthetic design of Dream of the Bridal Chamber but also the underpinnings of media studies. In claiming that “the medium is the message,” media studies establishes itself by the trope of “hypallage”—that is, by a series of reversal between cause and effect, means and purpose, inside and outside.

This media turn remains incomplete, however, without one last twist to the hypallage, turning media specificity per se around in to theatricality, which designates a medially “unspecific” space between mediums. Ultimately, it is through intermedial transactions that media specificity is determined. In this light, the whole discussions since the 1950s about how to reconcile traditional Chinese opera and modern cinema given their essential differences have been at once provocative and misguided. By contrast, unburdened with those trite terms in “opera film” debates, Hong Kong popular cinema in the second half of the twentieth century surprisingly takes the trope of hypallage to its fulfillment. In Chang Cheh’s kung fu movie Vengeance (Baochou, 1970), theatricality is literalized as a playhouse juxtaposing Peking opera acrobatics in stationary shot and cinematically more dynamic Southern Fist-style action sequences, but any rigid dichotomy quickly dissolves into mutual mediation in the forms of cross-cutting, vertical montage, synchronized rhythm, and spatial overlap. The apparently low genre thus casts a different light on Guo Baochang’s virtual moon gate as well as his challenge to “transform opera through cinema.”

Expressive Space and the Political Stage: Fei Mu’s and Guo Baochang’s Chamber Dreams

Yuqian YAN, University of Chicago

This paper examines the depiction of space in Fei Mu’s short experimental film Nightmares of the Spring Chamber (Chungui Duanmeng, 1937) and Guo Baochang’s opera film Dream of the Bridal Chamber (Chungui Meng, 2006). In both of these works, dreams open up a fantastic realm that allow the filmmakers to explore cinema’s capacity in portraying the illusory, the non-real. Fei borrows from German Expressionism to break Chinese cinema’s default connection with realistic space, while Guo pushes the dream sphere further towards abstraction and fragmentation. They lead us beyond the tension between the symbolic quality of Chinese opera and cinema’s affinity with verisimilitude, and to rethink cinematic techniques as effective means to create an expressive (xieyi de) space that reinforces the aesthetics of the Chinese theater.

Made on the eve of the War of Resistance against Japan, Fei’s dreams serve as clear metaphors of national anxieties and crisis. The relation between the soldiers in the dream and the dreaming girls is obscured by the immediate threat from the image of the Japanese demon. The dreams are expressions of the repressed political reality under film censorship. The urgency of the war is replaced by a strong sense of uncertainty in Guo’s film, which does not only depict dreams but also an endless process of waking up from one dream into another. As the solid physical stage dissolves into unstable dream spheres, stages reappear as in an extra-diegetic space, offering a way out of the infinite dream cycle through historical reflections on political influences and the fate of Peking opera art.

Calligraphy on Stage and Screen: Hieroglyphic Writing in Dream of the Bridal Chamber (2005) and the Peking Opera Grand Mansion Gate (2017)

Panpan YANG, University of Chicago

I see my presentation as an experimental attempt to explore how the transformative and performative qualities of Chinese hieroglyphic writings come into play on stage and screen. Dream of the Bridal Chamber (春闺梦, dir. Guo Baochang, avant-garde Peking opera film, 2005) and Grand Mansion Gate (大宅门, dir. Guo Baochang & Li Zhuoqun, Peking opera stage production, 2017) will serve as my privileged examples.

In his recent book Words on Screen, French film scholar Michel Chion makes the distinction between diegetic writing and non-diegetic writing, depending whether or not characters in a film can perceive those writings. I will delineate the various forms of diegetic and non-diegetic writings in Dream of the Bridal Chamber and Grand Mansion Gate, including couplets, big-character posters, the huge “double happiness 囍”, opening credits, expository inter-titles, and English subtitles. A close reading of the opening sequence of the filmed Peking opera production of Grand Mansion Gate reveals that those words on a book-like stage curtain occupy an ambiguous position between Chion’s two categories, functioning as a relay between diegetic and non-diegetic realms.

While Chion offers a wonderful anatomy of “words-becoming-images” and at times uses Chinese-language cinemas as his examples, he remains largely silent about Chinese calligraphy, which is text and image at once. To gain a fuller understanding of words on screen, I argue, it is necessary to foreground the model of pictographic scripts that confounds the phonocentric model. In a setting like the U.S. premiere of Dream of the Bridal Chamber at the University of Chicago, audiences who do not have Chinese-language proficiency can still react to the very act of calligraphy in the sequence of “Ballad of the Army Carts 兵车行”—a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu—with immediate, even visceral excitement. Digital technologies not only make it possible to show on screen how a work of calligraphy is accomplished stroke by stroke but also poses a challenge to the notion of irreversible time embedded in the act of calligraphy. Through the presence of the physical “brush trace” (笔迹), a work of calligraphy enables audiences to experience—indeed re-experience—the movement of the brush of an artist. The re-embodiment of movement in calligraphy, as I term it, is not un-similar to camera movement in cinema. This brings me back to the opening credit sequence of Grand Mansion Gate, in which the act of calligraphy perhaps signifies the desire of an auteur to write, draw, inscribe, and provide a signature.

Panel 3: Frames and Screens

Chasing Spirit from the Script: The Shifting Politics of Xiqu Adaptation from Stage to Screen

Anne REBULL, University of Michigan

The adaptation history of the play Chasing the Fish Spirit ranges from Hunan to Hong Kong, from stage to screen. Shuttered after the opening of xiqu reforms in 1950, the play was revived in a performance for the playwright and head of the Dramatist’s Association, Tian Han (田汉), during the softening of the political environment in the Hundred Flower’s Campaign. The play’s proximity to Tian, and his wife An E, shadowed its development into a reformed Gaoqiang version, then a Shanghainese Yueju and a generic “urtext” designed to serve as a base for further adaptations. This history entwined with Tian’s own leading role in the struggle sessions against Wu Zuxiang during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, later leading many to speculate on possible embedded political messages or self-reflection in the core trial scene.

Accounts of this potential political underbelly are seemingly belied by the fact of Fish Spirit’s success two years later as a feature film, not only with domestic audiences, but as a chosen product for export to Hong Kong and sinophone Southeast Asia. The original actors were even permitted to tour in Hong Kong with the play after distribution. In this paper, I explore the complicated political history of this play and how the transition to the silver screen facilitated a redirection in political messaging. I ask how and if these two political histories can be reconciled, in consideration of the xiqu text as a malleable medium with multivalent possibilities for interpretation.

I Married a Photograph: The Still Image Transfigured in Dazhaimen (The Grand Mansion Gate)

Judith ZEITLIN, University of Chicago

A megahit of the 2001TV season in China, Dazhaimen 大宅门 is a multigenerational historical drama series, written and directed by Guo Baochang 郭宝昌. The series depicts the vicissitudes of the Bai 白 family, a fictionalized version of the famous Beijing pharmaceutical firm Tong Ren Tang 同仁堂, from 1880 to 1937. I will discuss one of the most interesting later story arcs—the unrequited love of Bai Yuting 白玉婷, a daughter of the family, for the Peking opera star Wan Xiaoju 万筱菊 (who is based on Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳). Eventually she decides to marry him unilaterally by wedding his photograph in a grand bridal ceremony. I argue that this ritual action and its consequences exhibits a logic reminiscent of a long-standing Chinese practice of posthumous spirit marriage (冥婚). My talk focuses on two key elements that cinematically animate the illusion of a phantom bridegroom created to satisfy the desires of a living woman: the treatment of the photograph itself (which partly draws on its usage in funerary ritual) and the recurrent use of a scene performed from the Peking opera Rainbow Pass 虹霓关.

Projecting Self-reflexivity: Curtains and Digital Screens in Dream of the Bridal Chamber (2005) and Contemporary Chinese Opera Films

Ling ZHANG, SUNY Purchase

The Beijing opera repertoire Dream of the Bridal Chamber (春闺梦), which criticized warlords for instigating civil wars and imposing miseries on ordinary people, was first created and performed by the “Cheng School” performer Cheng Yanqiu (程砚秋, 1904-58) in 1931. The cinematic version of Dream of the Bridal Chamber, made by Guo Baochang (郭宝昌) in 2005, modified several aspects of the stage version in terms of both content and form. For instance, it excises supporting characters in order to focuses on the newly-wed couple, Zhang and her husband Wang Hui (王恢), a move that also allows the film to expand and enrich other scenes. For one thing, it elaborates on the passionate affection between the young couple to produce a more intimate, relatable love story, even featuring erotic moments rarely seen in Chinese opera films. For another, it shifts conventional character types in order to showcase martial arts spectacles on screen, while Zhang is a qingyi (青衣) role on stage, on screen she becomes a combination of huashan (花衫) and daomadan (刀马旦), acting coquettish in front of her husband and displaying her acrobatic-fighting dexterities on the battlefield. Wang Hui similarly transforms from a xiaosheng (小生 scholar) role onstage to a wusheng (武生, warrior) character in the film.

Such adjustments serve to strengthen the film’s sensational visual effects and dynamism, all of which are enhanced by an aesthetics of “dream” conveyed by the narrative frame and various stylistic motifs. By employing material ingenuity and experimental techniques informed by digital technology and media, the film remakes a conventional operatic repertoire and transcends the Chinese opera film legacy of the 1950s-1960s. For instance, the pervasive presence of gauze and translucent curtains of different colors as well as of the multiple projected screens and changing lights within the frame create numerous shadows, modalities and temporalities, while the lateral camera movement carves out a boundless abstract space.

This paper explores how these refreshed cinematic experiments and aesthetic concerns complicate our perception of the surface of the cinematic screen with layers of curtains, screens, lighting, and camerawork. Specifically, I argue that the use of multiple screens, shots of musicians, and interludes that address the brief history of Beijing opera in 20th century China demystifies not only the film medium, but the convergence of cinema and new media, as well as cinema, Beijing opera, and history. Along with another experimental Beijing opera film, The Prince and The Inspector 廉吏于成龙 (Zheng Dasheng 郑大圣, 2009), Dream of the Bridal Chamber suggests a new potential in Chinese opera film’s capacity to wed the older theatrical form of Beijing opera and the “old medium” of film with the “new media” of digital technology and techniques in the twenty-first century.

Panel 4: Dream and Family

Dream of the Red Chamber and the Visual Culture of the Manchu Court

SHANG Wei, Columbia University

This talk addresses Dream of the Red Chamber (otherwise known as, The Story of the Stone, Honglou meng 红楼梦), authored by Cao Xueqin (ca. 1715–ca. 1763), with special focus on its recurrent theme as captured in Chapter 1: “Truth becomes fiction when fiction is true; real becomes not-real where the unreal is real.” Apparently paradoxical, this theme seems to invite a philosophical and religious interpretation that transcends the time when the novel was written. However, Wei Shang traces it to the stimuli of the visual culture permeating the Manchu court in the early and mid-eighteenth century. He examines Cao Xueqin’s representation of the Grand Prospect Garden, the main residence for the young protagonists, in light of what may be called the aesthetics of jia 假 (the unreal or fiction) that manifests through all sorts of visual tricks in the interior decoration of imperial palaces and gardens of the time.

In this talk, Shang will focus on the novel’s explicit and implicit references to paintings, including an illusionistic painting and an ambitious project undertaken by Xichun to capture a panorama of the garden in one gigantic painting. More specific ally, he emphasizes the impulse of the novel to incorporate into its narrative the popular motifs of the contemporaneous paintings, including the paintings executed by the Jesuit painters employed by the imperial court. Reading the novel from this perspective highlights issues of enormous importance for the comprehension of the cultural dynamics of the time that in return participate in shaping the novel itself: the dialectics of reality and illusion, the mutual fertilization of media and technology, and the constant negotiations between the written and graphic media and between the Chinese and European cultures.

Theater Against the Stage: Saga, City, and Opera Space Across Media in the Works of Guo Baochang

MENG Yue, University of Toronto

Guo Baochang’s three masterpieces i.e., the TV series Grand Mansion Gate (2001), avant-garde film Dream of the Bridal Chamber (2005) and Beijing Opera Grand Mansion Gate (2017) successfully transformed the arts of Beijing Opera into splendid visual media adventures. A key step toward this success, as attested in these masterpieces, lies in a series of creative devices that liberate Beijing Opera from its camera-objectified theatrical stage and ideologically fixed genre boundary. This essay reads into the ways through which the stage of Beijing opera is removed and reinvented in TV, film and Beijing opera versions of the Grand Mansion Gate in light of history, city, and the culture of the media era. The TV series of Grand Mansion Gate, for example, has made Beijing Opera livable, movable, and portable with sounds, characters, actions and scenes. Dream of the Bridal Chamber films through a Beijing Operatic eye instead of filming an opera. And finally, these make it possible for the Beijing Opera Grand Mansion Gate to restage Beijing Opera in the media culture of China.

The Decline of Grand Family Culture: Historical Connotations of Dazhaimen

LI Tuo, Columbia University

The grand family as a unit of social organization and as a cultural phenomenon is crucial to multiple national histories. In China, the shifting structure of family-based society is an important aspect of historical change; very often, the vicissitudes of a grand family both records and epitomizes social change at the macro and micro levels.

The TV drama Dazhaimeng (The Grand Mansion Gate) tells the story of a grand family in Beijing: the rise and fall of the Yue family’s venerable pharmaceutical firm. It not only gives a vivid and detailed account of every aspect of life in a grand family but also, through the fate of dozens of distinct characters, depicts the disintegration and collapse of the moral system at the core of grand family culture. A novel in the form of a TV series, Dazhaimeng is thus an epic portraying the decline of grand family culture.

Unexpected Yet Seminal: How the Peking Opera Version of Grand Mansion Gate Became a “National Masterpiece”

FU Jin, Chinese Academy of the Performing Arts

It is a seminal event in the field of contemporary Chinese theater that the Peking opera Grand Mansion Gate was included in the “2018 Annual National Stage Art Important Projects Roster.” For many, the result was unexpected yet also made sense. It marks the field’s judgment of the value of this work and, in a more general sense, presents a view or orientation regarding innovations in the contemporary xiqu innovations. At least three layers of meanings are involved here: first, how the drama world responds to and deals with the government’s great emphasis on “realistic topics”; second, how to gain a better understanding of the relation between original plays and adaptations in stage production; third, the theories and practices regarding the “theatricalization” of Peking opera stage performance.

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