Sunday, January 24, 2016

Tuồng Theater: the Vietnamese Version of Chinese Opera

                                                               by Jim Goodman

tuồng actor, Hanoi theater
       In the thousand years before the 19th century French conquest, Vietnamese culture developed three separate theatrical traditions.  Chèo, the oldest, originated in the villages and featured dramas mixed with social commentary.  Chèo drama won royal patronage as early as the 10th century, when the capital was in Hoa Lư, and was just as popular at Court as in the countryside.  Its popularity and patronage continued through the Lỹ and Trần Dynasties.  The unique water-puppet tradition, also from the Red River Delta environment, developed soon after, with the first recorded performance in the 11th century.
       Unlike the other two traditions, tuồng, the third, was not an indigenous creation, but a local version of Chinese opera.  This is not surprising, considering the heavy influence Chinese culture had on Vietnam, due both to China’s long occupation and administration of northern Vietnam and its proximity as a big prestigious neighbor.  The Vietnamese gradually adopted many aspects of Chinese culture, particularly Confucian norms in society and government, but for centuries remained content with their own forms of entertainment.  The incorporation of a local kind of Chinese opera was not something gradually accepted, like the usual cultural influences, but the result of an incident of war.  
tuồng drama, Hanoi theater
       In 1285 the state of Đai Việt fought against the second of three Mongol invasions that century.  The Vietnamese had defeated the Mongols in 1258, would eventually expel them again this year and then annihilate them on the third Mongol attempt in 1288.  Though they are called the Mongol Wars, not all the invading forces were Mongol.  Most officers were, and probably the cavalry, but the ranks included hundreds of thousands of Chinese conscripted for the campaigns. 
       Among the Chinese foot soldiers captured in 1285 was Li Yuanji.  His interrogators discovered that back in Beijing he was a famous opera star.  They presented him to the Trần Court, whose officials persuaded him to stay and introduce the genre.  (Even in times of war the Vietnamese were not adverse to Chinese cultural influence; only to its political control.)  Under the new name of Lý Nguyên Cát, he trained the Court’s actors in the principles of Chinese opera, which became known as tuồng theater in Vietnam. 
tuồng warrior
       It was very different from chẻo.  For one thing, it was sung all the way through, whereas chèo then was a spoken drama.  From then on chèo dramas included both spoken and sung dialog, though the singing, based on rural folk melodies, differed from the style used in tuồng.  The stage settings for both were spare, but the costumes and make-up for tuồng were more elaborate and colorful.  The other major distinction between the two forms was tuồng’s narrative emphasis on heroics, loyalty to the throne and the primacy of Confucian precepts.  This genre offered no prospect for social satire, as chèo thrived on, but upheld the existing social order. 
       Therefore it became very popular with the ruling elite.  Though the Trần Dynasty patronized both forms throughout the 14th century, its successor the Lê Dynasty took a different attitude. In 1437 the strict Confucian King Lê Thánh Tông closed the royal theater and banned chèo as well as tuồng.  He relegated actors to the lowest rungs of the hierarchical order and forbade them and their offspring from entering the universities and trying to qualify for the mandarin class.  Popular entertainment had no place in the new Lê order.  Actors and playwrights were pariahs.
female protagonist in a Hanoi theater skit
       Chèo survived in the villages, but tuồng’s revival only came about with the 17th century division of the country into a Trịnh Lord’s regime in the north and a Nguyễn Lords regime in the south.  Tuồng theater became a favorite at both courts and later, in the Nguyễn Dynasty, was the special favorite at the court in Huế.  Mandarins in the service of the southern regime, and even some of the Nguyn lords and ladies themselves, wrote tung plays for the court’s theater. 
       One of the most enduringly popular of the plays from this period came from the writing brush of Đào Duy T, a minister and military strategist in the early 17th century.  He was himself the son of actors and was caught trying to sit for the civil examinations under an assumed name.  With nowhere to exploit his talents he later fled to the Nguyn Lords’ realm and became chief advisor to Nhuyn Phúc Nguyên, the second Nguyn Lord, who had no qualms about his ‘low status’ background.  In addition to his military talents, he also wrote plays.  His most famous work was called Sơn Hu (Behind the Mountain), set in the ancient state of Qi in China’s Zhou Dynasty.  It tells the story of an attempt by General T Thiên Lăng to usurp the throne after the King of Qi dies and leaves only an infant heir.  Loyalists led by Khương Linh Tá rescue the prince and spirit him away to the loyalist base behind the mountain.
festival performance at Đô Temple, Bắc Ninh
       One of the usurper’s co-conspirators, General Tá Ôn Đình, pursues the prince’s party, but Khương Linh Tá intervenes, while the rest of the party make their getaway.  Tá Ôn Đình beheads Khương Linh Tá.  But the latter picks up his head and runs off.  His soul becomes a light to lead the loyalists through a dark forest to their base, where they rouse their followers to attack the usurper in the citadel.  Khương Linh Tá’s spirit reappears in the battle and kills General Tá Ôn Đình.  Loyalists capture T Thiên Lăng and the play ends with the child prince on the throne, the royal lineage preserved, the villains foiled, loyalty to the throne triumphant.
tuồng actors in a festival procession
       A similar theme of self-sacrifice as the supreme act of loyalty to the throne dominates the tung drama Võ Hùng Vương, named for the rebel leader in the play.  It is also otherwise known as Ngoi t dâng đu (Grandfather Presents his Head).  In this story Võ Hùng Vương captures the prince he intends to displace, but the latter feigns madness, which confuses the conspirators.  Then one of the nastiest among them suggests a deal.  If Viên Hòa Ngn, the prince’s grandfather, presents his head to the rebels, the prince can go free.  Viên Hòa Ngn agrees.  But suspecting a double-cross he arranges for the loyalists to set up an ambush on the route the prince would take once he is free.
       The old man then calmly cuts off his own head and hands it to the rebels.  They duly set the prince at liberty, assemble a force to recapture him, but run into the loyalist ambush.  The latter escort the prince to their base, where he gathers his army, defeats Võ Hùng Vương’s forces and takes his legitimate place on the throne.
       Such themes resonated well with a court that had to establish its legitimacy by inculcating loyalty among its retainers, servants and subjects.  After the collapse of the Tây Sơn regime and the establishment of Nguyn supremacy throughout the country, tung once again became the court favorite at Huế.  Emperors Minh Mng and T Đc were both enthusiastic patrons.  They wanted to promote tuông as the “national art” and took an active interest in the actual staging of the plays.  T Đc himself was the “art director” of the most elaborate tung productions ever—Vb bo trình tường, with 108 acts, and Qun phương hiến thy, with 100.
the elaborate staging of tuồng drama in Huế
       These productions were notable for featuring Vietnamese heroes from indigenous history, instead of Chinese literary classics, while presented in the tung style.  Besides the upper strata of Vietnamese society, tung’s appeal extended to the commoners as well.  As a spectacle it had no rival other than the most elaborate religious processions.  They probably didn’t understand the lyrics, which were in the literary Sino-Vietnamese language, but were susceptible to the singing’s emotive power and anyway knew the stories. They could also appreciate the purely visual delights of the almost acrobatic martial arts scenes as resplendently garbed warriors leapt and twirled about the stage.
       Make-up in tung is always employed symbolically.  Noble, venerable and sympathetic characters wear pale make-up, their eyes slant upwards and they move with measured gestures.  Warriors paint their faces black, white and vermillion, wear long, dark, bristly beards and fierce expressions.  The bad guys—traitors and villains—have pasty faces, scanty beards and a shifty look.  In costumes, royalty and aristocrats wear gorgeous silks, the women decorating their hair with jewels and ornate headdresses.  The warriors wear multi-colored robes and elaborate headdresses and the generals are identified with flags attached to the back.  Villains wear simpler outfits, with little or no decoration.
female lead in the Huế Citadel show
male leads in the Huế tuồng drama
      When the Nguyn Dynasty fell into decline in the late 19th century, tung theater began modifying its style and its message, lest it be identified with a discredited system.   As part of its new look another form of the opera appeared, called tung đồ, where satire of the powerful and the venal directed the stories rather than heroics.  As the second half of the century progressed it became obvious that something was lacking in the neo-Confucian order of the realm, since it was not standing up very well against the colonial threat.
Hồ Nguyệt Cô
      The first classical tung drama to break with convention and challenge the system came in the late 19th century with Đào Tn’s Hoàng Phi H Crossing the Border. Like a typical tung play, it is a tale of political intrigue in ancient China, with the common theme of loyalty to the sovereign directing the conflicts in the story, told with all the usual pomp of elaborate make-up and splendid costumes.
       But instead of the customary message that loyalty to the ruler is the noblest of virtues, the play challenges that very idea.  The story is set in China’s Warring States era.  King Tr, to whom Hoàng Phi H has been loyal, is anything but a good Confucian ruler.  He is cruel, avaricious and lusty and even kills Hoàng’s wife.  After wandering disconsolate and stopping in a temple, he meets her spirit, who narrates the circumstances of her death.  His lingering sense of loyalty suddenly evaporates. “Loyalty to the king be damned!” he cries.
       Hoang decides to betray King Tr to the enemy and then surrender.  Then he passes through the border gate, where his own father is the guard, and persuades him to renounce his loyalty and attack King Tr as well.  Such sentiments were pretty revolutionary for the times, when the Nguyn regime still had nominal authority in the land.  But Đào Tn wrote the play to argue that blind loyalty can stand in the way of progress.
the transformation of Hồ Nguyệt Cô 
       Another turn in this period came with a work by Đào Nh Tuyên (Đào Tn’s son), taken from an old Chinese story, called H Nguyt Cô Transformed into a Fox.  The heroine is a beautiful woman who was born a fox, but after years of religious training allowed to become human, married a general but fell in love with an enemy officer named Tiết Giao. She throws herself at him and spills her big secret—she is only human so long as she keeps a certain gem in her mouth.  After they have become lovers Tiết Giao pretends to be sick and claims that only her gem can save his life.  She spits it out.  He swallows it and runs off, leaving her to face her fate—slowly changing from a human being back into a fox.
       The climax of the show is this transformation, with H’s pitiful laments commenting on the changes overcoming her, the itch on her skin as the fur grows back, the sight of her nails becoming claws, and the sound of her voice dissolving into the howl of a fox. Ttung actresses made their reputations on how imaginatively they played that scene.  With a good rendition the audience will see H Nguyt Cô as a tragic character, the victim of credulity and unrestrained sexual desire.
tuồng performer at Đền Đô
make-up and headdress of a tuồng character
       No royal courts subsidize tung theater anymore and with each passing generation in these modern times, fewer people feel inclined to undergo the rigorous training required for tung performances.   The potential audience has shrunken, too, with the proliferation of alternative entertainment offerings.  But it has not disappeared.  In Hanoi, the National Tung Theater, next to the Hàng Da market, stages skits from famous tung dramas, including H Nguyệt Cô’s transformation.  The theater inside the Huế Citadel hosts daily shows of tung opera scenes as well as other types of Nguyn Dynasty entertainment.
       Tourists are the main audience for these shows, but tung drama is still occasionally part of village festival programs, such as Đn Đô in Bc Ninh.  Actors in costume march in the morning procession and perform on an outdoor stage all afternoon.  For that portion of the Vietnamese population still fascinated by its ancient culture, tung remains relevant.  It’s had a long and fruitful run.

tuồng drama performance at the Đên Đô festival
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