25 January 2019

Tang Xianzu's The Purple Hairpin

Here's another first for me: recently there was a chance to watch Chinese opera here in Berlin. I was in a metro station, and while waiting for my train to arrive, I saw a poster announcing that the Four Dreams of Linchuan were to be performed by the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Company. This is a collection of four operas, all of which dreams feature as an important narrative element. They were to perform them one after another, in one weekend. So we decided to get tickets to the second one, The Purple Hairpin, for Saturday evening.

Similar to the time when I first watched Western opera, I didn't have a clue what to expect. I knew that there would be surtitles projected, in German and in Chinese. That way we could understand what was happening. So I read ahead of time what the story was about.

The Purple Hairpin is about Li Yi, a scholar, who meets the beautiful Huo Xiaoyu during a lantern festival. They fall in love. However, there's a powerful General Yu who wants Li to marry his daughter instead, but of course Li refuses. As a punishment, Li is sent to the frontier, which devastates Huo. But somehow, everything goes back to normal again, thanks to the help provided by Huangshan Ke, the Yellow Rider.

There are many things to comment on, and looking at it through my Western-oriented lenses, some aspects look bizarre and funny. I found some holes in the narrative, with areas that jump and make the audience feel like the fast forward button was pushed. For example, there was a scene where Huo was lamenting at her poverty and overall demise, and then suddenly the Yellow Rider comes in and delivers a deux-ex-machina-style conclusion to the whole conflict, and everyone is happy again.

The purple hairpin is also a narrative device: first, it is dropped by Huo in the lantern festival, at which Li picks it up. He refuses to return it to Huo unless she agrees that she accepts his marriage proposal. Later on, she sells it since she's turned poor, and then it was somehow bought by General Yu's daughter. And then Li becomes aware that General Yu's daughter has the hairpin, which devastates Li. But then later on the Yellow Rider somehow magically recovers the hairpin and gives it back to the couple. I was like, what?

In any case, I enjoyed the performance nevertheless. It definitely broadens my cultural awareness, and I would definitely see another performance sometime if presented with the chance to do so.

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