On the performance stage at Peikang's Chaotien Temple, the gongs and drums clang and clatter, and the sound of stringed instruments rings in the air. When the loyal and just Guan Gong dies in service to his king Liu Bei, the throng of spectators in front of the stage heaves a sigh of sadness. But when you look closely, what's being performed onstage is not the usual Taiwanese outdoor opera that we're used to seeing; instead, it's an "old town gathering," Beijing style. Peking Opera is invading the countryside and taking over the traditional turf of Taiwanese gezai opera. So many onlookers seem to be mesmerized. One can't help wondering, where did this opera troupe come from?
Marching in regal splendor, exhibiting their martial prowess, performing acrobatics, and whirling their elephantine sleeves--those actors and actresses look very familiar. Aren't they the stars of the three big military opera troupes? But their big red banner announces, "The Kuo-kuang Opera Company," a national-level performance troupe. What's this all about?
From a present-day perspective, it seems incredible that for more than 40 years Peking opera in Taiwan was administered by the Ministry of National Defense (MOND). What does Peking Opera have to do with defense? More than a few might find themselves perplexed. For many years three core troupes performed Peking opera, honored as the "national drama"; they belonged respectively to the navy, the air force and the army, and when they performed their principal domain was the National Armed Forces Center for the Performing Arts. The matching couplets posted on the two pillars on either side of the stage were not typical theatrical warnings--such as "Male, female, hero, clown, all wear new clothes; Sadness, joy, repulsion, attraction, the false is made real"--but surprisingly, admonitions of the late President Chiang Kai-shek: "Regard the ebb and flow of the nation as your own responsibility; cast aside concern for your own life."
If those maxims seem rather anachronistic, they actually demonstrate that key figures in the army held high the torch of Peking opera. Over the past several decades, those couplets greeted the crowds who entered and exited and grew from blossoming youngsters to white-haired old folks. They also bore testimony to the evolution of the opera scene from a flourishing one where tickets were very hard to come by, to a dismal one with a tiny audience.
To be fair, the three military drama troupes held many morale-boosting public performances and competitions over the years, which soothed the homesickness of those mainland officers and soldiers who moved to Taiwan early on. They have served overseas to promote Chinese culture, and they have helped prevent the disappearance of the Peking dramatic arts. The problem is that art and the military simply make peculiar bedfellows. Rumors of an "honorable discharge" had been floating around Peking opera circles for many years, but it always seemed to be a case of "crying wolf." The wolf never really appeared until a little over a year ago; hearsay finally came true.
"Back then, we were on a performance tour in Europe when the news reached us. We all felt like we were going to faint, that the world was collapsing in on us," recalls Chu Lu-hao, a noted martial acrobatics performer who used to belong to the army's Lukuang National Theater Troupe. What was ironic was that the opera they were performing, The Monkey King, received wild acclaim from the European audience. They took their bows for half an hour, and the applause had not yet finished. When they returned to their hotel, they were crestfallen, trying to think of a solution. Some people made plans to drive taxis; some thought of working as extras in kungfu films. "We've devoted half our lives to this. We never expected that Peking opera would come to an end in our time."
At the end of 1994, the MOND decided to face the fact that Peking opera's mission in the military had been fulfilled. Also in response to the Executive Yuan's plan to trim personnel, the MOND decided to completely dismantle all three troupes, belonging to the navy, air force and army. Even though the news didn't come as a bolt from the blue, it still made many of them feel shocked, surprised, miserable or indignant. Some were irate at the fact that their own people hadn't striven hard enough on their behalf and had simply waited for other people to lay them off. But there were also people who were happy, because now those who didn't study hard would be eliminated.
A world divided in three
Today's Peking opera institution came to Taiwan along with the Nationalist armed forces around 1949, but actually the art form was first introduced to Taiwan at the end of the Qing dynasty. During the era of Japanese administration and afterward, troupes from the mainland frequently crossed the Taiwan Strait to perform. The Gu Troupe, led by Gu Zheng-chou, for example, was once all the rage. Only in 1953, when the Gu Troupe was disbanded for financial reasons, did Peking opera in Taiwan become almost completely dominated by the armed forces.
Starting in 1951, the air force's Tapeng Troupe, the navy's Haikuang Troupe and the army's Lukuang Troupe were gradually established. All the other opera troupes big and small that belonged to different military divisions were eventually reorganized and integrated into these three troupes. In addition, each of the three troupes had schools for training young performers, all of which were merged ten years ago into the Kuo-kuang Institute of Arts' Peking Opera Department, which became the military's channel for cultivating Peking opera personnel. In 1957, the amateur enthusiast Wang Chen-chu, who had performed on the same stage as the master Mei Lan-fang, founded the Fu-Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy, and in 1968 the school came under the administration of the Ministry of Education. The three military troops and the Fu-Hsing Chinese Opera Theater were the main sources of entertainment for many first-generation mainlanders and soldiers before Taiwan's economy took off.
Chang Yi-kui, who came to Taiwan in 1949 along with the Chang Family Troupe from Shanghai, and specializes in the dahualian (or dignified male) role, recalls that back then the Peking opera troupes not only toured all over Taiwan entertaining soldiers, but also traveled to the offshore islands. They even had to work during the first two days of the lunar New Year. However, as the old soldiers began to fade away and the variety of public entertainment increased, today's young soldiers have come to love popular stars and singers. The era of sending Peking opera performers to entertain the troops has become part of history.
Chu Lu-hao remembers when he was studying at the Lukuang Troupe's school, the older soldiers in the army all pampered the little performers, often treating them with sweets. But by the time he had grown up and formally entered the Lukuang Troupe, the old sergeants had gradually been replaced by young Taiwanese soldiers. Performing for the army simply got on their nerves. "The soldiers had to be ordered to go hear the opera. Their commanders even locked the auditorium doors to keep them from escaping. Some sat and sat and then started to snore. When those of us who were performing on stage saw this kind of scene, it made us feel really sad!" Therefore, over the last ten years, the three Peking opera troupes went on fewer and fewer military entertainment missions. The main mission of the troupes became entertaining at veteran's homes, participating in the annual national drama competition and performing for the public.
The mainland invades
In addition to the gradual diminishment of their audiences, Peking opera was inevitably restricted by ideology, because of the troupes' military affiliation. In 1965 the National Opera Competition was instituted, to be held in October, the most political month of the year. It's not hard to imagine that the first consideration in selecting a script was being "thematically correct." "When society became more open, we still had to call out cheeky political slogans in the opera. It was really embarrassing," says Chu Lu-hao. Most of the competing scripts would be acted out once and then put aside. "Ordinarily, who would want to see those kinds of dramas?"
Despite this, the national competition was still a big yearly event in the world of Peking opera. In the past, there was always a rush to get scalped tickets to the event, which cultivated quite a number of talented people and provided a venue for new scripts. The three military troupes also commonly had numerous public performances, and they were always frantic with work. So the standard of performance varied, and gradually they were overshadowed by private opera companies and mainland troupes.
Starting in 1979, Kuo Hsiao-chuang left the Tapeng Troupe to found the Ya-yin Ensemble, and some other troupe members left to set up private companies and try out innovative performance methods. The main performers for these endeavors all came from the three military troupes. As for mainland Peking opera, in the beginning, Taiwan radio stations would surreptitiously play their music. Then large amounts of video tapes were smuggled in. With increased relations between the mainland China and Taiwan, performing troupes from the mainland have been coming to Taiwan in waves; those from Beijing, Shanghai and Hubei have all made there presence known here. Thus, Taiwan's audiences have become pampered, their standards rising higher and higher. Later on, even the three military troupes had to "pull the mainland card" to stimulate the box office, using mainland scripts in the original or adapted form for the competition. But overall, much of their pull has been lost.
In addition to the frequent "foreign invaders," the internal affairs of the three troupes were also problematic. The main factor was that no troupe had a complete array of all the dramatic characters or enough performing gear. Someone depicted it as "lacking either an arm or a leg." The dramas they were capable of putting on were therefore naturally limited. Besides, under the prevailing system in which everyone was paid the same, the leading actors had to take charge of promotion and box office affairs, and they become worn down psychologically and physically. Many lesser performers declined to clock in or practice, getting together instead to play mahjong or concocting various excuses to skip performances. At any rate, no matter how little they worked, they would receive the same pay. The overall morale of the troupes was very low. After the MOND dismissed them, however, they unanimously rose up in indignation.
Foreign guests or local roots?
Wave after wave of petitions subsequently unfolded from all quarters. Should the opera performers simply be given severance pay and dismissed? Or should they be sponsored by private organizations? Or taken over by the central government? Political issues surfaced on the table at the time. Some people protested that if the government advocated promoting local arts, they shouldn't suppress Peking opera. Other people worried that if the military opera troupes vanished and the remaining cradle for cultivating Peking opera talent, Fu-Hsing Academy set up a gezai opera department, Peking opera might gradually become a sideline and would go extinct in Taiwan.
"This is not just an issue about 200 people's livelihoods, or who's going to take over. It's more about redefining Peking opera and readjusting the guidelines for national cultural development," says National Institute of the Arts teacher Wen Chiu-chu, who just completed research on "Taiwanese Peking opera." The three military opera troupes used to be cultural products forcibly cultivated by the government. They used up quite a lot of national resources, and under excessive protection they lost their ability to be innovative and different. Is Peking opera in the final analysis a genre of "foreign" drama, which will fall apart along with the political force which has sustained it? Or has it taken root in the local scene so that it can continue to exist?
"That Peking opera has completed its mission in the army doesn't mean that Peking opera has nothing to boast of as a form of art," emphasizes folk drama scholar Tzeng Yong-yi. Over the past two centuries Peking opera has broadly absorbed the qualities of many different regional operas, gradually taking the place of Kunshan opera, which originated from Jiangsu Province, to become the mother of Chinese drama. It also turned around and nourished many kinds of folk drama, including the gezai drama of Taiwan.
"No sound except singing, no motion except dancing." Peking opera's many admirable characteristics include the inextricable threefold relationship of singing, dance and music; its symbolic code of performance; and its stage, which "has nothing yet has everything" and can be altered to serve a vast array of functions. If Peking opera gradually disintegrated because of the troupes' military dismissal, wouldn't it be a pity?
Maybe out there somewhere the guardian god of opera was sending his blessing, because in the end, Peking opera did survive.
The end is a new beginning
"At that time there were two streams of opinion in society," states Chu Wan-ching, who was appointed by the Executive Yuan to set up a trans-ministerial project team to look into the fate of the three troupes. Those who supported a reorganization thought that if the opera teams were dismantled, all the talents the country had invested so much money into cultivating would simply have nowhere to go, and it would be a big loss for the country. The other viewpoint questioned the position of Peking opera as the "national drama." "Why couldn't other regional operas be titled the national drama?" Members of this school of thought also advocated that the resources which had gone to Peking opera be allotted to other traditional dramas. Among the two prevailing views, the voice for reorganization became louder. But many difficulties arose in implementing a plan, because according to the definition of its duties, the Council for Cultural Planning and Development cannot take charge of artistic and cultural groups. On the other hand, the Ministry of Education already administered the Fu-Hsing Academy, and the academy still has the word "experimental" in its title. Its status was still unclear; how could the Ministry of Education take over the three military opera troupes?
The final solution of the project group was to request the MOND to give up the Kuo-kuang Institute, which used to train performers and was integrated with the three military opera troupes' schools, to the Ministry of Education. The school was reorganized as the National Kuo-kuang Academy of Arts. After the three military troupes were demobilized, they were merged into the National Kuo-kuang Opera Company, which was taken over by the Ministry of Education. Ko Chi-liang, who came from the Council for Cultural Planning and Development, serves as the principal and company director. Therefore, the Kuo-kuang Academy and Opera Company, and the Fu-Hsing Academy and Theater, form the current parallel arrangement of two schools and two troupes. What's different is that the Fu-Hsing Academy manages the theater and it operates at a lower level, while the Kuo-kuang Opera Company manages the school, and it is ranked as a cultural education unit, becoming the second national-level performing group, after the National Symphony Orchestra.
"Originally, the Ministry of National Defense was very reluctant to relinquish control of the Kuo-kuang Arts Academy, because that's where they cultivate the entertainment personnel in the armed forces, and they had just built some new school buildings and theater halls a few years ago," points out Chu Wan-ching. For the MOND, breaking down the three military troupes and then losing the drama school was a double loss. From the angle of the national interest, however, "this was actually passing resources from the right hand to the left. The important thing is that Peking opera can be carried on."
Letting art be art
This hand-off of resources actually means a lot. For one thing, art is finally returned to the cultural establishment from the military, and it can be developed in a more appropriate environment. Art can be art. Secondly, the elite of the three military troupes are all gathered in one performing company. They can combine the strong suits of all the previous troupes. The array of talent is also more complete. Many people think this arrangement will work out well. "This is one big step forward in the development of Peking opera in Taiwan. Its future prospects should only be good, not bad." Drama scholar Wei Tzu-yun is very optimistic.
From now on, they need not force themselves to entertain soldiers, and they need not yell out brazen slogans. They don't have to do whatever they are ordered, and their positions are no longer employees of the army, but rather publicly hired artists. They also hope one day they can develop toward the direction where they can be sufficient unto themselves as a private foundation.
Relieved to know that the tradition of Peking opera won't be cut off in their time, all the Kuo-kuang members are even more cautious than ever. "This opportunity for rebirth can only come once. If we are not up to snuff, we won't have any say," says Ko Chi-liang.
The future is still murky and uncertain. Leaving behind the closed and self-sufficient military system, and also the special status with the authorities, can Kuo-kuang walk into open society, continue to develop on this soil, unfold benevolent competition with the Fu-Hsing Theater and open up a new road for Peking opera? How will it do so? Although currently Kuo-kuang is fully subsidized (and consequently widely envied), how will it walk into society and compete with the ever-growing wave of Taiwanization, as well as the spectacular new media and the mainland troupes which frequently come visiting? How will it win the recognition of theater-goers? Last June the three military opera troupes were formally dismantled, and Kuo-kuang held an entrance test. Out of the 160 members from the three troupes who registered, 80 were selected. In July they formally came into being and started operations. The opera company has been located at the Kuo-kuang Arts Academy campus. It is organized on the scale of a modern theater and has established a more well rounded administrative organization. In addition to the members, there is a production team, a performance planning team, and a research and promotion team. Their attitude toward the public is to try to "lay aside the posturing of Peking opera" and walk among the crowds, to solicit a new following.
The audience will return
Is Peking opera, after all, an art form in denouement? After its aging viewers pass away, will it follow them into extinction? If the answer is yes, then how can it fight against the current? These are all problems that have long been around. Now with this second breath of life, how can everyone readdress them?
Wang An-chi, professor of Chinese language at National Tsing Hwa University, is one of the new generation of writers creating new librettos for Peking opera. Although she herself loves Peking opera, she is not entirely optimistic about increasing its popularity. She notes that early on in mainland China, Peking opera made its appearance in popular culture. That is how the "Four Famous Starlets" and the "Four Great Stars" came into the limelight, "just like the 'Four Monarchs' of today's pop music scene." But she believes the times have already changed. We cannot harbor the illusion that Peking opera will again become popular among the whole population, or hope that Kuo-kuang positions itself within "elite culture." It doesn't matter if there are few performances, nor is it crucial for the audience to come from the whole population. "It will be okay if they can grab ahold of the artistic part of the population. What's important is that they give exquisite performances."
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that attracting new audience members is a crucial method of extending the life of Chinese opera. Kuo-kuang clearly "doesn't believe that the audience can't be lured back," and has taken up the credo, "Take to the international stage, draw in an audience of ordinary folks." The research and promotion team have been beating their brains to think of fresh "sales" ideas. For example, during the recent winter public performance series, for the first time they broke the old rule of only selling tickets at the Center for the Performing Arts; they began to work with a computerized ticketing agency, in hopes of attracting younger theater-goers. In addition, they recorded a short promotional piece as a television commercial, and they are in the process of placing performance information on a computerized bulletin board service.
Attracting the younger generation is the common goal of both the Kuo-kuang Opera Company and the Fu-Hsing Theater. The Fu-Hsing Academy has just produced a Peking opera laser disc. Unwilling to be upstaged, Kuo-kuang held a "Dance Carnival" on Christmas Eve (a secular holiday in Taiwan commonly celebrated by banqueting and attending discos). The Kuo-kuang Opera Company performed Peking operatic martial arts feats and painted Chinese opera masks on the spectators' faces. These very congenial promotional techniques help to sweep away prevailing stereotypes of Peking opera.
Kuo-kuang is furthermore hard at work on a neighborhood public relations campaign, in which they welcomed the residents of their community to see a performance free of charge. They also have opened up the theater for other groups to perform, in hopes that the Kuo-kuang Arts Academy will gradually become the artistic and cultural center of Taipei's suburban Wenshan district. "We're also working on joining together with other establishments in the neighborhood, like the zoo, the tourist tea garden, Chihnan Temple, the Pin-Fong Acting Troupe and the U Theater, to comprise a tourism district," says Research and Promotion Team director Fang Chih-hsu.
Besides these various kinds of promotional activities, they also tried an approach rarely used in Peking opera in the last several decades: They put on a performance in front of a temple.
Singing forth in the temple square
On Retrocession Day of last year, Kuo-kuang participated in a performance group combining talents from throughout Taiwan. They chose to show off their talents at the Chaotien Temple in Peikang in Chiayi County, the longstanding turf of gezai opera. When they first started, the company director was still hesitant about how good the conditions for performing were in front of the temple, and he was skeptical whether there would be any audience for Peking opera in the countryside. Peking opera shows had after all up to now always been concentrated in Taipei, and most of them had been performed indoors, giving people the lofty impression of an "imperial opera." But the performers were all very excited, eager to give it a try. To increase their accessibility, they chose an opera about Guan Gong from The History of the Three Kingdoms, with which many listeners would be familiar.
As a publicity scheme of the Research and Promotion Team, the opera's stars went in costume beforehand to Taipei's Hsingtien Temple to light joss sticks and pose for photographs. When some elderly ladies espied Chu Lu-hao dressed up as Lord Guan Gong, they even approached him and bowed over and over. When Retrocession Day arrived, all of the more than 100 members of the company crammed into pickup trucks and buses and descended in a great raucous company upon Peikang. They formed a procession from the back of parade trucks and snaked through all the town's streets, big and small, broadcasting their arrival and handing out flyers.
At 6:30 the actors started causing a loud commotion to drum up attention. Two actors, playing familiar slapstick roles from television, spoke together in Taiwanese and explained the special symbolic gestures in the Peking opera Picking up a Jade Bracelet, such as sewing with needle and thread, feeding chickens, and straddling the threshold. By seven o'clock, the temple square was already packed with curious spectators, watching the opera and following the explanations rolling across the electronic sign on the stage. Ko Chi-liang closely observed from in front of the stage. "Every place where you could stand or sit was packed full of people, and most of them stayed until the end. It wasn't like they flowed in with the tide and then left." At the finale when Guan Gong laid down his life for his king, sobbing could even be heard from the crowd.
This success brought a great feeling of confidence to Kuo-kuang's company members. "There are so many markets we could open up. From the temple squares in Keelung to the temple squares in Pingtung--we could go perform all over," said Chu Lu-hao. He feels they can still plant their roots a little deeper and follow the model of the "national opera parades" of the past, traveling around to various school campuses in a promotional campaign. "Now that we're under the Ministry of Education, everything's much more convenient. We can go to all the campuses to give a sample exhibition, to cultivate the next generation of opera fans," he says with a sparkle in his eye. "After I joined up with Kuo-kuang, many things have made me excited."
Enemies become friends
"Right now morale is very high." This is the feeling many people have about the Kuo-kuang Opera Company, and it is the greatest difference from the days of being organized into troupes from the three military branches. For the winter public performances that were just concluded, all the members rehearsed the four dramas on the repertoire three times. The first time, the cast rehearsed the singing part only. The second time, they rehearsed with the musicians. And the last time, they put on their makeup and costumes. The day after the final rehearsal, actors, musicians and crew held a discussion meeting. After the formal performance, the audience showered them with enthusiastic applause, which encouraged the cast and crew in a big way. Now, with the passing of the New Year, they are rehearsing a new version of the old drama Hua Mu-lan, which is scheduled to be performed at the Taipei Municipal Education Hall at the beginning of March.
Their enthusiasm is driven by a sense of mission, to be sure, but also undeniably by the incentive system that has been put into effect. To boost morale, the old single-pay system has been altered. As long as actors have taken part in more than a certain number of sessions, they will receive some rewards. Every year, their performance will be evaluated, and performers will get a chance to be promoted. "Nowadays there are not as many sessions as before, but the actors frequently ask when they'll be appointed to participate in another drama. Their morale is really high," says the contented Ko Chi-liang.
However, after integrating into one group, aren't the members going through some psychological readaptation? Rehearsal guide Chang Yi-kui, whom people respectfully address as "Uncle Chang," recalls that when the members belonged to three different groups, whenever it was time for the yearly competition, they drew a distinct line between themselves and "the enemy." Back then, if one simply appeared in another group, the opposing group would take serious cautions, fearing that the visitor was coming to "uncover military secrets." Now, everybody has to bury the hatchet and be colleagues. "It's not easy, but everyone has done their best," he says.
Furthermore, performers have to work harder on tacit understanding, such as transferring messages with the eyes, timing between musicians and actors, and coordinating costume habits backstage. But Kao Hui-lan, an actress originally from the Tapeng Troupe who plays the leading xiaosheng or youth role, is not in a hurry. She explains metaphorically, "It's like kneading dough. In the beginning, there will always be some lumps. After a while, the dough naturally smoothens out."
A mobile cultural specimen
Many people are curious and concerned about what kind of artistic style this new combination will yield. In the half year since the new team was set up, they've mostly put on old operas.
The first drama they put on last October, The New Lu Wen-lung, used a prize script written by Wang An-chi ten years ago for the Lukuang Troupe. In November, they put on the very old piece Dragon Phoenix Pavilion. And the four-part winter public performance at the end of last year featured either old scripts or turn-of-the-century scripts. Most maintained the bare-bones stage setting of one desk and two chairs, making minor variations. For example, the backdrop in The Legend of the White Serpent is a huge painting of the West Lake along with its broken bridge. In the four dramas, four actors play the role of the White Serpent. Kuo-kuang's lead actress Wei Hai-min even appeared in a modern outfit to deliver a soliloquy to the audience, explaining her previous lives and what she felt as a woman who was once a white serpent. In so doing, they hoped to give a full explanation to the audience members not so familiar with the complete version of the old drama. It turned out that the new fans were all fascinated, while the old fans felt the extra endeavor was simply unnecessary, because they had long known the script like the backs of their hands.
Perhaps it is really problematic to balance the old and the new with proper decorum. Old dramas naturally have their own appeal, but some repetitive and lengthy sessions will probably bore the contemporary viewer. The "new versions of old Peking operas" attempt to solicit new audiences by packaging old repertoire with techniques borrowed from modern theater. But then, the question arises, how much change is tolerable before it is regarded as "deviant"?
Veteran playwright and critic Kung Min, who stepped in as the first art director of Kuo-kuang in January, notes that without traditions, Peking opera would no longer be Peking opera. However, if the traditions are to be retained completely, and they don't inject new breath into the old genre, audiences may well drift away. Weighing the balance of both sides, "on the one hand, Kuo-kuang wants to keep tradition and carry the torch of longevity. On the other hand, they must innovate on the basis of tradition," he says.
Folk drama scholar Tzeng Yong-yi avers that Kuo-kuang, as a national-level drama group is principally a "mobile, dynamic cultural specimen" that admirably displays the traditional art of Peking opera. And beyond their principal vein, they can go all out to innovate. Besides developing new librettos, they can also enrich their performances with the multifaceted staging and production techniques of modern theater. Also, they should summon up scholars to sort out and research principles and representation.
Taiwan's heroes take the Peking stage
As far as "modernizing" goes, Kuo-kuang leapt right in last August, when the members formally went to work. Their opening morale-boosting activity was a month-long "theater art symposium." Representatives from various modern literary and artistic circles made different presentations at the opening sessions, with the hope of helping Kuo-kuang's members "understand the world beyond