Daoist Operas about Legends

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Daoist operas about legends refer to operas that have stories about immortals and Daoists as their theme and legends as their style, and are intended to represent the idea of cultivating Dao and attaining immortality.

"Chuanqi (legend)", or "chuanqiwen", was originally a novelistic style, and was transformed into an operatic form in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Kong Shangren, the descendent of the 64th generation of Confucius, said, "a minor art as the legend may be, it contains all kinds of styles, such as poetry, fu (an intricate literary form combining elements of poetry and prose), ci (poetry written to certain tunes with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes, in fixed numbers of lines and words), qu (a type of verse for singing), and four-six prose (a type of parallel prose, pianwen, characterized by a preponderance of pairs of four- and six-character sentences). It even contains drawing skills in the description of men and scenery." Here Kong Shangren was talking about "legend" in its operatic or dramatic sense. In his view, the operatic "legend" incorporates various previous forms of expression. It both inherits the intellectual tradition of "education" and "admonishment" of The Book of Odes ( 詩經 Shijing ), and uses the historical writing style of The Spring and Autumn Annals, Historian Zuo's Commentary on The Spring and Autumn Annals, The History of Kingdoms and The Records of the Historian. Although the intellectual tendency of the legend has varied in terms of time, place and individual, its function of "admonishment" is always obvious.

In the aspect of form, the structure of operas about legends has evolved from the southern drama of the Song and Yuan dynasties. The structure is roughly the same as that of the southern drama, but is more compact and in better order. The opera about legends is more diversified in plot and more minute in character portraying. It is a further development of the southern drama in tunes, acting and classification of roles. In the meantime, operas about legends incorporate the elements of zayu (a poetic drama) of the Yuan dynasty and also take in tunes of the northern drama, and therefore appear varied and colorful. Operas about legends are usually rather long. The longest even consist of fifty or sixty plays, and for some of them, it takes as long as two or three days to perform the whole opera. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, many literati were fond of writing operas about legends. Over 700 writers and approximately 2,000 works are recorded. Today there are still over 600 acting scripts, excerpts, or fragmented versions of operas about legends in different series of books.

A large part of the extant operas of the Ming and Qing dynasties have tales about immortals or Daoists as the subject, such as Records of Handan, The Story of Dongfang Shuo Stealing Peaches, The Golden Millet Dream of Perfect Man ( 真人 Zhenren ) , The Legend of Immortal Fuling, and dozens of others. Besides, though not special narrations of stories of immortals, quite a few works are mingled with such content. Whether the subject matter is marriage, history or legal cases, we can find many descriptions of immortal sights and Daoist ritual activities. In some works the plot development usually depends on the "directions" of immortals and Daoists. All these facts reveal the influence of Daoism on operas about legends.

The basic content of Daoist operas about legends mainly includes:

  1. Elaborating the great Dao, expelling evil demons, and thus admonishing people. In order to carry forward Daoist techniques, Daoism needs not only space, but also successors. Consequently, "initiating" the predestined immortals becomes an important matter of Daoist activities. This theme is represented through the dreamlike plots in works such as Records of Handan and Elder Wen Attained Immortality After Being Saved by Han Xiangzi.
  2. Depicting the ways of the world, deciding cases, and immortals' miraculous manifestations. Most operas about legends are about the ways of the world, especially marriage and love, and disputed legal cases. Although this theme "adapts" the earthly affairs of man's world, the plot development usually involves Daoist immortal tales or certain Daoist activities and hence displays Daoist ideological tendencies to some degree. For example, in the Dream of Lei, the literati Wen Jingzhao dreamed of an immortal showing him the character "Lei", and afterwards both his marriage and future were related to it. Works like this are in fact representations of the foresight of immortals and the Daoist idea of "predestination" via a secular subject.

The principal artistic feature of Daoist operas about legends is that it represents fate with a tone of reverie. These works usually connect the human world, heaven and the netherworld, make the protagonists experience life and death in this "three-phase space", manifest the complex relation between immortals, mortals and ghosts, and then represent the theme of "life and death" in multiple levels and take on a "weird" artistic appeal. As for the establishment of dramatic images, keeping firm to the particularities of immortals and their surroundings, the works achieve an emphatic artistic effect through comparison between two extremes.