Thursday, January 6, 2011
The Legend of Liu Mingchuan
2005 Outdoor Taiwanese Opera Company Festival - The Legend of Liu Mingchuan
2005 外台戲歌仔戲匯演: 烽火英雄-劉銘傳
Performed by 一心戲劇團 (One Heart Theatre Troupe)
I saw this DVD in the library had English subtitles and my curiosity got the better of me. For 3 years now I have glimpsed bits of Taiwanese Opera performances in parks, in crowded night markets, and in the street where I live, but given that the scripting of the performances isn't very rigid by all reports and there is a lot of impromptu dialogue and improvising, they are rarely subtitled in Chinese let alone in English (and the language used is for the majority Taiwanese or Southern Min Dialect). The performances are quite kitsch to the Western (or even the Taiwanese) viewer, very brash colours and lots of women playing male leads. The performance I watched on DVD was selected from a festival of outdoor performances which meant that it was probably of a higher quality than your average Taiwanese Opera.
The Opera opened with photos of old Taipei with the modern place names in brackets which I thought was cool.
The opera turned out to be a dramatization of the adventures of Liu Mingchuan in Taiwan. I took a module on Taiwanese History last year (the teacher was amazing and really funny, if anyone's at NTU and has an interest in history I recommend you to take one of his classes Li Wenliang 李文良, he's got a class called Maritime East Asia and Taiwan (東亞海域與臺灣)) and the opera was laced with historical references to events that actually happened as well as to the folk mythology that surrounds Liu Mingchuan.
One doesn't really need to understand Taiwanese to realise that there is a lot of overacting and melodrama in Taiwanese Operas, but that is part of their charm in a way. The play reminded me in some ways of Brian Friel's (Yes, another Brian Friel reference, god help us all) Making History which deals with the legendary Hugh O'Neill, a major figure in Ulster's history. Both the opera and the play make history more accessible to the reader by endowing the characters with modern humour. The dryness of historical record comes to life in the (overly) dramatic style of the opera, much as Li Wenliang's comic delivery made history class so much more interesting. This is also a historiographical approach to history, wherein one realises the human frailty and doubt behind the great cycles of history that seem perhaps, in retrospect, to be predetermined.
The opera still deifies the wisdom of Liu Mingchuan and sets out from a determined ideological standpoint: Taiwan is a great new land of opportunity, Hoklo, Hakka and aborigines should unite against the evil French invaders. Although the segregation of different groups is brought up, it is very much underplayed, and Liu Mingchuan is an advocate of unity and a bringer of development (although a lot of Liu Mingchuan's fiscal reforms weren't actually realised fully due to the Japanese handover). Liu Mingchuan is definitely idealised, and the oppression of the aborigines seemingly ends with his arrival, and the aborigines in the opera seem to be treated in a similar way to Hoklo and Hakka, when in fact they weren't even considered human by the Qing. I remember one lecture in the history course when I happened to be sitting behind two of the girls from the younger year in my institute, one Aborigine and one Hoklo. The teacher told a story about two Han men who came across an aborigine and killed him, then buried him. Later they regretted wasting all that good meat, so they went back and cooked and ate the guy. They were brought to court, but were found innocent of murder because aborigines were not "people" (人). It was interesting to think how differently people could conceive of aborigines then, the two men wouldn't have even thought of eating a fellow Hoklo or Hakka, but they genuinely thought aborigines were some sort of animal. The difference was emphasized when the Hoklo girl leaned over and pretended to eat the ear of the aboriginal girl, much to my amusement.
The Liu Mingchuan love story was far from moving, and the soppy romance between his nephew and the aboriginal girl lacked any realism, but these two parts did not dominate the opera and if you know to expect a bit of melodrama then you can find it amusing in a kitsch kind of way.
Would recommend it as an interesting way to understand the way Taiwanese people collectively conceive of their own history.
It's on tudou with Chinese subtitles only if anyone is interested.