With the earliest script dated 1824 and the earliest performance recorded as one for the royal family’s delectation in 1829, The Horse Trader’s Tale has proved its extraordinary resilience in Chinese theater history and is now a staple in the contemporary repertoire of kunqu, the dominant lyrical form prior to Peking opera. Although whether it should be labeled as a kunqu play is still debated in modern scholarship, there is no doubt that its music is melodious, accompanied mainly by a flute, the signature instrument for kunqu. Maestro Yu Zhenfei 俞振飛  (1902–1993), the son of a leading authority on kunqu, also laid claim to pioneering the play into the musical paradigm of kunqu. Nonetheless, it is also true that the play belongs to a specific musical subcategory called chuiqiang 吹腔, part of the broader concept of “variety plays” (luantan 亂彈). Evidence has also shown that in the Qing palace performances, excerpted scenes from the play were programmed to be staged along with kunqu scenes, and yet they were marked clearly as “variety plays,” which are considered to be less refined and elegant than kunqu.  Additionally, it was adapted and revived in the 1920s by the world-famous Peking opera star Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳 (1894–1961). It was so popular that there were newspapers with studio photographs  by the influential Korean dancer Choe Seung-hui 최승희/崔承喜 (1911–1969) of her dressing in the role of Madame Cassia, the female lead of the play, shot during her visit in China in 1943. In the play’s contemporary revival, it has been performed by both kunqu and Peking opera troupes (1).


One might at first be amazed that Madame Cassia is indeed a sustained masterpiece in the traditional Chinese repertory. The repetition, and perhaps banality, of the folksy tunes, can be problematic to those who hesitate to call it a kunqu play. But that was exactly what I wanted for an American college theater. For Chinese listeners, the overly-familiar melodies and repetitiveness has the appeal of a pop song—but it might not be familiar at all to a Westerner’s ears. In addition, the same qualities make the songs easier to replicate and learn in a shorter time frame, such as a traditional semester. For our show, I have the great honor to work with an eminent and proactive music producer, Mr. Liang Jianfeng 梁劍峰, who has accepted the role of the music director, in highlighting the dimensions within this deceptively banal play.


The story has the elements of a lost father, an evil stepmother, a jealous husband, suicide, cross-dressing, and so on; the father’s dark prison life is balanced by the daughter’s romantic conjugal life. However, the complex textual history of the play has decided its sheer repetitive abundance in storytelling and dramatic narrative, which is both numbing and forcible. The current adaptation aims to keep all its entertainment values, if not expand upon them. At the same time, it aims to boil it down to a piece that is fast-paced and unabashedly fun. For example, the all-important entrances and exits of main characters in traditional acting—a vestige of the twentieth-century celebrity culture of Chinese theater—are eliminated.


Mei Lanfang as a twentieth-century drama reformist, when restoring the play from the Qing court repertoire, cleansed the stage of what had been considered a toxic, supernatural, and feudal tradition. I think this effort wiped away the perception that traditional Chinese opera was the enemy of Chinese society’s progress toward modernization. What disappeared along with the removal of the spirits and gods, however, were vibrant colors and dynamic kinesthetics. Among other additions, the return of the minor characters will be a fun and lovely sight for the contemporary audience of a college theater. The god jing role and the clown roles will provide new opportunities for exciting percussion that will change the show’s soundscape entirely. Furthermore, the fast-moving clown roles will be an attractive addition that can be appreciated by contemporary audiences as much as it was by pre-20th century audiences.  Most importantly, students will also get to learn about all of the role types in kunqu, not just the roles in previous adaptations of Madame Cassia. Meanwhile, I find them a convenient replacement for the property men (jianchang 撿場), who quietly moved stage furniture and handed in props as if they were invisible to the audience and who vanished from the Chinese stage because of the post-1949 drama reform


The second scene, Writing the Plaint, is replete with a series of in-jokes beloved by theater aficionados who are familiar with the conjugal lifestyle in the age of arranged marriage. What is fancifully portrayed, and is not historically accurate, is how the husband seizes the opportunity of writing the plaint on behalf of his illiterate wife to squeeze her first name out of her. Granted, this comedic moment must have added a lot of fun for the earlier audience; but when I first watched the performance in my twenties, I recalled immediately a Ming short tale where a separated couple relies on this kind of personal information—information that a married woman was only willing to share with her husband—reunites at court by each whispering the wife’s first name to the ear of the judge (of course, they match!). The witticism and warmth of the story had impressed my young mind so deeply that the circumstance we have in the Horse Trader’s Tale inevitably appears to me fabricated, if not twisted. Furthermore, this historical name-withholding practice is far removed from us in modern times. The lingering question for some audiences must be: why is she so insecure or disillusioned as to conceal her name from her husband for several years? In the adaptation, therefore, I have retained most of the comedic vignettes but removed this odd name-probing passage. 


Another change I made in the adaptation is to whitewash the dark backstory of the stepmother’s adultery, the driving force behind all her evil deeds in the original play. I unstand that making connections of this subplot with our most intractable contemporary problems in mainland China—violent misogyny on the internet attacking the nine Tsinghua University female students dancing in public, “men’s rights” activists attacking a feminist standup comedian, to name just a few—may be tenuous. Nevertheless, such misogynistic elements, abounding in premodern Chinese literature in general, have dangerous potential to reproduce vicious stereotypes of evil women and pass them to audiences of a new generation in the contemporary theater, while outbursts of women-hatred are taking place somewhere, one after another. It is sobering to admit that part of our UNESCO-appointed cultural heritage and great artistic achievements in the past are not compatible with our newly awakened sensitivities. My own research and life experience have converted me to a feminist way of thinking, and I will be frank that those lines that repeatedly superimpose the image of a bad adulterous stepmother made me uncomfortable. I deleted all of them and cleaned up their traces rather than relying on the audience’s capacity to digest the historical period’s dominant assumptions about gender stereotypes, precisely because I think they still live and breathe in our world. It is not merely about being politically correct; it is to acknowledge the shifting values of our time and to create enjoyment for everyone (including people like me) in a public performance. 


Furthermore, the punishment enacted upon the stepmother strengthens the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century sentiments against adulterous women. The three male characters in the original play—the father, the son-in-law, and the Judge/younger brother—share one line: “Only by killing her [the stepmother] by ten thousand cuts can I feel relieved,” and eventually, the Lord High Inspector orders precisely this penalty to be executed on the pair of adulterous spouses. This reference to the penalty of lingchi 凌遲 (death by a thousand cuts), which the Qing government removed from the imperial law books in April 1905, was a trashy piece of popular imagination that remained throughout the late imperial period and even in the twentieth century (2). The contemporary theater is not obliged to impose it. I do not think that the play will be too mellowed by the removal of such dark imaginations.  


There are more cuts and additions than I can speak about here, but in summary,  I hope that the resulting product is a modern musical comedy that uses traditional Chinese folk tunes to entertain the audience. It is quite different from any contemporary pieces that have been performed in both western theater and traditional Chinese theater. It is a traditional play in the contemporary vein (For example, unlike many western operas which set East Asian countries as far-away, exotic places, this play creates an abstract space full of possibilities which transcends time and space). The alterations I have made fit not only the dramatic instincts of our time but also the needs and limitations of the college theater I am working for. 


 (1) Du Yingtao 杜穎陶, “Tan Qishuanghui” [On The Extraordinary Meeting] 談奇雙會 in Juxue yuekan [Theater Matters Monthly] 劇學月刊 (1935:4.12), 20-23. Reprinted in Jiang Yasha 姜亞沙 al. et. Zhongguo zaoqi xiju huakan 中國早期戲劇畫刊 (Beijing: Quanguo tushuguan wenxian suowei fuzhi zhongxin, 2006), vol. 25, 28-31. For a discussion of a palace performance of the play in 1829, see Zhu Jiajin 朱家溍, “Shengpingshu kunqiang yiqiang luantan de shengshuaikao” 昇平署時代崑腔弋腔亂彈的盛衰考 and “Qingdai luantanxi zai gongzhong fazhan de shiliao” 清代亂

彈戲在宮中發展的史料 in his Gugong tuishilu 故宮退食錄 (Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 1998), 560, 575.


 (2) Timothy Brook, et. al., Death by a Thousand Cuts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.)