Cultural devolution

Books Sheila Melvin reads Bi Feiyu's new novel, a backstage exploration of a Chinese art form's 20th-century decline.

Bi explores the power of money in contemporary Chinese society, the uneasy relationship between commerce and culture, and the degradation of the Peking Opera.
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Sheila Melvin reads Bi Feiyu's new novel, a backstage exploration of a Chinese art form's 20th-century decline. The Moon Opera Bi Feiyu Translated by Howard Goldblatt Telegram Books Dh33 As the spacecraft Apollo 11 hurtled toward the moon in July 1969, ground control made an unusual request to the three veteran astronauts aboard. It is recorded on the NASA transcript: "Houston: Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning there's one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill for immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is only standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not recorded."

Lunar Module Pilot: "OK, we'll keep a close eye for the bunny girl." Not long after this exchange the lunar module landed on the Sea of Tranquillity, Neil Armstrong uttered "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind", and the jocular request was forgotten - except in the Chinese-speaking world, where Chang'e (as her name is now generally spelt) has been venerated and adored for millennia, especially by women.

While teaching English in Taiwan in the early 1990s, I was stunned when a passing reference to Armstrong's moonwalk unleashed a deluge of scorn from a large class of telecommunications bureaucrats. Neil Armstrong was no hero, and he ought never dare show his face in Taiwan, my students - nearly all women - told me emphatically. When I asked why, the class responded in near unison: He didn't find Chang'e! This mass outpouring of disdain was followed by personal memories of the moonwalk's broadcast, most involving crying grandmothers and despairing aunts whose dreams of seeing Chang'e had been dashed by hapless male astronauts who found "nothing but rocks".

When Armstrong walked on the moon, China was in the midst of its Cultural Revolution; the landing was given perfunctory coverage, and legends like that of Chang'e were condemned as "feudal superstition". But in subsequent years Chang'e has reclaimed her place in the public sphere. Indeed, the three spacecraft in China's Lunar Exploration Programme (which is scheduled to touch down on the moon in 2017) are all named after her. As of 2008, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival during which Chang'e is traditionally honoured is once again a national holiday.

Bi Feiyu's The Moon Opera is a slender novel that directly probes several weighty and intertwined topics: the power of money in contemporary Chinese society, the uneasy relationship between commerce and culture, and the decline of Peking opera. But at heart it is the story of a Peking opera diva named Xiao Yanqiu and her passionate - even desperate - identification with Chang'e. Set in 1999, the novel opens at a banquet where Qiao Bingzhang, the leader of Xiao Yanqiu's opera troupe, is seated near the boss of a state-owned cigarette factory. Both men are so "arrogant" they don't deign look at each other - until the boss realises who Qiao Bingzhang is. "Isn't there someone called Xiao Yanqiu in your troupe?" he asks. He remembers her as the beautiful lead in The Moon Opera, a 1979 staging of a 1915 Peking opera titled Chang'e Flies to the Moon. His recollection confirmed, the boss asks why nearly two decades have passed since Xiao Yanqiu's last performance:

"'Opera has fallen on hard times in recent years,' Bingzhang explained primly. 'Xiao Yanqiu now spends most of her time teaching.'" Both statements are true, but neither fully answers the question. Chang'e Flies to the Moon was created in 1915 by the legendary Peking opera performer Mei Lanfang. Thanks in large part to its spectacular costumes, the opera was instantly greeted as one that would appeal to foreigners, and help promote Peking opera worldwide - which it did. The Moon Opera of this novel is a (fictitious) revival of Mei's original, commissioned in 1958 to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the People's Republic in 1959, but cancelled while still in rehearsal because a general found the whole premise insulting to China, a nation so wonderful that nobody, not even a legendary character in a fictional tale, would ever leave it to live on the moon. Such things really do happen. Indeed, it was a November 1965 editorial attacking the Peking opera "Hai Rui Dismissed From Office" that launched the Cultural Revolution, which led to the banning of virtually all performing arts of the "exploiting class" except for eight "revolutionary model operas". As recently as 1998, a major foreign-funded production of Peony Pavilion was banned from travelling to New York's Lincoln Center because a Shanghai bureaucrat thought the Ming Dynasty opera made China look old-fashioned.

In Bi's tale, it is not until 1979, three years after the Cultural Revolution had ended, that The Moon Opera was finally staged, with Xiao Yanqiu as Chang'e. The production won high acclaim, as did Yanqiu, who became so obsessed by her role that she refused to relinquish it. When her understudy, a former "model opera" star, finally wrangled a chance to perform, Yanqiu congratulated her backstage - then threw boiling water in the unsuspecting woman's face, earning herself a demotion from diva to teacher.

Of course, the factory boss knows none of this; he just loved watching Yanqiu as Chang'e back in 1979. Now he has money, and wants to see her perform again. Bingzhang cannot believe his ears. Like the directors of all state-owned opera companies in the late 1990s - and those outside rich cities like Beijing and Shanghai today - he struggles to keep his troupe alive in a society that gives much lip service, but little real support, to Peking opera. "It had been years since the troupe had put on a performance, time that had passed with nothing to show for it." But the factory boss is flush wish industrial cash, and wants to buy some opera: "'Let her sing,' he repeated in the voice and countenance of a great man? 'Don't presume that all we know how to do is fill our coffers and endanger the people's heath. We also strive to promote a climate of culture.'"

Thus is the stage set for a revival of The Moon Opera. Bingzhang is understandably worried that Yanqiu, who has not been on stage in 20 years, might not be up to the task. But when he visits to tell her the news, she dispels his fears by flawlessly singing the opera's most challenging aria. He realises that Yanqiu has never stopped practising her cherished role, even with no real prospect of performing it. Overwhelmed by the ex-diva's dedication, he "sits sprawled in his chair, not moving yet deeply moved":

"'How did you manage to keep at it?' 'Keep at what?' she asked him. 'What is it I'm supposed to have kept at?' 'It's been 20 years. It couldn't have been easy.' 'I didn't keep at anything... I am Chang'e.'" After Bingzhang's visit, the dazed and delighted Yanqiu goes straight to the hospital to get a bag of diet pills - she imagines that losing 25 pounds will complete her return to her life as it was 20 years ago. She then plunges into preparation for the performance: she rehearses more than ever; she starves herself; she chooses a student, Chunlai, to be her understudy, and even magnanimously offers to split the role of Chang'e with her. But not all is well: she meets the factory boss at a banquet, then sleeps with him; she treats Chunlai cruelly; she discovers she is pregnant (by her husband) and aborts the foetus with nary a second thought for her health or husband.

Even as we are privy to these intimate moments, Yanqiu remains something of a cipher. Her motives for burning her original understudy, for example, are never explored. And her decision to sleep with the factory boss is simply explained as one that "finally put her mind at ease. It had always been a matter of when, not if... it wasn't a good thing, it wasn't a bad thing, just something people have done since time immemorial." She is ultimately only upset because the boss is not attracted to her nakedness; the sudden weight loss has made her flesh sag. Worse, it plays havoc with her singing voice.

In the strength and opacity of her motivations, Yanqiu resembles Chang'e: there are a dozen different explanations for Chang'e's decision to swallow the elixir meant for her husband, each more convoluted than the last, and none particularly convincing. The two women share other similarities, too. Both are associated with cold: Chang'e because she lives on the moon (which represents what is cold and female, the "yin" to the sun's "yang"), Yanqiu because she is a "frosty and aloof... ice queen" whose husband has nearly "always had to beg for sex". And each woman has a problem with prescription abuse: Chang'e's pill-popping lands her on the moon forever, while Yanqiu's contributes to a situation that, for her, is almost as devastating.

"I am Chang'e," Yanqiu repeats again and again. "I am the true Chang'e. Only I can be Chang'e." Her belief could be ascribed to madness, but the narrative of The Moon Opera shies away from undercutting it. Bi is much more concerned with the madness of the world in which the fallen diva lives, one in which "money's the key, only money", and therefore most operas performed regularly are shallow, acrobatics-filled excerpts staged for tourists who feel obliged to check the box for Peking opera (right next to the one for the Great Wall). Maybe we, like Yanqiu, each have a little Chang'e in us: "People are their own worst enemies; they want not to be human, but immortal. They are the cause of their own problems? Ingesting the wrong elixir is Chang'e's fate, it is a woman's fate, and it is humanity's fate. Humans are what they are. If they are fated to have only this much, they must not quest for more."

Sheila Melvin is the author, with her husband Jindong Cai, of Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese.