Beijing Opera master Li Shaochun, best known for his creative ideas and wide repertoire would be 92 today. Let’s wish him a Happy Birthday!
Life and works
Li Shaochun (李少春) was born as Li Baolin on 4th November,1919 in Hebei. His father, Li Guichun was a noted bangzi and jingju performer, but couldn’t afford to send his son to Ye Chunshan’s popular Fu Lian Cheng (China’s largest Beijing opera school) or any specialized school, and taught his son with his own method, based on his own stage experience. As a result, besides practicing theater skills, the little Shaochun got proper cultural education too, also picked up the good habit of self-study and turned into a real all rounder.
Li Guichun trained his son in martial arts first, and put emphasis on singing and acting later, thus placing Shaochun’s later career on a solid foundation – no matter it was a play with or without acrobatics, he could accept every appointment. Li Guichun’s motto was: “If you want to learn something, learn it at once; if you see something good, learn it at once.” Consequently, when Li Shaochun saw that Yu Shuyan’s singing is good, he immediately accepted him as teacher. When he saw that Yang Xiaolou is brilliant in wusheng role, he started to learn Yang school skills from Ding Yongli. When he saw an outstanding street performer juggling with the lance, he immediately invited him to his home.
Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳) and Yang Xiaolou (杨小楼) in Farewell my Concubine (1922)
Li Shaochun was good at differentiating between polished and rough, beautiful and ugly; he was able to learn the essence of different schools without being bond by them; he managed to carry on tradition and to break through conventions at the same time – practically he absorbed art from everywhere.
He studied Yu Shuyan’s singing style, Zhou Xinfang’s lifelike character portrayal, Ma Lianliang’s elegant stage appearance and demeanor. Regarding martial skills, he enhanced his Yang school-based style with the characteristics of Gai Jiaotian’s performing art.
Gai Jiaotian (盖叫天) with tiger
Li Shaochun was barely 14 when cooperated with Mei Lanfang in Silang Visits His Mother, and in the late 1940s raised to new artistic heights with his performance in Wildboar Forest with Yuan Shihai and Du Jinfang. In 1962, Beijing Film Studio adapted the latter for the silver screen, and I’m daring to say he set a new standard for the role with that movie.
With Yuan Shihai (袁世海) in Wildboar Forest
After the establishment of PRC in 1949, Li Shaochun, Yuan Shihai and Ye Shengzhang were “organized” into the New Chinese Experimental Jingju Troupe. Their excellent staging of Yunluoshan and The Wildboar Forest got favorable criticism from all levels of spectators, also their creative spirit of innovation in the new adaptation of The Reconciliation of the Minister and the General won recognition.
After the establishment of the China National Jingju Company in 1955 January, Li Shaochun was appointed as head of the First, then the Third Troupe. The “Li-Yuan-Ye-Du” team of that time was adept at merging ideas from every schools of art and carrying on tradition, also bold enough to innovate. The same year in May, Zhou Enlai made a suggestion to the troupe: if Western audiences like Havoc in Heaven with the Monkey King so much, why don’t they adapt the play into a longer Big Havoc in Heaven? The Monkey King is one of Li Shaochun’s memorable roles, his Sun Wukong in the new play was lively and powerful, yet elegant at the same time.
As the Monkey King
Another milestone in the development of Beijing Opera and also in Li Shaochun’s career was the noisy and unexpected success of a modern opera, The White Haired Girl in 1958. His portrayal of Yang Bailao deeply touched the audience and was praised far and wide.
With Du Jinfang in The White Haired Girl
Another “trend-setter” role of Li Shaochun was Qin Qiong in Story of the Bandit. He was performing this play on the 10th anniversary of PRC’s foundation in a unique, blue costume with two blades on his back.
Zhou Enlai congratulating backstage after Story of the Bandit
In 1962, the young performers of the Forth Troupe staged Red Fills the River. Li Shaochun and Yuan Shihai watched the play, and found the portrayal of Yue Fei, China’s national hero so remarkable that they re-modeled the role of the legendary general and poet. This new-style Yue Fei character is considered the most splendid on the stage of Beijing Opera.
Similarly to other Beijing Opera artists, the Cultural Revolution ruined Li Shaochun’s life and career. Finally he couldn’t bear the political pressure any longer, and died in deep regret and depression on the 21st September in 1975. He was only 56 years old.
To introduce Li Shaochun’s legendary repertoire (around 200 plays) is a big, though not impossible task. This time I would like to limit myself to summarizing only the most famous ones. I borrowed the following practical tables from his biography book, and added the English titles to the pictures. You can see the complete list here.
I wanted to add a few excerpts from the Wildboar Forest movie to this post, but I simply couldn’t decide which ones. On one hand, I can’t find a single minute in that play I would be able to leave out, on the other hand I just can’t post the full movie since my copies are similar to Bertrand’s On the Dock DVD.
The best solution that came to my mind was to post Li Shaochun’s most iconic arias in mp3 format and upload a 18min long video with one of Mr. Li’s best present day representatives, Wang Ping. (I’ve listened to a few versions of this opera before, and the only one who I really liked so far was Wang Ping. He’s a versatile actor with all the skills required for this role: good voice, polished acting, fine martial skills, elegant movement on stage, vivid character portrayal and touching heartstrings. Bonus point goes for attractive appearance. ^‿^ I hope you’ll like him too. The two chou characters are also fun to watch.)
Excerpts from Wildboar Forest:
“大雪飘扑人面” Li Shaochun (mp3)
“四月清和微风暖” Li Shaochun, Du Jinfang (mp3)
“八十棍打得我冲天愤恨” Li Shaochun (mp3)
京剧《野猪林·发配》Yezhulin · Fa Pei (Wildboar Forest – Exiled)
Wang Jiaqing (王嘉庆) as Lu Zhishen, Wang Ping (王平) as Lin Chong
10 Great Laosheng Schools Special Stage, 2010-10-03
Mei Lanfang Grand Theater, Beijing
Click here to download the video. (.mkv)
Lin Chong is transported to the middle of nowhere to serve a penal sentence.
You can read the full story here.
Places of interest in China:
Li Shaochun Grand Theater (李少春大剧院), Li Shaochun Memorial Hall (李少春纪念馆)
Google Maps | Brief introduction with pictures
The traditional style interior of the theater is just gorgeous!
Click here to leave a virtual offering at Mr. Li’s memorial.
Can you find mine? -‿-
I’m not a great expert in finishing posts nicely, so I just wish you all a great weekend before I leave the city for the countryside.
See you next week!
Source: lishaochun.net, excerpts from Li Shaochun’s biography titled 《博美精新——李少春传 略》
Pictures: dysjyd.com, yishengchongai.blog.163.com,
sarusakanasaiyo.seesaa.net/archives, cnpoc.cn, cnpoc.cn