Back then in 1936, a Beijing newspaper, 《立言报》Liyan Bao held a public voting about the most promising young performers of Beijing Opera. Li Shifang got 5800, Mao Shilai 5000, Zhang Junqiu 4800 and Song Dezhu 3600 votes as the most talented young stars, and were labeled as “the four junior dan” (四小名旦), with a reference to “the four great dan” (四大名旦), namely Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Xun Huisheng and Shang Xiaoyun.
The expression stuck on them permanently after a performance of Tale of the White Snake in 1940, in which the four were acting together.
After the air accident of Li Shifang in 1947, another newspaper《纪事报》Jishi Bao intended to fill the “vacancy”, and organized another voting. Among the most populars names voted for were Zhang Junqiu, Mao Shilai, Chen Yongling and Xu Hanying, but the audience had deeper impression on the original four, and the new result didn’t change the previous conclusions.
In the first place, I’ll write about my personal favorite, Zhang Junqiu, who had the longest and most outstanding career of the four. You might have read some excerpts from this post in my personal blog, but this one is a seriously revised and improved version, trying to introduce Mr. Zhang as an artist and as a person as well.
This post was sitting in the Drafts folder for months with a reason: as a token of appreciation, I wanted to post it on 14 October. Zhang Junqiu would be 91 today. (I’m not sure it’s allowed to reveal, but Bertrand also celebrates his birthday this week, so the animated bunny is greeting him too.)
Thank you Bertrand for your invaluable help with English grammar and expressions. I really appreciate every suggestion, let them come!
Zhang Junqiu (张君秋)
Life and work
Zhang Junqiu (birth name Teng Jiaming) was born on 14 October 1920 in Beijing into a poor Han family. His mother, Zhang Xiuqin was a popular bangzi qingyi in Zhangjiakou, Hebei. Later she married a minor official, Teng Mo, who eventually abandoned his family and became a Buddhist monk. Zhang Xiuqin had to face many hardships in order to raise up both of her sons alone. To distance themselves from their father, both children changed their birth name Teng to Zhang Junjie and Zhang Junqiu.
At the age of 14, Junqiu became a student of Li Lingfeng, a disciple of Wang Yaoqing. For some reason, Li Lingfeng wasn’t given good roles, and soon he started to teach for a living. He had a very good eye to spot talent, and saw that the young Zhang Junqiu is showing promise, thus he accepted him as a “held-at-hand disciple”, a student who lives in the house of the master since childhood. Zhang Junqiu knew well what a tremendous help for his family is that he doesn’t have to pay a tutoring fee, and he was working very hard day and night.
Because of his delicate voice and white skin, he was trained for dan (female) roles. After specializing in qingyi, Zhang Junqiu made his stage debut in 1935 in Beijing Lucky Theatre. He was performing Nü Qi Jie (Su San Sent Out Under Guard) with Lei Xifu, gaining the favor of the audience with the superb quality of his voice and his highly skilled singing technique.
Early portrait; in The Broken Bridge; with Li Shifang in the role of Du Liniang
Later he was taught by Wang Yaoqing himself, also got guidance from Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Shang Xiaoyun, Xun Huisheng, Yan Lanqiu and Zhu Guifang. In his pursuit of the “divine essence” of theater art, Zhang Junqiu didn’t stick stubbornly to the style of the predecessors. Assimilating and enhancing the characteristics of various schools, he finally formed his own unique style, now known as Zhang school (张派).
His performing style was skillfully combining the magnificence of Mei school, vigorousness of Shang school, softness of Cheng school and the subdued style of Xun school, enhanced with his own clear, bright voice and sumptuous stage appearance. With a referral to the “four great dan”, journalists in 1936 made a comparison that his stage appearance is as graceful as Mei, his singing skills as good as Shang, his accent as sweet as Cheng and his movements as stylish as Xun.
Zhang Junqiu had a sweet and smooth, yet fresh and loud voice of a very wide range, singing low and high pitches with ease. His performance, excellent in voice and expression, got even more rich in his later years. He particularly paid attention to the portrayal of characters and conveying emotions with her singing, depicting refined and graceful women, valiant heroines and elegant society ladies all differently.
With Ma Lianliang; with Liu Xuetao in Riverside Pavilion; as Qin Xianglian
In his early period he was singing qingyi roles mainly in Offering Sacrifice at the River, Leifeng Pagoda, Yu Tangchun and Romance of Chunfa and Qiulian. His later trademark roles, like Tan Jier in The Riverside Pavilion, Princess Zhuangji in The Orphan of the Zhao Family and Cui Yingying in the Romance of the Western Chamber all turned into typical roles of Zhang school repertoire.
In the 1930s, Ma Lianliang’s troupe was lacking a good dan performer, and Ma was afraid that Tan Fuying or others make an appointment with Zhang Junqiu first, thus he quickly invited him to Fufeng to participate in Su Wu As Shepherd. After the performance, both the audience and Ma Lianliang were pleased, and Ma offered a permanent contract to Zhang which he immediately accepted, thus stepping on the path leading to stardom.
As Zhang Junqiu’s popularity grew, his contracted payment also got bigger, resulting in a desperate quarrel over the money between Zhang’s mother and his master, Li Lingfeng. Zhang Junqiu found himself in a very awkward situation, but finally attached more importance to the will of his mother, and after finishing his apprentice years, he and Li parted ways like strangers.
During his years in Fufeng, Zhang Junqiu accumulated lots of stage experience, also gained widespread popularity and a solid audience base. However, majority of his roles were supporting roles, his name didn’t appear in the main cast, and he couldn’t really walk his own independent ways. Circumstances gradually lead to disagreement between Ma and Zhang, that climaxed after a performance of The Rainbow Pass, and when his contract finally expired in 1941, Zhang Junqiu left Fufeng.
Organizing the new troupe of Zhang Junqiu was the responsibility of his father-in-law, Zhao Yankui. For wusheng role they appointed Sun Yukun, who was the single leading wusheng performer at that time. After the death of Yang Xiaolou Lucky Theatre continued its performances with Sun Yukun, but his fame and prestige didn’t equal to Yang’s. Soon he had to quit, and thus he accepted Zhang Junqiu’s offer. Laodan actor Li Duokui was also in the starter team, and in 1941-42 he was working together with Zhang Junqiu in Silang Visits his Mother, Red-maned Fiery Horse, Sun Sanxiang and Jin Suo Ji. They couldn’t get Yang Baosen for laosheng role, and in 1942, Shi Huibao joined the troupe.
In the first few seasons, Zhao Yankui came up with brilliant casting and picked the repertoire wisely. The audience appreciated not only the good plays, but also started to admire Zhang Junqiu’s elegant style. This setup didn’t last long though, theaters of Shanghai and Tianjin invited Zhang Junqiu, who accepted the offers to make some good money. After he returned, his mother, who wasn’t satisfied with the profit, insisted to reorganize the troupe. Sun Yukun left, and Zhao Yankui, who didn’t support the idea of sending friends away, also quit. Needless to say, things started getting worse since then.
“Filial piety was Junqiu’s greatest merit. His mother’s words were equal to an imperial edict. Even when he became famous, he wholeheartedly served his mother.”, said Liu Xuetao, good friend and colleague of Mr. Zhang during a 2007 interview.
From 1942, Zhang Junqiu frequently worked together with performers like “Donghuang” Meng Xiaodong, Wang Youchen, Tan Fuying and Ma Lianliang. In 1947, together with Yu Zhenfei and Ma Lianliang he moved to Hong Kong and they were performing there for several years.
Qiu Shengrong, Tan Fuying, Zhang Junqiu, Ma Lianliang
In 1951 he returned to Beijing and together with Ma Lianliang, Tan Fuying and Qiu Shengrong they established the Jingju Troupe of Beijing and staged many classics, like The Auspicious Dragon and Phoenix, Qin Xianglian, The Orphan of the Zhao Family, Top Scholar as Matchmaker, The Riverside Pavilion and Romance of the Western Chamber.
In 1956, Zhang Junqiu’s Third Troupe, Ma Lianliang’s troupe and Tan Fuying and Qiu Shengrong’s Second Troupe were merged, constituting the powerful final formation of the Jingju Troupe of Beijing.
Zhang Junqiu was fully experiencing the persecution of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). After the storm, he came back out of retirement and wholeheartedly engaged himself in Beijing opera education, accepting many domestic and international students. He had more than a hundred students from every part of the country, like Xue Yaping, Li Bingshu, Yang Chunxia, Yang Shurui, Wang Wanhua, Lei Ying, Zhang Jinglin, Dong Cuinuo, Wang Rongrong and Zhao Xiujun, just to mention a few.
In 1986, accepting the invitation of the Tianjin government, he took charge of the training of Tianjin’s Youth Jingju Troupe. Later Li Ruihuan, chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee entrusted him with chief art consulting assignment in “The Essence of China’s Beijing Opera” project, a program started to save the archive recordings of old masters. Zhang Junqiu was working on this project until his death, and finished more than 120 recordings. (You can download one item of this series here.)
He held many positions, like vice-chairman of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, vice-president of the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts and vice-chairman of the Chinese Dramatists Association. In 1990 he got Lifetime Achievement Award from Lincoln Art Center and New York Sino-American Art Association, also received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree of Lincoln University.
From Zhang Junqiu’s several children some decided to follow the footsteps of their father, and chose Beijing Opera as a profession. Zhang Xuejin (张学津) and his twin brother, Zhang Xuehai (张学海) work as laosheng, Zhang Xuehao (张学浩) was working as wusheng before, but later he switched to qingyi role, in order to pass on the legacy of his father.
“Lenient and rigorous”
Zhang Junqiu knew well that success in Beijing Opera isn’t solely based on talent. Without blood, sweat and tears, no-one can make major advancement. As a teacher, he was unable to tolerate if his disciples are negligent. Many of his students are outstanding, gifted artists, harvesting prestigious awards in China and overseas, yet they unceasingly dedicate themselves to develop their art skills to match Mr. Zhang’s strict requirements. People often had the impression that he’s cold as ice, but if you ask his followers, without prior consultation they all describe him as amiable, delicate and careful in life.
Teaching Li Jinqiu, Wang Rongrong and other disciples
One of Shang Xiaoyun’s direct disciples, Cheng Qing from Shandong, who accepted Zhang Junqiu as a teacher after the death of Mr. Shang, characterized Mr. Zhang as someone who is always very modest and cautious with people, talking to everyone politely. With his students, he was even more friendly. When his disciples visited him at home, Zhang Junqiu was always very happy, as if he were a child himself.
Another of his students, Di Ping also mentions how rigorous Mr. Zhang was as a teacher. However, he frequently offered a meal to his disciples, to make sure they eat enough, and he never forgot to warn them in winter to wear warm scarves. “Every time he saw me off at the bus stop, he reminded me to close the zipper on my bag, to keep money safe. He really treated us like his own children.”, said Di Ping.
In Zhang Xuehao’s memories
After a performance in Tianjin, celebrating Zhang Junqiu’s 80th birthday in October 2000, his seventh son, Zhang Xuehao, also a noted Beijing opera artist, was speaking about his father during an interview. The followings are his own words.
“My family was a very special household. I spent my childhood and younger years in a peaceful and happy family atmosphere. […] My grandmother, my mother, twelve brothers and sisters were living together.
Just like his art career, the married life of my father also experienced ups and downs, full of intriguing drama. His first wedding was in 1940, he married my aunt Zhao Yurong, daughter of Zhao Yankui, Shang Xiaoyun’s accompanist. Aunt Zhao came from a performing artist’s family, there were no cultural or moral differences, it’s only that their marriage was a job-based relationship. Although they had five children, and there was no major friction between them, their marriage wasn’t based on love, and looking back now, none of them was very happy.
Only when my father arrived to Shanghai to perform, has he met the person he was really fond of: my mother, Wu Lizhen. My maternal grandfather was the head of a very rich Shanghai banker family. At that time my mother was a student at Shanghai Saint John University’s foreign language department. She was a beautiful and intelligent, refined young miss, interested in music, literature and theatre since childhood, also my father was young and very handsome. They fell in love at first sight, and gave each other a pledge to stay together throughout a lifetime.
Wu Lizhen, Zhang Xuehao
Their relationship was violently opposed by my mother’s father. According to the social prejudice of those times, how could the daughter of a financier family marry an opera artist, what’s more as a second wife? My mother willingly sacrificed everything for love, left her home without hesitation, and they got married.
My parents were inseparable for 25 years and raised up three boys and four girls. Among the children of my father, I am the seventh oldest, thus my parents were just calling me “little Nr.7”.
My mother was a good-natured and compassionate woman, thus my father’s first wife could stay under the same roof even after their marriage, for appearance’s sake. So my mother had to face very complicated family relations, always had to take the whole picture into consideration and suffer in silence. She loved not only her natural children dearly, but also respected Aunt Zhao and treated all her children like they were her own. […]
Dad ardently loved Bejing Opera profession, and owing to mom’s great efforts, he didn’t need to worry about the household and trivial matters, and could fully concentrate on art. This is essential for an outstanding artist. My mother also supported him in his work, every time dad had a new role, she helped him to learn the script. If the new play was a historical drama, she went to the bookstore to buy books about that certain historical era. […] My father was learning jingju art and skills from childhood, without proper cultural education, and my mom helped him to improve. She told him to write a diary, and dad had to write a paragraph every day. […] Dad’s students and friends all liked and respected my mother very much.
[…] All my older brothers and sisters attended theatre schools, and my parents better wanted me to become a doctor, but I was afraid of the idea and secretly applied to the theatre art school as well. They didn’t blame me after all, but encouraged and helped me in my studies. […] Whenever I had a performance, my parents commanded the whole family to watch the play, to give me inspiration.
During the Cultural Revolution, my father and mother were suffering from persecution, and our whole family had to leave the courtyard house we lived in for several decades, and all three generations moved to an old house with two and a half rooms. At that time my mother already suffered from serious illness, yet she worked her heart out to manage the household. Following my grandmother who died of illness, my mother also passed away in 1969, at the young age of 48. The loss of the two persons he loved the most completely devastated my father.
Some photos of Mr. Zhang in his later years
Time flies, 20 years went by, but my father never recovered from grief, and still deeply cherished the memory of my mother. He was brilliant and splendid on the stage of Beijing Opera throughout his entire life, but on the complicated stage of real life, especially in his later years, he has been struggling more than anyone would imagine, experiencing the joys and sorrows of life just like anyone else.
When my father remarried later [in 1974 with Xie Hongwen], a stepmother entered the Zhang household. Since then, my father’s emotional world was somewhat hazy, and he was sinking into a state of subtle suffering. The children, one after another left home, and he wasn’t familiar with this new lifestyle. He never could express his true feelings easily, but it seemed to us that he’s not happy at all.
In the early 70s, after I graduated from the National Chinese Opera Academy, I moved to other part of the country. When I visited my father in Beijing, he was very happy and once he said: “Little Seventh, nowadays I live a lot better, I have more than 80 yuan for a month.”
He said this when my stepmother wasn’t in the room. He knew that I earn only 30-40 yuan a month, my life is hard, and he immediately tried to stuff a 10 yuan note in my hands.
My stepmother came in just in this moment, and halted in front of us. My father was extremely embarrassed. She cast a cold glance at us, didn’t say a word, just turned around and left the room. […]
When I said good bye and walked to the subway station, I looked back and I saw my father on the 14th floor, standing on the balcony and still waving after me. My tears started to flow.
In the last half year of 1996 my father was busy with “The Essence of China’s Beijing Opera” project. Once he said in the phone [Zhang Xuehao was in the US at that time]: “I’m in a bad mood.” I quickly asked him why. Someone did hurt him? Dad was the most important for me, I was unable to tolerate any insult to him. It turned out it’s all about his job. He was appointed as art consultant, and he really wanted to do a good job, but was constantly worrying because he wasn’t satisfied with the students.
I wrote a lengthy letter to my father, and asked him not to get vexed. This letter finally stabilized his mood.
When my brother Xuejin came to the United States to perform in 1997 April, he brought me a video tape he recorded with Dad. My father repeatedly said it’s not easy for him that his children are so far away. This made me very sad.”
Shortly after, Zhang Junqiu passed away on 25 May 1997, at the age of 77.
Sources: baidu.com, Hudong Wiki, Zhang Junqiu and Wu Lizhen, “Anecdotes on famous persons of Peking Opera” by Ding Bingsui, Interview with Zhang Xuehao (cache), Life Daily News
Pictures: xueyaping. com , , dongdongqiang.com, llxiqu.com