16 October 2017

Yang Guifei and Dou E as victims and scapegoats

Yang Yuhuan (left) and the execution of Dou Duanyun (right)

Unsurprisingly, SPOILER ALERTS apply for this entire blog post.

Two of the other Chinese operas I’ve read recently have been The Palace of Eternal Youth and Snow in Summer; both of which centre on a female protagonist who is the victim or scapegoat of forces entirely outside her control, but for which she wrongly takes the blame and pays for it with her life. In each of these plays, traditional morality and family norms form the context within which these women act. In neither play is the traditional morality entirely rejected, but it is subjected to various levels of critique.

Yang Yuhuan 杨玉环 is the tragic heroine of Hong Sheng’s 洪升 The Palace of Eternal Youth 《长生殿》. The youngest daughter of four, of an impoverished Sichuanese official, she is procured as a palace maid and given as a concubine to Prince Shou 寿王, the son of Emperor Tang Minghuang 唐明皇. The emperor, upon seeing Yang himself, is smitten with her and arranges for her to be sent to a Daoist monastery as a novice named Taizhen. After some time, she is taken into the Imperial harem herself, gifted with the rank of ‘Guifei’ 贵妃 (literally, ‘precious concubine’) and given some unprecedented privileges, like access to the Huaqing Pool 华清池, which was normally reserved for the Emperor’s exclusive use. Her promotion is good news for her overbearing and ambitious brother Guozhong 杨国忠, who is quickly promoted to prime minister, but she herself is surrounded by eunuchs and other court ladies in the emotional hothouse of harem life and secluded from the life of the people. Yang Guozhong abuses his position by pardoning a barbarian general named An Lushan 安禄山 for a favour from his patron; after that Yang and An become bitter enemies and pursue a private rivalry and feud with each other at the expense of the Empire. Loyal officials like Guo Ziyi 郭子仪 (on whom another blog post at some future date – he’s a fascinating character in his own right) can only look on in horror at the oncoming disaster for the state.

The Palace of Eternal Youth juxtaposes scenes of human suffering at the hands of Yang Guozhong, An Lushan and even Emperor Minghuang’s other underlings, with the scenes of luxury, lust, jealousy and intrigue within the court itself. Despite her self-aware pulchritude and vampish demeanour, Yang Yuhuan is actually one of the single most blameless characters in the opera, apart from some wholly natural twinges of jealousy toward the other court ladies for Emperor Minghuang’s affections. She is kept oblivious to the human cost of her and the Emperor’s lifestyle until the very end. And yet by the end she is singled out by Emperor Minghuang’s guard as a scapegoat for the troubles of the Empire when An Lushan rebels. She hangs herself with her own girdle on orders from the eunuch Gao Lishi 高力士, over the initial objections of Minghuang, in order to appease the rebellious imperial guards and save her beloved Emperor’s life. The Emperor himself spends the rest of his life in a state of depression, wondering if he could have done anything to save the life of his beloved.

Opinion on Yang Yuhuan among the Confucian scholarly class was sharply divided after her death. Some scholar-officials saw her as a blameless victim of her family’s intrigues, guilty only of being an object of a besotted Emperor’s affections; others saw her as an evil temptress responsible for misleading the Emperor and bringing disaster on the Tang. The later Tang Buddhist poet-official Bai Juyi 白居易, whose ‘Song of Everlasting Regret’ 《长恨歌》 was the inspiration for Hong Sheng’s opera and is quoted at length within it, went a long way toward rehabilitating Yang Yuhuan’s memory and guiding scholarly opinion toward a more sympathetic and tragic view.

Snow in Summer, also called The Injustice to Dou E 《窦娥冤》, by Guan Hanqing 关汉卿, is a much earlier work that functions as a subtle attack on the social conditions for ordinary Chinese people under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty – but the main character is, like Yang Yuhuan, a young woman who has very limited control over her own immediate situation and who is also scapegoated for a crime she didn’t commit. Duanyun 端云, the daughter of an impoverished but highly-talented scholar Dou Tianzhang 窦天章, is sold to a petty usurer, Widow Cai 蔡婆, in lieu of a significant debt as a child bride for Cai’s son. Famine forces the three of them to move into another town, where Widow Cai again takes up her lending business to keep her family fed. Unfortunately, Widow Cai’s young son dies of illness.

One of Widow Cai’s debtors, a dishonest pharmacist named Dr Sailu 赛卢医, attempts to strangle her to avoid paying the debt he owes, but he is stopped by a pair of hooligans – Zhang the Dog 张狗儿 and his son Zhang the Mule 张驴儿 – who force themselves upon Widow Cai’s household. Zhang the Mule tries to rape Dou Duanyun, but she fights him off repeatedly. Scorned by the object of his lust, Zhang the Mule blackmails Dr Sailu into selling him poison to kill Widow Cai, but he poisons his father Zhang the Dog by mistake. Zhang the Mule then blames Duanyun for the deed and takes her before the corrupt and degenerate Mongol magistrate Taowu 梼杌, who then throws her in prison. He then robs Widow Cai of all her silver and uses it to bribe Taowu into finding in his favour. Dou Duanyun is sentenced to death by beheading for poisoning Zhang the Dog.

Dou Duanyun goes to her death in midsummer insisting that she was framed and protesting her innocence before Heaven. She proclaims that if Heaven has any justice, it will not let any of her blood stain the ground, it will cover up her dead body with snow despite the heat, and the district of Chuzhou will suffer three years of drought. When the executioner brings down his sword, none of Duanyun’s blood falls upon the ground, but instead flies up onto a white silken garment hanging over her head. A snowstorm blows up and covers her body in a snowdrift – and no more precipitation falls for the next three years.

In the meanwhile, Duanyun’s father Tianzhang has passed the civil service examinations and is sent to a remote district where he is promoted. He attempts to go back and find his family only to find that Widow Cai has already left their hometown. Heartbroken he returns to the Imperial court, where he is appointed a Censor and sent to back to his home province of Anhui to investigate wrongdoings by local officials. He comes across Chuzhou and discovers a drought that has been going on for three years – Taowu organises a lavish banquet for Tianzhang and offers him a hefty bribe to cover up the drought to higher officials, arousing Tianzhang’s suspicions.

The rest of the opera reads like a Judge Dee courtroom drama, with Tianzhang in the role of the magistrate as he reopens his daughter’s case. Under Tianzhang’s unrelenting and thorough investigation, the truth comes out about Zhang the Mule’s parricide and Taowu’s gross miscarriage of justice. The now-homeless Widow Cai is avenged and Duanyun’s memory is vindicated. Zhang the Mule is sentenced to death by slow dismemberment, Taowu to death by beheading, and Dr Sailu is exiled to a border garrison. After the sentences are carried out, a heavy rain falls on Chuzhou, ending the drought and indicating that Heaven’s justice is satisfied. Tianzhang weeps before his daughter’s grave, and takes Widow Cai into his home.

Duanyun, of course, is fictional and Hong Sheng’s Yuhuan a fictionalised version of a historical woman (who really was forced to commit suicide for the crimes of her brother). In their literary contexts, although they come from markedly-different backgrounds and live very different lives, they nevertheless share some similarities. Their ability to speak up for themselves is compromised in each case, and in the end they, innocent, are made to suffer and die as scapegoats for the guilty party: Yuhuan in her brother’s place at the hands of the Emperor’s guard, and Duanyun to save her persecutor’s skin at the hands of a corrupt and perverted magistrate.

Yuhuan is a much more ambiguous figure than Duanyun, being in a position of power that she herself is unaware of except insofar as it involves the person of the Emperor, and it’s stated in Hong Sheng’s drama that there are sins that her spirit must atone for. One can see, in fact, that the Confucian literati themselves were divided on how to view the historical Yuhuan – though in the end they were swayed to the view that she was an innocent victim of political intrigue. In each case, though, the positions of Yuhuan and Duanyun – as scapegoats for injustices they aren’t responsible for – are used to illustrate broader questions about political justice and legitimacy. This is an ambiguous point. There is a certain sense in which these literary portrayals of women justifies Chinese classicism’s claim to being a humanistic ethos, but there’s also a sense in which the same classicism understands women’s experiences and subjectivity to be still, in a broader sense, not their own.

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