Forty Years of Cherished Love

21.7.2017 | chinese opera.
Sam Yiu

Sam Yiu


Author: Chau Ying

The Cantonese opera Forty Years of Cherished Love was written by the mainland librettist, Chen Guanqing (1920–2003). Premiered in 1984 in Guangzhou with the renowned veteran actors, Luo Jiabao (1930–2016) and Bai Xuehong, it was taken on tour to Hong Kong and the US and established a popular following. After numerous stagings over the past three decades, it has become a classic in the Cantonese opera repertory.

The play features the tragic love between Lu You (1125–1210), a poet of the Southern Song period, and his first wife and cousin Tang Wan. The Chinese title is taken from Lu’s poem, Shenyuan (The Shen Garden), a lamentation on revisiting the garden, which, for him held many memories:

Forty years have gone by of my lost love and my broken dream,
The willow in the Shen Garden is so old it no longer bears catkins,
I myself am going to turn into dust on Mount Kuaiji,
So I am here to pay my last visit, the sight of which brings tears to my eyes.

Actor Chan Chak Lui as poet Lu You

Actor Chan Chak Lui as poet Lu You

The play is in six acts and has a tight plotline, with arias rich in content and emotion.

Alongside the central theme of the lifelong love between Lu and Tang, it also offers touching portrayals of their second spouses, Zhao Shicheng and Wang Chun E. Acts such as Weeping over the Letter at Night and Revisiting the Shen Garden have become audience favourites.

Laden with tragic emotion, Weeping over the Letter at Night shows Tang Wan on her deathbed reminiscing about her star-crossed love. The aria is challenging because in order to resonate with the audience, the actor must deliver nuanced emotions through sensitive acting and shifts in voice. Tang is filled with regret; she cannot let go of her love for her first husband Lu, and is unable to return the feelings of her second husband Zhao. When Lu’s second wife, Wang, pays her a visit the two women are caught in complex feelings of unease, regret and bitterness. In the last scene, emotions run high, and when Tang’s husband Zhao reads a poem that Tang has written in response to Lu’s The Phoenix Hairpin, his poignant, unrequited love for her is heart-wrenching.

Rising Star Juliana Kwan as Tang Wan

Rising Star Juliana Kwan as Tang Wan

Revisiting the Shen Garden takes place forty years after Tang’s death, and is based on Lu’s Shen Garden poem. Now a white-haired old man, Lu revisits the garden, recalls his lost love and is filled with deep regret. According to Cantonese opera circles, this act was first written for Luo Jiabao as a vocal piece by the librettist Chen Guanqing that had become an instant hit. Later, Chen expanded it into a full-length Cantonese opera, using the song as the finale. Today, the production is seen as an important milestone for actors playing lead roles, testing their ability to convincingly portray the poet’s outlook, vocal delivery and gestures at the different stages of his life.

The Sound of Two Melancholy Flutes is another touching act. Tang and Lu have divorced each other and remarried. The setting shows two wedding chambers on either side of the stage, suggesting a parallel in time and story development. The audience see how the lovers, though separated, still hold each other in their thoughts and find it hard to accept their new partners. While the audience can sympathise, they can also see the painful unrequited love of Zhao and Wang, and admire them for their generosity of heart.

Rising Star Lao Yu Fung as Zhao Shicheng

Rising Star Lao Yu Fung as Zhao Shicheng

The current production features the complete six acts of the play. In many productions, the patriotic act The Song of Dismay at Jiange is deleted to focus on Lu’s love story. The act, which shows Lu training troops to win back  northern China from the invading forces of the Jin, and describes how his hopes were crushed when the Song dynasty signed a humiliating peace treaty with the Jin, establishes Lu not only as a poet but also a committed patriot.

Rising Star Man Lai Ha as Wang Chun O

Rising Star Man Lai Ha as Wang Chun O

The play’s success lays in its profound account of the setbacks and predicaments of life with which many of us find helpless. Lu is intelligent and well read, and yet still becomes a victim of inopportune times, politically and socially. Tang and he love each other but are forced to divorce. Zhao and Wang are devoted to their spouses but fail to receive love in return. None of the four protagonists is evil or scheming, but still they are tortured by fate. According to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, tragedy purges the heart by arousing pity and fear, and enhancing our knowledge of the divine powers and the ways of the world. Forty Years of Cherished Love follows this by allowing the audience to feel the full depth of the characters’ heartache, tears and joy.

A Short Biography of Lu You

Lu You (1125–1210), also known as Wuguan and Fangweng, was a native of Shanyin (now Shaoxing) in Zhejiang province. A prolific and renowned writer of the Southern Song period, his life was featured in the official history of the Song. Lu was a gifted child, writing poetry and prose by the age of twelve, and receiving training in sword-fighting and developing insights on the art of war. As a young man, his dreams of becoming a civil servant were thwarted when, despite coming top, he was demoted by the despotic Prime Minister Qin Kuai in favour of Qin’s grandson Qin Xun. It was not until Qin Kuai died that Lu was given a secretarial post in Ningde County, Fuzhou. By the time he was granted the title of jinshi (advanced scholar) by Emperor Xiaozong (1127–1194, r. 1162–1189), Lu was already almost forty.

Lu was born at the dawn of the fall of the old capital Kaifeng and the capture of the two Song emperors, Huizong and his son Qinzong. The national demise caused Lu to chide the court for not driving out the invaders and reconquering the occupied territories. But with Qin Kuai as the prime minister and the Song court was indecisive in dealing with the Jin, Lu was unable to realise his aspirations. He did serve in a number of unimportant positions, though, such as district official, staff officer in the military, and editor of historical records. At the age of sixty-seven, Lu retired and retreated to his rural home, living as a hermit until his death in 1210 at the age of eighty-five. His patriotic heart is reflected in his last poem:

To My Sons
When one dies, one should know everything but comes to naught,
But I still lament that our motherland remains divided.
The very day that our imperial army recovers the land in the north,
Do not forget, my sons, to tell me at my grave!

As a literary man, Lu’s work included over 10,000 poems in diverse styles and on many themes, making him the most prolific among his Southern Song peers. He was also renowned for writing ci (lyric poetry) and prose, and published books on a wide variety of subjects, such as The Book of Southern Tang and Notes at the Old Scholar’s Hermitage.

The Legend of The Phoenix Hairpin
Two versions of The Phoenix Hairpin tell the heartbreaking story of two star-crossed lovers.

Cousins by birth, Lu You and Tang Wan fell in love and married, but were later forced to separate by Lu’s mother who disliked Tang. After the separation, both got remarried; Tang to Zhao Shicheng, a descendant of the Song royal family, and Lu to a woman by the surname of Wang. One spring day, Lu and Tang met each other by chance at the Shen Garden. Overwhelmed with remorse, Lu wrote a lyric poem on the wall of the garden to the tune of The Phoenix Hairpin. When Tang saw the poem, she was so devastated and heartbroken that she fell ill with grief and died soon afterwards. Before she died, she wrote a response to Lu’s poem, also to the same tune, writing the heart wrenching lines, “I feared to raise concern/So I swallowed my tears/And feigned with smiles, feigning, feigning, feigning.” in response to Lu’s “Though we have pledged our love/No letter can reach you/All that’s left is naught, naught, naught.

The tragic love story has inspired many plays in Chinese traditional theatre, and can be found in the repertories of not only Cantonese opera but also Peking opera and Yueju (Shaoxing opera).

Now many may ask, since it is customary for folklore to paint historical figures in a dramatic light, is this love story about Lu You true? Some references can be found in the Song writings. The story was first told by Liu Kezhuang (1187-1269) in Houcun’s Writings on Poetry (Houcun Shihua, Chapter 2), claiming Zeng An, a student of Lu, as the source. Liu’s account did not give the name of Lu’s wife and her second husband, but hinted that he was possibly a cousin of Lu. Zhou Mi (1232-1298) later re-told the story in greater detail in his Rustic Talks from the East of Qi (Qidong Yeyu, Chapter 1), specifying that Lu You first married the daughter of Tang Hong, also a niece of Lu’s mother.  Later Ms Tang remarried to Zhao Shicheng from the same prefecture. But later historians found that Tang Hong and Lu’s mother did not share the same hometown and thus Zhou might have been wrong. By comparison, Liu’s account, albeit brief, seemed more credible. Be that as it may, whether Lu’s cousin was Tang or Zhao does not undermine the appeal of the heartrending love story for readers of later generations.

About Chau Ying

Born and bred in Hong Kong with a genuine passion in reading histories, Daoist philosophy, fiction, poetry and drama. For almost 30 years, her interest in Chinese opera/xiqu has been kept alight since the first encounter in adolescence.

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