Author: Chau Ying
Cantonese opera Mu Guiying Routing Hongzhou was written by renowned Hong Kong scriptwriter-librettist, Yip Shiu-tak (1929–2009), for the inaugural production of Fook Sing Cantonese Opera Troupe, founded by Law Ka-ying and Liza Wang Ming-chuen in August 1988.
Inspired by the folk legends The Generals of the Yang Family, Mu Guiying Routing Hongzhou tells the story of warrior Mu Guiying and her husband Yang Zongbao as they fight to defend Hongzhou from the Liao invaders (the Khitans). The play is part of the repertories of Cantonese opera and other Chinese traditional theatre genres such as Peking opera, Hebei Clapper opera and Qinqiang (of Shaaxi province). Among them, the Peking opera version was adapted by the Peking opera artist, Wang Yaoqing (1881–1954) from Routing Hongzhou in the traditional repertory. It was also made into a film in 1963 featuring Liu Xiurong and Zhang Chunxiao as the leads. The play is now in the stock repertoire of the China National Peking Opera Company.
Rising Star Wang Zhiliang as Yang Zongbao
Although the Cantonese opera version of Mu Guiying Routing Hongzhou contains a number of action scenes, like roll-calling the generals and confrontation of the two armies, the focus of the play actually lies in the passionate relationship between Mu Guiying and Yang Zongbao. Also dealing with other aspects of family relationships, such as that between father (Yang Yanzhao, also known as Yang Liulang) and son (Zongbao), and that between Zongbao’s mother (Princess Chai) and her daughter-in-law (Guiying), the play may be viewed as a family drama with a warrior couple as the protagonists.
Rising Star Dianna Tse as Mu Guiying
The characterisation of Mu Guiying is vivid, detailing her emotions and reactions under different situations: her confidence when roll-calling the generals, distinguishing herself as a leader to be trusted; her sense of justice and impartiality when enforcing discipline; her respectfulness towards her in-laws; and her tenderness when soothing her husband’s rage, create a convincing, full portrayal of a woman-warrior of intelligence, rigour and grace. For an actress, the role is highly demanding in terms of vocal and acrobatic techniques, but it is also one that offers a rare opportunity to show versatility and virtuosity.
Rising Star Lao Yu Fung as Yang Liulang
The male lead role of Yang Zongbao requires the actor to display both his cultured family background and upbringing and his proud and spoilt nature: the only son of Yang Liulang, and sole heir of generations of the Yang family, Yang Zongbao is a pampered child who remains reckless and immature even after his marriage, facets of his character that are demonstrated when he lets himself be provoked by the enemy, recklessly rushing into the battle against Mu’s command, and in his response to the punishment that Mu orders for his defiance. To sympathetically portray a reckless young warrior and show that he is also worthy of Mu’s respect and love is a huge challenge for any male lead in Cantonese opera.
In the house programme of the inaugural production, the scriptwriter-librettist, Yip Shiu-tak wrote that upon seeing the Peking opera version of Routing Hongzhou for the first time, he wanted to adapt it into a Cantonese opera, but “there are certain difficulties. It is not possible to simply use the Peking opera staging ‘as is’ because Cantonese opera has its own performing traditions.” After careful adaptation, the present version of Mu Guiying Routing Hongzhou is a blend of both genres, with the use of traditional set scenes of Cantonese opera, like Roll-calling the Generals and Convicting the Husband and the stylised movements characteristic of Peking opera. The scene Crossing the River, for instance, demands complex movements. Wearing full armour and holding a riding whip and command flag, Mu leads a huge army as they prepare to cross the Yellow River, creating a powerful heroic image as she rides on stage with Yang Zongbao leading the vanguard.
Legends of The Generals of the Yang Family
Famed for their courage and commitment in defending the country, the legendary stories of the heroes and heroines of the Yang family, including the patriarch, Lord Yang Ye, his wife Madame She (who assumed the matriarch role upon his death), Yang Liulang, Yang Zongbao, Mu Guiying and Yang Wenguang, have been told and retold in countless novels, operas, films and TV dramas.
As their story went down history, more alleged characters appeared, and the plot also became much more complex to the point that multiple systems were developed with very different characters and storylines. It was not until the mid-Ming dynasty when two novels of the Yang family were published, along with another novel featuring Huyan Zan, the fierce warrior who served in the Yang’s family army, that the legend of the Yang generals was finally streamlined.
Rising Star Janet Wong as Princess Chai
Over the centuries, the characters and stories, both real and fictional, have been embellished and added to. Of the many Yang family characters, only Lord Yang Ye, Madame She, Yang Yanzhao, Yang Wenguang and Huyan Zan were real figures. Historians also find that their actual prominence and military achievements may not have been as monumental as depicted in the tales. But the common yearning for heroes allowed the fictitious renderings and stagings of traditional theatre elevate the Yang generals to fame, creating tales of unwavering courage and persistence that have brought hope and inspiration to many frustrated souls.
Rising Star Cannon Au as Kou Zhun
The Yang Generals in History
According to historical sources, the Yang generals consisted of three generations who served five Song emperors: Taizong, Zhenzong, Renzong, Yingzong and Shenzong. Their service spans more than a hundred years, starting at the founding years of the Song dynasty with the patriarch, Yang Ye. Although none achieved titles of very high rank, they are regarded as a loyal and respected family to this day.
Yang Ye (923–986), born Yang Chonggui, was a native of Bingzhou in Taiyuan (today, Taiyuan, Shanxi province). As a child, Yang Ye had a strong sense of justice and was skilled in riding, archery and hunting. At the age of twenty, he joined the army of Liu Chong (brother of Liu Zhiyuan, founder of the Northern Han dynasty). Brave, bright, and ready to share the fortunes of his soldiers, he won support from all levels of the army. Known as “Yang the Invincible” for his outstanding military achievements, he was also given the royal family name ‘Liu’ by the Northern Han emperor, and called himself ‘Jiye’, meaning “following the career of one’s predecessors”.
Although Yang Ye began his career serving the Northern Han dynasty, after surrendering to the Song he earned the trust of the Song emperor Taizong (939–997, r. 976–997), and won many battles against the Khitan invaders. In 986, Yang Ye joined the expedition to conquer the north as deputy commander-in-chief, and successfully took four counties in the region of what is Shanxi province today. Later, after a disagreement with Pan Mei the commander-in-chief, and with his loyalty questioned, he and his army were defeated. Captured by the enemy, Yang Ye starved himself and died, aged 64. His son, Yang Yanyu, was also killed in the battle. Receiving the news with great sorrow, emperor Taizong granted Yang Ye posthumous titles of military honour and admitted his remaining sons – Yanlang (also known as Yanzhao), Yanpu, Yanxun, Yangui, Yangui (two sons with homophonic names), and Yanbin – into the civil service.
Yang Yanzhao (958–1014), born ‘Yang Yanlang’, was the eldest son of Yang Ye, and often fought in battle with his father. Famed for his bravery and endurance, it was said that in the Battle of Shuozhou, he continued fighting despite having his arm pierced through by an arrow. Although he entered the government on the merits of his father, his military prowess in battles against the Liao army made him a highly revered figure, and earned him the name ‘Yang Liulang’, meaning the incarnation of the “Liulang Star” (a star of military might in Khitan folklore).
Lacking the skills to deal with the administrative matters of the important positions he was awarded, Yang Yanzhao delegated the tasks to a subordinate official, Zhou Zheng, who took the opportunity for misconduct. Upon revelation, Yang Yanzhao received a warning from Emperor Zhenzong (968–1022, r. 997–1022) but was not penalised. When he died in 1014, at the age of 57, he was esteemed for military integrity, discipline and courage as a leader on the battlefield, and loved by his men and the people for benevolence and humbleness. It was said that tearful people in the border region lined the roads to bid him farewell as his casket returned to his hometown for burial, escorted by imperial guards. After his death, Yang Yanzhao’s three sons were admitted to the civil service.
Yang Wenguang (?–1074), also known as Yang Zhongrong, the third son of Yang Yanzhao, joined the civil service on the merits of his father, along with his two older brothers, Yang Chuanyong and Yang Dezheng. Recognised for his abilities, he was taken under the wing of renowned politician and commander Fan Zhongyan. Later, after helping to curb the Nong Zhigao uprising in southern China, he was promoted to a commanding position in today’s Guangxi. With the ascendance of Emperor Yingzong (1032–1067, r.1063–1067), Yang Wenguang was promoted to positions even higher than those of his father and grandfather for his military prowess as well as for being the descendant of a line of illustrious generals. During the reign of Emperor Shenzong (1048–1085, r. 1067–1085) when the Tanguts invaded, Yang Wenguang received the order to build a stronghold at the northwest front of Qinzhou (Tianshui, Gansu province today). He tricked the Tanguts by spreading false news about the stronghold location in order to buy time to accomplish his mission. Afterwards he also secured a huge victory against the invading forces through stealth. In 1074, when the Khitans demanded to redraw the borders of Daizhou, Yang Wenguang drew up a military plan for recovering lost counties in the north. But he passed away before the emperor could respond and was granted a posthumous title of military honour.
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.