WENBIN GAO offers glimpses into the last years of Kunqu Opera master Zhang Chonghe.
Widely considered as the crown jewel of traditional Chinese opera, Kunqu Opera is now largely alien to China’s younger generations, for most people find its language too archaic and performance techniques too complex. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Tang Xianzu, the author of Mudan Ting (“The Peony Pavilion”), the single greatest masterpiece of Kunqu Opera, but few seem to take notice. It also marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of Zhang Chonghe, a Chinese cultural icon famous for her Kunqu Opera performance and calligraphy. Married to Yale sinologist Hans Frankel, Zhang resided in New Haven for over fifty years. Intellectuals in Mainland China rediscovered Zhang in her late years and wrote abundantly about her in a frantic attempt to preserve the last glimpses of the Chinese traditions she embodied. However, writings about her skills in Kunqu Opera, of which very few videos and recordings have survived, often exaggerate on the brink of fiction.
Living in obscurity as an unemployed housewife for most of her life, Zhang assembled a close circle of friends interested in Kunqu Opera and helped found the Yale Kunqu Society, whose members include Chinese immigrants as well as American scholars.
I have had the privilege of interviewing Li Liu, resident artist at the Yale Kunqu Opera Society. Founded by Zhang herself, the society has remained for decades as a close-knit group of fewer than ten that meets weekly. A school bus driver by profession, Li is the leader of this tiny group. Li studied Kunqu Opera under Zhang’s guidance for six years, making him the best Chinese flute player on campus. Li recounted details of Zhang’s final years, presenting a forlorn silhouette of the last generation of Chinese literati.
Li met Zhang in 2002 when he just arrived in the states from Anhui to accompany his wife for her PhD program. “I met her children at a church in Milford. I am not Christian, but it was customary for Chinese immigrants to hang out at local churches, so we could learn the American way.”
For many years, Li worked as an unofficial caretaker at Zhang’s house, first for Hans Frankel, who passed away in 2003, and then for Zhang. “At first Madame Zhang was concerned that I was too young to live at an old lady’s house. She was already in her late eighties. She felt that I might get bored and leave her. So she wanted to teach me Kunqu Opera. She thought it might be interesting to me. I knew nothing about music back then, and it was hard. But I had to learn it because I wanted to obey the wish of my employer”.
Li spent the first six months learning one line. He practiced for six hours every day. “Madame Zhang required me to listen to the tapes of other master performers. I am pretty sure that I listened to some songs for more than eight hundred times. In fact when the master Yue Meiti came to visit her, I accompanied Master Yue with my flute. I felt confident because I listened to her tape for eight hundred times!”
Li said he actually did very little as a caretaker. “She wouldn’t even allow me to cook for her. The only thing we did was singing. We would sing all day long and then go to a restaurant.” He recalled. “I practiced the flute diligently. It was impossible to practice it without singing, so Madame Zhang would sing the songs that I was learning at the moment. Our roles got kind of reversed. She was in a sense singing for me.”
There were only two things in Zhang’s final years: calligraphy and Kunqu Opera. Li remembered that after Hans had passed away, it became difficult for her to fall asleep at night, so she would practice calligraphy at 4 a.m. in the morning and go to bed during the day. She practiced calligraphy daily until she was 98, when her body couldn’t take it anymore. But even then she still held on to singing, until one month before she died. She died at 101, on June 18th, 2015. In her last years her legs were too weak to walk to her bedroom on the 2nd floor, so she would grab the handrails of the stairs with her right arm and pull herself upstairs. “She could do it because the muscles on her right arm were like steel. They were the result of decades of practicing calligraphy.”
After Zhang passed away, many people came looking for her personal correspondences. Some were thrilled by the potential commercial value; others were interested from a historical perspective, for Zhang’s family had connections with many scholars and politicians. Li insisted that all of her letters must be disposed of in private. He also resisted the motion to set up a museum for her. “It was unnecessary. What good would come out of it? I know Madame Zhang would approve of my decisions. She had always wanted to live in peace as a normal person. Besides, her children were not interested in her clichés at all. They couldn’t even speak Chinese anymore.”
In a poem, Zhang recounted how she would “entice” her daughter with sweetened Chinese plums to teach her passages from “The Peony Pavilion.” But as soon as she gained independence, the girl broke away from a tradition that she could not possibly identify with.
On YouTube, I found the video of a small gathering celebrating Madame Zhang’s one hundredth birthday. The event, traditionally referred to as a yaji, or “elegant forum,” featured the singing of the elderly master who chose a famous passage from Yuzan Ji (“the Story of the Jade Hairpin”): “I listened to her, one word after another, every syllable depressed by sorrow. Beneath her sacred façade, I sense the fleshly longing. Miaochang, your song is so pure and fragile, how can any young man not be broken?” Ironically, Kunqu, an archaic art form, eternalizes longings for youth. In the video, Li was accompanying Zhang with his flute. But in another couple of decades, who will be able to sing to his music?
Wenbin is a sophomore at Yale College and an associate editor of this magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration // Zishi Li