A Luminary Who Played Beautiful Women

"Intricate kokoshniks, decorated with embroidery and gold; shoes and boots made from goatskin or satin, studded with pearls and precious stones; head wreaths and diadems with enamel; gorgeous belts, broadswords and sabers, galloons, worsted yarn, lace, flickering glitter of diamonds...." That was how artist Konstantin Yuon described the costumes of the Peking Opera artists that came to the USSR on a tour. Some of those riches were left in the Soviet Union. Among them were three of Mei Lanfang's headdresses, given by the great Peking Opera actor to the Soviet Union in 1936 in memory of his Moscow and Leningrad guest performances. It was during those exact guest performances that he played in the productions of "Fei Chen-O and the 'Tiger' General" and "Rainbow Pass".

Mei Lanfang was idolized in China. People used to say, "A single smile from him is the spring of the millennia; a single sigh is the autumn of the millennia." A fourth generation artist, he performed female roles, making his debut at the age of twelve, when he lost both his parents, and, by the time he was sixteen, he had already become famous, playing at the Tian Yu Yuan Theatre ("Garden of Heavenly Music") in Peiping, China's capital of those days. He became so famous in fact, that people from the most remote regions of China would come to Peiping to look at the young star. Some time later he also gained fame as the great stage reformer, the creator of "the New Theatre of Ancient Forms". Eisenstein wrote in his article "The Magician from the Pear Garden" that Mei Lanfang brought synthesis back to the Chinese theatre at the time when singing and epic themes dominated in the North, and visual appeal and romantic stories prevailed in the South (this was even reflected in the language itself: Northerners listened to a performance, while Southerners watched it). Expert on Chinese and Japanese cultures, Sergei Eisenstein heard the name of Mei Lanfang for the first time from another big fan of his -- Charlie Chaplin. Eisenstein and Lanfang continued to correspond with each other even after the guest performances were over. A documentary film under the direction of Eisenstein was made in honor of Lanfang's visit, but after the guest performances Eisenstein came up with an idea for another movie, which required quite a bit of bravery on the part of the actors: many hours of nonstop filming, several takes of the same (incredibly physically difficult) scenes.

Lanfang's and his theatre's trip to the Country of the Soviets in 1935, organized by the then head of the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad Alexander Arosev (father of the famous actress Olga Aroseva), caused quite a controversy in the Chinese press. Those opposed to the tour tried to prove that the USSR audience will not be able to appreciate Mei Lanfang's high art. But those predictions did not come true: Chinese performances enjoyed huge success in both Moscow and Leningrad. These were Mei Lanfang's best productions -- such as "The Fisherman's Revenge" (Mei Lanfang dared to talk about social problems in the language of Peking Opera) and "The Drunken Imperial Concubine", a play about an emperor's concubine forgotten by her beloved.

For his own part, Mei Lanfang admired the achievements of the Soviet art. Very soon Meyerhold would be arrested and shot, Tairov's Chamber Theatre would be shut down, but for the moment the Soviet theatre's brightest flowers are bursting forth with fragrance and enchanting with their beauty. The actor attended several Moscow performances, visited an exhibition titled "17 Years of Artists of the Soviet Theatre", watched the movie "Chapaev", and met with famous theatre and movie personalities. Mei Lanfang wrote the following about the founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, "Stanislavski became deeply engraved in my memory. He had an enormous influence on the development of my art." Impressed by Galina Ulanova's dancing, he presented her with a traditional Chinese costume, which was later altered into a costume of Tao-Hoa for the ballet "The Red Poppy".

Yuon noted many similarities between theatre costumes of the visitors from Beijing and a traditional Old Russian costume. Eisenstein saw in Chinese theatre "realistic qualities inherent in Russian drama". And Meyerhold even went as far as to say that Mei Lanfang carried out "Pushkin's precepts", for the latter did not recognize plausibility in a dramatic art that is a fortiori implausible.

Eisenstein, who became a guide of sorts for the Chinese artist (he was a member of the Committee for the Reception of Foreign Artists), promised in one of his addresses that "Soviet cinema will borrow from Chinese theatre for the enrichment of its art". His teacher Meyerhold was more categorical than that. "How many faults we found in our work after seeing it performed by these wonderful masters!" he exclaimed. "We have many actresses, but I have not seen a single actress on our stage that would have conveyed that femininity which is conveyed by Dr. Mei Lanfang." And this coming from Meyerhold, husband of the beautiful actress Zinaida Raikh! He especially admired Mei Lanfang's expressive hands. To such an extent, in fact, that he heatedly proposed that his compatriot colleagues' arms, which simply "stick out from the cuffs" be cut off. "The arrival of Mei Lanfang's theatre here is more significant in its results than we can imagine," said Meyerhold. "For now we can only watch in wonder and delight. We, who are building a new theatre, are excited because we are certain that when Dr. Mei Lanfgang is no longer in our country, we would still feel his incredible influence on us." In particular, after the performances of the visitors from Beijing, he himself came up with a new conception of "Woe from Wit".

In 1955, Lanfang became the first director of the Peking Opera Theatre. And in 1958, he could be seen at the frontlines of the Fujian battlefield -- he was performing one of his classic roles for the soldiers. One can only imagine how those performances lifted the soldiers' spirits -- after all, the famous images of ancient heroines, created by Mei Lanfang, became the highest examples of valor and fearlessness for his generation. With his roles he helped his fellow countrymen to newly experience and appreciate the talent, the spiritual beauty and the courage of the women of China.

Mei Lanfang died in 1961, and he remained on stage to his last day. His only break came during the years of the Japanese Occupation. Unwilling to perform for the enemy, the artist defiantly grew a moustache and refused to work in theatre.

Mei Lanfang is still revered in the Celestial Empire. The Grand Theatre of Peking Opera bears his name. In 1986, his house museum was opened in China's capital. Among its exhibits is a painting by poet and artist Gao Man: Mei Lanfang is depicted on rice paper in the company of Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Shalyapin, Vertinsky, Tairov, Koonen, a famous sinologist Alexeyev, writer Tretyakov, and other Russian friends of China. According to the author, this painting is not all that fictional -- all of those people could have been guests of the great artist, who continues to hold people's interest even half a century after his death. Thus, one of the most notable motion pictures at the Berlin International Film Festival two years ago was the movie "Forever Enthralled", a biographical story of the life of Mei Lanfang, directed by a classic of the Chinese cinema Chen Kaige.

Anna Chepurnova

We would like to express our thanks to the A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum's chief curator Irina Petrovna Gamula for her assistance in the preparation of these materials.

 

Current Issue


 

Search the site