Zhang Huo-ding: A Blue But Charming Snake Fairy

Nov. 5, 2020

Zhang Huo-ding: A Blue But Charming Snake Fairy

Peking Opera has been a symbol of Chinese traditional cultures to the West, yet still remains a little-known form of performing art to most Americans, or the Westerners in general. When you watch Peking Opera you’d better be ready for heavy makeup, much solo singing, acrobatic dancing, and deafening music. For female roles, you should also expect the piercing vocal sound of singing. But, Zhang Huo-Ding, one of the best successors of the Cheng school of Peking Opera, might give you a different experience of this traditional performing art of China. She embodies the classical and traditional style of Chinese beauty which is always the type that Peking Opera explicitly endorses and promotes – beautiful, gentle, reserved, soft-spoken and, most importantly, submissive , no matter what school of singing an actress inherits.

Zhang is undoubtedly the only solo singer in “The Legend of White Snake”, performed at Lincoln Center on September 2nd. This is a play based on one of the four most well-known household legends in China. The story is about a beautiful lady Bai Suzhen, who is transformed from a 1000-year-old snake, falls in love with a handsome but ordinary man Xu Xian in her first sight by the scenery West Lake. The marriage is condemned by a self-righteous monk named Fa Hai, who believes that it is rebellious for a snake spirit to marry a human being, and tries his best to separate the couple and punish the snake. Eventually, he has managed to seal Bai Suzhen under a tower forever one month after she gives birth to her son. In this performance, Zhang’s voice and her singing is low, blue, and even hoarse. This is exactly the unique vocal characteristics of her teacher Cheng Yan-Qiu, who pioneered the second biggest school of Peking Opera singing after Mr. Mei Lan-fang, the most famous and respected Peking Opera performer who initially brought this traditional Chinese theater to the United States in 1930.

It is fair to say that being a great Peking Opera performer is an extremely difficult work, given the remarkable singing skills and unbelievably acrobatic dancing skills that is required, in addition to heavy costumes on the stage. This can be seen in the scene of fighting at Jinshan Temple of “The Legend of White Snake”. The audience was amazed by the difficult duel and group fighting with swords, spears, and knives used by the a dozen of performers. Though the drum seemed a bit too loud and sounded strange in an opera performance, it did help construct the atmosphere to make the scene much like a tense battle field, and the perfect match between the actress’ acrobatic movement and the drum beat is also another unique part of Peking Opera. The soldiers acted not a bit less skillful than any world-class gymnasts, while Zhang Huo-Ding herself also demonstrated adept use of sword and spear meanwhile still managed to amaze the audience with tremendous singing. The audience might be puzzled by the solo singing while other actors (actresses) mainly showed on stage as background decoration, but this exactly is the dominant feature of Peking Opera---a performing art that is focused on only one or two main characters in a play. Zhang therefore received every single applause from the audience, while all other performers are completely ignored by. If you think that kind of performing art should not be called “opera”, according to the definition of western opera, you might be right, and this has been a disputable translation of “opera”.  

As a performing art that demands such highly skilled singing and acting, it is a little disappointing to see that it has not become a familiar form of performing art to the Western audience. Language barrier and its strong Chinese elements might play a role in limiting its promotion around the world, but one should at least needs to know that this is truly the most difficulty performing art in terms of combining singing, mimes, dance, and battle fighting.

(Author: Cynthia Yung)