John Gittings

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In memory of Yan Huizhu, the opera star who made geese fall from the sky

[Published in the South China Morning Post, 11 Sept 2006, in a shortened version]

The Red Guards swarmed into the quiet lane of Garden Villas clutching their Little Red Books and shouting "down with all Counter-Revolutionary Scholars and Beauties". As they ducked under the washing lines hung overhead, the old men playing chess picked up their stools and prudently went indoors.
A few bolder residents and children followed the Red Guards to No. 11, where a famous Shanghai opera singer Yan Huizhu lived with her equally famous fellow-star and husband Yu Zhenfei.
It was September 1966, in the opening months of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong had encouraged China's young and discontented to "rebel" against all those alleged to be spies or class enemies or just "bourgeois weeds".
The stars of classical Chinese opera were particularly vulnerable to attack because they played the roles of "scholars and beauties" from the "feudal" old society.
One of those bold children who followed the Red Guards to No. 11 would be my neighbour, several decades later, when I was working for The Guardian in Shanghai and lived in the same lane. He told me what he saw:
"They banged on Yan's front door and called her out, waving their books. 'Who should be overthrown?", they shouted. She stood on the door step with her head bowed, and replied, 'I must be overthrown'".
"Then they shouted 'Who is guilty?' and she replied 'I am guilty'," my neighbour continued. "And the next morning she was found dead, hanging inside the house."
Every morning I looked out of my study window towards No. 11 and wondered about that awful night. The house had stayed empty for years but was now occupied by a foreign couple -- no Chinese family would live there. It was hard to find out more about Yan's story. Although the Chinese government denounces the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) as "ten years of chaos" it does not encourage people to recall it in detail.
To relate the tragic death of the former Head of State, Liu Shaoqi, and a few other high-level victims of Mao's wrath or random Red Guard violence is permissible. But what happened in the streets and lanes of China to the tens of thousands who were "struggled against" is more tricky: many of their persecutors are still around, quite a few holding government positions, and the whole episode remains a blot on the leadership of the Communist Party.
The Cultural Revolution, although officially a campaign against "revisionist" back-sliding from socialism, quickly became an opportunity for those with grievances against more fortunate members of the "New China" to settle scores.
A Chinese professor with friends in the Shanghai musical world told me that Yan, a "Miss Shanghai" in her youth, was "beautiful, talented and had many male admirers". But she was rather "stingy and unkind" to her inferiors such as her accompanist and the junior staff at the Shanghai Opera School. So the "struggle" against her was spurred on by their resentment.
More has become known recently about the talented Yan Huizhu who was so beautiful that, in the classical Chinese phrase, she made "fish sink to the depths and wild geese fall from the sky."
The writer Zhang Yihe (daughter of Zhang Bojun, a prominent critic of Mao's policies in the 1950s, and herself jailed for ten years) was one of Yan's fans. She has now gathered together memories of Yan in a moving account of her life: other survivors of the period have also begun to speak.
The picture emerges of a successful actress, already established as a star when the communists came to power in 1949, who could never quite adjust to their demand that "art must serve politics." The envy and censure which brought Yan down was heightened by her liberated attitude towards sex: other women suffered similarly in the Cultural Revolution for their alleged "licentious" behaviour.
We now know from Zhang's account how, after the Red Guards had denounced her on her doorstep, Yan spent that last tragic night at No 11, Garden Villas, on Shanghai's leafy Huashan Road.
Yan shared the house with her husband Yu Zhenfei although by now they were estranged and slept in separate bedrooms. Her 11-year old son Qingqing (by a previous marriage), and the maid who looked after him, also lived there.
Yan and Yu still ate their meals together. A few days before, Yan had got the maid to buy some good food and wine, as if for a farewell feast.. When they clinked glasses she asked him whether they should not "put an end to it" and commit suicide together. Yu brushed her suggestion aside: "We have nothing on our consciences; why should we die?"
On the night of the 11th she did not repeat the proposal, but after dinner brought her son toYu's room, prostrated herself and compelled Qingqing to do the same. Yu intervened, raising them from the floor. Yan then begged him: "Please bring him (Qingqing) up to be a man." Yu replied that "If I have rice, he will have rice; if I have gruel, he will have gruel." Yan took Qingqing back to his room, gave him 50 yuan (then worth 15 -- a lot of money in China at the time) and told him to go and play next morning in the park.
Sometime after midnight, Yan hanged herself from an iron crossbar above the bath, wearing her nightdress and in bare feet, while her husband slept on the same floor. She was discovered in the morning by the maid. Afterwards Yu told friends that he was deaf in both ears and had taken a sleeping pill -- so how could he possibly have heard anything?
It was 17 years since Yan Huizhu had first tried to come to terms with Mao Zedong's New China. When the People's Liberation Army marched into the city in May 1949, Yan tied up her pigtails, put on a blue denim jacket and a pair of cloth shoes, and went out to greet them. Friends said she looked just like an enthusiastic pro-communist student -- she was after all a great actor.
Encouraged by General (later Foreign Minister) Chen Yi who led the troops into Shanghai, Yan at first did well. She was appropriately patriotic and in 1953 travelled to |North Korea to "comfort" the Chinese troops there with opera performances. Her "Yan troupe" travelled around China earning large fees, and with her percentage she bought the house in Garden Villas -- cheap, because the owner had been forced to leave the country. She kept fit by doing ten circuits beneath the camphor trees in her own garden every morning.
Yan's was no ordinary talent in what is one of the world's most difficult forms of drama. Chinese opera has been described by the British scholar A. C. Scott as "a synthesis of speech, music and dance", requiring simultaneous virtuosity in all three areas. Performing on a bare platform with the simplest of props, the actor must convey meaning and emotion through a set of stylised movements, gestures, and forms of speech and singing which were developed over several hundred years.
When Yan was born in 1919. into an already well-known operatic family, the female roles were still taken by male actors: women sang only in the "flowery houses" (brothels) -- hence the term "sing-song girls". Her father, Yan Jupeng, a singer known for playing the role of "lao sheng" (scholars and statesmen), tried to dissuade her from following his profession, but at the age of seven she was already hanging around the studios of other actor-teachers.
As Chinese society loosened in the revolutionary 1920s, women began to play the female roles. Yan first appeared on stage in Shanghai at the age of 16 and four years later she was billed alongside her father. Once, to his chagrin, half the audience left the theatre after she had completed her part without waiting to hear him.
During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Yan set out to catch the attention of Mei Lanfang, China's greatest operatic master whose name was known even in the West. Although Mei's wife kept a wary eye on Yan, she persevered and became his star pupil.
Yan was described as "dazzling in her performance, slim and graceful in her deportment, clear and resonant in her voice, and skilful both in gentle and martial roles". She became equally adept in the three main divisions of female acting: the virtuous wife or faithful lover (qingyi), the military maiden or princess (wudan) and the coquette or amorous maiden (huadan). (Mei had pioneered the fusion of these three roles.)
Yan was also good subject matter for the Shanghai "xiao bao" -- "little papers" or gossip rags -- particularly during a stormy love affair with the brilliant singer Bai Yun. She was a jealous partner and threatened suicide -- on this first occasion without attempting it -- when the affair ended.
Having initially charmed the new communist leaders of Shanghai. Yan seems to have believed that she could retain both their favour and her independence. But like many others among the city's "bourgeoisie", she failed to anticipate how quickly the political mood could change.
After the Korean War ended, Mao decided to speed up the "transformation of capitalism into socialism". The owners of Chinese industry and commerce were "invited" to go into partnership with the state, or surrender ownership completely. Artists and performers were similarly "invited" to work for state companies. Misjudging the climate, Yan first tried to keep her independence, saying that she would "wait and see". By the time she had decided to join a state opera company, the best positions were already taken.
After an abortive visit to the Ministry of Culture in Beijing (when she again threatened suicide -- and this time took an overdose -- ) she joined the Shanghai JingJu (Peking Opera) Company, but as number three in artistic precedence and rate of pay. Over a whole year, she only appeared 13 times on the stage.
When in spring 1957 Chinese intellectuals and non-communist politicians were briefly encouraged by Mao Zedong to "speak out" in the Hundred Flowers movement, Yan seized the chance.
She vented her frustration in a newspaper article under the imprudent headline "I want to act! Let me act!". Why should she take money for doing nothing, she complained, and why did the theatre not even consult her on artistic matters? Hundreds of fans wrote in supporting her demand.
Complaining about the Party's control of the arts was a serious misjudgement but Yan was not alone in making it: When the Hundred Flowers movement came to an abrupt end she was lucky not to be sent to the countryside to "reform her thought".
The price she paid was not only to deliver an abject apology but to denounce as a "devilish rightist" the cultural leader who had encouraged her and others to speak out. After her apology (prepared with guidance from anxious friends) was officially accepted by the Party, she rushed home crying "I've passed! I've passed" and ordered the maid to prepare a crab feast for her friends.
As so often in Chinese politics, a lull followed when everything seemed to go well for Yan. She was appointed deputy director at the Shanghai Opera School; she went on a European tour and her travel diary was published in the press.
The school director at the academy was Yu Zhenfei ,a nationally known star who had been personally invited back to China from Hong Kong by Premier Zhou Enlai. By now Yan was married after a brief affair with a junior actor in which she became pregnant with her son Qingqing. She set her sights on the much older Yu, secured a divorce and married him in 1960: the Party regarded this as a more suitable relationship.
But although Yan often declared that she wished to follow the Party's Great Road and Reform her Outlook, she continued to behave more like a bourgeois "taitai" (madam) than a socialist "cultural worker".
Her biographer Zhang has gathered some revealing anecdotes. When Yan led her students to pick grass (in a disastrous campaign to eliminate the habitat for insects) she wore a fine pair of gloves. She embraced young men in public and wore low-cut dresses, showing no regard for "socialist morality".
As Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing prepared the ground for the Cultural Revolution, Yan became more vulnerable. Jiang, once a minor film star in Shanghai, announced that she would create a new form of "revolutionary opera" but she was jealous of the great stars and excluded Yan from the venture..
"Tell Yan to stop performing," Jiang snapped. "She should ponder her errors and not try to get involved."
On 6 June 1966 Yu and Yan went to the Drama School as usual to find it plastered with "big-character posters" denouncing them. They were set to clean out the toilets, but their treatment was different. The mild elderly Yu was allowed to rest while student sympathisers did the cleaning for him. If Yan straightened up from her task for a moment she was shouted at and cursed.
The Red Guards ransacked No. 11, Garden Villas, finding gold bars, cash and jewellery hidden in vases and flowerpots. Yan sat stunned as she watched, crying out "where is justice?"
The explanation most often given for Yan's suicide was that she simply "could not take it", particularly after being shown a copy of an order to send people like her to be "reformed through labour" in the countryside.
But it was a deeper admission of defeat from a vulnerable woman whose acting -- the very device she had used with such charm and skill to protect herself in the past -- now became the main charge against her. Nor could she even cajole her husband into joining her in the ultimate performance of all.
Later Yu would not only plead deafness as a reason for not having heard Yan prepare her suicide. He would also claim that when she asked him to "take care of Qingqing", he had merely thought she was concerned about what might happen if she were sent away for labour reform.
I suspect that Yu's deafness was more than literal, and that like many other intellectuals battered by those times, he survived by simply closing down his emotions. After several years of labour reform: Yu returned to a house still in the chaos left by the Red Guards, and with a leaking roof. Was he troubled then by his memories?
One day a friend found Yu sitting dazed on his bedside as the water poured in, looking "like a bird orphaned on the nest". After mopping up in vain, the friend decided to take Yu into his own home. It was soon decided that he needed a permanent companion, and his former students found him a new wife.
Yan's son Qingqing continued to live in No. 11 (neighbours remember how he used to have long card-playing sessions) and eventually moved south in the post-Mao era to become a businessman. By the late 1990s, when the house was finally let to foreign tenants, the wisteria growing on the verandah had spread around three sides of the garden.
In his final years Yu's reputation was officially restored: he was given an honorary degree and when he died in 1993 was buried in the "famous personages" section of Shanghai's international cemetery.
Yan is less well remembered, except on websites for Chinese opera fans which provide potted biographies and a few audio clips. It takes some effort, and Chinese software too, to hear her voice, thin but powerful, singing to us across the chasm of a painful past..

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