Yu Opera

The most famous Yu Opera ‘The Commander-in-Chief Mu Guiying’

Yu Opera is the third most popular style of Chinese opera in the country, ranking just below Peking Opera and Yue Opera. The term “yu” is actually an abbreviated name for the province of Henan, which is unsurprisingly where this style of opera originates. Like the artist formerly known as Prince, this was the style formerly known as Henan Bangzi[1]! The name was officially changed after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1911. Although it is largely endemic to Henan, there are professional Yu Opera troupes scattered throughout the provinces of Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and numerous others.

The style itself dates back over 400 years ago, but it didn’t become truly popular in northern China until the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In the beginning, it was characterised by its simple folk stories and soulful arias, without the use of make-up, lavish costumes, or even accompanying instruments. Its rustic charm meant it was beloved by the common people and this lead to its rapid development. Small performances were mainly held in teahouses throughout the city of Kaifeng but, as the art spread to other cities, new sub-styles began to develop. It’s true what they say: immature artists imitate, mature artists steal, and great artists make it into something better, or at least something different!

Nowadays it is generally separated into four sub-styles: Xiangfu, which originated from Kaifeng; Yudong, which arose in the Shangqiu region of eastern Henan; Yuxi, which became popular in the area surrounding the city of Luoyang; and Shahe, which came from Shahe County. Of these, the Yudong and Yuxi sub-styles are the most prevalent, and are known for their comedies and tragedies respectively.

Overall the style of Yu Opera is renowned for its high-pitched singing, fast-paced dialogue, powerful rhythms, stylised dancing, and use of martial arts. As time went on, musical accompaniment was added, and eventually developed into grand orchestras complete with gongs, drums, traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu[2] and the suona[3], and typical Western instruments like the violin and cello. Like many other styles of Chinese opera, an actor’s persona is portrayed through their make-up and costume, conveying stock characters like the scholar, the beautiful woman, the soldier, or the clown.

Yet it is the stories behind each opera that capture the imagination of its audience. These intricately woven tales describe the lives of the people or local folklore using simple language, costumes, and sets. In many ways, it’s said to resemble the people of Henan province, who are known to be outspoken, straightforward, down-to-earth, and good-humoured. There are reputedly over one thousand traditional plays in the Yu Opera repertoire, the most popular of which are The Command Mu Guiying and Hua Mulan.

The popular souvenir in Henan Province

While The Command Mu Guiying is a folktale that is not well-known outside of China, the story of Hua Mulan became the basis of the classic Disney film Mulan. It tells the tale of a young woman who defies tradition and takes her elderly father’s place in the army by disguising herself as a man. After twelve brutal years of war, she is honoured for her service and is able to return home. Move over Xena, because Mulan was the original warrior princess!

Other exemplary plays in the Yu Opera canon include The Clever Magistrate, a story set during the Ming Dynasty about a prime minister’s villainous sister, who is eventually brought to justice by a wily magistrate named Tang; and Chaoyanggou Village, which revolves around a young high school graduate named Yinhuan who struggles with the choice between settling in her fiancé’s backwater village or moving back to the city, only to discover the simple beauty of the local people and their rural lifestyle. Rich with tales of morality, family, love, and loss, Yu Opera takes a candid look at what makes daily life so special.

 

 

[1]Bangzi: A Chinese woodblock percussion instrument. Traditionally, two bangzi were used to keep the main tune during an opera, like a primitive form of metronome. Now the term bangzi or bangziqiang is widely used to refer to a type of melody used in Chinese opera.

[2]Erhu: A two stringed bowed instrument that originated from China. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘Chinese violin’.

[3] Suona: A Chinese wind instrument. It is made up of a horn with a double reed that makes a distinctively loud and high-pitched sound. It comes in several sizes and the size of the horn affects the sound it makes. It is used throughout China in ritual music and folk music.

Mount Song

Mount Song01

Rising up at the heart of Henan province, Mount Song ranks as one of the Five Great Mountains of China. Its location in relation to the other five mountains means it is often referred to as Zhongyue or the “Central Mountain”. These mountains are known simply as the Five Great Mountains or the Five Great Sacred Mountains because they achieved a profoundly spiritual status during the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC), long before Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism had taken an important role in Chinese religious belief. In many ways, the mysticism imbued within these mountains pre-dates modern religion, and they unsurprisingly remain a source of fascination for tourists from across the globe.

The mountain range itself rests just outside of the city of Dengfeng, approximately 80 kilometres (50 mi) from the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, and can be separated into two major peaks: Mount Shaoshi and Mount Taishi. In total, it stretches for a whopping 70 kilometres (43 mi) from east to west and is made up of 72 separate peaks, with its summit towering in at 1,500 metres (4,900 ft.) in height. When it comes to tourism, the range has been conveniently divided into three sections: the Shaolin Temple Scenic Area, home of the Shaolin Temple; the Zhongyue Scenic Area, named after the ancient Zhongyue Temple; and the Songyang Scenic Area, where you’ll find Songyang Academy.

Mount Song02Altogether they represent a wonderland of lush valleys, deep caves, shimmering lakes, rippling waterfalls, and historic temple complexes. Arguably the most famous of these is the 1,500-year-old Shaolin Temple, which is dedicated to the Chan (Zen) sect of Buddhism and heralded as the birthplace of Shaolin Kung-Fu. The colossal impact that this temple has had on the history of Buddhism and martial arts meant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010, along with the nearby Pagoda Forest. Nowadays, martial artists and tourists from all walks of life flock to the temple to admire its elegant buildings and marvel at its daily Wushu Kung-Fu performances.

The Pagoda Forest itself is equally as impressive, being the largest of its kind in China. It contains over 240 intricately decorated towers, all of different shapes and sizes, the oldest of which date all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Yet the name “Pagoda Forest” can be somewhat misleading, since it is not a forest and the buildings aren’t actually pagodas! They are more like tombs or monuments, since each one was constructed to commemorate the death of an abbot or famous monk from the Shaolin Temple.

Zhongyue Temple in the Zhongyue Scenic Area carries a similar, if not more remarkable, historical pedigree. Dating all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), it is one of the oldest Taoist temples in China and is largely regarded as the most well-preserved ancient building among any on the Five Great Mountains. However, the scenic area is also home to two lesser-known delights: the Luya Waterfall and the Gaocheng Astronomical Observatory. The Astronomical Observatory was originally built by the astronomer Guo Shoujing during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and, at the stately age of 700 years, it is the oldest of its kind in China. It serves as living proof that, even in ancient times, people would still look to the stars for guidance!

Mount Song 03As with the other two scenic areas, the Songyang Scenic Area is centred on an ancient building of undeniable prestige. Dating back to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535), the Songyang Academy is heralded as one of the Four Great Academies of ancient China. Famous Confucian scholars such as Sima Guang and Cheng Yi would travel for miles simply to give lectures at this venerable establishment. At its height during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it housed hundreds of students and boasted a library complete with over 2,000 books! The nearby Songyue Pagoda, which was also built during the Northern Wei Dynasty, is the oldest surviving brick pagoda in China.

If you want to fully appreciate all of the wonderful attractions that Mount Song has to offer, you’ll need to set aside at least two days for in-depth exploration. There are a number of small towns in the surrounding area offering accommodation and, to the west of the Shaolin Temple, there is even a village embedded halfway up a cliff! The village of Sanhuang has become famous for its precarious position, and is a popular rest stop for hikers traveling up the mountain. Just be sure not to look down!

 

 

The Longmen Grottoes

Carved deep within the limestone rock-face of Mount Xiang and Mount Longmen, the Longmen or “Dragon’s Gate” Grottoes are regarded as one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in China. This colossal complex stretches along both banks of the Yi River and boasts over 2,300 caves, which contain more than 110,000 Buddhist statues, 60 stupas(1), and 2,800 stele(2) inscriptions. In 2000, its historical significance and undeniable aesthetic value meant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its location, just 12 kilometres (8 mi) south of the city of Luoyang, is a telling clue as to how these magnificent grottoes came to be.

During the late 4th century, the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei people controlled much of northern China under the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). In 495, they made the bold decision to move their imperial capital from northern Pingcheng (modern-day Datong, Shanxi province) to Luoyang. After having masterminded the Yungang Grottoes near Datong, the Northern Wei aristocracy turned their attention toward the mountains near Luoyang. After all, there’s no sense in giving up the habit of a lifetime, particularly if that habit is financing lavish works of art! By the late 5th century, the first of the Longmen Grottoes had been carved.

While over 30% of the caves were constructed during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the complex wouldn’t reach its peak until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It was during this time that the artistic style of the paintings and statuary within the caves radically changed, from the blocky and simplistic style typical of Indian Buddhist art to the refined and opulent designs that became characteristic of Chinese Buddhist art. In particular, this “Longmen style” is known for portraying the Buddha in the traditional flowing garments of a Chinese scholar.

Over time, this sophisticated form of Buddhist art spread throughout China, and had a wide-reaching influence across other Asian countries. Caves continued to be carved at Longmen right up until the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but its development was eventually halted due to internal warfare between the Jurcen-led Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Tragedy struck yet again during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), when the Japanese army looted the site and took many of the statues back to Japan. These relics are now mainly housed in Japanese museums.

Nowadays, the Longmen Grottoes are one of the most popular tourist attractions in China and provide a window into the history of Buddhism as it gradually rose to become one of the most prominent religions in the nation. While all of the caves have their own unique charm, there are a few that are usually singled out for special praise. After all, not all art is created equal! These exceptional areas of the complex are known as Guyang Cave, the Three Binyang Caves, Wanfo Cave, Yaofang Cave, and Fengxian Temple.

Guyang Cave was originally constructed under the orders of Emperor Xiaowen and is the oldest, as well as the largest, of its kind in the complex. Evidence suggests it was begun in the year 478, meaning that Emperor Xiaowen may have decided to start building the Longmen Grottoes long before he moved his capital to Luoyang. Talk about thinking ahead! Over time, the cave was filled with sculptures and inscriptions, all of which are conveniently accompanied by a record of the artist’s name, the date of construction, and the reason they were carved. Even in ancient times, it was important to make sure no one took credit for your hard work!

Not content to be outdone, Emperor Xiaowen’s son, Emperor Xuanwu, decided to construct three caves of his own, two dedicated to his father and one dedicated to his mother. These are known collectively as the Three Binyang Caves or separately as North, Middle, and South Binyang Caves. Of these, Middle Binyang Cave is the most well-known and widely celebrated for its artwork. At its centre, there is a statue of Shakyamuni(3) Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas(4), while the two side walls also each have a statue of Buddha with accompanying bodhisattvas. These are designed to represent the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.

While three Buddhas may sound like the magic number, Wanfo or “Ten Thousand Buddha” Cave contains over 15,000 statues of Buddha, the smallest of which is only 2 centimetres (0.79 in) in height! If the sight of so many Buddhas proves too much for you, the nearby Yaofang or “Medical Prescription” Cave is sure to cure what ails you. This cave is covered in over 140 inscriptions, which contain information on how to treat medical conditions ranging from the common cold right through to insanity!

Yet none of these caves compare to the spectacular Fengxian Temple. This colossal cave shrine was sponsored by Empress Wu Zetian, the first woman in Chinese history to have ruled as emperor. It contains a seated figure of Vairocana(5) Buddha that is over 17 metres (56 ft.) tall. To put that into perspective, it’s over 5 times the size of an African elephant! It is accompanied by eight other huge statues, including Vairocana’s disciples Kasyapa and Ananda. The sculptures within this cave shrine are considered emblematic of the Tang Dynasty style. Surrounded by murals, sculptures, and artwork beyond compare, it’s hard not to feel inspired after a trip to the Longmen Grottoes!

Notes:

1. Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

2. Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

3. Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

4. Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

5. Vairocana: Vairocana is a celestial buddha who is often interpreted as the Dharma Body of the historical Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. Vairocana is also seen as the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of Emptiness.

The Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Temple

Monks clad in fiery orange robes rushing through the bamboo thickets; stately sages with silvery beards meditating in opulent temples; the acrobatic leaps and flips of a well-choreographed fight; these are the scenes we’ve come to associate with Chinese Kung-Fu. As one of the oldest and most well-known martial arts styles in the world, it has inspired numerous novels, television shows, and movies, captivating the hearts and minds of people across the globe. Yet few people know that, deep within the countryside of Henan province, the place where Kung-Fu originated still continues to practice this venerable art.

The Shaolin Temple, also known as the Shaolin Monastery, is a 1,500-year-old temple complex located at the base of Shaoshi Peak on Mount Song in Dengfeng County. It is renowned as the birthplace of both the Chan (Zen) sect of Buddhism and Shaolin Kung-Fu. In other words, the monks quickly came to the conclusion that if you can’t solve your problem with peaceful meditation, it’s time to start using your fists instead! The temple’s profound historical significance meant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

The Shaolin Temple02The name “Shaolin Temple” literally means “Temple within the forests of Mount Shaoshi”. Perhaps not the most creative of names, but at least no one would forget where to find it! Historically speaking, the temple was originally built under the patronage of Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535) in order to accommodate a Buddhist master named Buddhabhadra (Batuo), who had come from India to propagate Buddhist teachings in China. As the first abbot of the temple, he dedicated his life to translating Buddhist sutras into Chinese and preaching to his hundreds of followers.

While Buddhadhadra took a much gentler approach, another Indian monk was about to change the lives of the temple’s residents in a much more radical way! This monk, known as Bodhidharma (Da Mo), arrived at the temple sometime around the year 480. According to legend, he had trained his body rigorously as part of his religious practices, and was horrified to find the monks at the Shaolin Temple were so physically weak. He criticised them for their inability to defend themselves and he was unsurprisingly told to leave.

In an effort to prove his strength and dedication, he went to a nearby cave on Wuru Peak and meditated there for nine years. He allegedly spent so much time staring at the cave’s walls that his shadow became imprinted on the rock-face! While the cave is open to the public, the ‘Wall-Facing Stone’ has since been removed and is now housed within the temple complex.

Impressed with his persistence and self-control, the other monks welcomed him back to the temple and he began training them in martial arts. From then onwards, he was honoured as the First Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. He was also responsible for teaching the Second Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, Dazu Huike, after Huike reputedly cut off his left arm to prove his devotion to the study of Buddhism. You could almost say Bodhidharma was forced to give Huike a helping hand! There are now two areas of the temple complex, known as the First Patriarch Temple and the Second Patriarch Temple, dedicated to Bodhidharma and Huike respectively.

Eventually the martial arts training that Bodhidharma bestowed on his followers would prove to be greatly advantageous. At the beginning of the 7th century, a small army of some 13 Shaolin monks were rumoured to have rescued the future Tang Dynasty (618-907) Emperor Li Shimin. In exchange, he showered the temple with land and wealth once he assumed power, allowing it to thrive as a centre for Kung-Fu. The complex reached its peak during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it was said to have housed over 3,000 monks!

Tragically this high point was soon met by decline on the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, when the rebel leader Li Zicheng ransacked the temple and forced many of the resident monks to abandon their posts. Popular media often tells the story of the five fugitive monks, who escaped from the temple when it was destroyed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and spread Shaolin Kung-Fu across the world. While this story is largely regarded as fictional, the temple was often destroyed in such fashion throughout its history and monks did frequently leave to start martial arts schools elsewhere. Consequently, many of the buildings had to be reconstructed numerous times, meaning that the structures you see today are a result of successive renovation.

The temple complex itself is made up of seven main halls along its axis and seven other halls arranged around them. The first hall, known as Shanmen or “Mountain Gate” Hall, is marked by a large black tablet, which bears the inscription “Shaolin Temple” written in gold by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. At the centre of the complex, you’ll find the Mahavira Hall, which is where all daily prayers and important celebrations are held. Its floor is embedded with 50 small pits, which are supposedly the footprints left by monks as they practised Kung-Fu. Talk about leaving your mark!

shaolin-temple03As magnificent as these halls undeniably are, the highlight of the temple complex is undoubtedly the Pagoda Forest. This spectacular collection of over 240 towers, all of different shapes and sizes, sprawls across the mountain. Some are tall, some are short, some are cylindrical, others hexagonal. Since they all date back to a myriad of different time periods, from the Tang Dynasty right through to the Qing Dynasty, they represent a visual feast of diverse architectural styles.

That being said, the term “Pagoda Forest” may seem somewhat misleading, since it is not a forest and they are not pagodas! They are actually tombs or monuments erected to commemorate the death of an abbot or famous monk from the Shaolin Temple. A few notable pagodas were even dedicated to foreign monks, who made the harrowing journey simply to train at the temple. They serve as a testament to the Shaolin Temple’s undeniable allure throughout the ages.

Henan Province

henan01

Alongside the provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi, Henan is widely regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Archaeological sites have shown that northern Henan was settled as early as the Neolithic Period (c. 8500-2100 BC), with cultural sites such as Yangshao and Longshan dating back over thousands of years. Near the modern-day city of Anyang, the ancient Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BC) placed its capital at a site called Yin sometime around 1300 BC. It was in these ancient ruins that archaeologists discovered the Oracle Bones and Oracle Bone Script, the earliest known Chinese writing system in history. Over time, three of Henan’s cities (Luoyang, Anyang, and Kaifeng) would come to be ranked among the Seven Great Ancient Capitals of China. Yet don’t be mistaken for thinking that Henan’s glory days are behind it! It still has plenty to offer in the way of stunning scenic spots and historical attractions.

henanWhen the Shang Dynasty fell to the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 BC), Yin (Anyang) lost its status as capital, but the cities of Henan were destined to make an epic comeback. Luoyang served as the imperial capital for the Eastern Zhou (c. 771-256 BC), Eastern Han (25-220 AD), Wei (220-265), Western Jin (265–316 AD), Northern Wei (386–535), and Later Tang (923-937) dynasties, while Kaifeng enjoyed the title throughout the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). Their strategic location as gateways between the North China Plain and the Huai River basin meant that these two cities played a key role in Chinese history even when they weren’t the official capitals. But, when it comes to Henan’s venerable history, it seems that the higher you climb, the harder you fall!

henan02
The Yellow River

Henan suffered profoundly during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), as widespread famine, drought, and destruction crippled the province. The after-effects of this devastating period resonated right up until the 1960s, resulting in the deaths of millions of people. Fortunately the region has since recovered, and is now one of the most popular provinces in China for tourism. Regional handicrafts such as the Junci porcelain of Yuzhou, the jade carvings of Zhenping, and the Tang Dynasty tricoloured pottery of Luoyang enjoy great renown throughout the country. The provincial capital of Zhengzhou is a major hub for rail transport, and the province remains one of the country’s main producers of silk. Like a phoenix, Henan has veritably risen out of the ashes!

The province benefits from a temperate climate, bordering on humid subtropical in the south and humid continental in the north. Winters can drop to a chilly −2 °C (28 °F), while temperatures rise to a comfortable 28 °C (82 °F) in summer. Most of the province is dominated by the North China Plain, with mountains rising in the west and the Yellow River cutting across the north. The magnificent Mount Song, one of China’s Five Great Mountains, towers over the eastern part of the province. This sacred mountain boasts a plethora of spectacular temples, the most famous of which is the Shaolin Temple.

The ancestors of China in the legend
The ancestors of China in the legend

Dating back over 1,500 years, the Shaolin Temple is dedicated to the Chan (Zen) sect of Buddhism and was the birthplace of Shaolin Kung-Fu. In 2010, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with its accompanying Pagoda Forest. Other Buddhist sites, such as the Longmen Grottoes and the White Horse Temple at Luoyang, have become popular tourist attractions and are some of the earliest examples of Buddhist architecture in the country.

Alongside the Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Grottoes, the ancient ruins of Yin, the Shang Dynasty capital, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. From the mountain resort of Jigong to the colossal statue of the Spring Temple Buddha, you’ll find sites of major historical significance wherever you turn in Henan! And, if all that history becomes too taxing for you, you can always settle down to an evening performance of the celebrated Henan or Yu Opera.