- Operatic Ghosts on Screen:The Case of A Test of Love (1958)
From 1953, four years after the founding of the People's Republic of China, until the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, at least 115 opera films were released—an extraordinarily high number by any measure.1 Of these, almost all were reworkings of traditional operas and stories—many of which were based on popular legends, myths, or folktales—and included supernatural content. Married to a Heavenly Immortal (Tian Xian Pei, 1955), about a peasant who marries a goddess, and Chasing the Fish Spirit (Zhui yu, 1959), about a fish spirit who falls in love with a handsome scholar, are perfect examples of this sort of opera film.2 Ghosts, however, were another matter, because they were more directly related to religious beliefs about the afterlife. The Party's cultural policy during this period was open to folklore as an expression of the common people and as a way to appeal to their sensibilities, but content involving ghosts was generally viewed as backward superstition and hence much more dangerous and problematic than other aspects of the supernatural.3
It is therefore not surprising that over half of the twenty-six titles banned from 1950 to 1952 by the Ministry of Culture as part of its initial drama reform and anti-superstition campaign were ghost operas.4 Yet the bans were lifted in 1957 as part of the liberalizing Hundred Flowers Campaign, and new productions of the traditional ghost repertory were created and staged over the next half dozen years. One famous example was the Kun opera production of Li Huiniang's Revenge, a new adaptation of a seventeenth-century opera about a female ghost who avenges herself on the evil official who had her unjustly murdered. This production provoked a sensation when it opened in Beijing in 1961, inspiring a new Peking opera version and a tour to Southeast Asia. In 1963, however, an infamous attack on the opera and its promoters for having dared to assert that "there's no harm in ghosts" was an early harbinger of the Cultural Revolution and effectively banished ghosts from the Chinese stage until the late 1970s.5 The release of an award-winning Peking opera movie version of Li Huiniang's Revenge from Shanghai Film Studio in 1981 was as good a signal as any that the excesses of the Cultural Revolution were truly dead and buried.
In the narrow window between 1958 and 1960, three famous ghost plays, each drawn from a different regional opera tradition, were successfully made into [End Page 220] motion pictures: A Test of Love (Qingtan, 1958), The Injustice to Dou E (Dou E yuan, 1959), and The Peony Pavilion (Huanhun ji, 1960).6 This essay is a case study of A Test of Love, the earliest, best known, and most cinematically effective of the three.7 The film is an example of Yue opera (Yueju), called after the ancient name for the southeastern area of China where the form originated. Most opera in China began locally and remains local. Only a few genres have garnered a national following, most famously Kun opera, from the late sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries, and Peking opera in the twentieth century, especially in its incarnation as model opera during the Cultural Revolution. The main differences among regional operatic genres are acoustic—in their music, dialect, and pronunciation—but certain repertories and stage techniques were associated with certain regional traditions, and each regional genre evolved in its own distinct way.
Yue opera's rise to prominence was a modern urban phenomenon. At the turn of the twentieth century it coalesced as a minor type of folk opera in the countryside around Shaoxing in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, where it was played by all-male troupes. It was imported to Shanghai in the second decade of the twentieth century, but as it matured into a distinct regional opera form in the 1920s and 1930s, it morphed into an all-female theater.8 Much less stylized and abstract than Peking opera and offering catchy tunes and light fare, Yue opera specialized in romantic comedies and...