My Executive

Modern awakening to Chinese classics

LICENTIOUS COUPLE: Yan Xiaoqiang and Zhang Xiaochuan play corrupt official Qing Ximen and his consort, Pan Jinlian, respectively in dance drama The Golden Lotus, which was staged here over the weekend.


    Jun 24, 2013

    Modern awakening to Chinese classics

    WHEN I was 18, I bought a translated copy of Cao Xueqin's Dream Of The Red Chamber, one of the four great Chinese classic novels detailing the lives of Chinese aristocrats in the 18th century.

    I never finished reading it.

    In February this year, I caught Awakening, a modern stage adaptation of the novel, starring Cantopop singer Denise Ho and a cast of Taiwanese stage actresses.

    A suave-looking star and an all-female cast dressed in slick, black pants and blazers, along with modern pop songs and a minimalist backdrop, helped reawaken my interest in the classic.

    I wanted to find out more about the tragic lives of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu, the two protagonists in Cao's work.

    I realised, of course, that Awakening was skimming only the surface of an extensive novel that delves much deeper into the psyche of the Chinese centuries ago. But the modern adaptation served to reignite my interest in the original work.

    Chinese classics remain a favourite among playwrights and film-makers. A number have been given a modern twist to appeal to a younger crowd, who, like me, are unfamiliar with the originals, or are not well-versed enough to read the classics in Chinese.

    One such classic that was given a reinvention is dance drama The Golden Lotus, which was staged here over the weekend.

    The 100-minute contemporary dance, choreographed by Beijing Dance Theater director Wang Yuanyuan, is based on the 17th-century sexually-explicit novel Jin Ping Mei - which is still banned in China - and uses modern dance techniques that are titillating and sensual to tell the story of a licentious couple, merchant Ximen Qing and his consort, Pan Jinlian.

    Haunting melodies coupled with electronic tones helped in modernising the tale, which is still relevant today. And what a tale it is, one of debauchery, sexual politics and female empowerment.

    The cast of The Golden Lotus were largely born in the 1980s, so the question of how this bunch of Gen Y dancers tackle the sophisticated, sordid novel came up.

    Dancer Yan Xiaoqiang, 27, who plays the anti-hero Ximen, was asked how he relates to the character.

    "Everyone has a dark side to them and an addiction to sex," he said during a meet-the-cast session. "(The Golden Lotus) is not about sex, it's about humans. Human nature never changes."

    Chinese classics are one of the great pillars of our culture and making these timeless stories relevant to people today helps to awaken them to the beauty of the original works.

    After catching Awakening, I went home to flip through my translated copy of Dream Of The Red Chamber. I've yet to finish the book, but I'm already thinking of getting my hands on a well-translated copy of Jin Ping Mei.