I’m unfamiliar with Beijing Opera master Xi Xiaobo (奚啸伯) and the style in general. The more excerpts I was listening to, the bigger the question mark in my head was growing.
If speaking about the four “great beards”, Ma Lianliang and Yang Baosen were love at first… audition, but I wasn’t able to understand (thus appreciate) the art of Xi Xiaobo and Tan Fuying.
To start off, I picked the single play of Xi school repertoire that I’m a little bit more familiar with, Fan Jin Passes the Imperial Exams. Fan Jin is lovable, the story is gripping and the opera is featuring many-many different characters – and a large variety of costumes. :)
The picture below, showing Xi Xiaobo in the role of Fan Jin is a snapshot from a documentary program 《文化河北》Cultural Hebei. It’s in Chinese, but has many archive photos, videos and sound recordings that are worth to have a look at imo.
You can download the video here.
Note the chicken. ^^
I really enjoyed the full version of Fan Jin Passes the Imperial Exams with Zhang Jianguo, that I downloaded as an audience recording, also I found this DVD of the same opera with him here.
A scene from the play is kind of a “trademark excerpt” of Zhang Jianguo, you can download one version below, performed on 3 October 2010 in Chang’an Grand Theater, as part of the Ten Great Laosheng Schools Special Stage.
→ 京剧《范进中举》Fan Jin Zhongju [DOWNLOAD] 65MB
Performed by Zhang Jianguo.
Other memorable staging is a recent performance of Jingju Theater of Beijing’s Youth Troupe that took place in Chang’an Grand Theater on 21 May this year, with Zhang Jianfeng in the leading role, also featuring Zhang Kai and Mu Yu (personal preference). I downloaded this video from CNTV’s website, it’s not perfect but a quite fair recording.
CCTV:    
The chicken Zhang Jianfeng is holding on the picture below is priceless, though comes nowhere near the lifelike chicken of Zhang Jianguo (I was pondering for a while whether it’s a living chicken or not, but the recording proved that it is a prop indeed):
Zhang Jianfeng with chicken
Zhang Jianguo with chicken
The last short video is featuring a very small Fan Jin, she’s performing an excerpt at the award giving ceremony of the 3rd ”Peace Cup” (Invitational Beijing Opera Contest for Junior Amateur Performers), held on 5 August 2011 in the China Grand Theater, Tianjin.
Look at the pose at 03:56! Isn’t it cute?
→ 京剧《范进中举》Fan Jin Zhongju [DOWNLOAD] 47MB
Performed by Dong Tiange (董天歌), 9 years old
I’m not the greatest kid lover in the world, but I was totally fascinated by this little girl in grey fake beard.
(I had to edit this post after I figured out this kid is a little girl, not a little boy.)
Summary of the story:
(with pictures from the Zhang Jianfeng production)
The story is set during the Ming Dynasty, when the imperial exams were harder than ever. According to this article,
With the coming of the Ming Dynasty, the imperial examination system reached its period of full bloom. Great attention was given to the administrative procedures and the tests became more rigorous.
The opera was adapted from Wu Jinzi’s novel, The Scholars. As the author of the Wikipedia article writes, this novel is considered a work with ” loose structure”, more like “a group of short stories”. The first three chapters tell the story of a village teacher, Zhou Jin, who makes his luck in the capital only after 30 unsuccessful exams, at the age of 60. The story of our Fan Jin is embedded in these chapters. (I uploaded the English translation of the first 3 chapters that I found here.)
In the opera adaptation, Zhou Jin appears in the first scene as Commissioner Zhou, holding the prefectural examinations. He notices a candidate who looks a bit overage and very poor. Similarly to him, Fan Jin’s greatest desire is to succeed in the imperial examinations. Unfortunately, he failed many times before, and other candidates continuously jeer at him. However, Fan Jin decides to try his luck one more time, and finally passes the county level examinations, thus earning the title xiucai.
Fellow countrymen and relatives come to congratulate Fan Jin. The local butcher, Hu, Fan Jin’s father-in-law isn’t very happy that his daughter married a poor scholar, though he arrives with sausages and wine:
Now Fan Jin has to pass the provincial exams. Too bad that he can’t afford a trip to the capital. His classmates give him three coins, but that’s not enough. Following the advice of his classmate, he asks for the help of his father-in-law, but Butcher Hu rudely rejects him. Finally his countrymen help him out with some money, and Fan Jin, carrying the basket with all the food they had at home, leaves for the capital.
Before the exams, the candidates are randomly frisked before entering. One of Fan Jin’s classmates has no fortune with the paper he tucked into his sleeves:
When Fan Jin returns home after the examination, Butcher Hu angrily reprimands him because his family had nothing to eat while he was away. His mother is sending Fan Jin to the market to sell the chicken.
Meanwhile, heralds arrive to the Fan house with the good news: Fan Jin has passed the provincial exams! Other candidates and officials come to congratulate him, suddenly everyone becomes very respectful. Fan Jin’s name was the first on the list announcing the successful examinees, he will be a high official soon!
Butcher Hu is on the way to his son-in-law too, carrying a giant bacon this time:
His neighbors find Fan Jin at the market and bring him home. Seeing the official announcement, Fan Jin almost faints. He goes crazy with happiness, runs all over the place and no-one can calm him down. Minutes ago he was selling chicken, now he’s a honorable man.
As last solution to stop his madness, the visitors and the family convince the reluctant Butcher Hu to give Fan Jin a big slap, as he’s the only person Fan Jin is afraid of. Butcher Hu strengthens his courage with a cup of wine, and they go after Fan Jin. After a punch in his face from his father-in-law, Fan Jin slowly returns to reason and all go home happily.
Zhang Jianguo (张建国), outstanding Hebei-born wenwu laosheng, head of the Third Troupe of China National Jingju Company is a well-known present day figure of Xi school.
He was born in 1958 and studied at the Shijiazhuang Drama Academy from 1972. After graduation he was assigned to the Shijiazhuang Beijing Opera Theater and to the CNJC in 1993.
Since 1984 , he’s the student of Zhang Rongpei (张荣培), disciple of Xi Xiaobo, and also got guidance from Ouyang Zhongshi (欧阳中石), noted calligrapher and Xi school Beijing opera artist.
Zhang Jianguo is a very hardworking person who spent many years on stage, mastering Xi school skills. Besides winning first prize at several art festivals and competitions, he got the Plum Blossom Award in 2002.
Typical pieces of his wide regular repertoire are Baidi Cheng, Fan Jin Passes the Imperial Exams, Shi-Kong-Zhan, Shangtian Tai, Silang Visits His Mother, The Minister and the General Reconcile, Zhulian Fort, Wujia Slope, Ganlou Temple, Famen Temple, Zhaoshi Guer, Story of the Black Pot and more.
Zhang Jianfeng (张建峰), excellent young Xi school laosheng graduated at the Shijiazhuang (Hebei) Art Academy in 1999, and the same year he was assigned to the Jingju Theater of Beijing.
He was taught by the above mentioned Zhang Rongpei and Xi Xiaobo’s son, Xi Yanhong (奚延宏), and was formally accepted by Ouyang Zhongshi as a disciple in 2000. Two years later he continued his studies at The National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, and won first prize in CCTV’s 5th National TV Contest of Young Jingju Performers in 2005.
Zhang Jianfeng’s performance is well-knit, his stage appearance is well-favored and his style is very cultured – everything is in place.
Pictures: bbs.cntv.cn, bbs.cntv.cn, yule.sohu.com
Performance info: mask9.com