Reflected Glory in a Bottle

Chapter Seven MEMBERS OF THE PEKING THEATER Tan Hsin-p'ei (1847-1917) All the characters in the Chinese drama, commonly known as the Peking Opera, can be piaced into four categories. The first, Sheng consists of the male character parts for unpainted faces. Female roles come under the heading of Tan, while those of the painted face characters are Ching, and lastly Ch'ou, the term for comedians. Within this framework are various subdivisions such as Hsiao-sheng, youthful parts, Wu-sheng, requiring gymnastic skills, and Lao-sheng, usually the role of a dignified bearded gentleman or general. The celebrated actor T'an Hsin-p'ei specialized in Lao-sheng parts such as that of General Huang Chung in Ting Chün Shan ("The Battle for Ting Chun Hills"). One of "the three famous natives of Hupeh province,'" (the other two being Li Yuan-hung and the famous courtesan Hsiao-a-feng), Tan Hsin-p'ei developed the Sheng roles to a new technical levei based mostly on his individual vocal style. Much has been written about T'an's voice, which was said to have been silvery-toned, sweet, and intoxicating. Audiences sat spellbound, often with their eyes shut, and called him "the little hailer to the heavens." 2 Actors were at the bottom of the social scale in China, being barred from most other professions and from competing at the official examinations. With his fame as an actor increasing daily, Tan was invited to perform for Tz'u-hsi. He eventually became such a favorite of hers that she granted him the rank of a sixth-grade officia1. 3 Tan Hsin-p'ei had now achieved the greatest possible success and was inundated with invitations to give private performances at the houses of high-ranking officials. Allied to these great artistic and social successes were considerable financial rewards; Tan became a very wealthy man. His enthusiastic fans eagerly waited for a glimpse of him and looked forward to the horse-pacing contests. These were held in Peking during the spring and autumn of each year and required the competitors to demonstrate their pacing style along a prescribed course. Tan Hsin-p'ei certainly kept his audience entertained at these events, dressed in a deerskin waistcoat with a rose quartz ornament, a silk girdle, black satin boots, and a black satin cap with a crimson silk button. 81