The Chinese opera The White-haired Girl which was created in the 1940s and based on a folktale achieved a great success in Yan’an. Because of its big following, this story was further adapted to a film in the 1950s, and to a ballet in the 1960s. With the evolution of different versions, The White-haired Girl had gradually transformed from being a fantastic folk legend into a national myth concentrating on class, liberation, and revolution. In order to understand and explore such transformation, this paper will utilize the story’s 1945 opera edition, its 1950 film version, and its 1965 ballet adaptation as research texts. With this process, the audience will be able to compare the women’s pursuit of self-salvation as an independent individual in the traditional folk culture and today’s social class consciousness and revolutionary awareness. The readers will also realize that through the adaptations of the story, the gender discourse was also put into light since the May Fourth Movement was also overwhelmed by the revolutionary discourse.
In 1942, Ren Ping, who worked at the art troupe of the military, brought the initial story about the white-haired girl. He spoke of a rich man still having no son after marrying two wives. So he married for the third time but still ended up having a daughter. The rich man was irritated and expelled the third wife and her daughter from the family. They were forced to stay in a cave, living on sacrifices.
Wang Bin, the director of the opera The White-haired Girl also narrated a story similar to that of Ren Ping’s but with slight differences on the details. According to him, “The landlord, by the excuse that his wife cannot be child-rearing, raped a young servant girl, and promised that she could be his wife as long as she gave birth to a boy. Yet unfortunately, she has a girl and therefore was expelled.”
Truly, the story of the mysterious white-haired girl got the attention of people from various fields. As a matter of fact, the enigma prompted Reporter Li Mantian from Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Daily to collect and compile the various versions of these legends during the early 1940s. These stories eventually completed the novel named The White-haired Girl. The story talked about a tenant farmer Yang Bailao, who was forced to sell his daughter Xi’er to the landlord Huang Shiren to repay his debt. Yang Bailao then committed suicide, and after suffering all kinds of humiliation at the landlord’s home, Xi’er eventually escaped from the landlord’s house and hid in a mountain temple while surviving on offerings. Her whole body gradually became white due to lack of salt intake and sunlight. Because she often appeared in the Nainai temple, local villagers mistakenly recognized her as the powerful white-haired goddess. In the Chinese mythology, people believed that if they prayed to the goddess in Nainai Temple, they could obtain male descendants. At the end of the story, Xi’er was rescued from the mountain and started her normal life.
There are different versions of the legend of the white-haired girl, but if we abstract the characters according to their functions in the story, we can draw a story mode. Under the persecution of an evil person, an innocent girl escaped to a remote mountain by herself for survival. During years of life in the wild, her hair became longer and longer, which eventually turned white completely. Because of her appearance, she was considered as a “female immortal”. Many years later, she came across a savior and returned to the society, and then lived happily.
The narrative mode is the most common in folktales actually. In this mode, two characters—the evil person and the savior, contribute to the twist of fate of the innocent girl. The former makes her life deteriorate; while the latter propels her life to a safe direction. The white hair of the girl, on the other hand, suggests the long-history, Chinese legend of the female haired immortal.
In most stories about the female haired immortal (whose skin or hair may be black, purple, green, white, or yellow) recorded by ancient Chinese literati, the role of evil person was described in details while the role of savior didn’t appear at all. Usually the stories concluded with the leading female character saving herself. And, at the end, the leading character generally chose to live in mountain, showing the aversion or abandon of the mundane life.
In the original story, there are only three main characters: the white-haired female immortal, her father, and the despotic landlord. Such story can happen on any patriarchal society taking women as trading objects. In fact, there are all sorts of similar stories in literature tradition. In these stories, females are traded between two patriarchal families forced by violence and dirty tricks instead of peaceful wedding ceremonies that are approved by morality and tradition.
After the story spread into the revolutionary base area of Yan'an of the Communist Party by Li Mantian, it was adapted to an opera. The version told by Li Mantian and the rest of the versions may reflect either the patriarchal feudal idea that women are inferior to men or the fact that women suffered feudal patriarchal oppression. Nevertheless, the creator of the opera had overlooked other potential issues that could arise in the story.
In order to change the various social conflicts in rural area into class conflict, story adaptation masters tried to endow the story with revolutionary and hierarchy significance. In the 1945s opera version, a new role was added; it is Xi’er’s fiancé Dachun. After taking part in the Communist Party, Dachun came back to the village and rescued Xi’er from the mountain. In this adaptation, the savior (Wang Dachun) was clearly identified as a member of the CPC. Thus, the opera mainly proceeded from the class struggle and the gender factors and patriarchal oppression against women.
The opera The White-haired Girl has highlighted the conflicts and struggles between the father and Xi’er and the landlord through comparison of two different eras and social systems, eventually delivering the theme of this opera “the Old Society forces people to become ghosts, and the New Society restores ghosts back to life.” Delivery of the theme has definitely brought the story to a level of social class and liberation. First of all, the identity of the role “white-haired girl” was reinforced in the opera. Xi’er, born in a poor farmer's family, labeled as an innocent girl stands for a social class level subjected to oppression and exploitation. Similarly, the landlord Huang Shiren is not just a landlord, but an evil group represented by him. In the opera, it also refers to the any old authorities. While the savior, Dachun, in addition to having a marriage engagement with Xi’er, is also a CPC member who represents a savior group. Thus the identity of the roles was reinforced. Naturally the signifier of “class” was introduced naturally.
Secondly, in the opera, the role functions of evil people and saviors were also clearly defined. The landlord committed all types of crimes—hounding Xi’er's father to death, raping helpless Xi’er, and tending to killing her. Poor people like Xi’er could not live a good life in the world of Huang Shiren, and thus was forced to be a “ghost” in their society. The “savior”, on the other hand, saved her from the dark cave, brought her brightness and future, resumed her dignity as a human, and shown her the great power the he possessed. With that we can infer that Xi’er resumed her normal life like an ordinary people instead of hiding in a cave like a ghost.
In the traditional stories of The White-haired Girl, there was a mention of the evil persons but not the saviors, whereas in the opera version, the savior is clearly specified as the communists.
The disappearance of the May-Fourth Spirit
The gender identity of Xi’er in different versions is getting more and more ambiguous, and she is more likely becoming an abstract symbol. Her suffering as a female in a patriarchal society is gradually substituted by the suffering of a social class subjecting to abuse and coercion. In other words, the sexual violence referred to in the piece translates to the existing class violence occurring in the modern world. Xi’er’s female identity represents class conflict.
It is worthy of notice that in the context of socialism, the word “female” was replaced by “woman”. In fact, the word “women” is the result of replacing sexual identity with social identity. Tani Barlow argues that “woman” (妇女) is inherited from the Confucian traditions. Confucian culture is to define an individual in the network of kinship and social relation. Thus every individual is the integration of some responsibilities and obligations. Similarly, “woman” (妇女) in Confucian does not refer to the people with female sexual characteristics, but a lady surrounded by specific kinship or social relationship. In other words, a person is called “woman” not because she is biologically has feminine attributes; she is a “woman” because of her obedience to Confucian ethics that include wifely submission and virtue.
In the New Culture Movement, the definition of human based on kinship and social relationship was deeply affected. Intellectuals of the New Cultural Movement considered such definition as non-human or anti-humanity. Here, the so-called humanity is the core of bourgeois enlightenment thought—human nature on the theory of human nature. The theory of human nature defines human as something of opposite gender, that is, man and woman. In such definition, sexual difference is firmly associated with individual identity. Foucault told us that since the 19th Century, psychologists, psychoanalysts, and sexual psychologists have reminded us repeatedly that “our design is the truth for us”. To fully understand and discover oneself, one should understand the secret desire hidden in the bottom of his heart. Although Foucault did not talk about sexual identity, his analysis on sexual desire, to some extent, is applicable to sexual identity. In the Victorian era, gender differences are in deemed essential. Men and women are diametrically opposed to each other. Each of them has their own psychological and physiological features. One’s social and political identity seems to change with the changes of environment, yet sexual identity is destined and cannot be changed easily. Any ideological system can be regarded as inhumane as long as it fails to admit sexual difference or take it as the most essential and fundamental identity. The spirit of the May Fourth Movement was introduced from the West, which is a humanized theory built based on sexual difference. Therefore, intellectuals during and after May Fourth Movement cared so much about human nature and sex-related topics.
However, since the opening of Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, the art and literature serving for politics became the only direction of literature and art in Yan'an. The enlightenment position of intellectuals was submersed and become literary and art workers of the Party. Socialist word began to reuse the concept of “woman” (妇女) that was abandoned by the May Fourth Movement; the significance of sexual differences in defining individual identity was denied. In other words, socialistic discourse only admits the differences in anatomy between men and women, yet it does not take it as the fundamental difference among human beings. If the biological differences between men and women did not result in differences in personality, then what is the fundamental difference? It is social class of course. When social class became the main identity of everyone, “woman” (妇女) becomes almost a neutral appellation.
The different text version of The White-haired Girl enabled us to experience the conflicts between the intellectuals on behalf of May Fourth Movement tradition and the political ideology. Among the different versions, Xi’er’s image evolved from a female to a woman, which is a process changing from a sexual discourse to a social discourse. Such image transformation was mainly reflected by the detail revision in different versions.
In the 1940 version, the character development course of Xi’er was indeed interesting. At the beginning of the story, Xi’er was not rebel or a heroine in the story; in fact, she showed her purity, softness, and naivety as a young farmer. In Act III, Xi’er was captured and raped by Huang Shiren.
Then she got pregnant and believed Huang Shiren's lie that he would marry her. Realizing there was no alternative way for her, Xi’er was ready to submit to fate. Yet after being reminded by the Maid Zhang Er'shen of her dark future with the landlord, she suddenly woke up and fled to deep mountains.
Today, people can never see the aforementioned story content on the stage (it was deleted in the adaption in 1950). Yet simply by reading the text, we can feel its artistic charm. The author argued that in terms of character shaping of Xi’er, Act III and IV were the most touching parts, deeply revealing Xi’er's internal conflicts and pain after being trapped in predicament. At the same time, the different perspectives of Xi’er’s character and her growing after experiencing a variety of hardship were also portrayed. In Act III and IV, Xi’er has not only suffered from Huang’s bullying and from hardship in survival, but she also suffered under huge pressure after losing her virginity. Xi’er, by all her efforts, had conquered all of the ridicule, while she shaped her character into motherhood.
Such image of Xi’er reflects the insight of humanity and recognition and the care of female’s fate by the intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement. It also displays that the opera The White-haired Girl is, in fact inheriting the traditional spirit of the May Fourth Movement. However, with the role of political discourse, the image of Xi’er was gradually beautified and purified. Her female characteristics and internal pain were not fully explored or displayed, but deleted instead as a kind of shortcomings. “Human nature”, which is favored by intellectuals, was shielded by political discourse. They gave up the tradition of showing the human nature as the root cause of Chinese women’s misfortune and were converted to political norms. Besides, the detail that Xi’er got pregnant also proved that the image of Xi’er was politicized.
In the 1940s opera version, Xi’er, feeling so humiliated after being raped, had tried to commit suicide. In her speeches, she did not blame Huang Shiren; rather she seemed to think it was all her own fault. Later, Huang Shiren planned to get married and Xi’er begged him to fulfill his promise to marry her. Finally, Xi’er gave birth to a child in a cave. She was eventually saved by her fiancé Dachun, who was a member of the Eighth Route Army by then. Nevertheless, because of the ideological needs, the film version in 1950 significantly rendered the love between Xi’er and Dachun. In addition to catering to the audience’s taste, another important goal was to totally eliminate Xi’er expectation on Huang Shiren. After being captured by Huang's family, Xi’er firmly expressed her loyalty to Dachun and made shoes for him whenever she was free. After being raped, she immediately took up the shoes made by her for Dachun. She had never thought of marrying Huang Shiren and her kid died immediately after delivery.
As the representatives of social class, the existence of Xi’er and Huang Shiren’s kid would greatly weaken Xi’er’s purity. The 1960s ballet version of The White-haired Girl is even more explicit on the topic of Xi’er's purity. Huang Shiren failed in his attempt to rape Xi’er. Moreover, he lost and was like a drowned mouse in the fight with Xi’er. In addition, the love between Dachun and Xi’er was also changed to class feeling among comrades. All in all, regardless of justice love or injustice rape, the landlord’s character significantly weakened after pushing the gender identity of Xi’er to the stage. As long as she lost her gender identity, Xi’er is no longer a woman, but rather a symbol of social class. Or we can cite the words of commentator, “the white-haired girl is not merely an ordinary vulnerable figure suffering too much pain, but rather a representative of the oppressed social class fighting against feudal forces and the unyielding struggling spirit.”