An overview of the transmission and flow of literature and music within the same literary theme — The example of the folklore «Drunkenness of the Concubine»

An overview of the transmission and flow of literature and music within the same literary theme

—The example of the folklore «Drunkenness of the Concubine»

                                            Ma Cong


Abstract:This paper will trace the textual traces of the story theme of «Drunkenness of the Concubine» and analyze and expound the interrelation between the interpretation of different art forms. The theme of «Drunkenness of the Concubine» originated from folklore, and has been recorded in different forms in the old and new Tang books, Song music history, Yuan operas, Yuan miscellaneous dramas, legends, and zhugong tunes. To this day, Peking Opera is the most well-known of the literary works derived from this story theme. After thousands of years of inheritance and change, this literary theme has been given new artistic life in the new era. This paper compares and analyzes the different understandings and interpretations of this theme from the perspectives of opera, folk songs and pop songs, aiming to find the cultural variation factors hidden between different performance forms, summarize the cultural extensibility in the process of cultural and artistic development, in order to open up a broader space for cultural and artistic creation, and to push forward the creation and development of more excellent cultural and artistic works.

Keywords: The Drunkenness of Guifei; inheritance and flux; opera; folk songs; popular songs


Tang Xuanzong and Yang Guifei’s beautiful love story, which can be called the best story in the ancient times. Since the Tang Dynasty, the story has been popularized in folklore and has given rise to many works of art. To this day, works of art created from this theme are involved in various artistic disciplines, including opera, dance, poetry and songs. The same literary theme is interpreted in different forms, reflecting the different changes of the same literary archetype in different time and space. The same theme is not limited by time and space, and the audience, accompanied by the music and the performances of the actors, can develop a rich imagination, and everyone has different pictures and feelings in their minds, thus building up different aesthetic imagery.

The Drunkenness of Concubine Yang is set during the Tianbao period of the Tang Dynasty, and is a short scene that tells the love story between Emperor Tang Xuanzong, Li Longji, and Yang Guifei, Yang Yuhuan. Tang Xuanzong and Yang Guifei met at the Pavilion of Hundred Flowers to enjoy the flowers and drink wine. Yang Guifei carefully set up a banquet and waited for Tang Xuanzong’s arrival, but unexpectedly Tang Xuanzong transferred to Mei Fei’s place in the Western Palace, which caused Yang Guifei’s heart to be overwhelmed with despair, loss, and resentment. The story of «The Drunkenness of Concubine Yang» depicts the story of Concubine Yang’s journey from full of expectation to disappointment to sorrow, then to wine, then to drunkenness, then to drunkenness, and then to drunkenness, and then to sighing at the end of the prosperity, life is like a dream.

Throughout the ages, numerous literary works have been created on the theme of the story of «Drunkenness of the Concubine», and there are excellent works in the fields of poetry and literature, opera, song and dance, and so on. Famous literary works such as Bai Juyi’s The Song of Everlasting Hatred and Hong Sheng’s The Palace of Eternal Youth have become an inexhaustible source of adaptations for later generations. In this paper, we try to analyze the inheritance and change of the literary theme «Drunkenness of the Concubine» among the three forms of singing from the perspective of intertextuality.


I. A Vertical View of Traditional Operatic Forms and Literary Texts—The Peking Opera Drunkenness of the Princess Gui

Traditional operas have had colorful interpretations of this theme, and have been adapted into classic plays in different opera genres. The most widely known Peking opera, The Drunkenness of the Concubine, for example, is based on Hong Sheng’s masterpiece The Palace of Eternal Youth of the Qing Dynasty, and its most famous verse is «The Ice Wheel of the Sea Island is Turning». Not to mention the performances, the text of this piece is already full of melancholy beauty between the lines. The text of the ice wheel and the Jade Rabbit to refer to the moon, to the island to refer to the deep night sky, «the beginning of the first turn» dynamically depicts the picture of the moon’s first rise, vaguely revealing that Yang Guifei’s heart for the Hundred Flowers Pavilion with Tang Xuanzong’s expectations of the appointment is just like the moon’s first rise, the turn of the moon to rise, gradually strong. «The moon is in the sky, it is Chang’e away from the Moon Palace», the moon gradually rose, the agreement has passed, the grief of Yang Guifei will be their own cold and lonely Chang’e down to the mortal world, to see the mandarin ducks playing in the water, carp into pairs, geese and fly, can not help but touch the scene of sadness, there will be the Pavilion of One Hundred Flowers of the scene of drunkenness. The text is not a straightforward narrative, but rather a borrowed and metaphorical approach, similar to the subtle and delicate way of expression in Beijing opera. In just a dozen or so lines, Yang Guifei, facing the emperor’s failure to keep the appointment, has gone from expectation to loneliness, sadness, helplessness, and the expectation and longing for the two rounds of the moon and the human being are depicted to the fullest.

    One of the masterpieces of Peking Opera, Mr. Mei Lanfang, is The Drunkenness of the Concubine. Mr. Mei Lanfang’s performance in The Drunkenness of the Concubine is a beautiful and dignified one, in which he clearly expresses the inner emotions of the characters through his free and delicate body performance and his natural yet gentle singing voice. The most classic episode in the play is naturally the three cups of wine consumed by Yang Guifei. These three cups of wine, through Mei Lanfang’s meticulous adaptation and interpretation, fully embody the process of Yang Guifei’s psychological changes: the first cup is drunk with a fan covering her face, slightly reserved, still able to grasp a hint of proportion; the second cup is directly lifted up to drink and then slightly sullenly put the cup on the courtesan’s tray with force to show that she is slightly intoxicated, and subconsciously revealing her inner bitterness and dissatisfaction; The third cup of a drink will be the cup fell on the tray of Gao Li Shi, to this point has been slightly drunk, no longer take into account their appearance. Subsequently, a long section of the body performance without lyrics, through the body language of the drunkenness more perfect will be Yang Guifei inner feelings of bitterness out of the performance. The next three cups, «lying fish» [1], not only reflects Mr. Mei Lanfang’s superb basic skills, but also the continuation and upgrading of the previous three cups of wine in terms of emotion and form, which expresses the loneliness of Yang Yuhuan’s heart due to her loss of favor in the best possible way. The perfect combination of Mr. Mei Lanfang’s superb performance and the lyrics vividly portrayed the vivid image of Yang Guifei for the audience, perfectly integrating traditional folk literature and opera art.


II. A Horizontal View of Modern Music Composition and Folk Culture—Folk Vocal Work The Drunkenness of Guifei

Lyrics of folk vocal works often seek materials and inspiration from historical allusions and folk legends. Folk legends have a wide mass communication base, and after being adapted and created into lyrics, they are re-communicated through music, which not only conveys the essence of the national culture, but also increases the listener’s sense of identity with the national culture. For example, many excellent national vocal works in recent years, such as «Meng Jiangnu», «New Song of Liang Zhu» and «Broken Bridge», were created on the basis of folklore. This conversion of inter-textual traces has injected new creative elements and inspired a new vitality of the cultural subject.

As a song with the same name as the classic opera cantata, the national vocal work «Drunkenness of Concubine Yang», composed by the famous songwriters Wang Zujie and Zhang Zhuoya together with lyricist Wang Xiaoling, draws on the charms of the Peking Opera cantata while adding the musical elements of the new era, making a new rendition and interpretation of this theme. In the conception of the lyrics, in addition to expressing the deep palace resentment of Yang Guifei after losing favor, the lyricist focuses on portraying Yang Guifei’s longing for love when she lost her favor under the living environment of the palace, where she lived in luxury, and where the common people’s love for each other in a life of simple food and simple tea became an extravagance in the palace. Through the words and phrases of the padding, the character’s inner emotional color rendering. From «the golden furnace incense cold empty Luo curtains …… neon dresses and feather clothes dance difficult to follow» to «how to be like that coarse tea and rice to raise their eyebrows» to «a thousand beautiful than the human world The progression of emotions vividly depicts the subtle changes in Yang Guifei’s inner world during the process of getting drunk after drinking these glasses of wine. The use of the word «drunk» in the lyrics is perhaps borrowed from Li Qingzhao’s «Slowly Sounding», or from the rhythm of recitation in the opera, but whichever it is, the lyrics portray Yang Guifei’s inner struggle and bitterness as she wants to drink away her sorrows and get drunk.

The composer wrote this piece for female voices to sing, and the soft and bright ethnic soprano voice is naturally the most appropriate to express the feelings of Yang Guifei. The work has a two-part structure. Combined with the lyrics, the first part of the work mainly describes the character’s inner anguish and her memories of and attachment to the past; the second part mainly describes the character’s helplessness and grief over the loneliness of the palace, as well as her longing for an ordinary love and life. The introductory part of the song in 8 bars uses the dissonance effect of small intervals to create a ghostly and gloomy color, which paves the way for the main melody to enter. The first part of the song is played at 50 beats per minute, using a combination of dotted quarter notes and dotted sixteenth notes, imitating the sad tone of a character crying, narrating his inner sorrow, and the use of temporary variations highlights the color of sadness. The last word of the concluding phrase is a pitchless «drunk», marked with a downward sloping vocal cue, which ends the recollection with a long sigh.

The interlude immediately changes to a tight 132 beats per minute, with a smooth, even tempo and a continuous accented upward progression to express the character’s strong inner conflict, and then returns to the previous tempo with a bar of «rit» (slowing down) to lead into the following phrases. The weak beat of the consecutive phrases and the unstable rhythmic pattern emphasize the strong inner feelings of Yang Guifei, and also imply that Yang Guifei was in a state of drunkenness when she expressed such feelings. The accompaniment draws on the rocking board of opera, which is often referred to as «pulling tightly and singing slowly», highlighting the excitement and sadness of the main theme. The two lines of «Drink this cup again, drunk drunk drunk, and fly with you, drunk drunk drunk drunk» become the emotional climax of the second part of the song, which is an outburst of the emotion of the whole song, depicting that Yang Guifei is already drunk, drunk with sadness, and wants to use wine to indulge her emotion, and releases all of her inner emotion through these two lines. The composer has also embodied the highest notes in these two lines, expressing the inner cry of the character. The transition to the initial 50 beats per minute is followed by a phrase of 108 beats per minute, which imitates the Peking Opera’s «palletizing board» and is meant to highlight the character’s deep inner realization that all the prosperity is but a passing cloud, «When the green silk is white and the red face is faded, only then will I know that a thousand beauties are more beautiful than the true love of the world, drunken drunken drunken drunken, drunken drunken drunken, drunken drunken drunken, drunken drunken drunken, drunken drunken drunken, drunken drunken drunken. The expression of the drunken Yang Guifei’s inner emotion after venting, to face the inner disappointment, powerlessness and the desire for ordinary people’s love and self-pity for their own, but can only be locked in the palace door, drink to dispel the sorrows, accept the reality of such loneliness and loneliness.

This vocal work is an excellent example of folk vocal works in recent years. While drawing on elements of folk tales, poems and operas, it utilizes modern compositional techniques and singing skills for new interpretations, giving new life to the image of such a classic story as «The Drunkenness of the Concubine», and allowing more people who don’t pay much attention to operas to learn about the love story of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Xuanzong and Yang Guifei through the form of songs.


III. The Reception and Transmission of Literature in Contemporary Popular Music Texts — The Popular Song «The Drunken Drunkenness of the New Noble Concubine

The reason why popular music is positioned as «popular» is naturally because of its wide popularity and large audience in the current culture. In the process of social development, it is one of the most representative cultural phenomena of the time, expressing the working people’s yearning and love for love and a better life. From ancient times to the present, every era has its own «popular music». All kinds of folk music since the Book of Songs and the Chushu can be called «popular music» at that time. Most of the lyrics of pop music express their inner feelings directly, either joyfully or sadly, with most of them being love themes, showing colorful emotional stories. In recent years, Chinese-style pop songs have been prevalent in the Chinese music scene, and many excellent lyricists have emerged from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Zhuang Nu, Fang Wenshan, Lin Xi, these famous lyricists, together with excellent songwriters have created a large number of popular and familiar song works for the audience within decades. There are many traces of traditional literature in their works, borrowing literary allusions or aesthetic imagery to join in the creation of pop song lyrics text, adding a few classical colors to pop songs.

One of the most popular and representative «Chinese style» pop songs in mainland China in recent years is Li Yugang’s «The Drunkenness of the New Concubine», which is also his most famous song. Li Yugang is an outstanding young male actor who has been active in China’s pop music scene in recent years. He has dedicated many beautiful songs with classical flavor to the audience, such as «Mirror Flower and Water Moon», «Ink and Blue» and «Chang’e Runs to the Moon». All of these works have similar stylistic characteristics — traditional and fashionable side by side, classical and popular complement each other.

The piece «The New Drunken Princess» is a perfect collaboration between musician Hu Li, who wrote the lyrics independently, and Li Yugang. The lyrics are based on a folk tale, and draw on the exquisite verses of Bai Juyi’s famous long poem «The Song of Long Hate». The lyrics of this song are beautiful and quite romantic. Different from the above two expressions of the same theme in terms of emotional tone and time point, it does not continue to amplify the grievances of Yang Guifei in the face of her Emperor’s shift in love, but rather bases its emotional base on the poignant love of falling from the Yellow Springs to the bottom of the sky, and the two uncertainties of the past life and the present life. More than anything else, it depicts the entanglement of Tang Xuanzong’s and Yang Guifei’s love for each other, a love that can only be dreamed of. The lyrics of this piece contain a lot of historical allusions, «Jianmen Pass», «Mawei Slope», «Gold Sparrow Hairpin and Jade Tickle Head», «Neishang Feather Clothes» and so on. «Almost every line of the song is about a romantic love story. Li Yugang’s interpretation of the theme of «The Drunkenness of Concubine» breaks through any previous form, with one person and two voices, the first half of which is narrated by a male voice, and the second half by a female voice, as if he were playing the roles of Emperor Tang Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, singing about this entwined and everlasting love in the heavens and on earth together. Li Yugang’s unique one-person, two-voice singing brings the audience aural enjoyment as well as visual enjoyment, giving the audience a brand new audio-visual experience. Li Yugang’s female costume can be described as beautiful and atmospheric, combining classical and fashionable, increasing the beauty of the performance and also promoting and passing on traditional culture. The male voice sings in a rounded and gentle manner, telling the story of the two of them from meeting to falling in love, depicting a warm, romantic and simple picture of love for the audience. A sharp bamboo flute directs the melody to the female singing section, which tells about their appointment at the Palace of Eternal Life on July 7 and their farewell at Mawei Slope, love and hate, parting in a flash. The female voice depicts the love of an infatuated woman for her beloved in the nine heavens or in the Yellow Springs. The woman’s heart is saddened and expectant as she is separated from her lover forever, but she can only dream of going back to the Tang Dynasty to be with you. Li Yugang’s singing voice in the female part is based on the male dan’s singing voice in Peking Opera, incorporating elements of pop singing, and integrating the singing styles of the national treasure of Peking Opera and popular pop music, perfectly combining opera and pop music together. In terms of stage performance, Li also breaks the conventional performance paradigm of pop songs and Peking Opera by performing both opera and song, dressed up in fancy clothes and dancing on stage, as if bringing the audience to the dreamy scene of the Dance of the Neishang and Feathered Garments. The accompaniment is also based on conventional pop music orchestration, with the addition of pipa and bamboo flute elements, which retains the popular identity of the pop song while highlighting the classical elements and flavor of the song. The introductory section uses the bamboo flute as an introduction to kick off the story, directly bringing the listener into the classical mood. The interlude between the two sections utilizes a large electric guitar solo, which reinforces the modern elements of pop music and serves to delineate the boundary between Beijing opera singing and pop singing between the two verses. The ending section returns to the melody of the bamboo flute, reframing this heavenly and lingering love story back to the heyday of the Tang Dynasty.



Love is an eternal theme of artistic creation, and many classic works of art, both ancient and modern, are inseparable from the depiction and characterization of love. The love story of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and Yang Guifei, either poignant or disappointing, has nothing to do with history and politics, and this sincere love story has become a good story, which has been sung by people for ages. Literary works can not be separated from the text as the carrier of the main body, can not be separated from the history, the cultural reference and inheritance. Literary works are the aesthetic resources for artistic creation, so summarizing and analyzing musical works from a literary perspective can transcend the constraints on the technical level of music and realize a true understanding of the works from the aesthetic roots. The inheritance of classical literary themes in opera, folk vocal music and pop songs has given new life to classical art themes, reflecting the integration of traditional culture with the development of society in the development of the times, and the excellent traditional culture is everlasting and new, which needs to be better promoted and disseminated by us. Excellent literary works come from history and go to history, so that the traditional art from the past life to the present life, and in the new period of new artistic life.






Notes: [1] Guo Kejian, Appreciation of Opera, Shanghai Education Press, January 2011, p. 86


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