Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars

This is the book that drew public attention for being 'banned' by the General Administration of Press and Publications.  The author's statements are given at Zhang Yihe's Statement and Position.  The word 'banned' is placed under quotation marks because it has a precise technical meaning that the author Zhang Yihe explains:

Finally, let us talk about the "ban."  Based upon my personal experience, the "bans" in existence are either "quick bans" or "slow bans."  As soon as my second book ("A Gust of Wind: Leaving us Melodies of the Centuries") completed its print run, it was immediately placed into storage.  That would be a "quick ban."  My first book ("The Past Is Not Like Smoke") was placed under a "slow ban," which means that "it was not to be re-printed after the current batch sells out."  Actually, the "slow ban" occurred at the same time as a "quick ban" because I have here a receipt from a Zhejiang city for returning a number of copies of "The Past Is Not Like Smoke."  As for the third book ("Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars"), the supervisory department made an announcement that said (more or less): "The Internet talk about the eight banned books is seriously erroneous."  But a Mister Dai called from Zhangjiagang city at 18:30 on January 28 to tell me: "A private bookstore just received a notice to return a number of books, including 'Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars.'"  Does it look like my book is being banned and I am being prohibited from publishing?  

On January 4, 2007, Ming Pao ran this field report:

On the fourth floor of the Xinhua bookstore in Wangjingfu, Beijing, the reporter found five copies of "Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars."  The bookstore employee told the reporter, "You better hurry up if you want to buy it.  There won't be any more after these are sold."  At the Xidan Book Building, the store employee told the reporter after checking the computer: "We ordered 150 copies.  There are still several dozens left.  It is not selling very quickly."

In Shenzhen, the reporter saw 3 copies of "Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars" in the special section for Chinese biographies at the Luohu Book City .  But when the reporter called up the Book City office, the person in charge denied that the book was being sold there.  Yesterday, the reporter went back to the Book City to look again and found several dozen copies of "Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars" placed in prominent display (see photo below).

The following is the translation of an excerpt from "Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars."  The book is divided into chapters, each being about an individual Peking Opera star.  The excerpt is for the famous female opera star Yan Huizhu (言慧珠).

The Great Cultural Revolution began in 1966.

On June 1, the People's Daily published an editorial titled <Down with cow ghosts and snake spirits>.  The older Chinese people had seen quite  a bit of "the glory and the fall, the successes and the failures" but nobody had ever experienced the "Cultural Revolution" which was unmatched in ferocity anywhere else in the world.  On the morning of June 1, the married couple Yu Zhenfei and Yan Huizhu went to school to work as usual.  As soon as they entered the school gates, they noted that the atmosphere was very tense.  They were frightened.  The principal's office had been turned the headquarters of the rebels.  The rehearsal room had become the battlefield for the criticism sessions.  All the walls were covered up with big-character posters.  The names of  Yu Zhenfei and Yan Huizhu were crossed with blood red XXX.  The loudspeakers emitted angry roars continuous, ordering people to do this and not that.

The mornings was spent under the deafening sounds of slogan-chanting.  The mild and feeble students several days ago turned into menacing devils.  She and her husband had slogans and big-character posters pasted onto their clothes back and front.  The two lowered their heads and stood in the courtyard for hours at a time.  They were also responsible for cleaning the latrines.  Since Yu Zhenfei was a nice person who went along with the flow, people helped him out secretly.  When the other people help him out, he only needed to stand at the door to "keep watch."  But Yan Huizhu received different treatment.  She had been nasty and sharp-tongued towards others, so not many people liked her.  People were delighted that she had to clean the latrines.  If she so much as straightened her back to rest for a moment, people would scream at her.  The two had different personalities and dealt with people differently, and this led to opposite receptions.

The students were rough and brash during the criticism sessions, but they were meticulous when they searched homes.  They went through the light bulbs, bricks and flower pots and found the dozens of diamond rings, jade pieces, American dollars, gold bars (a total of 18 kilograms) and bank passbooks (with 60,000 RMB) that Yan Huizhu had stashed away.  They searched for one day and one night, and they even poked holes in all the ceiling boards.  Yan Huizhu's jewelry collection was celebrated as being refined.  About this, Mr. Wen Huaisha said: "About Yan Huizhu's jewelry, apart from all else, one item was exceptional!"  Which item is that?  It was a platinum gold bracelet with eight diamonds that are identical.  How heavy?  Each diamond was seven carats, for a total of fifty-six carats.  What is its value today?  The experts can tell you immediately.  The entire savings of Yan Huizhu from her performance career were suddenly taken away.  A woman who was like a celestial goddess had just fallen from the lotus throne down to earth and straight into hell.

Yan Huizhu adored wealth more than her life, but all of that was suddenly gone.  She sat on the floor and bawled: "Justice!  Where is the justice!"

One day early in September, Xu Yin was returning home from work early in the morning.  When he got off the bus and took out his key to enter, a woman dashed out from the street lane and said, "Comrade old Xu ..."

"Huizhu, why are you here?"

She said timidly in a low voice: "I have no other choice.  So I have to see you, Mister Xu."

She called him "comrade" first and then she changed to "mister."  Xu Yin did not know how to respond.  So he asked, "There is no one here, so you don't have to be nervous.  How is mister Yu?"

"How could he be doing well?  He had just been given a 'tall hat' and everything in the home has been confiscated ..."

Silence.  They were both silent.

Now that doom is upon her, so whom can she rely on?  Yan Huizhu had tears in her eyes.  She asked: "When do you think the Great Cultural Revolution will end?  What should I do?  When I see people being paraded in the streets wearing a 'tall hat,' I quiver all over.  I cannot go through this ..."  Yes, the past is a long time ago, and the future is a long ways off.  But how can Yan Huizhu get through the present?  Yan Huizhu cannot get over this because she is not a philosopher; Yan Huizhu cannot get by because she is not an ordinary citizen.

Xu Yin held her hand and said: "You take care of yourself.  You must not forget your child Qingqing."

She also held his hand tightly and said: "I thank you for your concern!"  Then she turned around and walked quickly into the darkness.

For the sake of Qingqing, she had taken out 2,000 to 3,000 RMB to give to good friends for the purpose of taking care of her child later.  But these friends turned the money in to the authorities in order to save themselves.  Thus Yan Huizhu's crimes became even more serious.  There was no light left in Yan Huizhu's eyes, and no warmth left in her heart.

When the news came that performance artists Jin Sumin and Hu Tiwei had killed themselves, Yan Huizhu got the idea of coming suicide together with Yu Zhenfei.  So she asked the nursemaid to buy cooked food and two bottles of wine.  She was no longer crying and she was not worried anymore.  She ate and drank with a smile.  After toasting each other, she said: "I'm sorry for causing you all this trouble.  We have been married so many years.  We have completely different personalities, but it was neither good nor bad.  When this campaign is over, let us get divorced."

Yan Huizhu had said the same ting many times before, so Yu Zhenfei was not surprised.  He comforted her: "What are you talking about this?  It is good that we get together like this.  We don't know when this campaign will end."

After another cup, Yan Huizhu introduced her idea: "Jin Suwen and her husband hung themselves.  What about us?  Let us die together and put an end to it.  Are you willing?"

Since Yan Huizhu has mentioned "death" innumerable times in her life and she has "died" innumerable times, Yu Zhenfei was taken aback but did not think too much of it.  So he comforted her: "I'm not going to die and neither are you.  Why should a good person want to die?  We didn't do anything bad.  Why should we die?"

"We are celebrities in the performing arts.  They will not spare us in this campaign."  Yan Huizhu had lost all hope.

If life is hopeless, then there is no way to keep someone alive.  On September 11, 1966, the family had dinner and Yan Huizhu took the hand of his son and went into her bedroom (she was living separately from Yu Zhenfei at this time).  She looked seriously and solemnly at 11-year-old little Qingqing and then she suddenly said: "Mom is going to a faraway place.  So you better listen to 'good dad' (note: meaning Yu Zhenfei) from now on."  Then she took her son's and they went into Yu Zhenfei's room.  Yan Huizhu got down on her knees and then insisted the little Qingqing kneel down as well.  The child did not want to do that, but when he saw the expression on her mother's face, he knelt down as well.  She also made little Qingqing call out 'good dad' a few times and the child did so.  Yu Zhenfei quickly helped them get up.

After rising, Yan Huizhu said solemnly, "You must bring him up until he becomes an adult."

Yu Zhenfei said: "If I have rice to eat, he will have rice to eat; if I have congee, he will have congee."  After this, mother and son returned to her room and Yan Huizhu took out 50 RMB and a small blackboard and told her son: "Tomorrow is Sunday.  You go and play in the park ..."

According to the nursemaid Wang Juying, between 11:30pm and midnight that night, Yan Huizhu came downstairs to enter the child's room and stared at him by the bedside for a long time.  If only the child were taken care of, she can get everything over with.

The next morning, it was quiet in number 11, Huayuan.  The nursemaid prepared breakfast as usual and she opened the door to the bathroom --

"Ooohhh!" A shocked scream ...

A Peking opera star has passed away.  She wore her pajamas in bare feet and no make-up.  She hung herself on the bar across the top of the bathtub.  She was cold but firm.  After examination, she had a stack of money bills on the desk in her room, totaling five thousand RMB.  She wrote that the money is for whoever will take care of the child.  There were three letters, one to the leader, one to the husband and one to the child.  She reviewed her life, she criticized herself, she apologized to her husband and she asked the child to be good.  Supposedly, there was a letter to the natural father of her son.  For a Chinese person, life is a series of crises; when you have no way out, you have to destroy yourself.  Her face was white and her eyes were semi-open showing the doubts, sorrows and injustice of Chinese performance artists in the twentieth-century.  In her whole life, she cared about face.  What is face?  It is a physical face, it is dignity and it is sympathy.  There was vanity, but also dignity.  When the news came out, everybody has to admiire her determination to maintain her dignity and her refusal to be humiliated.  Yes, if you wish, you can express the dignity of life in such a manner.

The authorities held a "critical session" at the scene.  Nobody expressed any hint of sympathy and pity.  Everywhere, people only showed pathetic cowardice.  I don't understand the Chinese people.  They yearn for mercy, but they are used to being cruel.  Yan Huizhu killed herself.  This was the third suicide attempt in her life.

The most powerful official verdict was: "She alienated herself from the people."  Later, the revised official assessment was equally powerful: "An unjust death."

I admire such a woman: she lived beautifully and she died beautifully.  A tree leaf, a blade of grass, they can green in spring and wither in fall.  The former is life and the latter is also life.

After Yan Huizhu passed away, Xu Siyan asked Yu Zhenfei why he had not detected the death of Yan Huizhu.  He said: Yan Huizhu thought that her problems were serious and she was afraid of being seized by the Red Guard rebels.  Her husband got along with people and may be able to get through.  Therefore, she kept telling Yu Zhenfei that he must take care of the family and the child if anything should happen to her!  He thought that she saying that because she thought she was going to jail, and he did not think about suicide.  Besides, Yu Zhenfei was deaf in both ears and had taken a sleeping pill that night.  Therefore, he was totally unaware of what was happening in the room next door.

Yan Huizhu left behind money and letters, which the Shanghai Opera School handed over to the public security department.  After the "Gang of Four" was smashed, little Qingqing made inquiries.  There was not a piece of paper scrap left and the 5,000 RMB had disappeared.