Jason Zhou*

The Orphan of Zhao is written by Ji Junxiang, adapted and directed by Koh Sun-woong, produced by the National Theatre Company of Korea, Seoul. The premiere and first run were from 4 to 22 November, 2015; the second run was from 18 January to 12 February, 2017.

The Orphan of Zhao is acknowledged as a morality play, but, in modern times, the word “morality” may raise a dangerous question for anyone who intends to revive this play: would the traditional morality in a 2600-year-old story, initially told by Ji Jun-Xiang in a Chinese Zaju drama of the Yuan era around eight hundred years ago, still make sense nowadays? Furthermore, when looking at this new adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao by the National Theatre Company of Korea, we cannot help but ask: Is there a risk of misinterpreting this morality in a cross-cultural narrative? This is far from impossible.

Tu’an Gu (Chan Due-yee) trains the fierce dog (Kim Myung-ki) to attack the rival family’s doctor Chen Ying. Photo by Nah Seung-yeol

For those unfamiliar with the story, here is the official synopsis of The Orphan of Zhao. Connoisseurs, please move to the next paragraph. Driven by greed for power, the General Tu’an Gu decides to kill his rival Zhao Dun. To eliminate his rival entirely, Tu’an Gu decides to kill all the Zhaos. The family’s doctor, Cheng Ying, is destined to save the Zhao orphan, grandson of Zhao Dun, sacrificing his own child and wife in the process. Cheng Ying raises the Zhao orphan, Cheng Bo, the seed of revenge, as his own son for twenty years. General Tu’an Gu, who had no child of his own, volunteers to be godfather to Cheng Bo. Without knowing his true identity, Cheng Bo is trained as a warrior by Tu’an Gu. When the orphan becomes old enough, Cheng Ying tells him of the tragic events that befell his family and requests revenge on Tu’an Gu.

Many modern adaptations of The Orphan of Zhao in recent years have lost themselves in confusion as to the validity of such morality. In Zhaohua Lin’s adaptation for Beijing’s People’s Art Theatre in 2003 (written by Haishu Jin), the grown orphan’s refusal to take revenge dissolved the significance of the whole play into meaninglessness. In Kaige Chen’s film adaptation (2010), the conflicts between virtue and evil were intentionally undermined, leaving the self-sacrificing Cheng Ying in a bewildering situation.

Cheng Ying (Ha Seong-kwan) cries out loud for his own son, whom he sacrificed to allow the Zhao family orphan to live. Photo by Nah Seung-yeol

The hesitation and confusion demonstrated by modern adaptors of The Orphan of Zhao reflect their struggles between two opposing understandings of the play. They are intrigued by the solid structure of the original story; but they are afraid that their understanding is in contradiction with human nature in the modern context. The modern meaning of humanity is established firstly on the basis of regarding human life as the most supreme right of every individual; secondly, it implies a defense of egoism. With such perspectives on humanity, the regardless-of-cost, self-sacrificing behaviors in The Orphan of Zhao obviously won’t be plausible anymore.

Cheng Ying (Ha Seong-kwan) threatens to take his life to persuade the orphan (Lee Hyong-hun). Photo by Nah Seung-yeol

In the context of theatrical production, modern adaptors are required to comply with certain artistic norms that conform to human nature. They must find for every character a motive or rationality in accord with modern values. This is the only way to make an ancient story meaningful in modern society. Qinxin Tian, who adapted The Orphan of Zhao for the National Theatre of China (2003), might have some profound understanding on this point; she once wrote in the director’s preface: “Lack of confidence in the human being is getting worse nowadays. When we see someone has done something virtuous, we always wonder whether he has an ulterior motive. What a pathetic world.”

Unlike these frustrated Chinese adaptors, the adaptors of The Orphan of Zhao from the National Theatre Company of Korea show neither regret for decayed morality nor ambition to overturn a classical narrative. It seems as if they simply dutifully restored the original play with a seemingly honest approach. Despite the comical gestures and remarks in the acting, the National Theatre Company of Korea’s The Orphan of Zhao makes few changes to the original plot. If you read the script closely, you may find that most of the lines, written in Korean, actually come from Ji Jun-Xiang’s original version.

However, it is still risky to present such a tragic story in the form of a comedy. When the character Gongsun Chujiu flails ludicrously onto the stage, or when the orphan raves absurdly, we cannot help but worry that, with this clownish style, this play will degenerate into the mire of deconstructionism. Fortunately, the creators have perfectly balanced the two deeply polarized sentiments: joy and sadness. They know how to use a comical approach to please the audience, while treating sacred situations with respect, solemnity and awe.

Cheng Ying (Ha Seong-kwan) meets souls after the revenge on Tu’an Gu. Photo by Nah Seung-yeol

If we can clarify what they actually respected, we might be able to understand how they have avoided the contradictions between morality and humanity that are trapping their Chinese contemporaries. The answer might just be concealed in the absurdities—in this play, Chu Ni, the assassin sent by Tu An’gu to assassinate a political rival, accidentally dashed into a tree and died from it. He was just a comical character who died unexpectedly, but, with his last breath, he asked himself a startling question: how will I be written into history?

If, as moralists like to say, morality is one’s own self-restraint, then this restraint might just be understood as self-examination from other people’s point of view, and history is no less than a mirror for every character to reflect upon. Han Jue’s hesitation as to whether to capture or to release Cheng Ying clearly showed his struggle; Gongsun Chujiu’s cursing Cheng Ying when he was flogged with a stick might actually come from his sincere remorse. But, eventually, they made their own choices by ending their lives to achieve their personal fulfillment in history. Maybe that is the real motive behind humanity.

Eight hundred years ago, Ji Jun-Xiang wrote: “In this puppets’ house, with the roaring sound of drums and pipes, awaken from an ephemeral dream, only to find all the heroes long gone.” Eight hundred years later, Korean artists provided us a modern interpretation: “Life is just like a puppet theatre, with the beats of drums and melodies of flutes, one will suddenly realize that life is an illusion, written in water, so cherish it while you still have the chance.” It seems to resonate more with Shakespeare’s lament: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Maybe we can put it this way: The Orphan of Zhao, produced by the National Theatre Company of Korea, made great efforts to build an ideological consensus between ancient morality and modern humanity, but this consensus was not founded on compromise; that is to say, when there were irreconcilable conflicts between morality and humanity, the creators did not dodge the question with ignorance; on the contrary, they provided an answer with a resolute attitude. We can see this clearly in the portrayal of Cheng Ying’s wife.

Cheng Ying (Ha Seong-kwan) closes the curtain after the revenge.
Photo by Nah Seung-yeol

If we carefully examine the character of Cheng Ying’s wife as she has been portrayed in various versions of The Orphan of Zhao in all epochs, we may get some interesting findings. This mother and her one-month-old son, whose lives were sacrificed for others, are the most innocent victims in this revenge melodrama. Hence, their existence will directly challenge the rightness and justice of Cheng Ying’s revenge action. In the original version of The Great Revenge of The Orphan of Zhao, written by Ji Jun-Xiang, the character of Cheng Ying’s wife did not exist. In The Search and Rescue of The Orphan of Zhao, which was included in Classical Plays published in the Republican period of China, Cheng Ying’s wife was portrayed as a virtuous woman who volunteered to sacrifice her own child out of a sense of virtuousness.

Creators nowadays certainly cannot manipulate a female character with such a peremptory approach anymore. Therefore, in this adaptation, this innocent and naive woman can finally raise her voice and demand recklessly why the child from a powerful family must live on, while the child from an ordinary family has to die for him. She will not offer her beloved son for her husband’s righteousness, nor will she allow him to become a victim of political wrestling within the court. Therefore, when her son is taken by force, the only thing she can do is to fight and protest with the most resolute and determined solution: her own death.

This female character keeps reminding us that, although Cheng Ying might hold onto his morality, he will never be able to face his own guilt. Thus, with the promise of vengeance finally fulfilled, Cheng Ying does not feel a pleasant sensation from bloodshed but only an indescribable hollowness. Before the curtain falls, the spirits of dead people form a line on the stage and Cheng Ying walks into them, but he never receives his wife’s forgiveness. The brutal and punishing suffering of humanity might just be the core morality of this play.


*Jason (Jian-sen) Zhou graduated from Beijing Normal University majoring in Chinese Literature. He is a renowned theatre critic; his previous reviews on various theatrical works are published in many mainstream newspapers in China, such as Beijing Daily, Beijing Youth Daily, etc. He is the former editor of Beijing Daily’s cultural news section. Currently Zhou is working in the film industry as a story planner.

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When Everyone Talks About Humanity, I Want To Talk About Morality
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