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[Columns]Chinese professor fascinated by noh

Noh, one of the traditional performing arts that Japan is proud of, is gaining popularity among young people - especially young women. With some high schools having introduced the appreciation of noh into their extracurricular activities, I have seen many female and male high school students in school uniforms enjoying noh performances at a noh theatre near Todaiji temple in Nara.

As a noh theatre goer, I am extremely glad to see these students, but how has noh been received in our neighbouring country, China?

I visited the office of Professor Dong-Lan Wang, aged 60 (photo), one of the Chinese scholars who have long conducted research on the relationship between noh and China at Tezukayama University, and inquired about the situation of noh in China.

Dr. Wang said, “There has long been a strong bond between noh and China.” She added, “Among the approximately 250 noh programs currently performed in Japan, more than 20 are so-called “karagoto,” programs using material from Chinese classical and narrative literature, accounting for approximately 10% of the total. Among pieces that have often been performed are such karagoto plays as “Yokihi” (the Chinese Beauty “Yang Guifei”), “Shakkyo” (Stone Bridge), “Shojo” (the Tippling Elf), and “Kantan” (the Pillow of Kantan). With her publications, including “China in Noh Plays,” which introduces examples of karagoto, “Feng Zi Hua Zhuan,” a Chinese translated edition of the Japanese book “Fushikaden” (The Flowering Spirit) by Zeami and “Zhen Hun Shi Ju: Shi Jie Wen Hua Yi Chan ri Ben Gu Dian Xi Ju Neng Gai Mao,” Dr. Wang is one of a very few Chinese researchers of noh plays.

However, some Chinese historical events have been interpreted differently in noh in the course of their being introduced to Japan. The professor explained, “An imaginary animal called a “shojo” is an auspicious sacred beast in noh plays, but is considered to be a monster in China.”

There are various theories regarding the origin of noh, but Dr. Wang explained, “In China, there are still quite a number of researchers who insist that noh was influenced by Yuan plays, plays from the Yuan dynasty in China.” In Japan, this theory is completely denied. Dr. Wang also regards the influence of Yuan plays as merely a “hypothesis with no evidence.”

Dr. Wang was born in Harbin City in China. In her junior high school years, amidst the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, there was no time for her to study. Even classical Chinese opera, one of the traditional Chinese performing arts, suffered under persecution. After the uproar of revolution had settled down, Dr. Wang studied the history of theatre. Coming to Japan 29 years ago, she graduated from Tezukayama University in 1989, and obtained her Ph.D. in Literature at Osaka University.

Her first experience of appreciation of a noh play, when she was invited by her friend to see “Hagoromo” (Celestial Feather Robe) at Ohtsuki Noh Theatre in Osaka, was a total astonishment for her. It was a completely different type of performing art than her homeland’s classical Chinese opera, in which actors wear a type of makeup similar to that of kabuki actors, often performing with strenuous movements, jumping and hopping to the reverberation of the bustling sound of a gong.

There is a rumor that Julien Duvivier, a French film director stated, “If I were a judge, I would sentence five years of seeing noh plays, instead of five years in prison.” Noh, which is also dubbed a “silent play” must have been an astonishing yet difficult and boring event for many foreigners.

However, Dr. Wang was astonished and completely fascinated by the profound world of noh, which expresses sorrow, anger and a severe mental conflict hidden in silence, and has come to devote herself to research on noh.

This summer, she started to investigate noh plays that were performed in Northeast China (former Manchuria). According to her, she will conduct a four-year research on the situation where, after the construction of a noh stage and the arrival of some noh actors who were invited from Japan, noh won praise mainly from the Japanese community but came to be forgotten after World War II.

She said in a disappointed tone, “Currently in China, Japanese anime, as well as SMAP and AKB48— two Japanese “idol” groups— are very popular among young people. While there were many fans of Mansaku Nomura, a kyogen player and a Living National Treasure of Japan, among kyogen lovers, noh is little known among the people.”

In Western countries, with the advancement of research on noh, noh programs have been translated into the languages of many countries. During her studies at the University of Portland in the U.S., Dr. Wang saw a noh play performed by American students who were engaged in research on noh. “What impressed me was an African-American student who was playing noh, wearing white make-up on his black skin and a noh costume. This reflects how popular noh is among people in the States.”

One of Dr. Wang’s favorite programs is “Kinuta” (the Fulling Block), a famous program considered to be a masterpiece by Zeami. This is also a program associated with a historical event in China, a story where the ghost of a woman who died holding a grudge against her husband for not returning from Kyoto meets him again. This program also won great popularity through its performance in Paris. Dr. Wang expressed her hope, saying, “I hope people in my home country will come to appreciate this program.”

Given the recent trend in China where “Cool Japan,” Japan’s policy of advertising cultures of Japanese origin overseas, is beginning to pay off, I hope that people in China, the country of origin of karagoto, will come to develop an interest in noh.

(Takahito Sato)
Dr. Wang professor at Tezukayama University