Ghost Village

University of Chicago historian and professor Judith Zeitlin (Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations), and Beijing based composer Yao Chen collaboratively undertake the creation of an opera, with Yao composing the music, and Zeitlin writing the libretto. Entitled Ghost Village, the opera will be based on a ghost story that features in Pu Songling’s (1640-1715) masterpiece, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.

University of Chicago professor Judith Zeitlin (Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations), and Beijing based composer Yao Chen collaboratively undertake the creation of an opera, with Yao composing the music, and Zeitlin writing the libretto. Entitled Ghost Village, the opera will be based on a ghost story that features in Pu Songling’s (1640-1715) masterpiece, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Zeitlin has authored two books and many articles about Pu Songling’s collection of tales; she is also an expert on the Chinese ghost tradition in literature, visual culture, cinema, and opera. She has published an English translation of “Ghost Village” (under its original title of “Gongsun Jiuniang” - the name of the story’s ghost heroine), and analyzes the story in her monograph The Phantom Heroine (2007). 

This tale is almost unique in Pu Songling’s corpus for having a tragic, unresolved conclusion rather than a happy ending. The background is a real historical event—mass executions carried out by the Qing dynasty authorities in the early years of their rule (1664) against perpetrators of a local rebellion in the author’s home province.  Swept up in the crackdown were many innocent people; one of these is the virgin heroine of the tale (named Mei in Yao and Zeitlin's version), who commits suicide. The living hero of the tale (unnamed in the original but whom Yao and Zeitlin tentatively call Dan), sets the main story in motion by visiting the mass burial ground of the victims and making a sacrificial libation to their spirits. He is subsequently brought to the underworld to help one of the ghosts, an old friend of his, and finds an entire “ghost village” comprised of the massacre’s victims; there he meets and falls in love with Mei, now a beautiful ghost. Mei reciprocates his feelings, and they enter into a temporary “marriage” in the village. Before they reluctantly part for good (since, after all “the dead and the living must follow different paths”), she extracts a promise from him to rebury her bones near his ancestral tombs after he returns to the world above. When Dan then rides to the site of the mass burial ground, he is unable to find her unmarked grave; distraught, he fails to keep his pledge. He later makes one more attempt, still in vain, but this time he re-encounters Mei’s ghost walking in the graveyard—he calls out her name, but she casts him a look of implacable hatred before vanishing like smoke.  

Thematically, this narrative speaks to many pressing issues in our own unpeaceful world; from war trauma and survivor guilt, the effects of violent, political events outside the individual’s control, injustice and the difficulties of making amends, etc. The “ghost village” itself bears an uncanny similarity to a refugee camp, especially in this current era of mass displacement of war-torn populations. Aesthetically and expressively, we feel this story has many elements with a long history in European and Chinese operatic traditions, such as the romantic symbiosis between love and death, the earthy, comic aspects of village life, the depictions of war and violence, and above all, ghosts and the supernatural, which lend themselves to creative synthesis and innovation. Yao and Zeitlin are interested in trying to find experimental structures to enable them to create a new language, musical and theatrical, to contrast the two worlds of the living and the dead.  

We began collaborating together in 2013 when Zeitlin commissioned Yao to compose an experimental piece imagining the sounds of a rare sixteenth- or seventeenth-century pipa (Chinese lute) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This beautiful instrument was featured in Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture, the exhibition that Zeitlin co-curated at the Smart Museum of Art in 2014. Inspired by a scene from the Chinese opera Romance of the Western Chamber, which Zeitlin’s research had helped identify as being etched on the pipa’s string holder, Yao entitled his piece Pipa Plays Opera, and had the pipa soloist, Lan Weiwei, alternate between playing the pipa and declaiming lyrics in Chinese from Romance of the Western Chamber. The piece premiered at the Smart in June 2014 as the capstone event of the university-wide Envisioning China: A Festival of Arts and Culture. The following June in 2015, Zeitlin, Yao, and Lan held an interdisciplinary conference “Imagining the Sounds of the Early Modern Pipa” at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.  The center point of this second phase of the project was the premiere of a new version of Pipa Plays Opera, which Yao had expanded from two movements into three, and crucially, enlisted two Kun opera actors to perform with the solo pipa in what is now a full-fledged short chamber opera, staged outdoors in an historic courtyard house in the old city. Pipa Plays Opera has now been performed several times in China in different versions and venues.