Ma Yong’an: Excerpt from an Interview

By April 5, 2010

2:30-4:00 pm, Wednesday September 4, 2002

Playwriting Office, Beijing Jingju Company, Beijing, China

JOUBIN: Your jingju Othello, the first Chinese stylized theater Shakespeare in the 1980s, was staged to full houses in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin between 1983 and 1986. It was said to have initiated a new wave of experiments with xiqu Shakespeare performances in China. What is the historical background of your adaptation? How did the audience react?

MA: In fact, my jingju Othello is the first jingju Shakespeare since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. It was quite a few years earlier than the xiqu Shakespeare performances at the first international Chinese Shakespeare Festival [in 1986]. Although there were sporadic attempts to stage Shakespeare’s plays in xiqu styles, my jingju Othello was the first serious attempt to perform Shakespeare in a traditional Chinese music theater. Two of the early xiqu Shakespeares in the 1930s and the 1940s that I remember are an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet called Zhuqing ji [The Tempering of Love][1] and a jingju Macbeth called Xieshou yin [Imprint of the Bloody Hands], adapted and directed by my Master Hao Shouchen. Since my experimental stage work was new, I encountered numerous difficulties during the initial phase of exploring the possibility of staging it and later during rehearsal.

The older generation in the audience did not like the jingju Othello. There was a psychological barrier that was preventing the “traditionalists” from appreciating performances of new or foreign plays. Many of them left half way through the performance; others refrained from commenting on the performance.

However, there were many people who applauded the achievement of this jingju Othello. The famous British scholar, Phillip Brockbank, saw the production and said it was very close to his ideal performance. The vice mayor of Beijing, Chen Haosu, also attended the premiere. After the curtain call, Mr. Chen stepped on stage and hailed our performance with a Chinese couplet: “The hero is beguiled, the beauty falls victim; exotic ambiance, Chinese style!” His words meant a lot to me and the cast. A young couple in the audience came to the backstage after the production and showed us their handkerchief. It was soaking wet with tears. They told us they were deeply moved by the production.

Kuang Jianlian (stage name Hongxian Nü) of the Guangdong-based Yueju [Cantonese opera] Theater Company was one actor/director who was greatly inspired by my jingju Othello. After seeing my performance, she began working on a yueju adaptation of Merchant of Venice. Her Merchant of Venice was staged during the first international Chinese Shakespeare Festival in 1986.

JOUBIN: You mentioned that the Othello project encountered many difficulties. Could you give some concrete examples?

MA: Back in the early 1980s, the Beijing Experimental Jingju Theater Company [where I worked] encouraged creativity and artistic innovation. Each actor was required to contribute his or her thoughts. I proposed to stage Othello. It is a dream I have had since I was sixteen years old. However, contrary to the proclaimed mission of our “experimental” theater company and the so-called open policy, my proposal was turned down by the artistic director and manager, Zheng Tianjian. I was told I should just perform the Chinese Othello instead. By “the Chinese Othello” Zheng meant Bawang bieji [Farewell to My Concubine], a widely performed play in the jingju repertoire.

However, I believed that there should be no cultural or national boundaries in art. We [jingju actors] should try to stage works by a world-class playwright like Shakespeare because it would broaden our horizon and motivate us to explore new possibilities in acting styles. I persisted and carried out my project. Without support from the company, I had to find my own people. I am very grateful to the group of friends who generously extended their support, including Li Yalan who played Taisidimengna [Desdemona], Zheng Bixian who co-directed the play, Li Keyu who designed the costumes, Shao Hongchao who adapted the play, and Weng Ouhong who polished the script. We adapted Othello into a jingju play, Aosailuo, with seven acts and a prologue. I used the handkerchief as a token to give unity to the play. The costumes were designed to convey the texture of a medieval European world. The few traditional jingju elements left in the costumes were [Othello’s] boots with thick soles and traditional ocean-wave patterns on the robes.

Finally, we received support and approval from the Company, and the play was staged.

JOUBIN: Many xiqu adaptations of foreign plays invent Chinese counterparts to the characters and geo-cultural locations in the original plays. Would you feel uncomfortable with the transliterations of foreign names instead of Sinicized characters? How did you feel about performing in the jingju style with European costumes and make-up?

MA: No, not at all. I felt very comfortable. In fact, Othello’s armor in Act 5 was not dissimilar to the traditional jingju martial costumes. Othello also had a blue mantle, which was almost magical in many scenes that called for swaying movements. The problem did not lie in Western-style costumes and names, but in the choreography. Quite a few Western-style dance steps and movements were added, which was a great challenge to us [jingju actors]. Our training was very different, and a mixture of jingju and Western ballet simply did not work out. This was the only flaw of this production.

JOUBIN: Were there other difficulties?

MA: After Aosailuo was premiered, I attended a forum at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. I gave a detailed report on the motivations, process, and performance of Aosailuo. My jingju innovation was questioned and challenged by some huaju acting teachers and directors who were supposed to be more receptive to intercultural performance as opposed to the more conservative jingju circle. The reality was: xiqu actors did not have good liberal arts education beyond the physicality of acting. The new school of theater people affiliated with huaju generally regarded xiqu as backward and hostile to any artistic innovation. However, when xiqu actors did expand their repertoire, they were challenged by this same group of people.

In addition to the aforementioned difficulties involving ideologies and administrative obstacles, it was hotly debated whether or not we should preserve the foreign names or completely Sinicize the story.

I insisted that we should preserve the sound of the original names. Otherwise, we would be doing a jingju play with the plot outline of Othello. That could not be said to be a jingju Othello. I wanted to preserve the speeches and spirit of the original play. Shakespeare’s plays contain profound philosophical thoughts and rich layers of meanings. If I did not stage Othello the way I did, I could not represent these layers. Of course, our understanding of the play was very limited. Unlike other theater companies, we did not have an opportunity to benefit from the teaching and interpretation of such Shakespearean scholars as Sun Jiaxiu.

JOUBIN: Why did you choose Othello?

MA: When I was sixteen, a Soviet film of Othello was screened in Beijing (1957-1958).[2] I could not forget the film, especially Banda’erqiuke’s [Sergei Bondarchuk’s] performance of Othello.[3] It was truly impressive. From that time onward, I developed a sustained interest in Shakespeare’s plays. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to test my ideas of new jingju plays.

I started studying jingju when I was ten years old. My Master Hao Shouchen stressed individual creativity and innovation. In the jingju tradition, we took pride in acting “exactly like our Masters.” However, I think it is necessary to ask: “If I perform exactly like my Master, then who does my Master ‘replicate’? Why has he become my Master?” One reason why he has become my Master is his individual creativity and interpretations of the given jingju role type, not his ability to make himself a carbon copy of his Master on stage. This becomes clear if you take a look at our physical differences. Master Hao is a small man (160 cm tall), but I am a “tall horse” [rengao mada] (a Chinese expression for tall and strong man). No matter how hard I try, I will not look like my Master on stage. Therefore, an actor should perform the characters, not just role types. I have indeed learned and benefited from my Master. I am indeed the successor of the Hao school of acting. However, I had to constantly reinvent myself, including the school of acting I belonged to. I began to seek new challenges and find new acting styles on the basis of Master Hao’s artistic achievement.

The character of Othello is such a challenge and provides a venue for me to explore different acting styles. The biggest challenge to me, a person trained in the hualian role type, is to bring out the delicate emotions and sensitivity of a seemingly rough and masculine character like Othello. As an actor specializing in the hualian role type, I was used to enacting rough, militant, and quick-tempered characters such as generals, soldiers, or court officials. The love between Othello and Desdemona needs to be carefully developed, so that the audience can relate to their situations later on in the tragedy. Othello is not a war machine. He is devoted to Desdemona. To show this on stage, I needed to give the other aspect of Othello equal emphasis.

I have mastered all the skills of representing anger, suspicion, martial scenes, and masculine sorrow, but I did not know how to portray Othello’s “delicate” half: his love of Desdemona. That was the biggest challenge.

JOUBIN: Except the Soviet film, is there anything else that motivated your adaptation of Othello?

MA: In my view, I would “eat” anything that is good for my “health,” be it Stanislavskianism, Shakespeare, ancient, modern, Chinese, or foreign. Of course, you must have a strong stomach in the first place. I had solid training in xiqu. Without that root, there would be no way to absorb and integrate foreign cultures of performance.

JOUBIN: Could you talk more about your experience with jingju over half a century and your experience with Shakespeare?

MA: Master Hao stressed innovation. I always remember how he would remind me that “Cao Cao is a good man! He is a poet and a military strategist.” One of the most famous “villains” in Chinese drama, Cao Cao is often portrayed as a single-dimensional character on the jingju stage. The role type conventionally assigned to Cao Cao is bailian [white face; vicious male role type]. However, bailian is not always a vicious or cunning militant figure. It could represent a man of letters as well. The jingju role types should not be fixed types of characters. The role types are sets of acting skills. They form platforms for actors to bring personal interpretations to the characters. Every action and every gesture should have a reason beyond the requirement of its particular role type. To find that reason, an actor has to observe the situations surrounding the character and his or her relationship to other characters. The actor cannot be a soul-less machine moving on the stage replicating his or her Master.

I often ask myself: “Who am I before applying the facial make-up? Who am I after applying the make-up and putting on the costume?” Performance is like a war. You have to understand your enemy, then plan an attack. Only so would the actor be able to “dissolve” himself into the world of the drama.

The training of jingju actors does not emphasize rationalization and psychological / realistic interpretations of the characters and situations. Unlike huaju, jingju does not seek to represent the characters from their inner selves. Rather, jingju actors represent the inner, unspoken emotions through codified physical movements.

Therefore, performing a character with complex psychological conflicts like Othello is a great challenge. The jingju actor has to be in and out of the “drama” at the same time.

JOUBIN: What would you say is the most memorable scene in the jingju Othello and why?

MA: There was a scene in which Othello is being provoked by Iago and is ready to see in every direction the “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s disloyalty. I had to lead the audience into such an illusory world projected through Othello’s eyes. The director put a prop rock formation on the stage and asked me to enact Othello’s illusion. Othello “sees” Desdemona in an intimate scene with Cassio behind the rock, and he smacks his sword at the rock. I felt this huaju mise-en-scène unpersuasive and too explicit. It destroyed the jingju aesthetics of giving form to emotions through a minimalist set and rich codified gestures.

After heated exchanges with the director, we ended up with an empty stage. Othello frantically dances and circles the empty stage, “seeing” illusions in all directions and projecting his envious “flames.” I used the mantle and hesitant steps to represent the complex and conflicting emotions.

Another scene that I still vividly remember is the scene where Othello sees the “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s affair with Cassio, which is arranged by Iago. In fact, it is not Desdemona who is speaking with Iago at her window. It is a prostitute who is speaking with Cassio. Cassio gives her a handkerchief with strawberry patterns on it that he received from Iago.

Othello is shocked and aggravated by the scene. However, I did not represent Othello’s astonishment with swaying movements. Rather, I represented his loss and anger with non-movement. When we do not have meaningful things to say, we often make up the gap with movements or habitual gestures. The actors tend to do the same thing. On the stage, it is more difficult to not move rather than act.

I stared into the empty space and appeared to be frozen. Then, I started singing an aria and slowly moved forward without knowing where I was going. I said: “Give me the poison.” I was prepared to poison Desdemona. Iago said: “Why poison? You can smother her to death on the bed.” Othello rounded his eyes. He was obviously “poisoned” by Iago.

JOUBIN: You performed Othello in the hualian role type. Why was Iago not cast in bailian—the usual role type for a villain?

MA: We decided to cast Iago as a laosheng [old male], because he is more complicated than a bailian. He is not an archetypal villain. He is an evil man cloaked in morality and ethics. Because of jealousy, he destroys others as well as himself. As such a complicated character, Iago calls for something more than bailian.

JOUBIN: Could you perform your favorite scene for me?

MA: As the saying goes: “the actor/actress doing the dan [female] role type is most afraid of laughing, and the actor doing the hualian role type is most afraid of crying.” There was a scene where I, as a hualian, was required to cry, or sing the crying tune to be more precise. It was the very last scene of the play, which was very challenging.

Burning with jealousy, Othello entered Desdemona’s chamber, with Desdemona sleeping on the couch. Looking at the candle in his hand, Othello sang the first part of the aria:

The body as white as snow

As beautiful as the goddesses.

Let me put out this bright light,

And then extinguish the torch of your life.

(唱段) 白雪一樣的身軀,




This was followed by an emotive recitation of a few lines in vernacular Chinese:

Oh, the glowing light, after I put you out,

If I regret,

I could light you up again.

But you [turning to Desdemona], once the light of your life is out,

I do not know where to find the heavenly fire

To light your life again.

(白) 融融的燈光啊, 當我把你吹熄後,






Othello continued to sing the second part of the aria:

I will pluck the rose and let it wither. I cannot restore its beauty.

Oh I cannot. I cannot restore its life. When it is still blooming

I want to smell its fragrant smell

Oh the fragrant and sweet smell. [Clutching his hands, backing off, and moving horizontally].

I want to kill you!

K-i-l-l y-o-u, and then love you!

(唱段) 我摘下薔薇, 只好讓她枯萎, 再不能還她美麗。

再不能啊…復起生機, 當他還在枝頭放蕾,


芳香的氣息, 甘美的氣息 (搓手、後退、橫趨步)


殺~~死~~妳~~後, 我再愛妳!

In this scene, the physical movement and codified gestures were as important as the music and the aria.


[1] Ma probably mistook a huaju adaptation of Romeo and Juliet for a xiqu adaptation. In 1948, Xiaoyou Jutuan [Alumni Theater Company] in Beijing staged a huaju adaptation called Zhuqing ji [The Tempering of Love], directed by Jiao Juyin and adapted by Weng Ouhong.

[2] During the 1950s and the early 1960s, only a limited number of foreign films were approved by the state and imported. Four films of Shakespeare were screened in public: the Soviet Twelfth Night and Othello (with Chinese subtitles), Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (dubbed in Chinese) and Richard III (with Chinese subtitles). These films had an enormous influence on Chinese performances of Shakespeare. Ma Yong’an was not the only Chinese actor inspired by these films. Xiong Yuanwei incorporated Olivier’s Hamlet in his multimedia Cantonese huaju adaptation called Hamlet, Hamlet (Hong Kong, 2001) with video clips projected onto screens on the stage. In 1958, Sun Daolin dubbed Olivier’s 1948 film version of Hamlet in Chinese (Shanghai Film Studio), using the translation by Bian Zhilin. His recitation of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy (3.1.55-87) remained in the Chinese collective cultural memeory. Sun’s reading was subsequently made into a radio play that had a wide audience. His dubbing in “Stanislavski’s method, complemented by internal monologue and psychological depth,” according to Sun in an interview, has achieved a new height in its presentation of compounding values of life and death that Laurence Olivier, in the 1948 movie, “fails to address.” Zhu Haining, “Zuo daxie de ren: Sun Daolin maodie zhi nian de rensheng ganwu [A Name to be Capitalized: Interview of Sun Daolin],” Dazhong dianying [Popular Cinema] March, 2002. Sun also records in detail the process of dubbing the Olivier film in his autobiography, which has become a hit among mainland Chinese readers who retain a collective memory of Sun’s voice, especially during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution when radio was the only form of entertainment imaginable. Sun Daolin, Zoujin yangguang [Walking into the Sun] (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1997).

[3] Othello (1955), directed by Sergei Yutkevitch, starred Sergei Bondarchuk (Othello). The 108-minute film adaptation won the “Best Director” at Cannes. I thank John Listopad for helping to locate this Russian film.

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