Mulian Opera Series 1

Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre
for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian

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Mulian Opera Series 1

Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian

Dacheng Opera was originally part of the Buddhist and Taoist memorial rituals, but it found its way to the stage during the reign of Emperor Daoguang of Qing (r.1821-1850) and became one of the rare liturgical theatrical genres in China.  Evolving from the early ritual performances, the exotic genre assimilated many elements to enrich its content.  For example, the “juggling cymbals” routine was an acrobatic segment in a memorial service, while the stylized walking gait came from the poses of arhat statues and the martial art routines originated from the southern school of Shaolin Boxing.  The music was a mixture of Daoqing sung music, Buddhist chants, nanyin and tunes from puppet shows.  All these elements have gradually shaped the unique art Dacheng Opera, which is recognized for the masterly skills and the unmistakable liturgical touch.

The traditional repertory of Dacheng Opera consists of stories based on myths and religion.  Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother series of playlets, which numbers 74, has been passed down by many generations.  In the olden days, it took four full days and nights to perform all 74 of them.  The stories are different from the Ming version by Zheng Zhizhen as it has kept many of the traditional “show opening rituals” and masterly skills such as “fire eating and spitting”, “eating paper and pulling out guts”, “juggling cymbals” etc., which provide thrill and excitement for the audience.  Today, the exotic genre of Dacheng Opera is on the verge of extinction.  The Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian will be in Hong Kong to perform on three evenings some of the most representative episodes of the Monk Mulian story.

Coordination of the Mulian Opera Series is assisted by the Ministry of Culture of China.

Programme Details

23/6 (Tue) 7:30 pm

Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall

Show-opening Ritual: Purging of the Stage by the Spirit Medium

Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother (Part One):
A Meat Fast Broken on Her Birthday,
Making Kowtow Penance and Her Spirit Seized by Ghosts,
Appearing in Her Son’s Dream, Trial in Purgatory

Since Dacheng Opera has its roots in ritual plays, it is customary to perform a playlet of similar functions before the core performance of each show.  One of them is Purging of the Stage by the Spirit Medium.  It is believed that the Spirit Medium can chase away the ghosts and spirits hovering round the stage, and so ensures that the performance will be smooth-running.  Another interesting playlet is Her Spirit Seized by Ghosts.  In it, the White Messenger of Death walks on stilts, and the Black Messenger of Death walks in a squat.  The difference in height between the two of them and the Five-Coloured Ghosts’ adlibbing and cracking jokes make for a funny scene.  Yet under the jokey front, there are didactic messages for all.  In Trial in Purgatory, the ghosts’ dance is also vivid and impressive.

When Fu Luobu’s father died at a rather young age, his mother, Liu Shizhen, thinks that despite observing Buddhist vegetarianism for seven generations, the Fu family is not blessed by Buddha.  Such a thought is spurred on by her younger brother, Liu Jia, and the maid, Jinnu.  So on her birthday, she breaks her fast and eats meat.  When Luobu hears about this, he is shocked and returns home.  On the way, he kowtows every three steps as an act of penance for his mother.  Liu is frightened when confronted by her son, and refuses to admit that she has broken the vegetarian vows.   She even goes to the backyard to swear that if she lies, she would go to hell.  The false avowal leads to the coming of the demons from Hell, who take her with them.   Luobu keeps vigil by the altar, and at night, his mother comes into his dream.  She asks him to save her from Hell so she can be transcended to another life.  The spirit of Liu is taken for trial by the God of Hell.  After some torture, she finally admits to her sins.  

Cast Lin Qinglong, Wu Xiaojun, Xia Kejing, Lin Pao

24/6 (Wed) 7:30 pm

Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall

Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother (Part Two):
The Dragons’ Birthday Visit to the Goddess of Mercy,
Keeping Vigil by His Mother’s Grave,
Two for the Road and Fighting the Tiger,
Lei Yousheng’s Purity of Heart Tested

One unique feature of the Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother series in Dacheng Opera is the creation of a character called Lei Yousheng, performed by an actor in chou (comic) role.  In the episode of Two for the Road, he and Mulian pose as strong contrasts, with him providing the comedic elements and Mulian being always the serious one.  The Dragons’ Birthday Visit to the Goddess of Mercy is another ritual play in Dacheng Opera; whereas Fighting the Tiger involves the “juggling cymbals” routine, a stunt that is unique to Dacheng Opera.  The cymbals are commonly used in Taoist rituals in southern Fujian, and are considered sacred vessels that have the power of chasing away demons and ghosts to escort the spirit of the dead safely to Hell without being tortured on the way.

On the birthday of Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy, the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas go to give their birthday greetings.  The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea invites Guanyin to go and help Fu Luobu, who is trapped on Jingang Mountain, so that he can go to the West to see the Buddha and be empowered to save his mother from Hell.   Since his mother Liu Shizhen, died, Luobu has been staying in a shed by his mother’s grave to guard over it.  Lei Yousheng, a bandit on Jingang Mountain, bears upon him to join the gang.  In a bid to save his mother, Luobu makes a pledge with Lei.  Then he takes the tonsure, puts the scriptures in a pack together with a portrait of his mother, and sets off on his long journey to the West to see the Buddha.  Lei is touched by his filial piety, and wants to go with him so as to save his father, too.  The two accompany each other on the way, but are separated when a tiger jumps at them.   Luobu is firm of heart, so Guanyin orders the Flying Cymbals Arhat to send the ferocious tiger away and escort him to the West.  On the other hand, Guanyin orders Liangnu to take the guise of a village woman, and conjure up a cottage in the mountain so that Lei would come to spend the night.  The purpose is to test if he would remain true to his monastic vows.  Lei fails the test because he is overcome by his human desires, so he cannot continue the way to see the Buddha.

Cast Lin Qinglong, Wu Xiaojun, Lin Tingting, Zheng Qinglai

25/6 (Thu) 7:30 pm

Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall

Show-opening Ritual: Blessings from the Three Gods

Monk Mulian Rescues His Mother (Part Three):
Fu Luobu’s Purity of Heart Tested,
Mahāmaudgalyāyana’s Transformation,
The Lake of Blood, Taking the Punishments on His Mother’s Behalf and Delivery from Purgatory

The ritual performance of Blessings from the Three Gods is symbolic of celebratory causes and blessings.  The episodes Taking the Punishments on His Mother’s Behalf and Delivery from Purgatory contain stunts that are unique to Dacheng Opera. “Eating paper and pulling out guts” is a form of traditional folk entertainment which describes how the demons of Hell eat the paper offerings (their version of fine food) and then pull out from their mouth long strips of paper.  In “fire eating and spitting”, the demons burn the paper offerings, swallow the flaming ball, and then spit out balls of fire again.

In the story, Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, transforms into a woman picking mulberry in the grove.  She invites Fu Luobu to spend the night at her place, and sets about seducing him.  But Luobu is totally unmoved in face of seduction.  Then Guanyin sends a white gibbon to seize the scriptures that Luobu is carrying and jumps into a ravine.  Luobu jumps in also, with total disregard for his own life.  Because of this, he is able to shake off his mortal self and be transported to the West to seek audience with the Buddha.  The Great Buddha names him Mahāmaudgalyāyana (sinitised name “Mulian”), grants him the kasaya robe, the khakkhara staff and the straw shoes, all items for an enlightened disciple of Buddha.  They would enable him to go into Hell to save his mother.  In Hell, Liu is by the Lake of Blood, on the verge of being pulled into it to suffer for her sins.  But Liu begs to be absolved because as a woman, she has already suffered the pains of pregnancy, birth, and three years of breast-feeding a baby.  The guard from Hell is touched by her words and lets her pass.  Liu is then taken to the Double Gate where she is put under a cangue to be further punished.  Mulian arrives and offers to take the punishment for his mother instead.  His filial piety moves the Heaven and the Earth, and he succeeds in saving his mother from Hell and pass on.  

Cast Lin Qinglong, Wu Xiaojun, Lin Tingting, Wu Jinbi

Performing Group

Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian

The Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian was founded by Wu Tianyi and Huang Yingying in 2013.  Wu is the fourth generation artist of Dacheng Opera, and his family has a Taoist background that traces back to more than 700 years ago.  His great-grandfather, Wu Yongliao, founded the Dacheng Opera troupe, Xingyuan Troupe, in 1860, which evolved over time into the Quanzhou Dacheng Opera Troupe later.  It was disbanded in 1968, but was revived by Wu in 1990 through open auditions and invitations to carry forward the art and techniques of the genre.  The group suffered several setbacks in the ensuing years, and was folded and revived many times.  The current Centre was founded with the mission of perpetuating and preserving the Dacheng Opera genre.

Information provided by Quanzhou Wu Tianyi Centre for Dacheng Opera Heritage of Fujian


23–25/6 (Tue–Thu) 7:30pm

Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall

Prices price01$260 price02$180 price03$120
  • With Chinese and English surtitles
  • Please refer to the Extension Activities page for details of extension activities
  • Each performance lasts approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission


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