New Sapling in the Flower Bed of Chinese Opera

Entering Ta Peng at Eight Years Old

June 1, 1959 was a very meaningful day to Kuo Hsiao-chuang and to the field of Chinese opera.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang in that year was only seven and a half years old. A round face, a tall build, with a certain degree of naivety and innocent smiles. No one could see then that she would become Kuo Hsiao-chuang of the future.

On that day, she had her two pigtails well combed very early, waiting happily for her parents to take her to report to the Ta Peng School of Drama for admission.

The Ta Peng Professional School of Drama under the Air Force Headquarters was the cradle of the new students for the Air Force Ta Peng Chinese Opera Troupe. Chinese opera in those days was the most popular form of drama in Taiwan. The Army, the Navy, the Airforce and joint logistics corps all had their own opera troupes to promote performing and research in Chinese opera. The civilian Fu Hsing School of Drama was even dedicated mainly to nurturing talents for Chinese opera. Its open recruitment of students every year attracted many people scrambling for applications. It was only that in the opinion of the man in the street, it was always felt that children should follow a regular curriculum, studying from elementary school right up to college graduation. If one sent children from a small age to study art, music or drama, one would be inevitably worried that, after growing up, whether they would be able to adapt to the total environment of the community. This would cause hesitation and reservations among parents to greater or lesser degrees.

When Mr Kuo Chin-ho put in an application on behalf of his daughter Hsiao-chuang to Ta Peng, his heart was also beset with conflicts time and again. He himself loved Chinese opera deeply. During the last days of the War against the Japanese, he was an enlisted man and responsible for purchasing, travelling up and down the country, from Peking and Tientsin to Nanking and Shanghai. Besides working, his only hobby was watching opera. He had attended the performances of nearly all the famous stars, such as Mei Lan-fang, Cheng Yen-chiu, Shang Hsiao-yun, and Hsun Hui-sheng; besides the clebrated Four Great Female Leads, also Hsiao Chang-hua, Ma Fu-lu, Li To-kuei, Chang Chun-chiu, Yeh Sheng-chang, Chin Shao-shan, Tan Fu-ying, Yeh Sheng-lan, Li Wan-chun, Chiu Sheng-jung, Hou Hsi-jui, Ma Lien-liang and Li Shih-fang; as well as Yen Hui-chu, Tung Chih-ling and Chi Ling-tung whom he had seen in Shanghai. So long as it was a celebrated star on stage at the time, he would invariably be among the first to attend and admire. Among these dazzling famous stars, his most memorable and most often watched were Hsun Hui-sheng's "Matchmaking Red Maid" and Yeh Sheng-chang's comic acrobat. He truly felt the singing "linger long in the air for 3 whole days" and "worth watching a hundred times" as the sayings went.

Since he loved opera, Kuo Chin-ho had put on opera costume and taken several "stage photos". But he had never really "made up and performed on stage". This had often been a source of regret for him, and subconsciously he hoped he would have a child who could sing opera. Among his several daughters, he had chosen Hsiao-chuang who was of the right age, well-behaved and bright. He felt that if one¡¦s nature was well-behaved one would be able to endure hardship and work diligently; and if one was bright one could learn the art and be ready to take in what was taught. As a father, he was nevertheless a little hesitant. After all, going in for a hard course of learning Chinese opera: would this be good or bad, right or wrong for Kuo Hsiao-chuang¡¦s whole life? He hesitated until he saw the announcement of results of new students admitted to the Fu Hsing School of Drama, and discovered that Hsu Yu-lan, daughter of Hsu Huan-sheng, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, was also on the list. He thought, if even the precious daughter of the Deputy Commander-in-Chief was going to learn Chinese opera, of course Hsiao-chuang could do it too. Thus encouraged, and having discussed with his wife, Kuo Chin-ho had decided to let Kuo Hsiao-chuang apply for admission to Ta Peng to learn Chinese opera. With this one single decision, he offered a force of new life and awakening to the art of Chinese opera of the future, and nurtured a great general who led the Chinese opera in Taiwan in the 1970s single-handedly. In the future days, the Ya Yin Ensemble founded by Kuo Hsiao-chuang and its performances would add a glorious new page to the history of the development of Chinese opera. All these were what Kuo Chin-ho at the time could not foresee.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang was small at that time. She had never been in touch with anything to do with Chinese opera, except occasionally, on the way home from school, passing by the small square near her home, she had seen street performances of folk musical plays and thereby could be said to have a bit of impression about traditional operatic art. The idea kept from this little bit of impression should be that characters on stage were beautifully dressed and gorgeously made up. In her tiny little mind there was inevitably a little envy. When she thought of learning opera at Ta Peng School of Drama, it would mean performing on stage in future all beautifully made up, with applause and acclaim from the audience, just like the scenes of excitement at street opera performances, she could not help feeling a sense of thrill rising in her heart. And so the simple little girl followed her parents, with some expectations and some curiosity, to the School of Drama and registered happily.

Having completed the registration procedures, Kuo Hsiao-chuang then proceeded to the student dormitory in Tung Shan Street near the School. The dorm occupied over 300 acres of self-contained and quiet surroundings. This became her "home" henceforth. One large bedroom for 8 people living together was filled with the joys and sorrows of her childhood days. Even when she later became the leading actress of the Ta Peng Opera Troupe and had her single dorm, she still could not forget the convivial scenes of crowding in the large dorm in those early days.

Just arriving at the dorm, seeing a bunch of girls of the same age running back and forth in gaiety, Hsiao-chuang felt an affinity in her heart. From now on, this bunch of girls would be classmates of the same year, learning, studying, living and dining together. From now on, a new direction in life would open up.

The sun was setting and Mr and Mrs Kuo Chin-ho said goodbye to their daughter at the door of the dorm. In the old days, this would be the time for the whole family to have dinner together at home. But from today onward, Kuo Hsiao-chuang would be living and breathing Chinese opera and closely united with it as one.

The two elderly Kuos gave pieces of advice again and again to their little girl, unwilling to leave. This was the first time that Kuo Hsiao-chuang would leave her parents and her home. Only at the moment of parting did she feel reluctance to part. After much coaxing and comforting, the setting sun lengthened the shadows of the ones leaving. The three of them waved goodbye. From then on, Kuo Hsiao-chuang commenced her life of the Chinese operatic art.

Formally enrolled as a student of the 5th Class of the Ta Peng School of Drama, Hsiao-chuang together with everyone else got up at 5 in the morning. It was barely light. They groped about to get dressed, made the beds, washed themselves, and then lined up and set off, marching to the School situated in Sung Chiang Road.

Arriving at School, the students began the morning lesson with "voice training exercises". Standing in one straight line, facing the wall, they raised their voices and shouted, "Yeee, Ahhh, Kooo Waaa, Tien Naaa Tien"

These four sounds were simple if read out. But shouting them was a very rich experience. Not only must one drag every sound very very long, sustain very very long, but one must also render it sweet and with modulation, with style in rising and falling, with order in going high and low.

They shouted this way for half an hour every day, and did it for 8 whole years, without stop come wind or rain. Even when they were lowest in spirit, exhausted physically and mentally or really bed ridden with illness, they would still sit up in bed, open their mouths and make noiseless "shouts". This was the basic training of dialogue delivery in Chinese opera. The more solid the foundation the better. One day it would be possible to build skyscrapers on it. Basic training could not be interrupted even for one day. Although doing voice training exercise everyday one inevitably felt bored and monotonous, in time habit became second nature and practice made perfect. One would feel that doing voice training exercise had in fact a lingering charm, was music to the ear, and expressed boundless emotions of joy, anger, sadness and happiness from the depth of the heart.

After voice training exercise came the basic course in training limbs and bodies. This was the strenuous "blanket exercise", starting with "Handstand" and "Waist bend":

Handstand ¡V This was balancing upside down on one's hands. The act itself was not difficult. The hardship was the long stretch: half an hour each time.

Waist bend ¡V The whole upper body bent over backward with both hands touching the ground. The body formed an arch with the head not touching the ground. Also half an hour each time.

Blanket exercises trained the strength of the arms and the waist. Besides building up strength, they also demanded agility and flexibility. The most tiring were "leg exercises", divided into leg pressing, leg splitting, leg kicking and pace training.

Pace training seemed easy and fun. In fact every step had to be carefully taken, walking with a sheet of paper held between the two kneecaps. Once you took a step, if your knees were not held tightly together, the paper would drop and you had to start all over again and practice until you could walk without dropping the paper. The key to pace training was the steps had to be small and the knees had to be tightly held together. After rigorous practice, once one got the hang of it, one could gradually walk naturally and swiftly, forming quick short steps, lotus flower steps, and then the swift running round the whole stage: circle after circle of quick running. Not only would the body be light and agile like a swallow, but the posture would also seem airy like a fairy.

After the programs in arm, waist and leg training, then came "target practice": the training in various weapons. These were basically techniques that were essential in fighting scenes. But in total training as a whole for Chinese opera, this was the training of strength of arms, the so-called "Mountain Arm" training. Let the arms show a rounded beauty in their waving movements. When the arms were raised high, they had to be so trained as to become unmoving as mountains. This level could only be attained through "rigorous practice". All basic skills of Chinese opera, every sound, every action, could not be achieved by trickery. One had to learn diligently and practice rigorously in order to build a solid foundation.

Having entered Ta Peng, day after day Kuo Hsiao-chuang went on from singing to acting, sweating and shedding tears in lessons on foundation building. In her child's heart she had many a time found the physical hardship really unbearable, wanting so much her parents to take her home. However, after a while of inner struggles, she again gritted her teeth, learned diligently and practiced rigorously. She endured numb limbs, flogging by teachers, the ennui of repeating tens of thousand times the same action, the bitterness of sweat and tears flowing together, and spent countless nights of falling asleep in tears.

Leaving home to live at school at such a small age, living a communal life, plus the sternness of teachers, made Hsiao-chuang all of a sudden most nostalgic about home sweet home, and parental love. Every day at sun set, she would stand beside the school entrance, looking into the distance, imagining that it was the Kuang Fu Bridge leading from Taipei to her home at Pan Chiao. She stared with longing, hoping her parents would cross over from the other end of the bridge. After school, she would also run to the school entrance to look into the distance, thinking how she could walk over to the bridge. In her child's mind she thought that every bridge could lead to Pan Ch'iao and take her home.

On the day of the first visit by her parents, Hsiao-chuang snuggled in her mother¡¦s arms all the time, silently shedding tears of pining. Mother held her tightly. Father affectionately asked about her studying conditions. She answered tersely, treasuring this very short period of togetherness, enjoying the tender loving care of the family. At last, time was up for "family gathering". She and her classmates were taken back to school in big army trucks by her teachers. Just as the engine started and the vehicle was moving forward, from inside the truck Kuo Hsiao-chuang looked at her parents seeing her off standing at the road side. Their figures became smaller and more blurred. A sudden urge of not wanting to part made her jump down from the big truck. It was winter and the thick and bulky clothing made her all round like a ball. Amid people's shouts of surprise, she fell on the ground and was miraculously unhurt. The whole truck load of teachers and classmates were shocked and stopped the truck at once. Her parents also ran over to embrace their daughter, holding her tight, comforting her for a long long time without letting go.

She cried that she wanted to go home with her parents. Her parents tried everything to pacify her. Finally they took her to a bakery nearby and bought her a favorite bun of hers. The 8-year-old little girl devoured it while wiping her tears at the same time. Gradually the homesickness calmed down and she obediently boarded the school bus again. Thanks to this one bun, Kuo Hsiao-chuang's career in Chinese opera had not ended from the very beginning!