Determined to Learn Unique Art
"Horseback Romance" Displayed Talents

One year later, learning of individual courses began. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was assigned by her teacher to study the "Hsiao Sheng" (young male lead). On hearing this assignment, even though she was still small then, she was very brave and at once plucked up her courage to refuse. This fully reflected her unique character of resolution when she grew up, "saying out what is within reason without being wronged", but with an attitude of politeness and well at ease that made people appreciate her point. And so it was that the teacher saw that she had confidence in playing the role of "Hua Tan" (female lead) and desired it very much. So she was reassigned to study the female lead. This fighting for what she wanted boosted Kuo Hsiao-chuang's conviction, influenced her entire future career, and even influenced the future of Chinese opera reforms.

Strictly speaking, the "Hua Tan" (literally "Flowery Star") was more colorful than the "Ching I" (another female role, literally "Green Dress": the costume of commoners). In costumes alone she was more gorgeous and flowery than the "Ching I", and her character type more open and natural, with firmness and tenderness complementing each other, or even vivacious and lively. The "Ching I" on the other hand was quiet and reserved. Owing to these differences, the "Hua Tan" placed more emphasis on stylized movements, on body language expressions. First there was training in basic footwork "walking on wooden feet" and "running on wooden feet". Then there was training in basic eye work. The teacher held a pair of chopsticks and moved them in front of your eyes. Your eyes followed the chopsticks and turned this way and that. Then you watched birds flying in the sky, with the eyes following the flying forms closely. On the one hand this called for agility in the eyes' movements, on the other hand it required the eyes to move with spirit. But the most important aspect was training the window to the soul of the Hua Tan.

At first the Hua Tan had to rehearse the opera "Merry Match" and the Ching I had to rehearse "Su San Starting On Her Exile". Later the School combined the Ching I and Hua Tan groups to rehearse together "Eight Caves". Because there were altogether eight real and fake Pan Chin-liens, the female lead, all classmates would have the opportunity for formal performance on stage. Even though this was only a students' practical work, it nonetheless made everybody very excited.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang was then 8 and a half, playing a fake Pan Chin-lien. To a small child like her, she felt very satisfied to have the chance of dressing up beautifully, making up her face prettily, going on stage to express and develop the singing voice and movements she had learned industriously all these days. So she was in a state of great excitement all the time. She was Pan Chin-lien, waking or dreaming.

Learning to sing the opera formally, one realized it was another different kind of hardship than training in basic skills. The stylized tone of singing one line of lyric could take one or two weeks training. For instance, a simple line:

"Pan Chin-lien can't help showing anger in her brows ˇV "

The singing voice and the tune kept turning, prolonging, and rising and falling. It was not easy to master. Especially in the 1950s, when music education was not developed, even though these little students like Kuo Hsiao-chuang used the evenings to study academic subjects, they did not have Music lessons, nor did the School of Drama teach music reading. They had had no training in singing at all and all of a sudden they started formal lessons in singing opera. That was really tough and difficult. All they could do was repeat line by line after the teacher, humming word after word like parrots.

Under such oral instruction word by word and sound by sound, classmates did not have the same ability of comprehension. This opera "Eight Caves", however, emphasized team spirit, achieving grandeur through uniform singing and movements. With the strict requirements, students' pace of learning was slow, but through it they did appreciate the beauty of singing style variations in Chinese opera.

During the performance (as practical) of "Eight Caves", Kuo Chin-ho and his wife sat in the auditorium in great excitement. Looking at the many Pan Chien-liens on stage, all of the same height and dressed the same way, they could not make out which was Hsiao-chuang their beloved daughter. When they had a good look of her handsome image at back stage, expectations rose enthusiastically in their hearts.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang turned, from the eager excitement before the performance, into the worry and anxiety after the performance. What she was worried about was whether teachers were satisfied with her performance. And she was anxious about what operas to perform in future. What role would teachers assign? "Eight Caves" was a team show, not a solo performance. In the heart of every student, however, there always existed a hope that one could have a chance of virtuoso performance. Especially in a class of 40 to 50, it was inevitable that they would compare with one another. Hence she had a hidden expectation and confidence for herself.

Then the School started rehearsing "Merry Match". In order to allow all pupils to have the chance of drilling on stage again, the role of Chin Yu-nu was shared by 4 people. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was one of them, her turn was to go on stage in Scene 4. The scene told how Chin Yu-nu accompanied Mo Chi to go to the capital to take the civil service examinations. She had only one line altogether: "Uncles and Lords! See you later!" She was to exit after saying this. Having made up before curtain rise to await entrance, coming on stage after a long while, only to say only one line and then exited and that was all. Compared with the others who played Chin Yu-nu, her appearance was the shortest, the most light weight. She could not help feeling sad about it. This feeling was not to be soothed by the comforting of family affections. At that moment, she realized that she had to be outstanding before she could be taken seriously.

Then, the School rehearsed yet another new opera. The most senior student who was popular just then was to star in the show. Kuo Hsiao-chuang and several classmates were picked out to play extras as Palace Maids. Maybe the teachers hoped that they could learn from the experience of seniors through acting on stage together with the most senior student. So these Palace Maids merrily stood in a line before the performance for the seniors to put on make up for them. The powder puff in the senior's hand plastered and struck her face hard. But so long as she could be made up pretty, by all means let seniors strike hard and she could stand any pain.

At this moment, the most senior female lead walked over to inspect the make up of Palace Maids one by one. Unexpectedly, she called Kuo Hsiao-chuang to stand out and took the one responsible for the performance then to task: "Such an ugly Palace Maid was too shameful!"

Hsiao-chuang controlled with great restraint a sudden pang of unbearable sorrow. With tightly closed lips and without shedding tears, she still finished playing the part of Palace Maid, went back to the dorm as if nothing had happened. Lying in bed, she discovered only then that tears were running down her face. In her little girlˇ¦s mind, she swore to strive for success. One day, her image on stage would be the most beautiful, her performance on stage would be the best!

Kuo Chin-ho had always been very concerned about his beloved daughterˇ¦s student life at school. He was the most loyal audience at every practice performance. And as a "veteran opera buff" with the qualification of having watched famous stars' performance all over China, in the opinion of teachers and students at school, this student's parent could be said to be an enthusiastic insider. When he learnt of the circumstances of the grievance in his daughter's performance, he could very well appreciate Hsiao-chuang's feelings inside. He knew that for opera students in their early years, if they wanted to stand out and excel, besides drilling hard "undergoing professional training" formally, it was also very important to seek out great masters to give private tuition individually and to study hard. Hence he made special visits again and again to Maestro Su Sheng-shih. Maestro Su was the Head Trainer of "Wen Wu" (literally "civil and martial") of Ta Peng. Since he belonged to the generation with the middle name "Sheng" of the Fu Lien-cheng School, he was very experienced, enjoyed a very high standing and was well respected. Kuo Chin-ho earnestly entreated him to give special tuition to Hsiao-chuang, teaching her "private skills".

In Maestro Su's opinion, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was very well-behaved, studious, eager to excel, and very gifted in opera. Having had a heart to heart talk with her and knowing how wronged she felt in the casting of rehearsals, he told her "to turn tears into sweat". These words had been engraved in the depth of her heart. After many many years she still remembered these words which had become her motto. How true! Shed as many tears as you could and they could not wash away all your sorrow. Only the shedding of sweat through working harder and harder would be the source of success.

From then on, under the guidance of Maestro Su Sheng-shih, she began training hard for her "private skills", making use of the break time everybody used for siestas at noon. Under the scorching summer sun, first she did "back pennons", wearing a bulky jacket, with 4 back pennons tightly tied to her back, weighing some 7 or 8 kilograms and standing taller than her shoulders, and made the necessary hand movements. Then she ran laps on the training ground, running 10 laps quickly, sweating all over, then slowed down to walk the paces, catching her breath and easing her fatigue.

Once she felt the fatigue a little eased, she at once trained for "arming" or "chi-pa", tying the back pennons on and doing movements of arranging one's arms and armor before a campaign. This was movement combining martial arts and dancing, using hands, feet, waist and the body, and making the movement clean and elegant.

Then followed "wielding the broadsword". Holding a broadsword taller than a person's height, she began to wield it in large movements. Every stroke was an expression of a high degree of difficulty, especially having to mind the back pennons and avoid knocking them. Brandishing the broadsword in mid air, then turned and caught it again and continued to brandish it. The whole series of movements still comprised martial arts, dancing and expression of elegant forms.

In fact, this was a lesson in "endurance", with "working her muscles and bones, making her heart and mind suffer" as the aim. Maestro Su taught Kuo Hsiao-chuang the basic skills of a Tao Ma Tan (literally Female Lead with Broadsword and Riding) and Martial Lead, precisely to make her able to endure hardship, tenacious and strong. Adding to the pressure and burden on physical strength made the limbs and the body more adaptable to various changes, so that one could enter into the inner sanctum of the highest learning.

Perspiration spread, drop by drop, from Kuo Hsiao-chuang's face to her whole body. In the scorching sunlight, that sweat had turned very hot. Her quilt jacket was soaked through, as were her entire body and even her shoes and socks. Drenched in sweat, she wielded the broadsword, carrying the back pennons, as if she were mad. The bright sun in front of her eyes was getting larger and larger.

In a moment of fancy, she seemed to be learning martial arts at the Shao Lin Temple. First she had to carry two large buckets of water with her two hands, and walked up the staircase on the slope step by step. The long long staircase seemed endless. Her arms were tired, her legs limped and the water had spilt out of the buckets. For the sake of Shao Lin's unique skills, she gritted her teeth, plucked up her courage and stepped up the staircase. And so, with back pennons on her back and broadsword in hand, she moved and brandished energetically. A brand new Kuo Hsiao-chuang was about to emerge from her cocoon.

The school planned to rehearse "Romance On Horseback". This was the story of female warrior Fan Li-hua and her romance with warrior Hsueh Ting-shan. The one who played Fan Li-hua had to be competent in both civil and martial skills. Hence Kuo Hsiao-chuang was logically selected to be the female lead. After two years' "endurance" training, she had become nimble in limbs and body, and radiant in looks. She could well manage the martial acts. Especially under the redoubled guidance of Maestro Su, she had mastered all the skills. As regards the civil part of the opera (translator's note: meaning the non-martial-art acting emphasising elegance and refinement), she was specially instructed by Mistress Pai Yu-wei. She was one of the famous 4 Pieces of Jade in Peking Opera during her Mainland period, and the teacher of Hsu Lu, hence very well known. Kuo Hsiao-chuang studied under her diligently. This opened up her learning by experience the "Study of Performance".

Mistress Pai Yu-wei's method of teaching was very delicate. Focusing on acting, she was very meticulous and demanding with body movements and facial expressions. Every eye expression, every smile was to be mastered correctly and delicately attending to every detail. These key skills gave Kuo Hsiao-chuang new enlightenment to emulate and study.

Of Pai Yu-wei's acting skills, the most impressive was "overcoming the moving with the motionless" through facial expression: Fan Li-hua entered holding the horsetail whisk, running in an arc first, stood still, then her eye expression naturally faced the auditorium at the distance of about the 7th row, and swept her stare around once. After this "composing oneself on entrance", count from one to seven mentally, before one commenced one's movements at ease. At the performance of "Romance on Horseback", Kuo Hsiao-chuang applied what she had learned and at once won applause all round among the audience.

And on the use of eye expressions, Mistress Pai stressed practical techniques, requiring the actress to look at the audience, making the audience feel that she was looking at them and thereby arousing a sense of intimacy and delight within the hearts of the audiences. When facing another actor playing opposite oneself, one was to "stare" at him fixedly, showing a glamor and emotion of the drama, thereby leading your partner into the drama.

On the use of the smile, Mistress Pai categorized the emotions in fine detail, using compressed lips, grin and open-mouthed, etc for expressions, thereby showing elegance and taste. She often demonstrated personally and displayed lovely tenderness. When she got excited in lecturing, she would even roll up her cheongsam and gave demonstrations in action time and again, bewitching the class, bewitching Hsiao-chuang.

Kuo Hsiao-chaung rehearsed the role of Fan Li-hua industriously. This was the first time she was playing the female lead. Rehearsing hard and learning diligently time and again, her anxiety grew as the performance date drew nearer.

The performance of "Romance on Horseback" was a major turning point for Kuo Hsiao-chaung. She gave full expressions in this opera of all the teaching she received from her two teachers Su Sheng-shih and Pai Yu-wei. She gave her all, wholly immersed in the part and forgetting her real self. Whether playing martial or feminine acts, she displayed neat and efficient skills, showing a solid foundation, and turned out to win acclaim. What was a rare feat was her grasp of the key point of this opera ˇV "Romance". So when she was fighting Hsueh Ting-shan, she was showing delight amid anger, making known her affection actively. Her performance was natural and refined. In addition her delivery of spoken lines was sweet sounding with tenderness, most pleasing to the audience, doing full justice to Mistress Pai's delicate expressions, and exhibiting her potentials of versatility in both civil and martial acts. Countless days of suffering, countless days of hard work, countless days of sweat and tears, were all transformed now, amid the sound of drums and cymbals and the waves of applause and cheers from the auditorium, into sweet satisfying results. At curtain call, Kuo Hsiao-chuangˇ¦s smile had tear drops hidden in it.