The White Haired Girl
The White-Haired Girl (Chinese: 白毛女; pinyin: Bái Máo Nǚ) is a Chinese opera, ballet, (later adapted to Beijing Opera and a film) by Yan Jinxuan to a Chinese libretto. The first opera performance was in 1945, with Wang Kun playing the lead role. The film was made in 1950. The first Peking opera performance was in 1958. The first ballet performance was by Shanghai Dance Academy, Shanghai in 1965. It has also been performed by the noted soprano Guo Lanying.
The opera is based on legends circulating in the border region of Shanxi, Chahar and Hebei, describing the misery suffered by local peasantry, particularly the misery of the female members. The stories are based on real life stories of no less than half a dozen women, in a time frame stretching from the late Qing Dynasty to 1920's or 1930's. The political overtone and historical background when it was created means that communist propaganda was added in inevitably, and the most obvious example was the added portion of happy ending and the protagonists joining the communist force, which did not happen in real life.
Along with Red Detachment of Women, the ballet is regarded as one of the classics of revolutionary China, and its music is familiar to almost everyone who grew up during the 1960s. It is one of the Eight model plays.
(Based on the ballet version)
It is the eve of the Chinese Spring Festival. The peasant girl, Xi'er, in the village, Yanggezhuang, Hebei Province, is waiting for her father to return home to celebrate the Spring Festival together. Her girl friends come to bring her paper cuttings with which they decorate the windows. After the girls leave, Xi'er's fiance, Wang Dachun, comes to give two catties of wheat flour to Xi'er so that she can make jiaozis. In turn, Xi'er gives a new sickle to Dachun as a gift.
Yang Bailao, Xi'er's father, has been away to avoid the debt collector from the despotic landlord, Huang Shiren. He returns home at dusk, with no gift other than a red ribbon to tie to the hair of Xi'er for the festivity of the holiday.
The landlord will not let them have a peaceful and happy Spring Festival, and the debt collector comes for the farm land rent which Yang has been unable to pay. They kill Yang Bailao, and take away Xi'er by force as his concubine. Dachun and other villagers come on the scene. Dachun wants to go to the landlord's residence to fight for justice but is stopped by Zhao Dashu (Uncle Zhao) who, instead, instruct Dachun and other young people to join the Eighth Route Army.
At the home of the landlord, Xi'er is forced to work day and night as a slave and is exhausted. Zhang Ershen (literally Second Aunt Zhang), an elderly maid of the landlord, is very sympathetic of Xi'er. Xi'er dozes off while trying to take a short break. The mother of the landlord comes on the scene and, with her hairpin, pokes Xi'er's face to wake her up. The landlord mother then orders Xi'er to prepare her a lotus seed soup. When the soup is served, the landlord mother, displeased with the taste, pours the still-boiling soup on Xi'er's face. Outraged by the pain and anger, Xi'er picks up the whip that the landlord uses to punish her, and beats up the landlord mother. The landlord mother falls and crawls on the floor attempting to flee while Xi'er continues to whip her with her utmost strength. Xi'er gets her vengeance, but she is subsequently locked up by the landlord.
One day, the landlord leaves his overcoat in the living room and in the pocket of the overcoat is the key to Xi'er's cell. Zhang Ershen is determined to help Xi'er. She takes the key and opens the door for Xi'er, and she flees. Shortly, the landlord finds Xi'er missing, and sends his accomplice, Mu Renzhi, and other men to chase her. Xi'er comes to a river that stops her. She takes off a shoe and leaves it at the river side, and then hides in the bush. Mu Renzhi and his men find the shoe and assume that Xi'er has drowned herself in the river, and they report to the landlord as such.
Xi'er escapes to the mountains, and in the following years, she lives in a cave, gathers offerings for food from a nearby temple. She fights attacking wolves and other beasts. In time, her hair turns white.
On one stormy night, the landlord, Huang Shiren, and several of his other servants come to the temple to worship and provide offerings. Their trip is stopped by the thunderstorm. It just so happens that Xi'er is now in the temple too, and by the light of a flash of lightning, the landlord sees her—with her long white hair and shabby clothes that have been weathered to nearly white. He thinks it is the reincarnation of a goddess who has come to punish him for his mistreatment of Xi'er and other despotisms. He is so frightened that he is literally paralyzed. Xi'er recognizes that it is her arch-enemy and seizes the opportunity to take further revenge. She picks up the brass incense burner and hurls it against the landlord. The landlord and his gang flee.
Meanwhile, her fiancé, Wang Dachun, has joined the Eighth Route Army and fought the Japanese invaders. Now he returns with his army to overthrow the rule of the imperialist Japanese and the landlord. They distribute his farmland to the peasants. Zhang Ershen tells the story of Xi'er, and they decide to look for her in the mountains. Wang Dachun finally finds her in the cave with her hair turned white. They reunite and rejoice.
Differences among adaptations
The original hybrid western-style geju opera was created by collaboration of composer Ma Ke and others in Yan'an's Lu Xun Art Academy in 1945. It differs from later adaptations in its depiction of superstition. In the original opera of 1945, Xi'er was caught by the local population, who believed she was a ghost and had power to inflict harm on people. To destroy her evil magical power, the local populace poured the boys' urine, blood of a slain black dog, menstrual blood, human's and animal feces on her in an attempt to neutralize the supernatural power, a fact that really happened in real life to at least one of the girls. Communists felt it was necessary to rid of the superstition that was still deeply rooted in the minds of local populace, so this barbaric act was accurately reflected in the opera, with Wang Dachun eventually stopped the mob after recognizing Xi'er, leading to the final happy ending. After the communist victory in China, this scene was deleted in later adaptations for fearing to instigate superstition, and creating a negative image on the working-class people.
In the 1950 film version, Xi'er's father was tricked and driven to suicide by Huang Shiren. Xi'er was raped by Huang Shiren and became pregnant. When Huang Shiren got married, he and his mother decided to sell Xi'er to a brothel. With Auntie Yang's help, Xi'er ran away to the mountains and gave birth to a still-born baby.
Unlike other ballets, the music of The White-Haired Girl is more like that of a musical, i.e., it blends a large number of vocal passages, both solos on the part of Xi'er and choruses into the music. Because of their mellifluous melodies, these songs became very popular. The following is a partial list of these songs:
- "Looking at the World"
- "The Blowing North Wind"
- "Tying the Red Ribbon"
- "Suddenly the Day Turns to Night"
- "Join the Eighth Route Army"
- "Longing for the Rising Red Sun in the East"
- "Big Red Dates for the Beloved"
- "The Sun Is Out"
- "Dear Chairman Mao"
- Bai mao nu at the Internet Movie Database
- The White Haired Girl is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- Youtube: Xi'er's Solo in Act I
- The White-Haired Girl (1971), film version of complete ballet