Created between 1960 and 1961, Escorting Lady Jing a thousand li (千里送京娘) is a kunqu masterpiece that continuously entertains audiences and stimulates discussions on Chinese opera, gender, and politics.
A mid-twentieth century dramatization of a traditional story, the opera narrates a journey in which the young Zhao Kuangyin, the future founder of the Northern Song empire, escorts the beautiful Lady Jing home, falls in love with her along the way, leaves her to realize his heroic dreams, and vows to return to marry her in the future. Theatrically, the opera makes Chinese men and women ask how they should choose between desire and duty, realizing their personally, socially, and politically enforced gendered roles and values.
Having been performed over five decades, the opera and its performance practices and meanings have evolved, generating changing discussions and interpretations. Its recent performances, for example, underscore sustainability issues of kunqu as a genre of Intangible Cultural Heritage, thereby opening audiences’ ears, eyes, and minds to their Chinese cultures, identities, and politics.
This according to “Escorting Lady Jing home: A journey of Chinese opera, gender, and politics” by Joseph Sui Ching Lam (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI  pp. 114–39). Above the original 1961 production; below, an excerpt from a more recent televised version.
Performances of excerpts from the kunqu classic The peony pavilion (牡丹亭, Mudan ting) marked the respective beginning and end of the film career of Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳). While fortuity and the canonical status of the play might be enough to explain this coincidence, Mei’s interests in both the venerable kunqu and the new medium of cinema suggest a productive line of inquiry into their expressive potentiality.
In his 1959 film of Dream in the garden (游园惊梦, Youyuan jingmeng), the precisely choreographed “meeting of the eyes” (dui yanguang) during the dream scene is translated into refreshingly rare exchanges of cinematic point-of-view. The original play’s motif of transcendence as represented by the romantic dream encounter at once opens up a self-referential space for Mei’s performance and frees the film medium here from the sole function of photographical preservation.
In this sense, Mei’s own interpretation of the transformative fairy quality (xian qi) of the play and the film medium could be seen as a footnote to his own art of impersonation. The film thus also complemented his stage performance in the masculine and patriotic General Mu Guiying (Mu Guiying guashuai) of the same year, which added a paradoxical last touch to his career as a female impersonator.
This according to “Meeting of the eyes: Invented gesture, cinematic choreography, and Mei Lanfang’s Kun opera film” by Dong Xinyu (The opera quarterly XXVI/2–3 [spring–summer 2010] pp. 200–219).
Today is Mei Lanfang’s 120th birthday! Above and below, he portrays the star-crossed Du Liniang in Dream in the garden.