Li Yugang’s The Drunken Concubine

On 28th July, 2016 in the Sydney Opera House, China Opera , Dancing Drama Company China Jinlin Television and the Australian Chinese Performing Artists’ Association hosted Li Yugan , a celebrated  singer and performer with the National Opera and Dancing company of China who was slated to be the star attraction for the night. Li Yugang is better known for his specialization in the “nin dan”  role in most of his performances, which is  a male who usually takes up a female role during a performance. During this show, the highlight would be his performance in ‘’The Drunken Concubine’’ which is viewed by many critics as his magnum opus. Gibson  delved deep into Mei Lanfang as an emblematic character and also went ahead to analyze his performances based on various dramatic theory systems(24).

The Drunken Concubine’’ is a story that is said to have happened in the Tang Dynasty(745-755AD) emperor Ming-Huang. It is said that among all the concubines, he had a favorite one; Yang Yu-Huan. The emperor and his concubine are said to have made arrangements for a rendezvous at the pavilion in the Imperial Gardens one evening. After waiting for a long while, she suddenly comes to the sudden realization that the emperor would not be coming as he had made plans with another concubine. two eunuchs, Gao Li-Shi and Pei Li-Shi, who were waiting on Yang, decide to finally inform her of her humiliating position. This humiliating infuriates and depresses her at the same time leading her to decide to have the banquet alone. This story would be responsible for showing her disappointment, the drunken charm that she has while intoxicated and also her flawless beauty.

Li Yugang does an impeccable job at playing the concubine. His makeup together with his cross-dressing quickly transforms him into a beautiful woman on the well lit stage This whole performance would be further accentuated by the meticulous make up and costumes. The costume now becomes an art object in its own right; the dazzling hues and the exaggerations of its embroidered patterns continue to express its beauty. The concubine could be seen strutting the stage with her banquet in hand and her eunuchs in tow. The show starts with strong aspects of traditional Peking Opera as can be noted from the use of the elaborate costumes, powerful nasal singing coupled with the use of highly stylized costumes. The huādàn character which is usually a young female who is generally vivacious and quite lively and Li Yugang plays this role perfectly. Traditional cognition is broken in this performance as a man plays a woman to perfection from the dancing and delicate movements to the appearance. The long wait is clearly evident in the play as the music played by the orchestra permeated the whole opera house presenting a rather grim picture of the reality that would dawn on the concubine. The two eunuchs who are waiting on her watch in concern as she drowns her sorrows in the alcohol. Feeling guilty for giving her this information, the eunuchs unanimously decide to convince her to go back to her chambers.

On the sonic elements of the whole performance, the main performer was quite audible and his diction was noteworthy as I could pick out the Mandarin phrases he would sing. The artful vocal work had a single melodic tone that was embellished with beautiful vibratos. Li Yugang managed to maintain the simplistic nature of the traditional Peking melodic structure. The orchestra that was accompanying Li could not be seen on stage, but it could be heard in the background concealed from the audience. His style had emotionally fraught patterns that made his voice quite moving


Peking opera is often said to have been formally created in the year 1790 after the coming together of several regional styles that existed in ancient China. Its inception also coincided with the celebrations marking the 55th year of the reign of the emperor Qianlong. It mainly incorporated two southern styles that were cooperatively known as pihuang in Mandarin and they both trace their origins as early as in the 13th Century. It can also be noted that this early form integrated provincial forms which used aspects such as mime, dance, music and also acrobatics that were clearly very exaggerated. The performers of this new art mostly referred to previous forms of the style that been performed in the imperial court and theatres in Peking (later Beijing) during 16th and 17th Centuries.

Peking Opera can be said to have started around two hundred years ago and tailored to an austere ideological system, which was used by those in power at the moment to teach society as a whole. Peking Opera has always been performed with symbolic expression through costumes and also lyrics. It is also important to remember that this opera presents its emblematic expression through the flamboyant attire and the words in the plays (Wu, Huang, & Mei 11). The orchestras became very popular and soon had to employ new tactics to make sure they were heard for example using a piercing style of voice projection while singing (Wichmann-Walczak 98). During the Chinese eras Peking Opera has been at the core of traditional culture. A majority of China’s values and social rules have been transmitted to the people through this art form.


Traditional Peking Opera uses a number of musical instruments which have specific roles. These include aerophone and cross flutes  which usually played along with singing, Ta-lo and Siao-lo gongs which are responsible for signify the ,  the violin like Hu-ch’in and Bu-ch’in , Siao  flutes which are  usually played along with singing, the Sona Trumpet( used on the proclamation of good tidings ), the  Yue-ch’in (similar to the guitar),the San-sien (four-stringed)and th Tan-pi-ku kettle drum which is used to create the tempo and speed for the performances.

I had read earlier in my research about how Peking music was transformational and the fact that it would change over time because of hybridization with every new style that it would come by(Chang, Kang-i Sun and Stephen Owen 323). This was epitomized in this concert in totality as it is important to note that this performance started with traditional Peking music but later transforms to incorporate pop music. This incorporation was specifically done by the artiste to ensure that more and more people are accepting of Peking opera. This would be seen by many as an attempt to present a new type of opera packaged in an old story.

Most of the individuals in attendance were young individuals who would relate to this kind of music very well. I interviewed an old Cantonese Gentleman by then name Wang Hoi who had come to the show with his two granddaughters to have a good time and also expose them to this crucial part of Chinese art. He expressed his satisfaction at the quality of the show as it brought fond memories about his home town in the Guangdong region. Mr.Wang Hoi was also pleased with the fact that the show had incorporated elements of pop music as his granddaughters had the best of two worlds. The current development of Peking Opera is thus represented by Li Yugang by his fine artistry while combining both traditional and modern forms of music to enthrall those in attendance.

In conclusion, this form of artistry is important as it is through such performances and troupes that ideals are learnt and passed to the new generations. It is important to preserve the traditional Peking music and also making it more attractive to the younger members of the audience by incorporating narration techniques and music they can relate to readily. Other shows that will be available this December in which feature this genre around the world include The Legend of Kung Fu at the Red Theatre, The Golden Mask Dynasty at OCT Theatre, Wuthering Heights by Chapterhouse Theatre Company and Mei Lanfang Classics by the Peking Opera. All these shows will be available in Beijing, China.

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