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Musical interpretation adds vitality to classic literature

The Vibe| Updated: December 30, 2022 L M S

Red Cliff was the site of a major battle over 1,800 years ago during the Three Kingdoms (220-280) period that saw the underdog emerge victorious. In 1082, the writer Su Shi (1037-1101) from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) traveled to this historic site and wrote two "Odes to the Red Cliff," significantly contributing to the annals of Chinese literature. Artists of subsequent dynasties created numerous works to commemorate Su Shi and his odes, including the "Red Cliff" painting by Qiu Ying from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). With his strong imagination and distinct painting style, Qiu Ying depicted the scene of Su Shi taking a boat trip with his friends. It recreated the atmosphere of a moonlit night from bygone centuries, conveying a strong sense of aesthetics with deep cultural connotations. Produced by China Media Group, the cultural program "China in Poetry and Painting" invited musical actors Zheng Qiyuan, Pang Shengzhi, and Zhao Yujun to perform a musical play based on the painting "Red Cliff," expressing positive sentiments toward nature with a detached and free attitude.

"Red Cliff" was drawn by the famous painter Qiu Ying during the Ming Dynasty and is now housed in the Liaoning Provincial Museum. In this masterpiece, a boat is seen drifting slowly along a river, in which Su Shi is drinking wine and chatting with his friends, projecting a peaceful and calm atmosphere. A precipitous cliff sits beside the boat. The surface of the precipice is a jumble of trees and vegetation. Trees tower up into the sky, some of their branches waving lightly in the wind.

The river is depicted using simplistic lines, while the cliff and trees are stacked closely using a variety of colors, making for a striking comparison. As Su Shi wrote, "White mist heaped up across the river, and the moonlight stretched far into the horizon to merge with the hues of the sky. Like a piece of reed, our boat drifted on a boundless expanse of water, so vast that we felt as if we were riding in the wind." Amid such wondrous scenery of mountains and rivers, Su Shi dissolved his sorrows and freed himself of concerns such as glory and dishonor.

Su Shi is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished figures in classical Chinese literature, having produced some of the most well-known poems, prose, and essays in its history. However, he had an unstable career as a court official. Su Shi had been demoted many times, but the move that had the greatest impact on him was the famous "Wutai Poetry Case," which saw him punished for a spell during the Northern Song Dynasty due to a literary controversy. Nearly a millennium ago, he was exiled to Hangzhou as a result of this case. This marked a turning point in his life. But while he experienced great hardship, his attitude toward life also changed. He became more open-minded and dedicated himself into his works, notably his "Odes to the Red Cliff," which is regarded as a milestone in the annals of Chinese literature. It is on the basis of this classic literary work that Qiu Ying managed to complete the masterpiece "Red Cliff."

Qiu Ying, born into a poor family and largely self-taught, was adept at adding interest to his works. The painting style of "Red Cliff" is refined and realistic and has a poetic and graceful air reminiscent of literati art. According to Fan Di'an, dean of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the masterpiece was drawn from a unique angle of vision – overlooking the river and looking far ahead to the mountains – as if standing on the cliff.

On the stage of "China in Poetry and Painting," the musical actor Zheng Qiyuan, being cast as the protagonist Su Shi, performs a musical play based on the painting "Red Cliff." On a crisp fall evening, Su Shi travels on a small boat to visit the Red Cliff with his friends. They recall the Battle of Red Cliff – an event that happened over 1,800 years ago – and start to think about the rise and fall of great historical figures. They talk about the brevity of life and the profound beauty of nature in a musical form, adding a novel touch to these ancient philosophical insights.

Despite having different historical backgrounds, Su Shi and Qiu Ying shared similar spiritual aspirations. No matter the circumstances, they never gave up hope and always maintained their deep love for life. Their ability to draw strength from nature epitomizes the character of the Chinese people, helping the country to maintain its enduring vitality while confronting the dramatic changes of time.

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