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Opera Stage in the Temple to the Eastern Marchmount in Pu County (Puxian Dongyue miao xitai 蒲縣東嶽廟戲台) Taubes, Hannibal


The Temple of the Eastern Marchmount (Dongyue miao 東嶽廟) is located on a wooded hilltop to the south of and overlooking the Pu County seat. The complex is entered by a tunnel leading under the floorboards of the stage, which itself forms the south-east wall of the courtyard. The stage faces north-west towards a small pavilion for offerings, beyond which is the main hall (Zhengdian 正殿) of the temple. The date of the stage’s construction is unclear. The earliest record of the Eastern Marchmount temple is a 1361 stele, which records the rebuilding of the complex from the ground up after two devastating earthquakes. The text gives a relatively detailed account of the temple buildings at this time, but the stage is not mentioned. See: Li Yuming 李玉明, Wang Ya’an 王雅安, and Wang Dongquan 王東全 eds., Sanjin shike daquan: Linfen shi Puxian juan 三晉石刻大全:臨汾市蒲縣卷 [Taiyuan 太原: Sanjin chubanshe 三晉出版社, 2013], 13. While a stele from 1668 mentions opera performances taking place at temple, the earliest unambiguous mention of the stage building is from 1697, when the structure was repaired (Ibid., 74 & 84). After this the use and maintenance of this structure are recorded in a fair amount of detail in the epigraphic record. Steles from 1752, 1777, 1821, 1841, and 1864 lay out the regulations for the financing by the temple associations (jiu 糾) of yearly opera performances during the festivities at the great Daoist ritual (jiao 醮) to celebrate the god’s birthday on the 28th day of the third lunar month (Ibid., 140, 174, 242, 266, 295). By at least the early 19th century, this had expanded to three plays a year in the third, fifth, and seventh months. The stele was repaired along with other buildings in the complex in 1787-89 and 1908 (Ibid., 192, 348). Plaques hanging from the ceiling record donors and artisans for more repairs, but unfortunately these are heavily effaced and no dates can be made out. Despite this epigraphic detail, none of the inscriptions give information about the stage decorations; it’s probable that different sections of the structure were painted at different times. Unusually, one of the two vertical painted panels on the central scaenae-frons is signed, dated, and given a title by the artist. The title is, ‘Daji Plots to Harm Bi Gan’ (Daji sheji hai Bi Gan 妲己設計害比干), the name of a chapter from the Romance of the Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi 封神演義), as well as an opera plot. The rest of the inscription reads: ‘On the ☐ of the chrysanthemum [ninth] month of the dingchou year of the Republic of China [1937]. Walls by Zhang Xiaoliang of Kecheng Town in Pu County.’ 時在民國丁丑年菊月☐日 / 蒲縣克城鎮張效良壁?. These two panels show opera scenes taking place in perspectivally-rendered buildings. Far more unique, however, are the plaques (bian 扁) painted as if to hang down from the left and right sides of the stage, which approach true trompe l’œil visual trickery. The plaques read: ‘As it is in heaven / Come from the moon’ (tian shang you / yue zhong lai 天上有 / 月中來), and ‘Cities in the sea / Towers upon giant clams’ (hai shang shi / shen zhong lou 海上市 / 蜃中樓), all metonyms for operatic illusion. The wooden back of the scaenae frons wall is covered in historic opera performers’ graffiti, although this is now difficult to read or photograph in the gloom.

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