Chinese opera: Understanding the Banshee

“I asked too if he had ever seen the banshee. ‘I have seen it,’ he said, ‘down there by the water, batting the river with its hands.” – W. B. Yeats, “A Teller of Tales,” The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore

“And what was the theory at the bottom of all these astounding proceedings?… It was much less a theory than a fear – a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of a mere banshee.” – H. L. Mencken “Palmer Raids”, The Red Scare of 1919-20 American Politics


The banshee of Irish and European mythology is depicted as a stunningly beautiful woman fairy, which meets the fallen soldiers of battle to lament when their time is up. Much like the keener of Irish funerals, woman- sometimes employed- are presented to wail and mourn the death of a family member, and this comes from the preservation of the mythology of the banshee. She is not a ghoul or a hag. She does, however, let forth an almighty scream. Recorded as a low, methodical drawl and also as a high pitched wail the sound is meant to signify mourning and death.

The similarity to what I imagine that wail would sound like is most aptly compared to my first experience of a Chinese Opera in Penang, Malaysia. The taxi driver driving me did not show the same excitement I seemed to exude on the way. I thought it was because he was Indian, more concerned talking about lack of benefits for ethnic Indians, or the possibility of running his own taxi firm one day. But my usual vigour in understanding these points was foregone by imagining what I was going to see.

Actress in make-up
Actress in make-up

Although, as a ‘Gwai Lo’ – a ‘ghost man’ or foreign devil – I was in no way prepared for the Chinese Opera; I was a guest in a country that, for the most part, needs to be understood before appreciated. I did not understand the affluent costumes, nor the women dressed as men, nor the sporadic beats of snared drums or the random clashes of china symbols composing the dialectical music, nor the exaggerated make-up filled with kaleidoscopic reds, back, yellow and white, gold and silver. It was also not obvious what to make out of the staccato hand movements and the bulging eyes and overstated facial expressions. Then, in the face of the Hokkien dialect, I finally gave up trying to follow the plot- despite the electronic subtitled Hokkien words in English running in red-dots to the left of the stage.

But I was still intrigued. My experience could not question the longevity of one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. Being practiced in front of teashops and restaurants on makeshift stages from as long ago as the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D.) after the establishment of the Liyuan opera school created by Emperor Taizong, the gracefulness that probably lies under the surface is suggested in this first school’s poetic name- Pear Tree.

Like an onion, layers of confusion begin to peel away as the spectacle is dissected. The range of affluent costumes progressively transforming each actor into bigger and smaller stage-giants becomes rather obvious when learning the general themes of these plays usually explore patriotism and love. Separating the actors by their physical stature seems an efficient way of keeping the audience- including the constant comers and goers- up do date with the plot and characters.

Understanding the paste of heavy makeup adorning the faces of the characters also peels away another layer. Without having to understand the words, a non-Hokkien speaker can recognise each character’s personality based on their facial colours. Red, the symbol of loyalty and bravery, reminds me of certain door gods and shrine gods decorating every Chinese temple in the city, Georgetown. In the temples, these figures usually look warlike holding swords and polearms, frozen with intimidating stares on top of open mouths and bushy beards. On stage, the scene looks similar- these characters look fit, triangular and muscular with bulging eyes and big beards. Even mixed with black or majority black includes valour. Yellow and/or white resembles a character mired with duplicity, probably signifying treachery or confusion. Gold and silver, however, implies mystery regarding the fate of the character in question.

The music- possibly the most foreign aspect to ears not trained- is again used for exaggeration and implication. Even though the interspersing songs and their meanings are masked by a language unknown, musical spikes during conversational tones emanating from the erthu, gong and lute prepare the spectators for something important and unmissable. Considering the average age of the elderly audience, pokes of unmissable noise seems to be very considerate indeed.

And that issue is also surprising. Street performances are usually surrounded on the streets of London by people young and old jostling with each other eager to get the best view of acts with a lot less extravagance than this. But here the issue- other than the audiences’ geriatric composition- was the complete lack of spectators in the first place. We were standing on a green at night with no red-tape and extortionate ticket booths; suffice to say an amazing opportunity of free entertainment.

Then, I think, they are not just entertainment in Chinese culture in Penang. During a century open to hand-held screens and 3D movies, the young crowd are probably not likely to find much fun in something so… historic. The specific audience, as I learned, was a demographic not entirely on any demographic scale. It was interesting to find out that Chinese operas are usually active during the festival of the Hungry Ghosts and- as well as bonfire offerings of paper money and food offerings around community shrines- their main function is entertaining the spirits released from Hell during the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the gates are opened. Presumably, to dissuade them from attacking any unfortunate people, their interest is piqued by being offered the front-row seats, always reserved for spirits and not sat in by any living members of the audience; something I was told in a quiet word from a helpful local.

But their popularity in Penang has been recognised and its status as an important cultural exhibition is being protected and supported. According the the New Straits Times, the Five Arts Centre and Krishna Jit Astro Fund awards 5 individuals a grant every year from a pot of RM32,000. Most recently, photographer Lim Li-Ling was given a grant of RM4,000 in order to photo-document the “performances, backstage preparations and lives” of actors part of the Shio Kee Lin Hokkien Opera Troupe.

My immediate comparison to the banshee, then, holds sway but not just to the sound. As the banshee of Gaelic mythology screams in calling death, so do the Chinese operas invite death with their lively, sensory spectacles on stage. And as the affection of a keener is displayed through their wailing inspired by the legendary banshee, the sharp sounds of Chinese opera also accept death with undertones of love and loyalty. If only to make a cross-cultural comparison, I feel that by understanding the ‘banshee’ I have come to grips with something new and interesting; it’s just surprising to see how these revelations seem to come about.

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