A male lead dancer hesitantly crosses the darkened stage. He catches sight of a demure but beautiful girl, and in a moment of bewitchment, falls instantly under her spell.
The stirring scene is from the Hong Kong Dance Company’s award-winning L’Amour Immortal, a tale of ghostly love that won three Hong Kong Dance Awards in 2016, and is being re-staged this month. This time, says one of the show’s choreographers, Xie Yin, there will be more emphasis on the love story between the two main characters, one of which is not quite as she seems.
Ning Caichen is a quiet scholar who meets beguiling Nie Xiaoqian inside a deserted temple. The couple falls passionately in love, but in the second act it’s revealed that Nie is supernatural and controlled by a tree demon for whom she has to trap men’s souls. Nie’s love for Ning is genuine, and Ning tries to free Nie from the demon, defying the rules of the underworld. While scenes where the demon rages are slightly spooky, many are ethereal. This piece does not aim to be a spine-chiller. “This is a love story over a ghost story,” Xie says.
In Chinese folklore, not all stories of spirits and ghosts go bump in the night. Much of the movement in the show is inspired by and set to the score of A Chinese Ghost Story, the 1987 romantic comedy by renowned Hong Kong director Tsui Hark. The film’s phenomenal popularity spurred the careers of its leading actors, Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong, who swayed audiences with their poignant love story. But the movie is just one of many films and stage retellings inspired by a Chinese classic first published in 1740.
Written between 1670 and 1700, approximately, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling, a master writer of his time, contains almost 500 fantastical stories. His literary tales of ghosts, spirits, demons and fairies were often used to portray his ideas about corruption and immorality, although many demonstrated love between living men and supernatural women.
Many of the collection’s stories likely originated from China’s rich oral storytelling tradition, which was ripe with ghost stories. They were almost certainly part of a very old oral tradition before writing developed during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Ghost literature boomed in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties (about 1580 to 1700) as printing and publishing flourished, writes Judith T. Zeitlin in her book, The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature. Much of Ming and Qing Chinese literature blended true fact with fictional stories, and at that time sleep and dreams could disembody a soul as easily as death, leaving easy openings for apparitions and the resurrected to arrive.
Resurrected or returned females were a “striking feature” of 17th century Chinese literature, writes Zeitlin. Songling’s supernatural tales were among three masterpieces from the same period that had female ghosts as romantic leads. Tang Xianzu’s enduring Peony Pavilion, also known as The Soul’s Return, which appeared in 1598, and Hong Sheng’s Palace of Eternal Life, written around 1688, also featured supernatural women — some lost romantics, some tortured seductresses — that are worlds away from the freakish, troubled ghouls popularised in movies like Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ringu (also known as The Ring).
Nie Xiaoqian is less ghost and more fox spirit. In Chinese literature, there is a distinction between true ghosts, who are melancholic and cold, and spirits, who are warm, beguiling, and sometimes even healing. Spirits are known for their beauty, cunning, and an ability to achieve immortality, but the plentiful amounts of female yin energy they possess, which enables them to take on a womanly appearance, mean they must prey on men to garner the male-dominated yang.
Many spirits like these were written as well mannered and genteel, coming from families of good standing, but upon dying become insatiable, a fantasy that appealed to writers and readers of the time, who were predominantly male. In some of Pu Songling’s tales, ghosts give birth to half-human babies (including Nie Xiaoqian, in the original story). Others are naïve, while some roam on sexual quests or are prostitutes. In one tale called Miss Lien-hsian, the title character is a sexually experienced fox-spirit who fights for one scholar’s attentions with a virginal ghost.
But the concept of love, or qing, was another common theme, with writers frequently musing about love’s strength and its hold beyond life through to death and back again. In the Peony Pavilion, lead female character Du Liniang dreams of a lover and dies waiting for him, only to be restored to life when he arrives. This intense power is the embodiment of qing, or “supreme love,” notes Zeitlin.
And it’s this intensity that Xie Yin is concentrated on portraying in L’Amour Immortal. She spent time with the dancers exploring Nie’s “kindness and her pursuit of beauty and love,” she says. Nie, a vision in white, is often hoisted up high by other dancers so as to appear to be floating. In her flowing gown and long silken water sleeves that billow across the stage, she is as angelic as she is ghostly.
The impossibility of the lovers’ fates drives drama and emotion. Xie wanted a visible chemistry between the two characters, despite their bitter circumstances. “We really want to show the purity of love. How it lingers and leaves you with the courage to pursue anything,” she says.
When the Communist Party gained control of mainland China, ghost literature, and the operas that had followed based on them, were nearly obliterated by campaigns to eradicate superstitious thinking. Like the ghosts that populate so many of these stories, however, they have risen once again. They have appeared as operas, plays, in movies and on TV as well as in dance.
After all, many believe they are as common in real life as they are on stage. Ghosts are an integral part of life here. Reincarnation is a tenet in both Taoism and Buddhism — two of the backbones of Hong Kong folk religion, and popular faiths in their own right — and it is common to worship ancestors and make offerings to deities. During the Hungry Ghost Month, which occurs in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, it is believed that the gates of heaven open for souls to roam the earth. Pavements around Hong Kong are dotted with tin canisters glowing from burning hell money and paper objects of desire given by the living to appease the spirits. And while it is less common these days, the old practice of ghost marriages, where a matchmaker is employed to connect two lost souls in the afterlife, still exists.
Ghosts may be ubiquitous in Hong Kong, but are there still examples of wandering lost ladies looking for love? Why yes, says Edmond Poon, host of the popular online broadcast Horror Hotline. He tells of a recent call-in to his show about a reversed ghost marriage. The caller described how one family’s unmarried daughter died at around the same time as another young man. At the time of death, they were completely unknown to each other, but in the months after their passing the girl appeared in a dream to one of her parents, while the man appeared in a dream to one of his. The visions told the parents that they had met each other and wanted to marry. They even gave the names and addresses of their partners’ family so that both sides could connect and meet, which they did.
Poon says that most of the stories he has heard from callers — which are in the thousands — can be explained, but this felt different. “They had really no connection before,” he says, recalling his disbelief. True or not, it sounds like an ideal plot for a new ghost drama.
L’amour Immortal runs from June 9 to June 11, 2017 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. For more information click here.