The story was almost mingled with history, about the tragic love between a youthful couple. The fame of this couple is equivalent to that of Romeo and Juliet in the West. There are reported claims of actual grave site of the young man being found in a town where the folklore originated.
Folk operas based on the legend had been performed for many decades in various southern Chinese dialects. The movie was thus a musical, starring two actresses. In modern folk opera, it is a standard practice for the male roles to be performed by actresses.
Before anyone could realize why, the movie took Taipei by storm. Tickets were sold out show after show; many of the audience were repeat customers who boasted of seeing it for the "30th time". I went to see the movie, not knowing what to expect. Being 13, I was soon drawn into the comical opening.
A young lady Yingtai yearned for an education. But the old fashioned schools would only accept male students. She tried to persuade her father that she could dress up as a boy and attend school, but he refused her idea as ridiculous.
"What if I can convince you I'm a boy, will you let me go then?"
"If so. But you will never pass!" he scoffed.
Before long, her maid reported to her father. "My young lady is sick. She won't eat. She won't sleep. She is longing for schooling too much."
"Fetch her a doctor," said the father. And a young "doctor" arrived, singing a delightful, playful song about how it will take "the intestine of a slug, the water from the Guan Yin Buddha's holy bottle, the horns of the Serpent King of the East Sea,...." for components to a prescription that will cure the lady's illness.
The father was flustered in his frustration. "You are jesting! What charlatan are you?!"
"I am your daughter! Please let me go to school!"
The old man relented. The young lady and her maid both dressed up to look like men, and went on their journey to a nearby village for school.
As they traveled, they met a young man who was also walking to school. The two students made a pack to be like brothers. It is a common practice in China for young men for forge their friendship with declarations of brotherhood.
Yet the first scene of the appearance of the "real young man" was what all the repeat audience in the theater were waiting for. The moment he appeared, standing on a bridge and singing how he enjoyed the scenery of a distant mountain and the Spring water beneath a bridge, the audience was electrified.
The newspapers had been covering the phenomenon. The popularity of this film was a craze over the actress who played the young man. Her name was Ling Bo, which means "Upon Waves", an elegant name; and she had become a major star overnight.
The movie went on to draw laughter from the crowd of audience in the theater as the comedy unfolded. The young lady suffered near misses as she pretended to be a man in a school full of boys. At one point, she and her new friend argued about Confucius' view of women. She won the debate with wit, handing her friend a sound defeat in another humor-filled song.
Three years of schooling went by, and it was time for the young lady to return to her family. By now she was in love with her loyal friend, and tried to give him ample hints about her real self. But he missed every hint she gave him.
Her hints and his misunderstandings wove into more songs and laughter. But in the end, the story came to tragedy when her father promised her hand to another young man. Her friend realized too late who she really was. In despair, he died of a broken heart. As the legend went, as her wedding procession passed his grave, his grave split open, and, defying her father, she threw herself into the dirt, and was buried.
At the age of 13, I learned every song from that movie, and sang the entire musical score from beginning to end every day, including the chorus. Many other girls did the same as I did. Even though the story had ended tragically, I dismissed it as fantasy.
Yet I took it as a reality that a witty young lady could defeat an oblivious young man in debate. If a girl really wanted to, she could outsmart boys in school.
The history of China has many heroines.
Qiu Jin, whose name meant Autumn Jade, was a revolutionary who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Hua Mulan, whose name meant Wood Orchid, was another legend/folklore that has some basis in reality. Scholars had found evidence of a woman who had enlisted during her time. The Empress Cuxi of Qing Dynasty ruled, although she was never a woman emperor like Wu.
Many modern Chinese women emulate their historical role models. It was not surprising to see that one of the most influential student leaders at Tiananmen was a female, Tsai Ling.
For a girl who grew up in Taiwan, a fun part of the Chinese culture is these powerful women, who proved that women can accomplish just as much as men despite a male-dominated system.
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