Gezaixi (歌仔戲) can trace its roots to the form of opera developed in Fujian known as ‘Bei Guan’ and which came to be the dominant form of opera in Taiwan from around 1784 onwards, when a new ferry route was opened to the mainland. Gezaixi inherited the traditions of this opera, while also being influenced by modern theatre trends during the fifty years of Japanese occupation which began in 1895. This new form of opera reached huge heights of popularity in Taiwan in the mid 1950s.
As well as using Taiwanese as its main language1 as opposed to the Mandarin dialect of the Kuomintang regime, gezaixi was notable for its bleak emotional overtones and overwrought feeling. The term used for this was 苦情, which translates to something like bitter feelings.
Given the popularity of gezaixi among the Taiwanese-speaking population, it is no surprise that the first Taiyu films produced were adaptations of gezaixi standards. 1955 saw the release of Six Talents’ Romance of the West Chamber 六才子西鄉記, and Xue Pinggui and Wang Baochuan was released the following year. While Six talents was a flop, Xue Pinggui saw huge success.
The influence of gezaixi can be seen in later films, such as The Early Train from Taipei, where some smaller characters play a choric role, driving the narrative forward. Tonally, too, the bitter feelings of gezaixi are felt throughout. Zhang Yingjin highlights the gezaixi-inflected sadness reflected in the male character singing of his heartbreak in the railway station. Weeping songs, or 哭調, were a common feature of gezaixi and one of the reasons that the art form came to be denigrated as Music from a dying country (亡國調) in Mainland China.
Gezaixi as an art form has an important place in the history of the cinema of Taiwan, and its influence continues to be felt in popular culture. It forms part of a broader stream of specifically Taiyu (Taiwanese language) productions, which of necessity developed as a sometimes underground and always counter-cultural alternative to the mainstream and officially-sanctioned Mandarin-language cinema.
1 Japanese was also used during the period of heaviest repression.
- Yingjin Zhang: Articulating Sadness, Gendering Space: The Politics and Poetics of Taiyu Films from 1960s Taiwan, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Vol. 25, No.1 (Spring 2013)
- Hsieh Hsiao-Mei: Music from a Dying nation: Taiwanese opera in China and Taiwan during World War II (2010)
- 林鶴宜: 臺灣戲劇史（增修版 (2015) [A History of the Taiwanese Theatre, Second Edition]