Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Birthdate of Lam Ching-Ying

Today is the birthday of the late Lam Ching-Ying (December 27, 1952 - November 08, 1997).

A talented actor and martial artist, he was trained at Hong Kong's Spring and Autumn drama school in classical Chinese opera, and in his role as Leung Yee-Tai in Prodigal Son (an excerpt of which is shown above and the entire movie of which is available on the internet here in Chinese with subtitles) he plays an actor in a classical Cantonese "red junk" opera troupe (and a legendary master of Wing Chun kung fu, an actual historical figure who really was a member of a red junk acting troupe).

Traditional Chinese opera follows a very distinctive pattern, with set characters who fit into one of several characteristic roles and who wear elaborate costumes and makeup. This is very evident in Prodigal Son.

The events in the operas themselves often have a celestial component or origin, such as the very well-known and beloved story of the lovers Zhi Nu (or Zhinu, the celestial daughter of the Ruler of Heaven, whose name means "The weaver girl") and Niu Lang (or Niulang, a poor, hardworking and virtuous cowherd who possesses a magical talking ox -- his name means "The cowherd"). In the story, the celestial maiden marries Niu Lang and the two are very happy and have two children, but are separated by the girl's mother, who is very angry that she has married a mortal and is neglecting her heavenly weaving.

The mother takes Zhi Nu back to heaven, but Niu Lang (disconsolate at the loss of his wife) is told by his magic ox how to ascend to heaven to rejoin her. However, the Queen Mother separates the two with a celestial river: the Milky Way. You can see them in the sky on either side of the Milky Way -- Niu Lang and his two children are Altair in the head of Aquila the Eagle flanked by Tarazed and Alshain (his children), and Zhi Nu is the brilliant star Vega in the Lyre.

In Chinese legend, the lovers must sit forever on either side of the river, unable to unite. However, on one day each year, the magpies of the world take pity on them and fly up to heaven to create a Magpie Bridge, enabling Niu Lang and Zhi Nu to cross the Milky Way and hold one another once again. That day is traditionally the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, which falls in August. In The Cygnus Mystery, author Andrew Collins makes a convincing argument that this legend of a bridge made of birds is derived from the important constellation Cygnus the Swan, which you can see in the diagrams in this previous post in relation to the location of Altair and Vega. If Cygnus could somehow "fly forward" once a year, its wingtips would connect the two separated lovers.

This beautiful legend is recounted in numerous Chinese operas, and can also be seen in the recent remake of The Karate Kid (2010), starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. The celestial aspects of Chinese opera are extremely interesting, especially given the continuing importance of its influence on Asian filmography to this day. It is also noteworthy that the origins of stage acting in ancient Greece also appear to have celestial connections, and that ancient Greek drama often deals with the influence of the gods, whose celestial components have been addressed here many times previously.

Mr. Lam Ching-Ying won a Hong Kong Film Award for his performance in Prodigal Son (1982), and was later nominated for Best Actor for his performance in Mr. Vampire (1985). He imbued his characters with quiet dignity and authority, which must have come from his own personal character. While it is sad that he left the world so young, he lives on in his many well-loved films.

Rest in peace.