The Three-role Tea-picking Opera

Hakka opera in Taiwan is generally referred to as the “tea-picking” opera. The three-role tea-picking opera, including one clown and two female characters, was an adoption by early Hakka immigrants from their hometowns in China. The music, storyline and stage techniques of all Hakka dramas have derived from this original format and been developed over time. Examples include “Inter-complimenting at Tea-picking”, “New Era Tea-picking”, “Improved Tea-picking” and “Grand Tea-picking Opera”, etc. The development has been a series of consistent process. The music has also grown from single aspect to multiple aspects, from trunk to branches and from branch to leaves.

In performance, originally besides the funny Shuban (counting the beat) and dazuigu (humoring each other) at pengtou (the warm-up for the show), the three-role tea-picking opera did not allow much improvised acting. The lyrics and dialogs were almost all in the same format based on the play of “Zhang Sanlang the Tea Vender”. During the Japanese Period, “Kang Cha” and “Pao Cai Cha”, two acting gimmicks that encouraged interactions with the audience, somehow appeared. “Kang Cha” means in the middle of the show the performers carried tea on a tray off the stage to offer it to viewers and viewers could give a tip. “Pao Cai Cha” means the performers threw a tied small basket into the crowd and whoever caught the basket could put something inside. When the basket was retrieved, the performers were obliged to make an improvisation related to the object. As a result, improvising became more common and made the three-role tea-picking opera more popular.

Although the three-role tea-picking opera was quite prevailing in the agricultural society, it was different from mountain songs and folk singing. The opera took place only during breaks from farming. When villagers finished a day’s work, the troupe came to the local temple square, a large grain-sunning yard or under a big old tree. In the street performance fashion, they started with pengtou to warm up and attract people and then the clown and the two female characters did a few episodes from “Zhang Sanlang the Tea Vender” before carrying out “Kang Cha” and “Pao Cai Cha”. The audience by now was fascinated and started to put different objects and tips in the basket or the tray. It went on into the night until the crowd thinned out. The traditional numbers are generally called the “ten plays.” They are “Going up the Hill to Pick Tea”, “Urging Sanlang to Sell Tea”, “Seeing Sanlang Off but Not Letting Him Go”, “The Wine Seller”, “Telling Sanlang to Blame the Wine Lady”, “Sanlang Coming Home”, “Where Did the Tea Money Go” (Including “Retort”), and the later derivations of “Seeking Divination”, “Taking the Ferry” and “Giving the Gold Hairpin”. 

The seven original ones depict Zhang Sanlang and his wife going up the hill to pick tea. After the tea was roasted, he didn’t seem interested in going out to sell tea and his wife and his sister had to talk him into it. In the end he agreed and they saw him off. Yet at the parting point, the two ladies were reluctant to let him go and held on to his umbrella.

On the way, Sanlang checked in an inn run by an wine-selling lady. He decided to stay and ended up spending all the money he had, including the earnings from selling tea. A letter from home arrived and urged him to return. He decided to head back and when he said goodbye to the wine lady, they both sang verses telling people to be decent and morally correct.

When Sanlang arrived home and saw the warm welcome from his wife and sister, he felt guilty. Then his wife asked him about the money from selling tea, he tried to defend himself and the two of them began a beautiful session of singing to each other. 

The story concluded with a happy ending. This is the approximate storyline. The three other plays added on later were episodes that took place when Sanlang had not returned and his wife went out to look for him.

These ten episodes make up the basis of traditional Taiwanese Hakka three-role tea-picking drama. Their formation must have gradually taken place in Taiwan. Similarities can be found between them and their counterparts in China but there are not the so-called “ten big plays” on the other side of the Strait.

The significance of the three-role tea-picking opera lies in its historic meaning and its realistic features of being lesser drama initially. The richness and possibilities in its music and artistic performance, especially the open basic musical characteristic, have also helped build the foundation from which these Hakka plays have been able to make headway. 

It is therefore sustainable that the three-role tea-picking opera is a theatrical form of art in which there are self-developed series. When performed, there are the character arrangement, costume differentiation and singing, dancing and dialogs to make dramatic expressions. It also possesses its own styles and procedures. Therefore, it’s difficult to make judgments singularly with “maturity”, even more so with fundamental musical characteristics.

From the singing aspect, the total number of songs and tunes used in the three-role tea-picking opera is indeed very impressive. The term of “nine tones and eighteen tunes” has always been used to indicate the richness of its singing music. As to the dialogs and the narrations, there is also the unusual performance of “pengtou”. In movement, there are the “dwarf steps”, “fan gesture”, “holding on to the umbrella” and “paocaicha”, etc.

In addition to the variety of tones and tunes developed from the Hakka language from four counties, the rich music of the three-role tea-picking opera has also assimilated a lot of folk tunes for various places and therefore acquired the name of “nine tones and eighteen tunes.” The use of musical instruments has also grown from employing only panghu to adoption of the two-string and gongs and drums as an expansion of scale of performance and the size of the accompanying band has consequently increased