In Search of the Orphan

The Valley of the Mings

July 30, 2012

Drawing of Wan Li emperorWe have travelled some 30 miles north west of Beijing, and are relieved to get out of the heavy smog, and breathe some fresh country air.

The Spirit Way is a processional avenue leading to the tombs of the Ming Emperors. The site was originally selected for its auspicious feng shui alignment.

There are mountains behind which cradle the tombs of 13 of the 16 emperors who ruled China between 1368 and 1644. It's a World Heritage Site. I guess you could call it the Valley of the Mings.

I am primarily interested in the longest reigning of these emperors, who sat on the dragon throne when Shakespeare was alive.

The Wan Li emperor, as he is known, was a feeble ruler, who hated the regimentation of the Forbidden City, controlled by the eunuchs, in which he was forced to live. He eventually went on strike when he was not allowed to raise his favourite concubine to the position of his consort.

Wan Li is buried in the Ding Ling tomb, the only one of all the 13 tombs to have been excavated, and Designer, Niki Turner and I are heading up the Spirit Way to discover more about the world of this reviled leader.

The grand processional way is lined with a series of mythical animals and warriors who stand and sit guarding the route to the tombs in pairs. There are lions and elephants, camels and horses. We stop to examine one animal in detail.

This is a strange beast known as the Xie-zhi which resembles its more familiar cousin the Qilin, a sort of Chinese unicorn.

This ancient statue looks like a sort of squat chunky dog with dragon features. Indeed it is known as one of the nine sons of the dragon. But the Xie-zhi has one intriguing characteristic. It can sniff out good and evil. If it detects a wicked or corrupt man it will tear him to pieces. It was worn as a symbol of justice on the mandarin squares which adorned the chests of generals at the Wan Li emperor's court.

Now the reason the Xie-zhi interests me so much is that in the story of our play, The Orphan of Zhao, there is a 'Demon Mastiff' which is purported to be able to detect evil too.

The dog has been corrupted by the evil minister Tu'an Gu and trained instead to attack his rival, he head of the Zhao clan. How we achieve the demon mastiff on stage is concentrating the minds of all the creative team at present, but perhaps there is a clue in this magnificent looking creature, the Xie-zhi.

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet


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