Lu Xun

The Art of the Number-Two Clown

Written: June 15, 1933
Source: Chinese Literature Number 2, 1978 pages 76-77
Online Version: Lu Xun Reference Archive, September 2005
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Mike B.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2005). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Among the different roles in East Chekiang opera is one known as the "second painted-face", or to use a more dignified term, the "number-two clown". The difference between him and the clown is this: instead of playing a bullying, reckless rake or some official's servant who makes use of his master's power, he takes the part of a young gentleman's bodyguard or fawning protégé. In short, his social status is higher than the clown's, but his character is baser.

A loyal servant is played by an actor whose face is not painted, who gives good advice and then dies for his master. A bad servant is played by a down, who does bad things and perishes in the end. A number-two clown is different, however. He looks not unlike a gentleman, knows something of lyre-playing, chess, calligraphy and painting, and can join in drinking games and solve riddles; but he has powerful backing and bullies the common people. When some- one is persecuted, he laughs coldly and feels pleased; when someone is slandered, he threatens him and shouts. He is not always consistent, however, for he quite often turns round to point out his young master's faults to the audience, wagging his head and grimacing as he says: "Look, this fellow is going to get into trouble this time!"

This last trick is typical of the number-two clown, for he is neither as stupid as the loyal servant nor as simple as the bad one. He is an intellectual. He knows quite well that his patron is an ice mountain which cannot last very long, and later he will have to serve someone else. Therefore while he is being fed and basking in reflected glory, he has to show that he is not really on his noble master's side.

Of course operas written by number-two clowns do not have this character. Certainly not. Neither do operas written by clowns or rakes, for they see only one side of his character. No, this number-two clown is a creation of the common people, after they have seen through his type and extracted its essence.

So long as there are powerful families, so long will there be despotism, then there will be number-two clowns, and the art of the number-two clown. If we take a paper and read it for a week, we shall find him now complaining about the spring, now extolling the war, now translating some speech by Bernard Shaw, now talking about the marriage problem. But from time to time he must ex- press his indignation and dissatisfaction with the government - that is his last trick.

This last trick is supposed to show that he is not a flunkey. But the common people understand, and have long ago presented this type on the stage.

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