Mystery of the Yellow Jacket

In 1929, the Austro-Hungarian empire had been irrevocably broken for over a decade, with further horrors to follow in the coming decades. Half a world away, the former Son of Heaven was marking time in obscurity as the fate of China dangled between scheming warlords, earnest revolutionaries, and menace from Japan. Reality, however, did not intrude on the world of musical theater.

Das Land des Lächelns (“The Land of Smiles”), a light operetta set to music by Franz Lehár, premiered that year in Berlin. In Vienna, Sou-Chong, a Chinese prince, meets Lisa, the daughter of an Austrian aristocrat, and as must happen, they fall in love. Lisa follows Sou-Chong to his homeland, but love gives way to alienation, and a devastating shock: to keep up appearances, Sou-Chong marries again, because a prince must have several wives. He is no longer the man she thought she knew, now that he is back in his native land (“I am your master!” “Master?” “In China, that’s how it is!”). In the end she decides to leave Sou-Chong and return to Vienna, a move made bittersweet by the love that is now developing between Sou-Chong’s sister and an Austrian Dragoons officer who had previously courted Lisa.

(Richard Tauber performing Dein ist mein ganzes Herz in 1930)

As expected, the work is full of diverting chinoiserie. It takes its title from an aria sung in the first act by Sou-Chong, who explains the Chinese attitude as being “ever smiling, ever gay … smiling through woe and a thousand pains.” The musical theme from this piece winds its way through the entire operetta, welling up again as the prince watches Lisa leave him. What caught my attention though was that some actual Chinese is scattered in throughout the lines. When I watched it being performed last year by Theater Bremen, I could not catch exactly what was being said. Now I have a score before me (reissued by Glocker Verlag in Vienna, 1957) and I still don’t quite know what the Chinese lines are supposed to be.

Some of it is straightforward enough. When Sou-Chong is being presented with the Yellow Jacket, he is acclaimed by the chorus as “unseres Wen-Sway-Jeh, des Herrn von zehn tausend Jahren,” where Wen-Sway-Jeh is clearly 万岁爷—the Master, may he live ten thousand years! But earlier in the ceremony, the chorus, composed of dignitaries, soldiers, pages, etc. chant:

Dschin-thien wuo-men ju chon ma goa can

Tschun-di-men quai lei a

Zig, zig, zig, zig, ih’

Dschin-thien wuo-men ju chon ma goa can

Chao dji choi, chao dji choi, bu jao dso go liao

(dissolves into rounds of “zig zig zig zig”)

As far as I can figure out, the first line starts off with 今天我们… “Today we…”. The next is an exhortation 兄弟们快来啊 “Brothers, come quick!” “Zig-zig-zig” is inscrutable, and probably meaningless, while “bu jao dso go liao” could be 不要错过了, “Don’t miss it!”

It doesn’t matter much to the story, and it doesn’t add more depth to the tale (which is not particularly deep to begin with, anyway). Yet the mystery of these lines is still bugging me. I doubt that Viktor Léon (the author of the original version, Die gelbe Jacke) or Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner (the librettists) had any Chinese. Where did these lines come from, then? Were they provided with them already transliterated, or did they listen and try to write down something close to what they heard? In a general way I’m interested in transliteration systems for Chinese, but I don’t know whether the German-speaking world had its own scheme.


One comment on “Mystery of the Yellow Jacket

  1. SL says:

    Fascinating stuff – thanks for sharing!

    My incredibly unconvincing take on the chorus:

    擊鼓,擊鼓,擊鼓, 噫!
    擊鼓,擊鼓,擊鼓, 噫!

    馬褂 as mandarin gowns
    擊鼓 –> are they hitting drums in the chorus?
    I discovered 超級, in the sense of “especially”, pre-dates modern pop culture and has been in use as early as by this author:

    Other thoughts:

    1) You might poke around and see if they had links to German sinologists! The Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen in Berlin in late 1880s – perhaps they could have enlisted the help of some student there, or other Chinese-enabled speakers in literary/journalistic/aesthetic fields e.g. Otto Franke (BTW if you’re interested in the development of Sinology and other non-Western-ologies as legitimate fields of academic scholarship in late 19th- and 20th-century Germany, there’s this whopper of a book I never finished, but is good –

    2) AFAIK German sinology did not have their own system; my guess is they would have relied on Wade-Giles as it was the classic standard in UK. On 2nd thought they prob didn’t go through actual Sinologists, because the transliteration doesn’t seem accurate Wade-Giles (no expert myself, but I suspect this from the lack of apostrophes/other diacriticals). But my sense is that, by the late 1920s, there would have been enough interest (even niche) in Chinese and China, especially in Berlin, for Léon and his pals to have called on the services of people with some knowledge of the Chinese language.

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