A historical legend comes alive onstage when portrayed by a screen legend with an equally colorful story.
Once in a while, the parallel between actor and role is so uncanny that a new dimension is created not so much through acting, but through the fusion of two giant personalities.
To fully enjoy The Beauty (Fenghua Juedai), one needs to know the actress who plays the lead role and compare her with the historical character she incarnates onstage.
The play is about Sai Jinhua, who was born in 1870 or 1864 and died in 1936. She was the best-known courtesan during the turn of the century and during the first few decades of the 20th century when China transformed itself from an imperial dynasty to a chaotic republic.
Sai was a young harlot in Suzhou when a retired official with the title "Zhuangyuan", meaning top rank imperial scholar, selected her to be his concubine. When he was sent as an emissary to Germany, Russia, Austria and the Netherlands, Sai went along as his wife, exposing herself to a life that - to most in China - is out-of-this-world exotic.
After they returned to China, the husband died and Sai resisted the idea that she would live out the rest of her life as a self-cocooned widow. Instead, in an effort to pick up where she left off before her marriage, Sai opened a "book residence" in Shanghai, a euphemism for a high-end brothel.
But as she explains in the play, her girls do not sell their bodies. They provide companionship for tea parties and other social functions. Of course, should something intimate happen between a girl and her client, it's their business, says Sai to a hypocritical prince who persistently tries to shut her down.
The prince used to be a student of Sai's husband. A brothel hopper, he sees Sai's business as tarnishing his former teacher's reputation. So, he forced it into closure. But Sai, forever ingenious, reopened it in Beijing, and even groomed a coterie of palace insiders as her clientele.
When Western troops occupied Beijing in 1900, the royal officials fled, leaving civilians to fend for themselves. To forestall pillaging by the invaders, Sai offered to talk to General Alfred Graf von Waldersee, the Allied Supreme Commander in China.
While in Germany as an ambassador's wife, Sai had been a guest of Waldersee. She had also mastered some German. Using her diplomatic skills and her feminine bewitchery, Sai was able to beguile Waldersee and convince him to treat the people better.
The playwright is aware that this crucial detail cannot be corroborated. People might have blown up the significance of Sai's deeds simply out of frustration with the corrupt Qing (1644-1911) government. So, the play employs a couple of tabloid reporters who retell the story through their wildly exaggerated prism.
Sai is not portrayed in the play as a national hero per se, but comes off as a decent, independent, strong-willed woman who, unlike the powers-that-be, has a sense of right and wrong. And what a seductress!
Now, the actress who assumes the role in this stage version is a legend in her own right.
While Liu Xiaoqing did not save Beijing residents from foreign ransacking, she was probably the first Chinese woman since the country's reform to proclaim her right to love, fame and controversy.
In the 1980s, she proudly claimed herself to be the best actress in China. In the 1990s, her love life was fodder for tabloids almost on a daily basis. And like Sai, she briefly lost her freedom - in her case for alleged tax evasion.
With an illustrious career spanning three-plus decades, Liu is known for roles that go from a teenage girl all the way to old age. And like Sai, her age has been a mystery. Some documents show she was born in 1955, others 1950, with other years thrown in as possibilities.
With makeup, she appears much younger than her age, between 57 and 62. She has been the target of plastic surgery rumors, which she flatly denies, and a paragon of everlasting youth, or rather, youthfulness.
As co-written by Tian Qinxin and An Ying and directed by Tian Qinxin, The Beauty is a comedy that milks the bittersweet moments of modern China's history for their slapstick value. Half the story, Acts One and Four, are set in Shanghai, and the remainder in Beijing - both in Sai's saloonlike bordello.
The sets are mostly painted curtains, which look shabby, but the costumes are glamorous.
But between the main character and its stage interpreter, there are more parallels.
The parade of officials is a reminder of what little has changed over the past century. Even though the most talked-about venues of high-end entertainment, such as Paradise on Earth, have been shut down since the Beijing Olympics, the habit of political or corporate powers congregating in houses of dubious fame has been an age-old tradition.
Back to Liu Xiaoqing and her star vehicle. The screen and the stage have always shared talent - in China or other countries. But it appears to be a recent trend for a few screen icons to tap into live performances for the kind of work rarely available in movies or television.
Ge You has been associated with Looking West to Chang'an, a play by the inimitable Lao She, in which he plays a con artist. Chen Daoming took Beijing by storm when he starred in a dark comedy adapted from a Japanese play, with a searing look into the censorship system. And Huang Bo tackled To Live, a modern literary classic turned into a film and then a play. These productions are so successful it becomes hard to separate the player from the role.
The Beauty opened in April 2012, and has toured the country with 76 shows. Liu is under contract to play 54 more times, including tours to Singapore and the United States. The upcoming show is March 23 in Peking University.
Many actresses have played Sai Jinhua, and that includes Jiang Qing, aka Madame Mao, in the 1930s. But the current edition was initiated by Liu Xiaoqing.
"When she stands on the stage," says Tian Qinxin, the director, "she does not play Sai Jinhua. She is Sai Jinhua."