One night, Zhang Liang (Chōryō in Japanese), a vassal of the founding Emperor of the Han Dynasty, had a mysterious dream in which he was approached by an old man on horseback, while he was resting on an earthen bridge in Kahi (the old name of Pizhou, Jiangsu Province, China). The old man demanded that Zhang Liang put on the shoe that he had dropped back on his foot. Although indignant at first, Zhang Liang obeyed and put the shoe back on the old man’s foot. The man praised Zhang Liang for his humility, and told him that if he visits the place in five days, he will teach him the secrets of the art of war. This was where Zhang Liang’s dream ended.
Five days later, Zhang Liang decides to head to Kahi. Upon arrival, he sees that the old man from his dream is already waiting for him. The old man chastises Zhang Liang for coming late and disappears, saying, “Come again in five days. And don’t be late this time.” Realising that the old man is probably testing him, Zhang Liang decides to come again.
Five days later, Zhang Liang arrives at the earthen bridge before dawn. The old man appears before him with an air of majesty, and introduces himself as Huang Shigong (Kōsekikō in Japanese). He praises Zhang Liang for coming early, but decides to test his spirit again by intentionally dropping his shoe into the river.
Zhang Liang immediately jumps into the water, but the river’s current is too fast and he fails to retrieve the shoe. Suddenly, a Dragon God comes out of the water, catches the shoe and charges at Zhang Liang. The tenacious Zhang Liang pulls out his sword and confronts him. After a fierce fight, he eventually manages to recover the shoe, and triumphantly goes to put it back on Huang Shigong’s foot. Impressed by his courage, the Dragon God decides to become Zhang Liang’s guardian deity. Keeping his promise, Huang Shigong initiates Zhang Liang into the mysteries of the art of war. Finally, the Dragon God vanishes into the clouds, while Huang Shigong climbs atop a distant mountain, where a bright radiance envelopes him as he transforms into a yellow rock.
Most Noh plays focus on the shite (the leading role), but in “Chōryō” it is the waki (often a secondary role) that attracts the most attention. Therefore, this play is considered to be one of the major works in the waki repertoire - abundant in oral traditions which are handed down from generation to generation of actors.
“Chōryō” is a play based on the Chinese story about Zhang Liang (Chōryō) and Huang Shigong (Kōsekikō). The story how Huang Shigong initiated Chōryō into the secrets of the art of war is rather well known, thanks to the ancient Chinese historical record “Records of the Grand Historian”.
After his encounter with Huang Shigong, Zhang Liang meets Liu Bang (the founder of the Han Dynasty), whom he serves as a warrior. With Zhang Liang’s help, Liu Bang manages to conquer the Qin kingdom and bring unity to China.
The highlight of the play is the handling of the old man’s shoe in the second half. In the scene where Huang Shigong drops his shoe into the river, an assistant at the back of the stage throws a shoe onto the stage. When this happens, Zhang Liang acts out his attempt to retrieve the shoe from the river’s turbulent stream. The scene is a test of the skill of the waki actor, because he must quickly adjust his performance according to where the shoe has fallen.
The author of this play is Kanze Nobumitsu - a 15c. Noh actor and playwright, famous for his eye-catching and awe-inspiring plays. “Chōryō” is considered one of his most representative plays because of its shoe-retrieving scene, the presence of the Dragon God and Huang Shigong’s unique costume.