Promoting traditional Chinese opera, from communities to schools
By Zhang Yage  ·  2024-02-06  ·   Source: NO.7-8 FEBRUARY 15, 2024
Kunqu Opera singers perform for the Qinhuai Community in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, in September 2019 (COURTESY PHOTO) 

On January 22, residents of Changqiao Community in Changsha, Hunan Province in central China, were treated to a real opera feast. Artists from the Hunan Provincial Xiangju Opera Troupe performed several classic works, including Wu Song Fighting in the Inn, a thrilling acrobatic act with the hero being Wu Song, a fictional character from the classic Chinese novel Outlaws of the Marsh who is most famous for killing a tiger with his bare hands while drunk, and Welcoming Caishen, a deity responsible for people's economic and financial fortunes in ancient Chinese folklore. Xiangju is a centuries-old form of theater popular in parts of Hunan, which was added to the national intangible cultural heritage list in 2008.

The actors impressed their audience with first-rate vocal techniques and flamboyant character portrayals. "I'm so happy to behold such excellence within walking distance from my home," an audience member surnamed Chen told Chinese news portal

Su Ding, a local official, said the opera show brought the residents closer. "This kind of activity brings a joyful and peaceful vibe typical of the Spring Festival to the community," Su told the portal. The Spring Festival, China's largest annual celebration and a time for family reunion, fell on February 10 this year.

Originating from songs and dances in the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), Chinese opera, a type of theater punctuated with arias and recitatives, has evolved into many different regional varieties based on local traits and dialects over 2,000 years of development. Genres include Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera, Qinqiang Opera, Yuju Opera, Cantonese Opera, Huangmei Opera and many more.

The State Council, China's highest state administrative organ, has rolled out policies to facilitate the inheritance and promotion of traditional Chinese culture among the public, including opera.

Uncovering connections 

Community-based activities like the Xiangju performance in Changqiao are usually free to attend or offer cheap tickets thanks to financial support from the government, providing residents with different ways to make the most of their leisure time.

"My mother enjoyed several Chinese opera shows hosted by the Tiantongyuan Community Center for Arts and Culture—for free," Yixuan, an employee of an Internet company in Beijing's suburban Changping District who preferred to go by her first name, told Beijing Review. "She used to get bored during the daytime, as she is retired and lives with me and I'm at work all day, but now, I think she's busier than I am—attending all sorts of opera activities."

The capital city's Tiantongyuan area is often referred to as a "city built on villages." Its construction got underway in 1999. The community today covers a massive neighborhood, allegedly the largest residential area in all of Asia, housing approximately 700,000 people.

"Given the majority of Tiantongyuan's residents are working people, the center introduced operas based on the needs of the community's target audience: those who are left at home—children and seniors," Song Zhige, deputy director of the art management and cultural communications department of the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (NACTA), told Beijing Review, adding that the academy has been cooperating with the community center to stage more popular Chinese opera performances this winter.

"My mother has also joined the community's amateur Peking Opera troupe. She said that given she had benefited so much from the free opera shows, she wanted to return the favor by learning it and performing for others someday," Yixuan added.

Peking Opera is arguably one of the country's most iconic performing arts, known around the world for its speech, mime, singing and acrobatics, dating back to the 18th century.

Sowing the seeds 

In recent years, efforts to revive traditional Chinese culture have also sprung up across schools nationwide. In 2014, the Beijing Municipal Education Commission (BMEC) launched a program to encourage universities and civic organizations across the capital city to participate in physical and aesthetic education in primary schools.

Last December, the BMEC further issued a guideline on activities entitled Peking Opera on Campus, which intend to host related events for primary, middle and high school students in Beijing's suburban and rural areas.

Since teaming up with this program in May 2014, the NACTA has not only organized courses and activities themed on the vocals, characters and overall aesthetics of Peking Opera in nine primary schools, but also offered students the opportunity to voluntarily partake in performances every year.

"The program has encouraged primary school students to master one opera work per year starting from the second grade, and the students I've seen are more than willing to learn," Song said.

Kunqu, an opera originating from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in east China, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), is well received by students of its birthplace.

Gu Chenming, a 16-year-old student in Nanjing, said she has benefited from the optional opera courses since primary school. "I attended Jinling Primary School in 2015, and started learning Kunqu Opera there," Gu told Beijing Review. "The school invited seasoned actors to teach us."

In 2020, Gu was even asked to teach Kunqu Opera to a community choir spontaneously organized by several local seniors, including her grandmother. "I had mastered most of the Kunqu Opera basics by that point, and I taught the seniors to perform opera once a week," Gu said.

Gu's act of kindness was recognized by her school and, in 2022, she received the honor of Campus Star of the Year.

"It is especially beneficial to start learning opera arts at a young age, because every genre comes with high requirements for the learner's vocal techniques, posture and movements," Qiu Caiping, Gu's opera instructor, told Beijing Review. "The process is not just about comprehending the cultural and historical connotations of the plays they learn, but also about honing their vocal skills, getting the hand gestures right and learning how to stand, walk and talk on stage. This helps students to maintain a good posture and figure and will eventually even benefit their physical health."

The traditional performing arts have also won over Gen Z college students.

In 2005, the Ministry of Education delivered a policy to support traditional Chinese art courses and related events in colleges.

"The program was implemented in my college and I chose to participate," doctoral candidate Fang Yan from Soochow University told Beijing Review, adding, "The optional courses covered the fundamentals of Kunqu Opera, and it was fun to be able to go and take in a live performance after learning about all the theories."

Another octave 

But despite its growing popularity today, there once was a time when Chinese opera was on the verge of fading into oblivion.

For example, The Record of Chinese Opera, a series of findings based on the research on the history and situation of all operas in China conducted by the National Culture and Art Publishing House throughout the 1980s and 1990s, documented 49 genres of opera in the northern province of Shanxi. Twenty years later, according to a report by the China National Academy of Arts, 21 of the 49 had met their demise, including prestigious ones bearing thousands of years of history. The report revealed part of the underlying reason was a lack of live performances.

Therefore, the activities organized in communities and schools, except for enriching people's cultural lives, are hoped to consolidate the connection between people and opera.

Qiu said the in-person promotional events will create a tangible link between both.

"Chinese opera, with its rich meaning and delightful visual appearances, is a way to help people leave behind, if only for two or three hours, the burdens of a fast-paced modern lifestyle. I hope community performances will encourage more audiences to go to the theater, which could in turn support the development of Chinese opera in the long run," Qiu added.

Song believes that Chinese opera can and will be fully appreciated by students of all ages in the future.

"Even if young students do not fully grasp all the historical and social connotations, they will acquire a taste for beauty. And once their life experience accumulates with age, they will have an epiphany and get what it's all about," Song concluded.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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