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Old Folk Opera Still Youthful
For visitors to the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, the Tang Opera of the local Tujia ethnic group is a must-see.

As they cheered at the mystic performances of the 1,500-year-old opera, Huang Daguo, 96, felt both pride and pity for his life efforts.

"My life goal is realized, as I can live to see the regeneration of the Tang Opera," said the blind old man of the Tujia ethnic group.

"But our ancient theatrical art should not only be an attraction to foreign visitors - we Tang Opera performers should make it more popular among descendants of the Tujias."

Huang is the last of the Tang Opera artists who made their fame at the beginning of the 20th century, when the ethnic opera reached the peak of its popularity.

The opera, which then prevailed among various ethnic groups along the Three Gorges, originated from the ritual dance of Tujia ancestors as they offered sacrifices to the gods.

Tujia tales say the ancient ritual dance was first developed into an opera in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) with the help of Xue Gang, legendary general of the Han ethnic group.

Xue was said to hide himself in the Tujia villages along the Three Gorges in today's Central China's Hubei Province after a lost war.

Xue introduced the Tujias to the Lantern Opera, then popular in Chang'an (today's Xi'an), capital of the Tang Dynasty.

The Tujias then added their own music and dances to the opera and staged the shows in their own ethnic language. They called this adapted version "Tang Opera."

In the Tang Opera, which started as an indoor performance and gradually went to open air, the ethnic minority artists performed their history and folk tales to the accompaniment of string, wind and percussion instruments.

The opera has now spread to the Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, the Shennongjia National Park of Hubei, and Wushan County of Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.

After reaching a peak in the early 20th century, the ancient ethnic opera began to lose its attraction to descendants of its creators, as the Tujias, along with other ethnic groups in China, became exposed to modern culture.

Huang Daguo has dedicated his life to the preservation and popularity of the Tang Opera.

Huang was born in a Tang Opera performers' family in 1906. His father, Huang Longcheng, was an established Tang Opera performer in the region.

At 14, Huang Daguo joined a local Tang Opera troupe. Just as the boy's talent for performing the Tang Opera after half a year's study began to bloom, he was caught by the soldiers of a local warlord and forced to fight in his army.

After three years in the army, Huang ran away into the primeval forests in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. He hid himself in the forests for two months before making his way back home.

Huang had only stayed home for half a year before he was caught by the soldiers of another warlord and forced to fight once again.

Between battles, the Tujia artist often performed the Tang Opera for his army friends, who helped him run away into the forest yet again.

This time Huang stayed with the Tujias in the forest and made his fame as a Tang Opera performer.

During his stay in the forest in the 1920s, Huang made adaptations to the music and stories of more than 100 traditional Tang Opera plays, in order to popularize the traditional art.

As his adapted plays were welcomed by local ethnic groups, Huang founded his own Tang Opera troupe in the 1930s.

He led his troupe around Southwest and Central China to perform the Tang Opera, and went as far as East China's Anhui Province.

After 1949, Huang worked even harder to popularize the ancient art in the Tujia villages.

With the help of the local government of Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, Huang established seven Tang Opera troupes and organized their performances around the prefecture.

He often appeared in the local newspapers and televisions to explain to the public the obscure ancient art.

Huang was invited to Beijing, and performed the Tang Opera for China Central Television Station and Central People's Broadcasting Station.

"The Tang Opera is a unique ethnic minority art and should not diminish in modern society," said the old artist.

According to Huang, the Tang Opera was popular among the local Tujia villagers in the past because many stories of the opera were derived from the everyday life of the Tujias.

Modern entertainment, such as television, films and karaoke, lures a lot of local audiences away from the Tang Opera. However, Huang believes: "If the Tang Opera can follow the changes in the Tujias' taste and life, it will be welcomed in the villages of Tujias and other ethnic groups."

To update the Tang Opera, Huang wrote more than 100 new plays depicting the life of contemporary Tujias and performed them around the prefecture.

He also encouraged his students to introduce their new ideas into the ancient theatrical art.

Besides popularizing the Tang Opera, Huang Daguo tried his best to help the local government preserve documents concerning the ancient art.

He donated to the local government dozens of traditional Tang Opera librettos in his collection.

The old artist also helped compile the librettos of more than 100 traditional Tang Operas, which had been lost for decades.

What's more, the performances of Huang and his students have been recorded on video.

"The ethnic Tang Opera, which has survived 1,500 years, can have its way in the contemporary world if we try hard enough," said the 96-year-old confidently.

(China Daily June 6, 2002)

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