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Peking Opera: Family business as usual
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The lights dimmed. The curtains parted. Two files of flag-bearing soldiers marched onstage and planted themselves to the side - a sign, as fans of Peking Opera would know - of a commander coming. Suddenly, everything fell silent.

Then, a man appeared at the corner of the stage, dressed in full military regalia. A wave of applause erupted, which seemed to last several minutes. Even those in the audience who didn't know who the man was joined the ecstatic cheer, somewhat involuntarily. This was before a single word was uttered.

Ye Shaolan stars as Zhou Yu during a performance in Hong Kong.

Such was the scene at the theater hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Center, last Friday night.

The commander, Ye Shaolan, is a third generation member of a legendary operatic dynasty.

"A star can bring the house down with his sheer presence. But it has nothing to do with commercial packaging or instant fame. One pays for it," the 64-year-old says during an interview on the eve of the performance.

Back when Peking Opera was the national form of entertainment and Peking Opera performers were the darlings of the press, they had a name for being a star - they called you "juer". Once you had become a "juer", you were worshipped by a devoted following who treated you the same way today's movie fans treat their icons.

Ye Shaolan applies make-up. 

Ye Shenglan, the late father of Ye Shaolan, was one such bright star.

"In those days, only children from poor families were sent to learn Peking Opera, often because their parents had no choice. The training was so hard that no pampered rich kids could make it. But for my father, the story was a little bit different," Ye says.

Any conversation about him and his art eventually leads to his father, and eventually, to his grandfather, and great-grandfather.

"My grandfather Ye Chunshan opened the country's largest, and longest-running Peking Opera school - Fu-Lian-Cheng, where my father was trained."

"School" is a new term. When Fu-Lian-Cheng opened its doors in Beijing around 1904, it was called "keban" - the equivalent of a training class-cum-performance troupe. In the beginning, there were only eight students and one little house where they trained and slept. Ye managed the group on a shoestring budget. He taught and cooked. His wife, Ye Shaolan's grandmother, did the washing and sewing.

"He would wake up at 3 am to see if any of the kids had kicked off their quilts," Ye says.

"There was one boy who would eat only meat and no vegetables. Because he was one of the best pupils, my grandfather would always save his own portion for him.

"Upon the founding of the school, my grandfather vowed to pass on the knowledge of the art to as many students as possible."

That knowledge was passed to Ye Chunshan by his father, Ye Shaolan's great grandfather, who was the first in the family to perform Peking Opera. 

Ye Shenglan plays general Zhou Yu.

Ye Chunshan died in 1935, at the age of 59, leaving behind several hundred students. That was eight years before Ye Shaolan was born. But Shaolan can recount the life of his grandfather as if it was yesterday.

Born into the art, Ye Shaolan's father Ye Shenglan started learning Peking Opera at the age of 9. First cast in female roles, Shenglan was soon retrained to play young males, known as "xiaosheng" - a category in which he became famous. Today, the style that he once championed, characterized by powerful vocals, has been canonized as the Ye School.

"He got it all right - handsome looks, medium height, a powerful, finely-timbered voice, and most importantly, a natural understanding of the art," Shaolan says of his father, leafing through a commemorative book dedicated to the late master. A glimpse at the book's photos reveals a striking resemblance between father and son.

That resemblance is not merely physical, as anyone who has been lucky enough to see both impresarios perform can attest. Their single most celebrated role is Zhou Yu - a young general from China's Three Kingdom Periods (AD 220-280) who had tremendous courage and a giant ego.

This was the role that Ye Shaolan played. The physicality, elegance, style and glamor of the star's performance is reminiscent of his father's heyday.

Ye Shenglan trains his son Ye Shaolan. Courtesy of Ye Shaolan.

"You are born into this great legacy. But it's not hereditary and it doesn't spare you anything in terms of hard work," he says.

Asked if the stories of grueling training for young apprentices, as depicted in movies like Farewell My Concubine, were true, Ye admits to being disciplined but says he is thankful for it.

"Believe me, there would never be wanton beating. But remember we were just a bunch of kids who loved to play. There had to be someone who could teach us how to serve the art," Ye says. "Without enduring the pain, there would be no Peking Opera."

"I can never forget that vow my grandfather took. We will all die, but Peking Opera will not. It completes us," Ye says.

(China Daily January 10, 2008)

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