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Curtain Call for Chinese Opera
Researchers studying ethnic and folk cultures in China's western regions believe that these rich traditions are under threat. As society modernizes, some indigenous local cultures are giving ground to popular entertainment. Researchers are trying to find ways to preserve these customs to maintain cultural diversity. The following excerpt from a paper by Liu Wenfeng, a professor with the local opera research institute of the Chinese Academy of Arts, describes his concerns.

I visited Ansai and Luochuan counties in northern Shaanxi Province of northwest China to explore local customs and folk arts a year ago.

At Caozhuang village in Ansai, I was invited to a traditional wedding ceremony which included folk music and operas by amateur bands and performers.

Hundreds of villagers, men and women, old and young, went to watch the open-air performances. Among them I saw a 4- or 5-year-old boy who was so fascinated by the shows that he beat the ground with two sticks, imitating the drum players.

The boy reminded me of my childhood visits to outdoors plays with my parents.

Before the show started, my friends and I would sneak backstage to see how the performers dressed themselves.

After the play finished, we ran home to imitate them on our stage -- the kang, a heated brick bed widely used in northern China. We played with wood swords and spears we made ourselves and tore paper-cuts from the windows to wear as masks.

However, these experiences exist only in my memory. Today's children, especially those in the cities, have few chances to see open-air local operas, let alone observe life backstage or play make-believe.

Challenged by film, TV, DVDs and shows with flowery and commercial packaging, most Chinese local operas are dying out. The number of troupes, performances and fans is decreasing.

The situation is even more critical in China's vast western region where local operas originated.

Origins of folk operas

The Yellow River Valley in northwestern China is the birthplace of Chinese culture, including local operas.

From the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Chang'an -- today's Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province -- was the main dynastic capital and hence the center of politics, economics and culture. Over the course of 1,500 years, local operas were created, developed and flourished there.

The Shi Ji (Historical Records), written by Sima Qian, historian and scholar of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), mentions the song and dance shows in the legendary Emperor Qin Shihuang's palace and the comedian or paiyou who performed for him.

The chime bells unearthed very close to the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang also offer convincing evidence of the rich musical traditions of the era.

In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the song and dance shows developed to tell stories. These shows were called baixi, which means "hundreds of plays."

Zhang Heng (AD 78-139) wrote in Xi Jing Fu that Chang'an featured a range of these shows and "people from 300 li away all come to watch."

In the Sui (AD 581-618) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties, Chang'an became one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Chinese variety shows and Western performances were both on show and thrived there.

Jiaofang and liyuan, special schools to train performers and stage shows, were set up to offer more entertainment for the imperial family. According to historical records, Chang'an once hosted over 11,000 performing artists at one time.

Apart from the shows in the imperial palace, Chang'an also had quite a few regular venues for folk fairs, including Ci'en Temple, Qinglong Temple, Jianfu Temple and Yongshou Temple.

Many unearthed relics prove how much local theatre prospered in Chang'an. They include a painting of a song and dance show found in a tomb of Tang Dynasty in Liquan, Shaanxi Province, and burial figurines of dancers and performers unearthed from Tang Dynasty tombs around the province.

Many shows which told a story had basic features of drama as we know it today.

For example, Cha Jiu Lun (Discussion of Tea and Wine), written by Wang Fu of the late Tang Dynasty, explores how tea and wine can do good or harm to people by staging a dispute between three characters: tea, wine and water.

The short piece includes arias as well as dialogue.

Although the center of politics, economics and culture had moved east from Chang'an gradually since the Song Dynasty, local operas and many other shows still flourished in the vast western land.

Zaju operas spread widely, while shuochang daoqing storytelling and yangge dance also emerged in folk communities.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Shaanxi Province's strong economy attracted a large number of farmers from nearby Sichuan, Hunan, Henan, Shanxi, Anhui and Jiangxi Provinces. They introduced many other folk operas such as Handiao Erhuang, Huagu, Xianxi, Tiaoxi and Saixi.

By the Qing Dynasty, Shaanxi had more than 29 local operas, of which Qinqiang was the most popular.

Qinqiang is now not only the main local opera in Shaanxi Province but also in Northwest China's Gansu and Qinghai provinces, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Yisushe, an opera club founded in Shaanxi Province in 1911, did much to bring Chinese local operas into the 20th century.

It engaged playwrights such as Li Tongxuan, Sun Renyu, Fan Zidong and Gao Peizhi, and actors and actresses such as Liu Yuzhong, Ouyang Yuqian, Liu Zhensu, Shen Hezhong, Liu Disu and Wang Tianmin, to produce lots of new plays.

Downward trend

However, since the 1980s, local operas have struggled for survival, despite their long history and cultural value.

Qinqiang, for example, is now performed professionally in Xi'an only on the weekends.

The state of other small operas is even more precarious.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were more than 30 professional troupes of Hanhuang Erdiao, which was the second most popular local opera style in Shaanxi and greatly influenced the development of Peking Opera. But by the 1960s, there were only about 20 troupes.

In 1982, the number decreased to six and last year only one remained. It is on the verge of bankruptcy.

The reasons for the decline of local operas in those areas are complex.

Most local opera fans in rural regions, where the genre was once people's first choice of entertainment, could not adjust to the new theatre market.

After New China was founded in 1949, the professional troupes were State-owned and funded, as part of the planned economy. They gave free performances to country folk in the mountains and villages regularly.

After the country moved towards a market economy, the troupes began to rely on box-office revenues and could no longer afford to give free performances. But audiences in the countryside, who still longed for open-air entertainment, were not used to buying tickets.

Farmers in western regions still lead a hard life and do not have the money to pay for a show. For them, a trip to the theatre is a luxury.

As a result, the troupes have had difficulty earning enough money to run profitably.

Another main reason for the decline of local operas is that most folk customs which they relied upon are disappearing.

In ancient times, temple fairs, other local fairs, traditional wedding ceremonies and funeral rites were the main occasions for local operas and other variety shows.

Apart from the imperial palaces and private functions of high-class families, Chinese operas mainly grew up in folk communities.

But as time goes by, these traditions are dying out, though a few temple fairs still remain and invite troupes to perform.

Guota village in Ansai County is one of the last stages for such folk operas. A poverty-stricken village in northern Shaanxi Province, most of Guota's villagers survive by growing corn and raising sheep and pigs. Their per capita income is 500 yuan (US$60.40) per year.

Poor as they are, they still have a three-day temple fair in the third Chinese lunar month every year. People living dozens of kilometers away will come to the fair, burning incense and praying to Buddha in the temple.

Every year, Guota villagers use the donations to the temple -- about 1,200 yuan (US$145) -- to hire troupes to perform during the fair. With the money, they can only afford small or amateur companies, but the shows are good enough to attract audiences. People from neighboring villages take their aged relatives and children on tractors, bicycles and even horse- or donkey-drawn carts to watch the open-air show.

For them, it's a major celebration.

Yet in other places, folk operas have not met with such enthusiasm. Local governments have not provided enough support to performing arts troupes, as impoverished areas have concentrated on economic development since the 1980s.

The basis for local operas' growth -- people's lifestyles, folk customs, values and aesthetic perspectives -- has changed along with the rapidly developing economy and culture.

As a result, the question of how to protect cultural heritage during development has become a critical one.

Some local governments have realized their responsibilities. Sichuan and Yunnan provinces have funded some opera companies to keep them and other folk customs alive.

It's a good start but far from enough.

(China Daily May 23, 2003)

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