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Full House for Errenzhuan
It will be another busy night for Wei San. He has three shows to present from 5 pm to 12 pm in three different places. So do his other colleagues at the Great Peace Theatre, a renowned privately-run Errenzhuan troupe in Changchun, capital of northeast China's Jilin Province.

During the past three years, Wei, together with his partners, have had to present 60 to 80 performances every month.

"I never thought Errenzhuan could be so charming," Wei said. "It is really amazing."

Errenzhuan is a popular folk art which has enjoyed great popularity in the northeastern part of the country, particularly in rural areas, with bold, extravagant theatrical spectacles based on popular legends and fairy tales with lots of singing, dancing and slapstick comedy.

"Errenzhuan is one of the only three indigenous theatre forms in the Northeast, along with Pingju Opera and Huanglong Opera," said Wang Muxiao, deputy director of the Art Research Center of Jilin Province. "It represents the key features of people in this region -- facetious, passionate and straightforward."

There is a stock repertoire of stories -- "The Blue Bridge," "Judge Bao Makes an Apology" and "The Western Chamber." Though the presentations vary, certain elements are always present.

Six features

Errenzhuan features six parts. First, there is a 10 to 15 minute noisy prelude called datong. Then comes the clown and his partner, for the sanchangwu. The third part is changshitou, designed to keep the audience quiet. The next is shuokou, which introduces the backdrop of the story. And the fifth is changxiaomao, in which performers sing special folk songs to set the tone of the story. Finally comes the main part of the performance -- changzhenwen, in which the performers sing, dance and tell the story.

One of their main aims is to keep the audience amused, throwing in jokes, acrobatics or Kung fu if interest flags.

300 years of history

Errenzhuan -- or "bengbeng" as it used to be called -- dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). But its existence was rarely documented because it developed among the common people. The earliest record of the art form was found in 1822, which said "bengbeng was held in the Puji Temple Fair of Huide in Jilin Province."

Errenzhuan developed from yangge dance, very popular in North China for its strong rhythm and loud accompaniment of gongs and drums. Yangge is usually performed to celebrate sowing and planting in rural areas.

"The most important feature of Errenzhuan is its capacity to absorb other influences," said Wang Zhaoyi, honorary president of Errenzhuan Arts Association in Changchun. "It has borrowed from Hebei Bangzi, Lianhualao and Taiping Drum -- three popular art forms in North China."

More recently, it has started to incorporate rap and pop, as well as new forms of acrobatics and folk songs.

"Its never-ending absorption of new 'nutrients' and excretion of the outdated has helped it survive," said Wang.

Errenzhuan's intimate connection with daily life also helps it capture audiences, said Gong Qingshan, general director of the Great Peace Theatre.

"Unlike other folk arts, it tells the stories happening around us every day," said Gong. "We know what people hate or like and we are ready to meet their demands."

Last year's World Cup, the Iraq war and the ongoing battle against SARS are among its current concerns, generating "a flock of new fans."

There is a popular saying in Northeast China: "I will do without a meal, but don't deny me my Errenzhuan."

Great Peace Theatre

One of the country's foremost Errenzhuan troupes presents performances all year round at the Great Peace Theatre except on the eve of the Spring Festival. That night, the theatre's management puts on a show for the performers to express their thanks.

The theatre has about 60 contracted actors and actresses and some 80 guest performers. Apart from their base at Changchun, most of the artists travel the country from south China's Hainan Province to northeast China's Heilongjiang Province to put on shows.

The theatre produced over 100 new programs last year. The most successful included "Watching a Football Game," "Shoe Shining" and "Swellfish Fool," which were broadcast nationwide during this year's Spring Festival TV gala show in February.

And to ensure quality programs, they employ experts in various fields such as dance, singing and make-up.

"I hope that one day our troupe will be able to perform on the world stage and I am sure we can do this," said Xu Kaiquan, general manager of Great Peace Theatre.

(China Daily May 27, 2003)

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