Can “xiqu” survive?

Notes from the 33rd Annual International Theatre Institute World Congress in Xiamen, China

This past week I attended the bi-annual ITI World Congress in Xiamen, southeastern China.  The ITI is one of the largest international theater networks comprised by delegations in over 60 countries and administered under the umbrella of UNESCO.  I attended the congress as part of the Confucius Project performed by a group of students from the Cambridge School of Weston.

The bi-annual congress programming includes various international committees (on topics ranging from theater education to playwriting) as well as a series of workshops and performances.  Since this year’s conference was hosted by China, the theme for the event was “a journey through xiqu (traditional Chinese drama).”  Indeed, the most spectacular part of the week was the opportunity to attend a variety of high caliber of traditional Chinese theater performances.  While most foreigners simply equate traditional Chinese theatre with Peking Opera, the category includes thousands of years of drama history and over 300 existing forms.  Performance types are generally distinguished by region (many are performed in regional dialects rather than standard Mandarin), performance elements (such as puppetry, singing, or martial arts), and historical period.

Here are some notes on two performances I was lucky enough to be able to attend:

1.  A Strand of Hemp, Yue opera performed by the Yue Opera Company of Hangzhou

With only a century long history, Yue opera is one of the newest types of traditional Chinese theater.  The opera type originates from Shaoxing, a city not far from Shanghai.  In the early 20th century, all-male troupes fused various types of folk song and dance from the Shaoxing area to create the earliest form of Yue opera.  In Shanghai’s flourishing theaters of the 1920s, all-female troupes began to experiment with performing Yue pieces.  These groups quickly became popular with dominantly male audiences.  Presently, Yue opera is only performed by all-female casts and is known for its light melodies and bright, comedic style.

A Strand of Hemp is based on a popular novel by author Cheng Yao.  It tells the story of Lin Suyun, a young girl who, in order to repay a debt from her childhood, is promised in marriage to Master Rong, the son of a wealthy aristocrat.  Unbeknownst to the daughter’s parents, the son is mentally retarded and nicknamed “Goof.”

Master Rong is in fact the hero of the piece, and it surprised me to see such a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of mental illness.  Doubted by his family and shunned by his bride, Master Rong proves his compassion and ultimately his humanity by saving Lin Suyun’s life when she is dying of diphtheria.  Master Rong’s shenanigans are certainly a great source of humor for much of the piece.  Yet when he goes to meet his future parent-laws and uncouthly blurts his parents’ advice – “bow like praying to Buddha and make sure not to mention that mother-in-law will soon die” – it is the stuffy aristocratic families that are also part of the joke.  Nonetheless, the father/daughter conflict and the awkward pairing between the town fool and the young beauty is neatly side-stepped when Rong is implausibly cured of his diphtheria and his stupidity at the end of the play.

In terms of performance technique, Yue opera feels much more contemporary than other types of traditional Chinese drama.  Traces of traditional character types indicate gender and status, yet the performers’ movement is quite naturalistic.  The dialogue is relatively colloquial, is spoken rather than chanted, and leads smoothly into various musical numbers.

Overall, Yue opera feels to me like “sino-fied” musical theatre.

2. The Scholar and the Widow, Liyuan opera performed by the Liyuan Opera Troupe

With over 800 years of history, Liyuan opera is one of the oldest types of xiqu still performed.  The form is distinguished by its unusually drumming (which requires a drummer to distort the sound of the beat by rolling his heel across the pan of the instrument) and its intricate hand gestures (coded into 18 types).

The production of The Scholar and the Widow we saw was a modern reinterpretation of the classic directed by Lu Ang, the head of the directing department at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.

I was struck by how simple and clear the piece felt, despite its age.  Lu adjusted the dialogue and inserted various comic interludes to make the piece more accessible.  He provided a small raised platform for the action of the piece and supported the intricate movement with colorful, varied lighting.  As a result, although the ancient language of the songs and lilted singing seemed rich and mysterious, the story and character relationships were straightforward and familiar.  Lu honored the intricacy and craft of the form while making it enjoyable for a broad audience.

Conclusion

It is telling that nearly all the Chinese pieces presented in the conference are at least a few decades old.  On the one hand this is not surprising as the programming was oriented around traditional Chinese drama.  Nonetheless, as all of the playwrights featured in a panel on Chinese playwriting noted, there is an incredible dearth of contemporary Chinese playwriting — of the twelve plays considered for the Shanghai Dramatic Art Center’s next season, only two were written by Chinese authors.

While I certainly wish there were more new plays featured, the conference’s focus on traditional drama made it clear to me the great diversity and appeal of traditional Chinese theater.  Leading Chinese theater makers at the conference frequently debated two issues: 1) how to counteract the decreasing popularity of traditional theater? and 2) how to modernize traditional theater and fuse it with Western forms?

A Strand of Hemp and  Scholar and the Widow demonstrated to me that Chinese classics can be made to seem new and relevant.  Now, it is not only a matter of convincing Chinese dramatists of this fact, but also of moving young Chinese audiences to draw the same conclusion.

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