The Confucius Project — You too can Jingju!

During September I served as a coordinator and group leader for the Cambridge School of Weston’s Confucius Project – a month long tour and study of traditional Chinese theater in Mainland China.  The Cambridge School of Weston is a progressive private high school located outside of Boston (see for more info).  This past spring and summer, the school collaborated with the Shanghai Theatre Academy to train eight students in basic Peking Opera performance.  At the end of their course, the students rehearsed The Beauty Trap, or Forever Spring Wine, one of several half-hour dramas in the Confucius’ Disciples series conceived by my advisor at the Theatre Academy, William Sun.  Each play tells of the adventures of Confucius and his three disciples in order to explore a parable from Confucian thought.


I joined the group of students and two teachers from CSW to accompany them for their travels in China.  The group performed The Beauty Trap at the Shanghai American School and Shanghai Theatre Academy in Shanghai, the International Theatre Institute’s World Congress in Xiamen, the West Lake in Hangzhou, and at the “Enter the Colorful World of Drama” conference in Beijing. In Shanghai and Xiamen, the group of American students performed their piece alongside another Confucius Disciples play performed by master Peking Opera actors from the Shanghai Theatre Academy.  In late October, the CSW and STA productions toured Boston, New York, and Providence.


In addition to coordinating the performances, I arranged for the group to visit major sites in each city and participate in exchanges with local high school students.


Below are several observations on the educational possibilites of the Confucius Project.  I have limited my discussion to the CSW project in particular and the example of the Confucius plays as an education project for American or other non-Chinese students.

Students perform along the West Lake in Hangzhou

Learning by Doing / Many foreigners perceive of Beijing Opera and other forms of traditional Chinese drama as alien and quite difficult to understand or appreciate.  The combination of linguistic difference (Beijing Opera is not only performed in Chinese, but particularly ornate and traditional Chinese), the complexity of Chinese history, and the particulars of Chinese aesthetics can be quite disarming to a foreign or even young Chinese audience member.  By studying the basics of Peking Opera singing, speech, and movement, the CSW students gained an understanding of how the form works and how to read Beijing Opera on a basic level.  Regardless of their individual ability, students came to an understanding of the depth of style inherent in the form – the particular character types, structure of pieces, and integration of song, dialogue, and movement.  Such an appreciation is best attained not only by watching performances but also practicing – in however a simplistic manner – the form.  As a line in one of the Confucian plays states: “这双手亦是那学问之源” or “knowledge comes from hands on experiences.”

Holistic Learning / In my time with the students, I was quite struck by how effective an entry point Beijing Opera is for learning more broadly about Chinese culture and history.  The form itself, which is based on several character types (such as young female, clown, or martial male), reflects the historical stratification of Chinese society.  Through the codified movements, we can see the strict lines of gender and status embodied.  The movements also reflect elements of Chinese culture in more subtle ways.  The hand gestures of the female hua dan bears the influence of poses in Buddhist art, and the common lifted step used to indicate entering a room reflects the lower wooden lip of doors common to traditional Chinese architecture.

I wonder if Beijing Opera lessons could be even more explicitly structured around these and other points of investigation.  For example, an examination of historical gender roles in China could originate from a workshop on movement typical of female roles in Peking Opera.


Rigidity and Humility / For many students of traditional Chinese drama, including myself, the take-away message is often more about how much more there is to learn than how much I have learned.  In the case of Peking Opera, which developed from a synthesis of forms from all around China that were cultivated through centuries of performance, it is quite daunting to try to peel away at the complex style.  Peking Opera masters begin their training before age ten, and unlike Western drama, there is an incredibly rigid standard for performance.

In an age of post-modern gook, multi-disciplinary mishmash, and trans-global muddle, I think it is helpful for a young artist to explore an artistic form that is unforgiving and, in some ways, physically impossible.  While the student will no likely occasionally find him or herself somewhat frustrated or even discouraged, I think the experience of being humbled by tradition is invaluable.

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