Folk Songs of a City
Generations of scholars studying folk art and customs have compiled a vast collection of works on the traditional operas, folk music and folk songs of Beijing, such as the
Folk Songs in Beiping by Li Jiarui and Narrations on operas by Jiang Deming.
The Chinese art scene has never rested on its laurels, as evidenced by the numerous books about traditional opera and folk songs that continue to be published.
Generations of scholars studying folk arts and customs have compiled a vast collection of works on the traditional operas, folk music and folk songs of Beijing. These books are precious historical records for researching the city's folk arts during the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and the Republic of China period (1912–1949).
One scholar zoned in on a particular aspect from the massive ocean of art and culture and focused on introducing the ever-changing and fascinating art of Peking Opera make-up to the public. Another used heart-warming texts and over 200 stage stills and private photos to compose a stirring epic about the life of a Peking Opera artist, reproducing a historical era through her narrations. These books recount the past lives of Chinese people, as well as their attitudes towards art and their understanding of life.
Folk Songs in Beiping
In the past, Beijing was home to several notable venues dedicated to folk song performances, such as Lechunfang near Di'anmen; Dingfuzhuang outside Chaoyangmen; Shuixinting at Tianqiao; as well as Shichahai and Quanyechang; and teahouses scattered among the lanes and streets. The folk songs performed here allowed people to sense both the culture and lifestyle of the time.
Li Jiarui (1895–1975), an eminent folklorist and archeologist in modern China, once studied under Liu Bannong, who recommended Li to the Institute of History and Linguistics at the Academia Sinica. There, Li worked on collecting, sorting and researching folk literature and folklores, which he published in the collection Beiping suqu lue (“folk songs in Beiping“) in the 1930s.
Li worked tirelessly for several years to complete Folk Songs in Beiping, the first ever monograph on the history of Beijing's traditional operas. This year, the encyclopaedia of Beijing's folk arts that was first compiled eight decades ago was republished by Wenjin Press under Beijing Publishing Group and remains equally captivating to people today.
The book focuses on systematic studies of folk songs popular in old Beijing during the 1930s, with a total of 62 folk art forms divided into five categories: storytelling, traditional operas, acrobatics, medley and songs without musical accompaniment. Of these, nearly 20 are existing folk arts including gushu (storytelling with drum accompaniment), zidishu (storytelling popular among the offspring of privileged Manchu families of the Eight Banners), zhubanshu (storytelling with bamboo clapper accompaniment), kuaishu (rhythmic storytelling) and nanci (southern melodies); nearly 30 are existing set tunes such as Lijin Tune, Huguang Tune, Matou Tune, Kaoshan Tune and Bianguan Tune; and the rest are traditional operas, acrobatics and songs.
Most of those folk songs did not originate in Beijing but were included in the book as they were performed in old Beijing. Through textual research and field surveys, Li Jiarui reviewed their origins, evolution, features and distribution and included the lyrics and a gongchepu (a traditional Chinese musical notation) following the textual introduction for each genre in the book. The examples were carefully selected from over 3,000 ancient folk song manuscripts, including Chewangfu quben (“musical notations of Prince Che's Mansion”), and all except for Hong xiuxie (“red embroidered shoes”) were identical to their originals, without any omissions or modifications, so as to guarantee the professionalism and practicality of the work as a folk song encyclopaedia.
Narrations on Operas
Jiang Deming is a big fan of Peking Opera but claims that he can only sing a few lines, calling himself a “complete amateur.” His deep love of the art form means he often visits theatres and markets where he purchases every newspaper and book about Peking Opera artists he can get his hands on. Over time, Jiang became a renowned book collector, especially noted for his collection of New Literature editions published since the May Fourth Movement.
Jiang has collected many rare books and newspapers on the subject and also written commentaries and promotional essays. Liyuan shushi (“narrations on operas“) is a collection of his essays about Peking and Kunqu operas in modern times. The book focuses on tales about the renowned Peking Opera artists Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yanqiu, as well as several other performers. The offstage stories and anecdotes about these artists, in fact, are closely associated with their performances and creations, making the work highly readable, interesting and informative.
After reading several of the essays in the book, one cannot help but notice that Jiang steers clear of discussing performances and theory. Instead he setts his sights on the historical changes in traditional opera, thereby providing a new point of view for the contemporary research of traditional operas. There are very few narrative works about Peking and Kunqu operas, and not many monographs on traditional operas are written in a narrative manner, making the book popular amongst Peking and Kunqu opera enthusiasts, collectors and theorists.
The Origins and Essence of Facial Make-up
Weng Ouhong (1908–1994) was a celebrated traditional opera playwright, theorist and educator, as well as a research fellow at the Central Research Institute of Culture and History, who was noted for his lifelong relationship with traditional operas. When he was young, Weng often performed on stage as an amateur but later dedicated himself to researching traditional operas after graduating from college. He taught at the Chinese Traditional Operas School and worked as a playwright and director at the China Peking Opera Company. In 1935, he was appointed director of the Traditional Operas Reform Committee at the Chinese Traditional Operas School, where he worked until his retirement in 1974.
Weng was one of the three foremost experts on the research of facial make-up in traditional operas. He explored its origins and essence and formed a theoretical system, which is showcased in his work Gouqi tangu hualianpu (“the origins and essence of facial make-up“). The book not only recounts his process in collecting and depicting facial make-up but also presents his pursuit to create a theoretical framework for it in traditional operas. In particular, it analyses and summarises the make-up of eminent Peking Opera artists such as Yang Xiaolou and Hao Shouchen. By interpreting the origins and principles behind this make-up, the work also analyses the cultural connotations and storylines of many famous plays, thus making it a highly valuable historical reference book.
Lament for No Passing River
Peking Opera is a theatrical art form which integrates traditional Chinese culture, singing, dancing and acting. Many artists have spent their entire lives striving for artistic perfection, but only a few have succeeded. Gu Zhengqiu (1929–2016) was one of them. A natural beauty, she began performing and demonstrated considerable potential in her youth. She was noted for her gorgeous make-up and melodic voice. At the refurbished Yongle Theatre in Shanghai, Gu's troupe played nightly, their performances representing the prosperity of the past. With her beautiful voice and make-up, Gu became the most promising rising star of the stage.
At age 20, Gu led her troupe to Taiwan where they staged performances for nearly five years, consoling local audiences with their operas. Before their arrival, there was no other Peking Opera troupe in Taiwan that could match Gu's troupe, which became the first private Peking Opera group in Taiwan to engage in long-term public performances without government subsidies. Having been hailed as the “most accomplished female role player of the Mei school in Peking Opera,” Gu Zhengqiu continued to nurture young artists right up until her death.
This year, the New Star Press published Gu Zhengqiu's memoir Xiulian shishui (“lament no passing river“), which recounts the life of this legendary Peking Opera star, as well as the times in which she lived.
The name of the book is taken from a line in the famous Peking Opera Suolinnang ( The Unicorn Purse), however, Gu Zhengqiu's life contained more ups and downs than the opera's protagonist. In Lament No Passing River, Gu details both her career and love story, shedding light on the turbulent era in which she lived and allowing readers to understand the relationship between the artist and every play she ever performed.