Folk Songs of a City

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Liu Haile Edited by David Ball

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.

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