Performers of shadow play, Peking Opera and acrobatics are displaying their skills at the Traditional Culture & Arts Week in Beijing. reports.
Lu Baogang can still remember the day his father died of a heart attack in 1979. For Lu, who was 15 then, it felt like sky was falling. That year, as the youngest and only son of his family, Lu dropped out of school and started working with the Beijing Shadow Show Troupe, where his father was appointed as director days before he died.
“My mother made the decision for me and I had to obey because I had to earn money to support my family,” says Lu, who has four elder sisters.
He was a top student in his class and his dream was to study in university and become a teacher after graduation.
Standing in his office at the Beijing Shadow Show Troupe, which is based in a quiet and hidden (alleyway) in the capital’s Xicheng district, Lu, 53, who is now the director of the troupe, recalls the events like they happened yesterday.
The art his father practiced was shadow play, also known as shadow puppetry, an ancient Chinese art form combining music, storytelling and puppets.
The art, which took shape in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), reached its peak in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.
The troupe celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. And during the ongoing Traditional Culture & Arts Week, which kicked off on Oct 31 and runs through Nov 17, Lu is leading his troupe to display his family’s craft.
There were, at one time, two schools of shadow puppetry in Beijing: eastern and western. Although they originated from the same source, they were different when it came to performing styles.
Lu is the fifth generation to follow his family’s shadow play tradition, whose style is from the old western school.
The Beijing Shadow Show Troupe, set up by the government in 1957, is an extension of the Lu family tradition.
Since its founding, the troupe has received support from established Peking Opera masters, including Mei Lanfang, who had invited the troupe to perform at his home many times.
“Shadow play and Peking Opera have a strong connection. Many repertoires, including
and were shared by shadow play and Peking Opera,” says Lu.
Like many traditional Chinese art forms, such as Peking Opera, shadow play has gone through rocky times, challenged by diverse contemporary entertainment.
In 2008, shadow play was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage.
What Lu wants to do is more than display this art form.
“I want to revitalize this art form. I am proud of my family’s tradition. But for decades, the troupe was losing talent and its market was declining. It would be a shame if this art form dies in my hands,” says Lu.
The troupe now has 11 actors, from their early 20s to their 50s, who give about 110 performances every year around the country. They also produce shadow puppet cartoons for television and do free shows to children during the summer vacation.
For now, Lu is preparing for
during the Traditional Culture & Arts Week in Beijing.
a new show to be premiered in 2018, which will integrate traditional shadow play with contemporary elements, like a multimedia stage set, to attract younger audiences.
But he feels that there is much to be done.
He says that by letting more people see the art form — from the performances to the techniques of making shadow puppets — people, especially the young, could be inspired by what they see and begin their own revival.
Along with Lu’s troupe, the ongoing Traditional Culture & Arts Week also features Beijing Fenglei Peking Opera Company, which celebrates its 80th anniversary; and the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe, which marks 60 years.
The two troupes are also performing their latest works at the festival.
The Beijing Fenglei Peking Opera Company was on the verge of dying in 2001, but had a dramatic reversal of fortune thanks to Song Yan, now 53, a Peking Opera actor, who is also the director of the company.
When Song became the director, he led the actors to give nearly 800 performances in 15 months, which helped it survive.
Today, 16 years later, the company is one of the bestknown Peking Opera companies in the country, doing about 600 shows a year.
The company premiered its work, at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center on Nov 1 and 2, which is about the people who rented costumes to Peking Opera troupes in the 1930s.
The show is the second of a trilogy by Song, in which he combines theater with Peking Opera. The first show, titled
premiered in October 2015. It tells the story of a father and his adopted son in Beijing in the 1930s.
Speaking about the challenges traditional art forms are facing, Song, who joined the troupe when he was 12, says: “Though they are different, there is one thing in common. People who learn these arts have to be patient and focused. You have to isolate yourself from the outside world, which is full of commercial benefits and a variety of entertainments. It takes years and even decades to master these techniques. That’s why these arts are timeless and can still be appreciated by audiences centuries later.”
The Beijing Acrobatic Troupe will present a show, which won a gold medal at the Paris’ Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain (The World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow) in 1995.
Beijing Tianqiao Zenith Investment Group Co Ltd, which manages the three troupes, says they did more than 1,400 shows in 2016, which attracted more than 400,000 people.
And in another bit of good news, the government of Xicheng district has received approval for a project to build a heritage center in the Tianqiao area, once a haven for folk arts and small businesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to promote shadow puppetry and acrobatics.
Xu Li, the deputy head of Xicheng district, says: “These troupes are national treasures, and they have performed in other countries in cultural exchange programs, introducing Chinese culture to international audiences.”
Lu Baogang, director of the Beijing Shadow Show Troupe, demonstrates how to manipulate a puppet in his office in Beijing. He believes reaching out to younger audiences may help revive the age-old art form.
Beijing Fenglei Peking Opera Company presents its work,