China’s ‘an­cient rock’

Qin­qiang Opera troupe ap­peals to gen­er­a­tions of fans

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at chen­nan@chi­

When Sun Yat-sen launched the Xin­hai Revo­lu­tion in 1911 to oust the rul­ing Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) and founded the Repub­lic of China in 1912, the rip­ple ef­fects were be­yond the po­lit­i­cal.

Two scriptwrit­ers from Shaanxi province were in­spired by the revo­lu­tion and am­bi­tious to ed­u­cate the gen­eral pub­lic with ac­ces­si­ble folk art. Li Tongx­uan (1860-1932) and Sun Renyu (1872-1934) founded Yis­ushe in 1912, an arts troupe spe­cial­iz­ing in Qin­qiang Opera, the most pop­u­lar opera form in north­west­ern China.

To­day, Yis­ushe is the old­est Chi­nese opera troupe based in Xi’an, cap­i­tal of Shaanxi province, and con­tin­ues to draw crowds lo­cally and be­yond.

Qin­qiang Opera, of­ten de­scribed as China’s “an­cient rock”, is known for its in­ten­sive beats and high-pitched singing style. It started in the Qin Dy­nasty (221-206 BC) and thrived dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Qian­long (1711-99). In 2006, Qin­qiang was added to the coun­try’s list of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.

Dur­ing the 11th China Art Fes­ti­val, one of the coun­try’s largest na­tional arts events, now­be­ing held through Oct 31 in Xi’an, the troupe staged its lat­est orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion, ti­tled Yis­ushe, which tells the his­tory of the troupe.

“Un­like other arts troupes, which were founded by folk artists tomake endsmeet, Yis­ushe was founded with the hope of mak­ing a dif­fer­ence for the coun­try by ed­u­cat­ing the peo­ple who were poor and couldn’t af­ford school ed­u­ca­tion,” says Yong Tao, the direc­tor of Yis­ushe.

“Yis­ushe also played an im­por­tant role when the coun­try faced wars and so­cial tur­bu­lence, in­clud­ing the War of Re­sis­tance against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1937-45). We want to re­veal the his­tory of the troupe with the pro­duc­tion.”

Yong, who joined the troupe in 2007, also says that the idea of pro­duc­ing the new play came up in 2012 when Yis­ushe cel­e­brated its 100th an­niver­sary. How­ever, the idea took years to be ful­filled.

“We re­vised the script many times since Yis­ushe has a long his­tory and there are lots of sto­ries and char­ac­ters,” says Yong.

Yong in­vited Lu Ang, a pro­fes­sor of Shang­hai Theater Academy, to di­rect, Liu Guicheng to write the script, and veteran ac­tors from Yis­ushe to act in the pro­duc­tion. The sto­ries told in the show are based on real his­toric events while the char­ac­ters are fic­tional.

Chen Chaowu, a 47-year-old Qin­qiang Opera ac­tor and the deputy direc­tor of Yis­ushe, plays the role of Liu Tiansu, which is based on Liu Zhensu and Wang Tian­min, two fa­mous per­form­ers of­nan­dan (male ac­tors play­ing fe­male roles).

“Both the nan dan ac­tors have been com­pared to Mei Lan­fang, one of the most fa­mous Pek­ing Opera artists. They were not only re­spected for their art but also for tak­ing so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity,” saysChen.

Chen was born in Zhouzhi county, Shaanxi province and joined in Yis­ushe in 1991 af­ter grad­u­at­ing from a lo­cal art school at 22. He had been in­tro­duced to Qin­qiang Opera as a child by his grand­fa­ther, a big fan of the folk art, who of­ten took Chen to watch Qin­qiang shows. At­tracted by the mar­tial arts, Chen started learn­ing Qin­qiang Opera at 13, spe­cial­iz­ing in xi­aosheng (a young male role).

“It is the first time for me to play nan dan, which is very chal­leng­ing,” says Chen, who took months to learn it with the troupe.

“I have been per­form­ing Qin­qiang Opera for around 30 years and what fas­ci­nates me is that there is al­ways more to learn. It’s like wine, the more you taste, the more you want.”

Direc­tor Yong says: “The scripts writ­ten by Yis­ushe in its his­tory were re­al­is­tic and mir­rored so­cial is­sues and tra­di­tional Chi­nese val­ues. When we stage those works for con­tem­po­rary au­di­ences, we keep the core of Qin­qiang Opera, which still works and res­onates.”

He adds that the art troupe is now en­joy­ing pop­u­lar­ity be­yond North­west China. Last year, for ex­am­ple, it per­formed at Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Bei­jing with four full-house per­for­mances.

Every year, Yis­ushe presents around 150 shows in the north­west­ern re­gions. About half are staged at uni­ver­si­ties and high schools to at­tract young au­di­ences.

The arts troupe has also had a train­ing school since 1912. Ac­cord­ing to Yong, thou­sands of stu­dents have grad­u­ated from the school and worked in Qin­qiang Opera troupes around the coun­try.

Now, Yis­ushe has more than 90 ac­tors, and last year around 20new­grad­u­ates with­anaver­age age of 21 joined the troupe.

Wang Fengyun is one of them. She per­forms a mi­nor role— her stage de­but— inthe cur­rent pro­duc­tion.

“From this Jan­uary, I joined in the re­hearsal. Though I just play a small role, it was a great learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with those sea­soned ac­tors,” says Wang, 24, who was born and grewup in Baoji, Shaanxi province.

She be­gan to learnQin­qiang Opera when she was 11 years old and spe­cial­ized in hua dan (lead­ing fe­male role) and wu dan (a fe­male role with mar­tial arts skills) at a lo­cal art school.

“I learned about Yis­ushe when I was in the art school and dreamed about be­com­ing one of its mem­bers,” says Wang. “As a young ac­tress, I like pop cul­ture like other young peo­ple but I’mat­tracted to Qin­qiang Opera, be­cause it’s full of his­tory.”


Qin­qiang Opera Yis­ushe is staged at the on­go­ing China Art Fes­ti­val in Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The pro­duc­tion tells the story of the 100-year-old troupe.

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