China’s ‘ancient rock’
Qinqiang Opera troupe appeals to generations of fans
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.