The ‘Chunhua Cup’ Peking Opera Contest Promotes Chinese Culture
The annual “Chunshu ( Toon Tree) Cup” Beijing Community Amateur Peking Opera Performers Contest has a history of 16 years and aims to promote Peking Opera. The most recent contest concluded in early September and drew about 500 amateur performers and 300 Peking Opera fans. The event is becoming well established and is hotly anticipated each year.
The Zhengyici Theatre is one of the best-known venues for Peking Opera performances. A couplet engraved on the main columns in its interior reads: “Performing the sorrows, joys, partings and reunions of previous dynasties, opera characters are presented to audiences.” Peking Opera has a history of more than 200 years and is the quintessence of Chinese culture. It is also a treasure of world culture. Inheriting and carrying forward opera is an important part of revitalising traditional, national culture and enhancing cultural confidence. The theatre is located in Xicheng District, which is taking concrete actions to promote culture. The annual “Chunshu ( Toon Tree) Cup” Beijing Community Amateur Peking Opera Performers Contest has a history of 16 years and is one example.
The most recent contest concluded in early September and drew about 500 amateur performers and 300 Peking Opera fans. The event is becoming more established and eagerly anticipated.
Emerging at the Right Time
The “Chunshu (Toon Tree) Cup” Beijing Community Amateur Performers of Peking Opera Contest began in the Chunshu Subdistrict of Xicheng District in 2003. It has become a renowned, cultural brand in the city and enjoys a good reputation in opera circles.
The Chunshu Cup contest is an icon of Beijing's opera culture. Its rise is related to Xicheng's opera culture and historical background. The Chunshu area is known as the “hometown of opera” and is the origin of Peking Opera. According to historical documents, the 1.09-square-kilometre Chunshu area was home to more than 200 theatres and guildhalls. The Anhui Guildhall Theatre, Zhengyici Theatre, Huguang Guildhall and Yangping Guildhall are known as the “four great theatres.” These are valuable buildings that witnessed the origin of Peking Opera and are very popular in Beijing. Many well-known opera performers lived in the Chunshu area in the early days of Peking Opera, as it was near the playhouses in the Qianmen area. Many
famous Peking Opera actors lived there too, including Yu Shuyan, who was one of the four great laosheng (senior male role) actors; Xun Huisheng and Shang Xiaoyun, who were two of the four great dan (female role) actresses; dan actor Zhang Junqiu and the famous jing (male painted face role) actors Jin Shaoshan and Qiu Shengrong. This community helped the Chunshu area become an important part of the development of Peking Opera culture, along with its densely-distributed theatres and guild halls.
The area offers much potential for the Chunshu Cup contest. Several years ago, the former Xuanwu District undertook a programme involving “creating a culture brand for each sub-district” to explore and collect the cultural treasures scattered among ordinary people. The programme was carried forward and promoted by hosting colourful cultural festivals and activities. Various cultures were explored such as the opera culture in Chunshu area, the diabolo culture in Guang'anmennei area, the Wudouzhai stilts and folk dances in the Dashilar area and the folk art in the Tianqiao area. By combining these cultures with residents' preferences, each area formed its own distinctive mass cultural brands, and the Chunshu Cup Peking Opera contest emerged at a good time.
The first Chunshu Cup contest was held at Huguang Guild Hall in 2003. Organisers invited 34 contestants from 23 communities in eight sub-districts to join the contest. Though the amount of participants was not high, it was a great encouragement to the organisers. Yin Shuchang is an amateur performer at the Hongxian Peking Opera Club and helped set up the contest. He was satisfied with the results. Yin recalled: “The several months of preparations proved worthwhile, and we were happy to see the results. We had no idea how many participants would join the contest when we sent invitations to cultural centres. We went back and forth several times in order to persuade people to accept the invitation.”
Yin continued: “I made a speech at the contest's opening ceremony on behalf of the amateur performers from the communities. Many elder Peking Opera actors were seated in the auditorium and worked as judges. Both the individual contestants and group teams performed well. These veteran artists were glad to see that people wanted to continue to carry opera forward.” Opera culture was an important part of the first Chunshu Cup contest. Talented, amateur Peking Opera performers had a chance to get some exposure with the public. From then on, professional actors and amateurs from communities shared the opera stage. The contest offers a platform for Peking Opera amateurs to showcase their skills and compete and offers more opportunities to inherit and promote this national quintessence.
Innovation and Exploration
The contest has been engaged in exploration since its beginnings. It has always adhered to the principle of establishing its base in communities and serving the residents. It has made great efforts in carrying forward and promoting Peking Opera.
Peking Opera must be better integrated with modern life to help it develop in an ever-changing modern society and let people see its charm. Therefore, each contest has a theme that is closely linked with social context. The third Chunshu Cup contest was held in 2005. That year was the 60th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World War II. The contest that year added a modern zhezixi competition themed “resistance against Japanese aggression.” Zhezixi involves the highlights of a play and can be plays made up of short scenes from longer ones. This part of the contest enriched various content and was fresh. Contestants and audience members could learn some history from this section of the contest.
Not only a talent competition, the contest is of educational significance and is keeping pace with the current era. New themes are introduced every year. The contest in 2007 was part of the “Harmonious Communities, Happy Olympics—heading for 2008 Beijing Community Cultural Activities for Talent” series in the city. The qualification competitions were held in communities across the municipality's 18 districts. Organisers chose “The Opera of Beijing City” theme to encourage extensive participation and divided contestants into three groups: children dressed in opera costumes that sang and wore make-up, adults that sang without make-up, and adults that wore costumes and sang and wore make-up.
The Beijing Summer Olympics were held in 2008, and joy permeated the city. The sixth Chunshu Cup Peking Opera contest featured the “Grand Olympics Building Harmony, Dazzling Operas Praise the Charm of Beijing” theme. It selected award-winning performances from the previous contests to celebrate the Olympics.
In 2009, the Seventh Chunshu Cup contest involved celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. “Promoting Opera Art to Celebrate the Birthday of the Nation, Writing a New Chapter for Peking Opera” was chosen as its theme. It focused on the singing and communication of modern repertoire and collected works themed on the nation's 60th birthday. Amateurs from other cities and foreign Peking Opera fans were invited to participate and observe. Professional Peking Opera troupes were also invited to give instructions and perform.
The eighth Chunshu Cup contest in 2010 was a high point. The year marked the 220th anniversary of the Anhui Opera Troupe entering Beijing and was of great significance for Peking Opera's development. The contest conveyed the concepts of inheriting and popularising this national quintessence and featured more categories for contestants. It aimed to discover more young Peking Opera fans. Performers were from ages 5–75, the most extensive range of the event to date.
2018 marks the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up, so the contest features the “youth people inheriting national quintessence and praising 40-years of reform and opening up” theme.
Themes that reflected the characteristics of the era make the contest more interesting. People feel compelled to participate, and the content becomes more colourful and innovative. A great opportunity is provided for Peking Opera fans of all ages to showcase their skills. Groups for the disabled and care-givers convey warmth and positive energy. The children's group and family group
bring vitality to the contest. It used to be dominated by elder participants. The establishment of the innovation group opens the door for Peking Opera fans with fresh and bold ideas. Peking Opera fans in Beijing have exchanged ideas with fans from Anhui Province. The Chunshu Cup contest now features a network edition. It solicited excerpts of performances from people nationwide and launched an online voting system.
The 2018 contest featured innovation and interaction. The Opera Culture Season offered an opportunity to watch opera and other activities such as the “Peking Opera Drawing Exhibition,”“peking Opera Costume Show,”“cultural Season Logo Solicitation” and “Renowned Peking Opera Actors Performing in Communities.” The contest encourages amateurs to create new Peking Opera plays and to redefine what this national quintessence is. New ideas are collected and new concepts and elements are incorporated into Peking Opera.
Organisers encourage innovation, and Peking Opera is performed in new ways. A large symphony orchestra recently performed at the contest. The overall performance combined elements of modern “crosstalk,” a dance show and Peking Opera. New possibilities are being explored for this art form.
The Chunshu Cup contest has become a well-known event for amateur Peking Opera performers. Opera fans eagerly look forward to it in Beijing and China.
Spiritual and Physical Training
Peking Opera emphasises performers' hands, eyes and bodily movements. These aspects are embodied in singing, speaking, acting and acrobatic fighting. To inherit and develop the art of Peking Opera, amateur performers should have physical and mental training and a good platform. There is no end to this art and its learning process.
Although the Chunshu Cup is open to amateur performers, there is still a high bar that must be cleared to participate. The requirement that “all contestants sing, act and wear make-up” goes back to the Fourth Chunshu Cup. Before that, singing was permitted without make-up and acting, in addition to the section that sang, acted and wore make-up. Obviously, it takes more time for the group that sings and acts while wearing make-up to prepare for the stage. It costs at least an hour to do one's hair and make-up before a performance. In addition to differences in appearance, singing without acting and wearing make-up involves simpler requirements for performers of Peking Opera, who pay attention to vocal music and libretto. Singing and acting with makeup requires the performers to have mastered many skills. It is said that “a minute of onstage performance comes from 10 years of offstage efforts.” Performers have to embrace the plots in all aspects, such as bodily movements, singing, acting and so on. The perfect combination of singing and acting is valued. It is of course more difficult for a single person to sing and act. This regulation has put higher requirements on the community of amateur performers and brought the Chunshu Cup to a higher level of professionalism.
Now that standards are higher, will the competition shut out some amateur performers who are passionate about Peking Opera? Li Dongmei, deputy director of the Chunshu Subdistrict Office, shook her head. “It won't happen,” she said.
Instead, amateur performers who have genuine passion for Peking Opera end up improving their abilities to adapt to the adjusted competition requirements. Li Dongmei has seen a change in the overall level of the participants who are involved with the contest during the eight years since she took over preparation work for the Chunshu Cup in 2010. She explained: “In the past, many contestants chose to sing without acting or wearing make-up. After the regulations changed, they took the initiative to study it and improved the movements of their hands, eyes and bodies. There is a greater awareness of performing. The overall level of the performers has improved in recent years.”
Li's statement was verified by the Hongxian Peking Opera Society. Yin Shuchang is a member. Established in 1997, the society has gained popularity in the Chunshu area and is a frequent guest of the Chunshu Cup. For more than two decades, Yin and other members of the society have had weekly meetings. They are committed do not change this schedule under any circumstances. Amateur performers take turns singing at their events. Participants give each other feedback and listen carefully. The society has also regularly invited professional teachers from the cultural centre to give lectures. Yin stated: “Singing, acting and wearing make-up requires a certain degree of proficiency and can be difficult for amateur performers. The cultural centre's teachers help us improve our performances. In recent years, with the development of the Chunshu Cup, amateur performers from all over the country have competed with people from the society. Therefore, the situation is now more challenging. Participants need to constantly improve themselves. In addition to daily training and inviting teachers, members of the society also travel to other provinces and cities from time to time to carry out interprovincial exchanges and build ties. They aim to absorb the strengths of other groups, rectify their shortcomings and develop the ability to choreograph and create with purpose. The society has been very fruitful. They have special “playwrights” that innovate on the repertoire of Peking Opera, and their musical accompaniment is provided by members of the society.
The changes in the Hongxian Peking Opera Society are common with other groups also. In recent years, performances on the stage of the Chunshu Cup have been different from the past. In the early years, repertoires were quite homogenised. There is now more of a trend towards variation and innovation. In addition to reputable classics such as Records of the Red Lamp, Mu Guiying Assuming Command and others, there are also less-known selections such as Soup with Eight Treasures, the Blockade with the Pearl Curtain and others. Some martial arts-related performances like Stealing Silver from the Exchequer have been staged as well. Some musicians who have been involved talked about what it is like to provide accompaniment for these kinds of performances. Li Dongmei summarised: “It is not a trivial challenge, because accompaniment music is nonexistent for many selections. Contestants are trying to change their selections to avoid repeating works that other people use. This also shows that the contestants are studying and practicing hard.”
Able Persons Come out in Succession
Peking Opera is a national performance art form and cultural treasure that needs to be carried forward. The Chunshu Cup enables more and more people to enjoy the charm of Peking Opera and to help maintain and update this quintessence of Chinese culture. Chunshu Cup has facilitated accomplishments by amateur performers of Peking Opera.
Some of the cup's performers have appeared before the general public.
In the Eighth Chunshu Cup, Bateer, a five-year-old boy playing a dan role, which is a female role in Peking Opera, made his first appearance onstage. He became popular and won a “special spring branch award” in the children's group for his role as Consort Yang in Drunken Consort Yang. He later won first prize in the individual project at the third “National Opera Cup” opera competition for students in the same year and won the top prize in the project group at the competition. He has been called “the youngest male performer in a female role in Peking Opera” and “a prodigy of Peking Opera.” Bateer later performed a Peking Opera of the Sect of Mei Lanfang (18941961, a renowned Peking Opera performer) at an intangible cultural heritage evening party in Beijing. Mei Baojiu (1934-2016), a master of Peking Opera, happened to see the performance and was impressed. Master Mei then brought Bateer to various evening parties and other activities. He also personally taught him and helped him develop. Mei arranged for him to perform at the Beijing Spring Festival Gala in 2012 and 2013 as well as at the Beijing International Film Festival several times. Mei Baojiu, Hu Wenge (1967-, a renowned Peking Opera performer) and Bateer represented three generations of the Peking Opera Sect of Mei Lanfang at the 2014 Hunan Satellite TV MidAutumn Festival Evening Gala. They sang Drunken Consort Yang, which is one of the sect's classical works. The story has been popular in recent years.
Lu Wei is a Qing Yi (“black cloth,” a female role in Peking Opera) performer who was born in the 1990s and is very knowledgeable about the art form. Peking Opera has become a part of everyday life for him. Li Dongmei is proud of him. She stated: “Ever since Lu Wei and I became friends on Wechat (Chinese social media platform similar to Facebook and Whatsapp) with each other, I have seen him post information about Peking Opera almost every day.” As a staunch fan of Peking Opera, Lu Wei has participated in competitions and other Peking Opera-related events and activities about of different scales. He won the Golden Prize at the Fourth National Peking Opera Fans and Amateur Performers TV Competition. Despite becoming more popular, Lu Wei did not forget his original aspirations. As long as the sub-district office holds activities related to Peking Opera, he will always make time for their events. He hopes that “everyone can sing Peking Opera together.” The Chunshu Cup features amateur performers who love Peking Opera culture like Lu Wei and helps continue the art of Peking Opera.
“There are many stories like his that are related to the Chunshu Cup,” Li Dongmei explained. One year, the Chunshu Cup competition coincided with the first heavy snow in Beijing. Li worried that contestants from suburban districts and counties such as Yanqing and Fangshan would not be able to show up. She unexpectedly found that all of the contestants were present before the opening of the event. It turned out that many contestants checked into hotels in the area when they read the weather report, so they would not have problems with transportation.
Zhang Yijuan (1948-2018) is a senior Chunshu Cup judge as well as an opera educator a Peking Opera performer who plays female roles. She has witnessed the growth of the Chunshu Cup. Li Dongmei mentioned: “We have invited Teacher Zhang to be a judge at every competition. No matter how busy she was, she always made it and has never declined.” When the 15th Chunshu Cup was held in 2017, Zhang went to the competition, concealing an illness that she had. Zhang eventually died in early 2018. Li Dongmei became sad when recalling what Zhang. She said that Zhang had moved her and expressed the views of the older generation of artists regarding Peking Opera. Zhang witnessed the confidence of the Chunshu Cup and its ability to help carry forward this quintessence of Chinese culture.
The award ceremony for the 8th Chunshu Cup contest
Performers in their costumes