A New Era of Peking Opera
Youngsters across the city are joining extra-curricular clubs for Peking and Kunqu operas. This allows them to learn more about Chinese culture whilst having fun performing on stage.
In September 2018, the “National Rhyme • Handsome Youth of Western Beijing”—first In-school Young Adult Special Peking Opera Performance ushered in its climax with the speech entitled part “Pursuing a Brighter Future for Peking Opera.”
“Since Anhui Opera troupes first came to the capital city, 200 years have passed and numerous artists have taken the stage. Our predecessors were committed to carrying forward Peking Opera, a brilliant pearl of the Chinese nation that delights people all over the world. Young though we are, we can play a part in following that tradition while seeking new development. Please set your minds at ease, our dearest adult audience. You will hear our loud and clear voices, see our fine physiques and professional poses. We will spare no effort to learn Peking Opera and take it to a higher stage by bringing forth the new through the old, carrying on the past while opening a way for the future, and pursuing both artistic ingenuity and moral integrity.”
The first performance of its kind, over 90 students from 10 primary and middle schools in Mentougou District performed six original Peking Opera repertoires for audiences.
Here, in western Beijing, youth who love traditional theatre sing beautiful Peking Opera with devotion. In their interpretation of stories ancient and modern, these teens are passing on Chinese virtues, promoting the embodiment of Chinese culture and spreading the culture of Peking Opera, allowing the seeds of this quintessentially Chinese pastime to take root and flourish in the hearts of the younger generation.
Young yet Promising Actors
The special performance began with the play Monkey King. Escorted by crowds of “monkeys” in yellow costumes, one short actor took the stage and vividly performed a clever, righteous and bold Monkey King with singing and movement on par with a professional. The marvellous performance enraptured the audience to thrilled ovations. Between the applause one audience member commented, “We really owe it to those primary school students for that superb performance. There's no doubt that they must have practised very hard offstage.”
The second play, Liuli Zhao, is a new historical play that carries forward the virtue of the Chinese nation. Located in Mentougou District, Liuliqu Village was once where coloured glaze ( liuli in Chinese) products were produced in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644– 1911) dynasties. After the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, coloured glass products from Liuliqu were used in many important buildings, such as the Great Hall of the People, Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the National Museum. Liuli Zhao introduces the history of the wellknown Nine Dragon Wall, revealing the production process for glazed tiles while depicting the contribution the Zhao family has made to the Chinese nation during the last 400 years, their hearts putting the affairs of the state first. Seeing the young primary school actors cooperate so well on the stage brought the Zhaos' patriotism and family traditions to life.
To highlight the main theme of the times, Mentougou District specially created the anti- corruption themed play Assuming Office. The play has been performed on many occasions and won the Gold Award at the Beijing Sunshine Youth Art Festival. In the play, the mother of Chief Justice Yao Liang determines whether her son can handle cases impartially through a trivial matter. After understanding the good intentions of his mother, the Chief Justice makes his position known, swearing to serve as a righteous upholder of the law. The two 9-yearold actors portraying Yao Liang and his mother boasted great expressive force on the stage.
Young actors presented the vicissitudes of life on the stage throughout the performance, offering the audience a feast for the eyes—and ears. Unlike the previous three plays, the fourth— He Cried and the Bamboo Sprouted— made audiences shed silent tears. Adapted from The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, the opera discusses filial piety, one of the foundational traditional ethical behaviours of the Chinese nation which has long been highly praised by many ancient sages.
Modern teenagers also shoulder a responsibility to carry forward the tradition of filial piety.
Kong Rong Giving up Pears is the earliest national play created and rehearsed by Mentougou District. The libretto of its core aria “How Hard It Is to Take 100 Years to Educate People” adopts the form of the sevencharacter sentence of traditional Peking Opera while the tune itself runs the gamut of musical styles, speaking nothing of the classic moves of Peking Opera. The play has drawn accolades during the National Play Cup opera competition and Beijing Arts Festival alike.
The last act of the performance, Bricks Worn away by Princess Miaoyan’s Footprints, showcased the results of the students in Mentougou studying the national play. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Princess Miaoyan went out to battle with her father Kublai Khan (reign: 1260–1294). After witnessing the cruelty of war, she decided to become a nun at Tanzhe Temple in today's Beijing to atone for her father and pray for peace. There, she prayed in the Avalokitesvara Hall every day. As time passed by, her footprints were left on the brick floor. Now the bricks worn away by the princess's footprints are enshrined at Tanzhe Temple in western Beijing, a treasured monument.
General Secretary Xi Jinping once said: “The classics should be embedded in the minds of students and become the genes of Chinese national culture.” To further implement the spirit of the National Education Conference, the Mentougou District Education Commission has taken the lead in bringing national plays into the classroom, including Peking Opera in school textbooks and establishing Peking Opera classes and clubs in primary and secondary schools.
A head of the Mentougou District Education Commission remarked that the youngest actor participating in the special performance was only eight years old. In truth, the performances of these children are protecting the nation's quintessence while showcasing traditional virtue. In recent years, many schools in Mentougou have set up opera courses and popularised traditional Chinese culture like Peking and Kunqu Opera at school through “3:30 After Class” club activities. So far, more than 3,000 students from over 10 schools have studied opera. Some of these young actors have even staged many Peking Opera performances, winning municipallevel awards.
‘3:30 After Class’ Opera Club
Peking Opera embodies the essence of traditional Chinese culture. Chinese opera culture has a long history, its many forms from previous dynasties all providing essential nutrients for the formation of Peking Opera. Influenced by various artistic elements, though it formally came into being in the 19th century, Peking Opera boasts a core spirit of Chinese culture that has lasted over 2,000 years. In addition, Peking Opera complements classical art such as poetry, calligraphy and
painting and the aesthetic tastes of the Chinese people. As a performing art it tends to combine the virtual and the real, breaking the space and time constraints of the stage with comprehensive roles, mature performances and magnificent vigour. Peking Opera today is not merely a type of opera—it is an encyclopaedia of Chinese civilisation. So what makes young boys and girls fall in love with that thick tome of civilisation? Ask any young performer and they will give the same answer—“3:30 After Class.”
In recent years, Mentougou has popularised traditional Chinese pastimes such as Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera through their “3:30 After Class” club activities. Many children begin to learn and perform Peking opera from the day they step into primary school.
“Before I went to school, I thought Peking Opera was just about singing and posing. After joining the club, I became much more interested in Peking Opera. For me, the most impressive thing about Peking Opera is its beautiful singing and deep meanings, from which I can recognise some traditional virtues,” said Liu Yichen, a 10-year- old actor who played the lead role of Meng Zong in He Cried and the Bamboo Sprouted.
Liu joined the opera club in first grade. Five years later, he now can sing dozens of Peking Opera arias and has played several roles. Though the aria for the special performance was a full 10 minutes and featured stylised movements and singing, Liu delivered a stellar performance due to his years of learning the basics.
Fifth grade student Zhang Jiashu portrayed a teacher in the play Kong Rong Giving up Pears. Young as he is, he looked experienced and reserved. Zhang was attracted to Peking Opera when he was still in preschool. It was then that he began watching TV shows about traditional opera, learning about the roles and background of Peking Opera. “I fell in love with Peking Opera when I was very young thanks to its costumes, tunes and stories.” Zhang tells us, “After joining the club, I got to learn more about Peking Opera. My favourite role is laosheng (old gentleman).” He began learning and practising the play Kong Rong Giving up Pears in first grade, saying that by taking roles in the play, he can learn their virtues, such as patriotism, respect for the elderly and love for the young.
Taking after his grandmother, Ai Zijie has been fond of Peking Opera since he was very young. At the special performance, he played the leading role in Liuli Zhao. Preferring the tunes of Peking Opera to the look of its roles, Zijie remarked that the music could express the emotions of the roles. He also spoke more highly of Peking Opera than popular music. As the young artist puts it, the content and meaning behind Peking Opera is profound, with an endless amount of things to learn, forming the unique charm of Peking Opera.
The more one savours Peking Opera, the more beautiful it becomes. This is what makes Peking Opera a quintessential element of Chinese culture. Through the efforts of teachers and educators alike, children are discovering their talents and interests through Peking Opera.
The beauty of Peking Opera can only be experienced when one is calm and relaxed. Yet with people becoming more rushed as science and technology continues to develop with each passing day, Peking Opera is gradually fading away while fast consumption becomes mainstream. Facing this dilemma, insightful experts have begun taking action, regarding schools as the foundation for Peking Opera's revival.
Behind the scenes of the special performance, one person was busy guiding the stage settings and dressing the little actors. That person was Liu Baohuan. Sixty- twoyear- old Liu serves as the director of Beijing Yingguan Yide Culture Development Centre and secretarygeneral of the Mentougou District Opera Association. During the past eight years, she has been committed to popularising Peking Opera at school. Around the age of eight, Liu was attracted to Peking Opera
and she has felt a responsibility to promote the art ever since.
Mei Baojiu (1934–2016, Peking Opera artist) once proposed that opera should go into the classroom and enlighten children with traditional virtues conveyed in opera stories like humanity, justice, propriety and wisdom. Inspired by Mei's proposal, Liu made her mind to bring Peking Opera into schools.
Rejuvenating Peking Opera requires support from the government and schools and the participation of professionals and social elite. After learning that many opera college graduates were troubled by employment difficulties, Liu made a plan to persuade them into joining her team, knowing that these professionals could provide professional training to children at primary and secondary schools. “Peking Opera is our treasure,” Liu says: “We can't teach them haphazardly, an understanding of the basics is fundamental. That is what I think, and that is what I do.”
In March 2010, Liu went to Heishan Primary School in Mentougou with two colleagues, newly graduated from the opera academy, with the hopes of promoting Peking Opera at the school. Their intentions were strongly supported by President Chen of Heishan Primary School and recognised by the Mentougou District Education Commission.
Liu recalls, “I was very impressed by the words of President Chen then. He said, ‘Although I can't sing Peking Opera, I believe it should be promoted among children as part of traditional culture.' He was happy to make room for Peking Opera for the children at school.”
With that vote of confidence, Liu and her team began their initial attempts at Heishan Primary School. They held auditions for each first grade class, forming two special classes for boys and girls learning Peking Opera. Their lectures began with instilling a basic understanding of Peking Opera, what kind of opera it is, and its definition and history. A few classes later, Liu found that the children were enamoured with Peking Opera, giving the team insurmountable confidence.
“Peking Opera is a defining national art and part of traditional culture, but it's gradually fading from modern society. The parents of today's children aren't fully exposed to Peking Opera because they lack a fundamental understanding of Peking Opera. We're trying to prevent that from happening with this generation,” Liu continued, “The fact that many children like Peking Opera shows that these traditional arts still have the power to move people. There simply haven't been opportunities for it to enter people's lives. Peking Opera allows children to learn traditional culture, to learn what it means to be Chinese, and gives them a delight not available in regular class that illuminates their hearts.”
After successfully bringing Peking Opera into their first school, associated social organisations, schools, district education commission and enthusiastic Peking Operas fans began to create and adapt plays suitable for children to perform. The newly adapted play Kong Rong Giving up Pears earned the praise of Li Chonglin, visiting professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts and national first- class playwright. “Characterised by originality and Peking Opera culture, the play has opened an artistic channel to children's minds.” Li commented, “Though the children haven't studied Peking Opera for long, their performance
was marvellous. This original script carries with it the great civilisation of the Chinese nation, and now children remember and promote its precious virtues at a young age.”
Zhang Ya, head of the Sports and Arts Department of Mentougou District Education Commission, said, “We want children to pass down this national heritage out of interest and love, not from being ordered to. It's not easy to create or adapt new plays, so we've cooperated with other circles. As a huge fan of Peking Opera, Ms. Liu Baohuan has been enthusiastic about passing down the art to children. Several plays of the special performance were created or adapted by Mr. Li Chonglin, who also serves as our chief director. It's been a joint effort from all parties that's contributed to today's desirable results. Speaking of bringing opera into schools, I believe aesthetic education comes first. To educate children with art and culture is right at the heart of our thinking. We want our children to be able to master artistic skills, appreciate artwork and pass on good values.”
School-based Opera Popularisation
General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed at the 2018 National Education Conference that the government should comprehensively strengthen and improve aesthetic education at school and adhere to aesthetic- and culture- based education. According to the Beijing Municipal Education Commission's work plan to promote opera in schools, the Mentougou District Education Commission has taken the lead in implementing the project.
Heishan Primary School, the first school in Mentougou to promote Peking Opera, has been at the forefront of the campaign for eight years. Courses in understanding Peking Opera are available to first and second grade students, while third to sixth graders can participate in Peking Opera Clubs and take instrument playing courses. Its student actors, school textbooks and plays have been awarded several municipal- level and district- level honours. In May 2016, the school became the intern instructor and student base of the Beijing Vocational College of Opera and Arts. In January 2017, the school was recognised as an Art Education Featured School in Beijing. Through its eight- year trial run, Heishan Primary School has become a model for promoting Peking Opera in schools, setting an example with promising results for the whole district.
Dayu No. 1 Primary School and Beijing No. 2 Experimental School Yongding Branch School have since followed suit by establishing Peking Opera courses and participating in related performances and competitions. Thus far, both schools have had remarkable results.
School-based national plays integrate Peking Opera courses with school culture and subject matter. It teaches Peking Opera rhyme and culture while passing on both national and socialist core values. Boys and girls at school are taking on the task of reviving this quintessentially Chinese art by studying Peking Opera. As chrysanthemums bloom, Mentougou too is immersed in the fragrance of their blossoms and Peking Opera this autumn.
Chen Jiangfeng, director of the Mentougou District Education Commission, said with delight: “The district education commission will organise a special school-based opera performance every year from 2018. Through the professional creation and adaptation of plays, the campaign will further connect the classroom with the stage and strengthen student understanding of opera while promoting traditional culture.” The district education commission will further deepen its reform of schoolbased aesthetic education. Eight district-level fine arts projects and studios, and 15 district-level opera featured school alliances are set to be established alongside continuous improvement to the education system. The commission will also be coordinating social resources and building an interactive school-familysociety education mechanism, which promises to foster and implement the core values of socialism while cultivating socialist builders and successors who have open minds, elegant taste, cultural confidence, national sentiment and innovative spirits.
Participants in the ”National Rhyme • Handsome Youth of Western Beijing”—first In-school Young Adult Special Peking Opera Performance
Applying make-up for a young performer
A new production of the historic play Liulizhao
A young actor singing in the First In-school Young Adult Special Peking Opera Performance
Bai zhuan, a play showcasing the culture of Mentougou District
Child performers display their acrobatics skills in the play The Monkey King.