It is a typical Thursday night for Zhang Xiurong, a freshman at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. The Shanghai native moved to the capital about three months ago to start college. Majoring in finance, she has just finished a higher mathematics class, which she found very difficult.
Now though, instead of going to the library or hanging out with friends, Zhang is heading to the university’s auditorium, where nearly 800 students are waiting for a show to start. However, this is not a show by some up-and-coming band, but instead a performance by actors and musicians from the Beijing Peking Opera Company.
“My grandfather is a big fan of Peking Opera. He likes listening to the Peking Opera songs on TV or on radio with his eyes closed, sipping tea,” said Zhang. “I’ve never been to a Peking Opera show and I wondered what it would be like.”
Besides the influence of her grandfather, 83, Zhang also gained an interest in Peking Opera from the 1993 movie, Farewell My Concubine, directed by Chen Kaige.
Starring Leslie Cheung, Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi, the film tells the story of two male Peking Opera artists in mid-20th century China. It won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.
“In the movie, the young Peking Opera actors go through hard training and even get harsh physical punishment. I am curious to know what Peking Opera performers are like in real life,” Zhang said.
Peking Opera combines singing, dancing, martial arts and acrobatics, and was once enjoyed by both royal families and ordinary people, and catered to audiences of all ages.
However, the art form, known as jingju in Chinese, with a history of more than 200 years and inscribed as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010, is struggling to find relevance nowadays.
To stop Peking Opera from dying out, the Chinese government launched a campaign aimed at attracting younger audiences. An initiative launched in 2006 by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Finance has been bringing Peking Opera to schools. Artists, from established actors to those just starting out, give lectures to Chinese students of all ages.
In the auditorium of the University of International Business and Economics, the lights dim, the curtains part, and a young man wearing long whiskers, a black robe and thick-soled boots walks slowly toward the center of the stage to the beating of drums and small cymbals.
“He looks so handsome,” Zhang whispered to her classmate.
As the actor uttered lines from Ji Gu Ma Cao, a classic Peking Opera piece adapted from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th-century novel by Luo Guanzhong, everyone in the room falls silent.
The actor sings in a firm voice, using a wide vocal range, as his long sleeves roll in the air. He receives waves of applause, which finally erupts as he concludes his short performance.
“The role I played is generally called sheng in Peking Opera, which is a male role. There are xiaosheng (young male roles), laosheng (old male roles) and wusheng (martial arts male roles),” said the actor Liu Jing.
After Liu’s performance, three other young Peking Opera performers display different parts — dan (female role), jing (painted-face male role) and chou (comic male role) — and elaborate on their performances afterwards.
“Though I had to look at the subtitles on the screen, I enjoyed the raw emotions they delivered onstage,” said Zhang, who filmed the performances and shared them via Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter.
“It was really beautiful,” said Zhang’s classmate Zhao Tian’ai, a Beijing native, who, like many young Chinese, learned the piano as a child. “It’s just as exquisite as Western opera and the band performs like a small symphony orchestra.”
“Love and hatred, vulnerability and fearlessness, life and death, Peking Opera can communicate raw emotions with sophisticated body language that no words can match,” said Peking Opera actress Yuan Huiqin, who gave a lecture at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing, which gathered about 500 students from five colleges based in the capital, including Beijing Dance Academy and the Central Conservatory of Music.
Yuan, 51, born in Yichang, Central China’s Hubei province, started learning Peking Opera at the age of 10. She is a winner of the Plum Blossom Prize, the highest theater award in China.
“Unlike Hollywood blockbuster movies or concerts by pop stars, Peking Opera is a sophisticated art, which requires the performers to practice for at least five years before they can actually perform onstage,” said Yuan.
“Audiences easily get lost while watching Peking Opera shows due to the unique rules for its techniques and slow-paced way of telling stories.”
However, Yuan said that since most Peking Opera pieces are adapted from old Chinese folk tales and historic events, the art form is not just a great performing art but also an art, which contains traditional Chinese virtues and values.
Since 2003, Sun Ping, dean of the School of Art and Research at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and a highly regarded Peking Opera artist, has proposed making the art form part of the country’s primary and secondary school curriculums.
Sun is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body.
In her 50s, she has led studies and overseas promotions of Peking Opera at Beijing Foreign Studies University and Renmin University of China. She also wrote a 10-volume series, The English Translation Series of 100 Peking Opera Classics, published by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.
“Our nation has already performed so greatly in various ways, including culturally. But for culture, more top-level policy design to facilitate the survival of Peking Opera is needed,” she said in an earlier interview.
“When we rethink the world of Peking Opera, it’s one of the core arts of Chinese culture and it should reach out to people as much as possible.”
Besides Sun, Peking Opera master Mei Baojiu (1934-2016), the ninth son of the most celebrated Peking Opera artist of all time, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), was also dedicated to promoting Peking Opera to the younger generation.
In 2009, Mei Baojiu, who is also a member of the CPPCC, put forward a proposal to introduce Peking Opera to elementary schools. In March 2012, he submitted a proposal to introduce an animated form of Peking Opera to get more teenagers interested in the art.
National Peking Opera Company, founded in 1955 with Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang as its first president, has given nearly 400 shows and workshops across the country, attracting an audience of around 400,000 students, according to Liu Rong, the director of the performance management department of the company.
“Usually we give a 30-minute introduction, which helps the students to comprehend the characters and the stories told through the performances. We also invite students to visit backstage to try on Peking Opera costumes and makeup,” said Liu, adding that the company visits schools in cities as well as remote areas, such as those in the southwestern Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.
Besides established Peking Opera artists, younger generation artists share their stories of becoming Peking Opera actors.
“Those young actors are about the similar age to the students and can easily connect with them,” she said.
Li Shiyou is deputy director of Beijing Peking Opera Company, one of the largest and most prestigious Peking Opera troupes. Founded in 1979, the troupe started working with schools to teach students basic knowledge of Peking Opera and demonstrate some classic Peking Opera pieces, including San Cha Kou (Divergence) and Ba Wang Bie Ji (Farewell My Concubine).
“In the earlier years, we sent just a dozen of Peking Opera artists from our troupe to participate in this program and now we have nearly 100 Peking Opera artists involved due to the rising demand from the school,” said Li.
Since 2014, the troupe has worked closely with three primary schools in the Fengtai district of Beijing where the troupe is based.
The number of students attending the Peking Opera classes increased from 465 in 2014 to 2,168 in 2017, and the government’s financial support has doubled during the past three years from about 4 million yuan ($604,000) to 8 million yuan a year.
“We didn’t expect the warm feedback of the students and parents, which is very exciting for us. Now, we not only provide knowledge about Peking Opera in classes but also teach them how to perform onstage,” Li said.