Preserving a Chinese tradition


Aficionados: As the Peking Opera fades from the limelight, a group of older people and laid-off worker are keeping this dying art form alive.

January 31, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Every morning after breakfast - even when the temperature dips into the 20s - they gather along the red-columned portico at Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park.

Gao Zhenyu, a 74-year-old retired worker from a state-run leather factory, sits on a cold wooden railing and gently strokes notes from his erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle. Next to him sits Chen Renmei, a sometime salesman, plucking away on his yueqin - a sort of Chinese mandolin.

Over the next two hours, Gao, Chen and other musicians will play for a crowd of 50 to 60 retirees and laid-off workers who stand outdoors here or in the other parks throughout Beijing to listen to a unique performing art: Peking Opera.

Some of the performers, such as 76-year-old Wang Jiru, arrive carrying handbags filled with sheet music from operas they've been studying. Others, like retired art teacher Zhou Dianyi, sing scenes they've memorized from childhood.

The performances are spontaneous. Some participants have never previously met. It would be as if scores of strangers in Baltimore gathered on subfreezing days in Patterson Park to perform scenes from "Oklahoma" and "The Sound of Music."

Yet, here in this ancient capital along the plains of North China, it seems perfectly natural.

"I come four to five times a week," says Wang Jiru, who spent three decades working in the No. 3 Beijing Chemical Factory. "I devote half my spare time to Peking Opera and the other half to playing cards."

Aficionados such as Wang, though, are fewer and fewer these days. Peking Opera, a centerpiece of Chinese culture, has become a dusty antique in the global mall.

Peking Opera emerged during the 1800s. It combines singing, mime, acrobatic fight scenes, dancing and highly stylized drama to tell stories built around ancient Chinese fairy tales and historical events. The plots and characters provide audiences lessons in moral conduct rooted in Chinese culture: In "Xu Ce Running Through the City," an official sacrifices his son to save the child of a friend who has been wrongly convicted of a crime; in "the Story of the Emperor's Favorite Concubine," the protagonist hangs herself in front of the emperor and the army to save the empire.

During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao Tse-tung's wife, Jiang Qing, hijacked Peking Opera and oversaw the creation of "model" operas, filled with heroic soldiers, peasants and workers, and serving as political education for the masses.

Peking Opera survived Mao, but now it struggles against irrelevance and competition. While people still turn out for informal performances in parks, theater attendance is down - as are state subsidies. The government gives out free tickets to its workers to fill seats. The Beijing Youth Daily noted that contemporary performances omit intermissions, to discourage audiences from leaving before the end.

In its heyday in the 1930s, and later in the 1950s, Peking Opera was one of the few entertainment options in China. Now, the choices are almost overwhelming.

They include several dozen cable television channels and Western musical imports on CD such as Celine Dion and Madonna. Peking Opera actors in embroidered robes, huge black beards and faces streaked with greasepaint are no match for Hollywood stars such as Jim Carrey, whose performance in "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" is available on pirated, digital compact disk for $1.20 on city streets.

"When I was young, I spent my spare money buying opera tickets," says Xu Chengbei, a leading writer on Peking Opera. "But young people nowadays are attracted to nightclubs, fashion shows and pop music."

"In the next century, the best prospect for Peking Opera is a slow decline. It cannot last forever."

Several days a week people like Zhou Dianyi come to the Temple of Heaven Park to breathe life into this fading art form. After her morning exercises recently, she joined the musicians for a lengthy scene from "Going to the Palace the Second Time," an intrigue set during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Bundled in a heavy jacket with her head wrapped in a paisley scarf, Zhou performed the role of Empress Li Yanfei, whose husband, the emperor, has recently died. She sang the scene, which runs 40 minutes, with two other men who played loyal ministers counseling her on how to prevent a power grab by her father.

As gauzy winter light filtered through a row of nearby fir trees, the three stood in a triangle, singing back and forth, gesturing with their hands and occasionally offering each other gentle stage directions. The crowd of about 60 stood quietly in the cold admiring their skills. "You must have a very good voice to sing here," says Liu Meizhi, 55, a retired worker from a state-run, leather bag factory. "If you sing very badly, they will all leave."

Twenty years ago, the crowds at the Temple of Heaven Park were larger and younger. Today, musician Chen Renmei appears to be the baby at 43. Chen has a deep affection for the music and tradition.

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