Fat lady sings for Chinese rural opera


When he dons his flowing robes and vivid makeup, Wu Yunhong is transformed from a labourer who toils on Chinese mountains under a beating sun into an evil general commanding an army of warriors.

Wu was raised in the Jinyuan Opera Company, co-founded by his grandfather in 1984. He started performing when he was only eight and is the third generation to carry on the tradition — but may be the last.

With crowds ageing and performers dying off, the Sichuan style of opera performed around the southwestern city of Chongqing is threatened with extinction — even as officially-sanctioned forms flourish in the state-controlled arts environment.

Some Chinese opera styles such as Peking and Canton have been elevated to “national treasure” status by the government, winning millions in funding, but others are left to wither on the stage.

“Sometimes the only young people at the performances are my wife and children when they travel with us,” said Wu, 26.

He and his fellow players receive no official funding, and between shows the actors must still tend to their own fields, growing corn and rice in a mountainous area where temperatures can easily reach 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer.

“We don’t get any support from the government, all of our fees come from the farmers who pool their money together for a performance,” said troupe member Lyu Guiying. “We make a little extra money performing, but we can never get rich performing.”

– ‘Poor peasant’ –

The Beijing style of opera, mostly known as Peking Opera in the English-speaking world, was popularised under the Qing Dynasty, which was brought down by the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

It had ample support from the court and spread because it was sung in a language widely understood across China, while regional varieties such as Cantonese, Shanghainese and Sichuanese opera stuck to their own dialects and songs.

The Communist leadership remained keen on Peking Opera after it took power in 1949, and the central government decreed every province should form its own Peking Opera troupe, even at the expense of local varieties.

A crippling blow came with the destructive decade of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing launched a campaign to cleanse the arts — all plays, films, operas, ballets and music considered “feudalistic and bourgeois” were banned.

Only eight “model plays” were allowed, chosen by the former actress declared a patron of culture, who took close control over the few troupes authorised to produce them.

It took until the 1980s before private theatre companies began to form again in China.

For a short time they flourished, but have since had to compete with new forms of entertainment that came with China?s economic boom.

“Every society has a desire to preserve its own folk cultures, however in China you have to add the very powerful political power,” said Ruru Li, a professor of Chinese theatre studies at the University of Leeds.

?First there was the Cultural Revolution and now there’s state investment, but it doesn’t include the majority of opera styles,? she told AFP.

Without official support niche styles are disappearing at a steady drum beat.

“In the 1960s there were more than 300 varieties of Chinese opera, today there are about 200,” Li said. “In 10 years’ time, maybe there will only be 100 varieties left.”

Those who still perform them have had to contend with shrinking audiences and a lack of new fans, as many young people shun farming and leave China’s countryside to look for better-paying jobs in the cities.

“I don’t want my son to grow up learning opera like I did, he needs to go to school, hopefully he can go to university,” said Wu. “He needs to learn to be cultured, not in opera, but the culture of books, or else he will just be a poor peasant like me.”

© 2016 AFP

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