An Old Art Struggles in New China


Just minutes into “Farewell My Concubine,” the Oscar-nominated film chronicling the lives of two Peking Opera stars, a strict old master lays down a sweeping claim. “If you belong to the human race, you go to the opera,” he declares to his overworked, oft-abused young apprentices. “If you don’t go to the opera, you’re not a human being.”

Judging by that standard, humanity is on the verge of dying out in this country of 1.2 billion people, for Peking Opera--the sumptuous concoction of fabulous costumes, painted faces, lyric poetry, percussive music and jaw-dropping acrobatics--is locked in a tumultuous struggle to survive.

Ravaged by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and largely ignored by today’s youth, Peking Opera is fast disappearing from the stages it once ruled throughout China. Its audience is dropping by as much as 5% a year by one estimate. If the trend continues, experts fear, one of the world’s great art forms for two centuries is in danger of vanishing within a generation.

With it would go one of the primary means by which an ancient civilization has handed down legends and values from its 5,000-year past. Through fantastic tales of everything from military conquests to the antics of the mischievous “Monkey King,” the genre has passed on Chinese history, cosmology and literature to untold millions since the Qing dynasty.


“Peking Opera is the essence of Chinese culture,” says opera fan Wang Wenhua, 70, echoing a favorite phrase.

But the art’s most avid patrons, the elderly, are dying off. China’s young have shoved it aside in favor of jazz and pop music. Theaters and opera schools across the country--similar to the harsh institution portrayed in “Farewell My Concubine,” where boys were schooled and beaten--have boarded up their doors since the Cultural Revolution. Actors who have trained since childhood to perfect their demanding craft now eke out threadbare existences.

Here in the cradle of Peking Opera, where each of the capital’s 18 districts once boasted its own performing troupe, only a single local repertory remains. Few companies mount complete operas any longer, unable to make enough money to pay the bills. “No performance, no debt,” goes one wry saying in the field.

As Peking Opera’s fortunes decline, the verdict of Fan Minbo, a Beijing computer engineer, seems to ring truer by the day. “Its time is over,” Fan, 29, says of the art form. “We’ve got to have new art for a new age. That’s how society progresses.”

Opera aficionados disagree, and are fighting hard to arrest--if not reverse--the decline with outreach and education programs. Even the central government has recognized the gravity of the situation, establishing a national Committee to Revitalize Peking Opera and sponsoring festivals and competitions.

State-run television broadcasts nightly episodes of classic performances, while some theaters have beefed up their productions with special effects and shortened story lines to attract tourists and young people--an effort that has been blasted by critics.

Devotees rattle the saber of history at doomsayers, confident that Peking Opera, because of its splendid past, cannot perish. “It cannot die out,” asserts Luo Zheng, a psychology professor at Beijing University who has pioneered a campaign to cultivate awareness and appreciation of the form among young Chinese.

“But,” he acknowledges in the same breath, “it cannot be restored to its former glory.”

The downward spiral of Peking Opera comes as its counterpart in the West surfs the crest of a remarkable new wave of popularity. Ironically, Chinese opera is prospering in the United States, including Los Angeles, where stage director Peter Sellars is working on a retooled version of “The Peony Pavilion,” a 55-act piece from the Ming dynasty that predates Peking Opera in its present form.

Art Form Born in 1790

Peking Opera was born in 1790, the culmination of several regional styles in China that hark as far back as the 13th century. Through enthusiastic imperial patronage and popular acclaim, the genre reached its zenith in the first half of the 20th century, when operas played to raucous houses of the young and old, rich and poor, powerful and humble, across the nation.

Abroad, Peking Opera has inspired playwrights and performers from Bertolt Brecht to Charlie Chaplin. Actors such as Mei Lanfang, arguably the biggest Peking Opera star in modern history, enjoyed a worldwide following. During his only U.S. tour, in 1930, Mei’s shows sold out on Broadway and earned raves in Hollywood. USC and Pomona College awarded him honorary degrees for his unrivaled skill in playing dan, or female, opera roles.

Many Chinese older than 50, for whom Peking Opera was the only entertainment while growing up, know classics by heart. They cry over “The Drunken Beauty,” about a Tang dynasty concubine who awaits the emperor’s pleasure but is driven to drink when he passes her up for a rival. They laugh at the Monkey King, whose cleverness and agility foil plots by the gods to capture him in “Havoc in Heaven.”

Youths Are Turned Off

What turns off many Westerners and younger Chinese from Peking Opera delights its older fans: the high-pitched, almost whiny singing; the cacophony of cymbals and clappers; the heavily stylized movements; and the bountiful symbolism, by which the slightest gesture on the nearly naked stage conveys meaning or action. Point to your temple, and you show your bashfulness. Walk in a circle, and you’ve taken a long journey.

“No sound is but a song, no movement is but a dance,” an opera star instructs his acolytes in “Concubine,” which premiered in the U.S. in 1993.

The movie blasts what everyone agrees is the single greatest source of devastation to Peking Opera in modern times: Mao Tse-tung’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Denounced as decadent and reactionary, Peking Opera was commandeered by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who forced actors to don workers’ garb and perform only eight contemporary “model operas” about class and anti-imperialist struggle. Actors were persecuted if they did not comply.

Famed actor Mei’s youngest son, a celebrated dan singer in his own right, was relegated to doing lighting and sound. A daughter who played male characters had to switch to roles of old ladies, said Mei Shaowu, Mei’s second son and author of a book on Peking Opera.

By the time the Cultural Revolution ended, the loss to Peking Opera was incalculable: an entire generation of young people, many of them former Red Guards, who had received no exposure to the art or, worse, openly trashed it.

“Peking Opera is an art with historical and literary components, an integrated art,” says Luo at Beijing University. “But in the Cultural Revolution, you lost so much of that. If you want the generations who grew up during the Cultural Revolution to appreciate Peking Opera, they have to make up all the lessons they missed in history and literature.”

Lots of Competition

But before the opera could reclaim hearts and minds, it was swamped by competition from Western pop culture, which flooded China after the country’s social and economic liberalization in 1979. Now, movies, rock concerts and karaoke bars draw millions of young Chinese on the weekends, leaving Peking Opera theaters empty of new blood.

“They think that it’s something their grandpas and grandmas like, so they shouldn’t,” says Wang Xiaofeng, a writer with the state-sponsored bimonthly magazine China Peking Opera. “Ask them if they’ve ever seen one, and they’ll say no.”

Luo, whose shelves are crammed with books on the art, found that nearly every one of his students considered Peking Opera’s pace too slow and its fanciful stories too out of touch with reality. In response, he crafted an opera-appreciation course with lectures and videotapes of classic performances. Dozens of young people have streamed through his weekly class since 1992, some of them inspired enough to join the campus opera society.

But the number of students in Luo’s courses pales in comparison with the 9,700 total undergraduates at Beijing University. In questionnaires at the end of each semester, many thanked Luo for giving them a better understanding of Peking Opera, though few said they actually grew to like it.

Instead, students graduate with the more pressing concern of how to land a decent job in China’s new market economy.

“Young people are more materialistic. They want to make money,” says Sun Yumin, director of the Beijing Traditional Opera Academy. The prestigious campus, once solely an operatic training ground, is now a general arts academy open to aspiring painters, sculptors and ballet dancers.

In fact, there are no schools left dedicated exclusively to Peking Opera, whereas there used to be several 40 years ago, opera buffs say. Then, talented youths were plucked from early childhood to prepare for a life on the stage, passing through an arduous training that involved practice from morning to night, under threat of the whip, to master disciplines from singing to dancing to martial arts.

Now, persuading students to enroll in an arts academy for the required seven or eight years of training can be difficult. “In Peking Opera, you don’t make much money, and it involves sacrifices,” Sun says. “So young people don’t last long.”

Despite the government’s pledge to rejuvenate the genre, annual subsidies to opera companies have dropped from 100% of their operating costs to 60% since the 1980s. The China Peking Opera Troupe, one of the country’s top repertories, receives $500,000 a year from the state for a budget that is less than $1 million. By contrast, the L.A. Opera’s annual budget topped $16 million this year.

For the remaining 40%, the Chinese troupes must fend for themselves. Theaters also must look for creative ways to remain viable, relying mostly on tourist receipts, often at the expense of artistic merit, opera fans say.

Take the recent production of “The White Snake,” a classic tale of demons, humans and the triumph of love, at Beijing’s gleaming new Chang An Great Theater. To appeal to overseas travelers and young people, the creators slashed the opera’s length from three hours to 70 minutes, emphasized spectacular acrobatic routines and added spiffy new special effects and set pieces--all unheard of in traditional Peking Opera.

“It’s a little bit like ‘Cats,’ ” said German tourist Josef Beckmann, 38, after a performance one recent windy evening. “It’s good.”

But purists are dismayed by the comparison, pained that visitors leave with a distorted view of a national treasure as different from Andrew Lloyd Webber as “The Barber of Seville” is from a barbershop quartet.

“This hurts most,” says Wu Dawei, editor in chief of China Peking Opera magazine. “You can go to the circus and see a monkey riding a bicycle. That’s not art.”

“They sucked the soul out of ‘The White Snake,’ ” adds his colleague Wang.

Preservation Efforts

For better efforts at preservation, some point to the example of the Shanghai Tianchan Peking Opera Center. Although, like all opera venues, it is struggling financially, the center--whose main stage was refurbished by a billionaire Hong Kong philanthropist--gave 234 Peking Opera performances last year to houses often more than 80% full. Ticket prices were kept low, and most of the operas were staged in traditional fashion.

To expand the audience base from the white-haired set to the young generation, the center has worked with the city and district education bureau to bring 200,000 primary and middle school students to watch performances during the past two years.

That, many Peking Opera lovers say, is the key to rescuing the art from obsolescence: recruiting the very young.

“I will encourage my son” to develop a taste for Peking Opera, says Gou Haodong, 36, an aficionado who works in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “He’s 8 years old. He likes McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. [But] I will teach him to like Peking Opera.”