Sun Huizhu


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Sun Huizhu

  1. 1. Performing Arts and Cultural Identity in the Era of Interculturalism Sun Huizhu (William) 2007 marked the centennial of modern Chinese drama in China. Since 1907 western-style drama has largely been embraced by the Chinese and gradually become mainstream. It is usually viewed as more progressive whereas traditional Chinese opera, which has survived numerous attacks around the same time, especially since the 1919 May Fourth New Culture Movement, as some residual of the past. In early 2008, however, China’s Ministry of Education announced that selected schools in ten provinces will begin a pilot project -- new curricula including mandatory Chinese opera teaching. Why is traditional opera chosen in a nation so eager to catch up with international trends? In fact, facing increasing western-oriented intercultural fusion, a “National (Chinese) Studies” fever (guoxue re) has begun in China in recent years to counter western influences that have been washing out many Chinese traditions in the past couple of decades. Nowadays business schools join forces with Chinese classical scholars to teach courses on Confucian, Taoist, and even Buddhist business strategies, on top of their standard Harvard Business School’s case study textbooks. The popular “Hundred Schools Forum,” of China’s state controlled central television station CCTV, has showcased many well-known scholars’ lecture series on traditional Chinese classical subjects such as Yi Zhongtian’s on Story of Three Kingdoms, Yu Dan’s on the Confucian Analects, Taoist Zhuangzi. Both Yi and Yu became best-selling authors along with their TV stardom. Aside from her lecture proceedings, Yu Dan also quickly published a book on Kun opera, China’s oldest extant living opera genre of more than 400 years. All this promotion of Chinese classics, however, is mostly about reading literature, little on performing arts. Even Yu Dan’s book on Kun opera is mainly a book about appreciation of the elite artistic genre, not on how to practice Kun opera. After the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October, 2007, a Seventeenth Party Congress Reader was compiled by Beijing’s top officials to specify decrees in various areas. In regards to education of traditional Chinese culture, the Reader says: In high schools and elementary schools, education of good traditional national culture should be carried out really well […] There should be more classical essays and poems in the curriculum. School students across the nation should all practice classics recitation.1 Compare to all these measures, the Ministry of Education’s new project on 1 Yu Qing. “Building a Shared Chinese National Spiritual Home,” in Wang Huning, et al. The Seventeenth Party Congress Reader. Beijing: The People’s Press, 2007. P. 295. 1
  2. 2. singing Beijing opera is groundbreaking. It shifts the focus from China’s conventional educational means, reading and memorizing, to practicing, though in a very small part of the curriculum. When a traditional culture finds itself surrounded by more powerful new cultures, to maintain the former is very important, yet at the same time very difficult. In order to make people feel rooted with their cultural identity, it is crucial to find traditional cultural elements that are still relevant and practicable. The key here is practice. Daphne P. Lei in her book Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity Across the Pacific analyses a special kind of performance, identity performance. She writes: Cultures change, but tokens seemingly don’t; tokens offer an imaginary eternity for the culture, which is essential for identity performance. […] All identities -- be they cultural, ethnic or national – owe a great deal to performance. Such staged identity is essential in any “contact zone” of international negotiation or multicultural collision. 2 Performing traditional arts as a way to maintain cultural/national identity is a common practice of overseas Asians, as Daphne Lei describes in her book and as Priya Srinivasan described in her paper “Dancing Indian Diaspora: Mapping Transnational Labor Flows,”3 but far less so for Chinese living in China. In the US, Chinese American and Indian American girls frequent traditional dance classes, respectively, although more mainland Chinese prefer ballet and ballroom dance. Homesick Chinese laborers invited Chinese opera companies to America and even performed it themselves there, whereas Chinese intellectuals back home attached it as stale and dated during the May Fourth New Cultural Movement. Mei Lanfang’s 1930 tour of the US, an unprecedented success for any foreign performer, was acclaimed as quintessential Chinese art there, while his exquisite dance and singing skills devoid of sociopolitical content was scoffed at by progressive literati such as Lu Xun and some communists. Now, the Chinese government wants to use opera to promote traditional Chinese culture in the wake of western cultural products’ onslaught. Will this work? Questions arose immediately, on the print press, on internet discussions, and at the sessions of the People’s National Congress that took place in March, 2008. The most frequently asked questions include: Why are most of the 15 arias assigned to students grade 1-9 taken from modern “revolutionary model operas?” Why is only Beijing opera prescribed, ignoring the rest of more than 300 local Chinese opera genres? Can those Beijing opera arias represent traditional Chinese culture? What can represent traditional Chinese culture is an extremely difficult question for modern Chinese. A related question is whether all traditional Chinese culture is good and should be kept. The harsh criticism against traditional Chinese opera during the May Fourth Movement, though proved to be overstating and futile in its attempt to terminate it, is not completely unfounded after all. From a modern humanistic point of view, many plays in the traditional Chinese opera repertory are stale and unacceptable. Many pieces promote feudalistic doctrines such as subjects’ blind loyalty to the 2 Lei, Daphne P. Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific. New York: Palgrave, 2006. P. 1-2. 3 Her paper was delivered at the University of California’s MRG Colloquium on Asian Performance on January 27, 2008 in Irvine, California. 2
  3. 3. emperor, women’ absolute subservience to their husbands, and children’s unreserved obedience to their parents. Even some masterpieces, while demonstrating great spiritual power and strong artistic originality, still cannot help but betray their backward ideology. For example, The Orphan of Zhao Family, China’s very first play ever introduced to the West and a favorite Chinese art work of such dignitaries as Voltaire and Goethe, is a Yuan dynasty drama about a series of people giving up their own lives and/or their child’s life, in order to protect a half-month old royal heir. The problem is not whether people should sacrifice their lives for another one -- Steve Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan also tells a story of several soldiers trading their lives for another. The problem is that all the characters sacrifice their lives only because they believe the late emperor’s infant son is infinitely more important than all other people for his destiny of becoming a wise and loving emperor. Whether or not people should sacrifice their lives for another one is a question never asked in the play, but is asked in Voltaire’s rewriting of the play called The Orphan of China. When a mandarin offers his own infant son to trade for the royal orphan’s life, his wife interrupts him, arguing that every child’s live has the same value. In spite of the new title, The Orphan of China, this character is more like a European woman than someone living in ancient China. In making such a crucial change, Voltaire exposes am unfortunate and undeniable defect in the traditional Chinese culture: subordinating people’s lives to the rigid feudalistic order. One may say The Orphan of Zhao Family can represent traditional Chinese culture, but do we want our children to take its characters as role models? Another type of Chinese operas that can represent traditional Chinese culture poise another type of dilemma. The Peony Pavilion, for example, is an extraordinarily ingenious take on the Confucian restrictions on young people’s private lives and promotes free love. A best example in traditional Chinese theatre of exquisite poetry fused with strong rebellious spirit, it is full of arias like this: The spring a rippling thread Of gossamer gleaming sinuous in the sun Born idly across the court. Pausing to straighten The flower heads of hair ornaments, Perplexed to find that my mirror Stealing its half-glance at my hair Has thrown these “gleaming clouds” Into alarmed disarray. Walking her in my chamber, How should I dare let others see my form!4 They are often too flowery in imagery and too slow in pace for today’s school children to appreciate, still less to sing together in classrooms. That is why The Peony Pavilion, the best Chinese opera work according to most scholars, was not chosen as a representative of traditional culture to be sung in schools. What the selectors wanted 4 Tang Xianzu: The Peony Pavilion, trans. Cyril Birch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980, P. 43. 3
  4. 4. was arias with faster pace and more down-to-earth content so that school children, most of whom have never been exposed to traditional Chinese opera, would not be alienated. These types of arias can be found in two categories: one is so-called small genres of southern Chinese operas such as flower and drum opera, Huangmei opera, and tea-picking opera; the other is modern Beijing opera. The problem with the former is their use of local dialects, not Mandarin as in Beijing opera. That is why so many modern Beijing opera arias were chosen. “Children of the Poor Become Sensible Sooner,” for example, though an aria taken from Story of Red Lantern about a communist railroad worker fighting the Japanese invaders, can still make sense today, because there are increasing number of spoiled children. “Smart Repartee” is from another WWII period Beijing opera Sha Jia Bang, eulogizing communist fighters, but this aria is a suspenseful trio sung by an underground communist disguised as a teahouse owner, her petty warlord customer, and his chief of staff trying to make him side with the Japanese. Despite its stigma of model opera linked to Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s wife, and the notorious Cultural Revolution, it is oftentimes a favorite piece in variety shows in recent years. While these arias are more accessible and likeable to today’s school children, however, they contain relatively little elements of traditional Chinese culture. Some of them, such as “Carry the Red Flag on Our Shoulders” from The Red Women’s Brigade, are explicitly propagandistic, delivering a militant message of class struggle: “We must bury all those counterrevolutionaries like the Southern Lord and the Northern Lord.” That is why so many people have publicly opposed the choices of the Ministry of Education. Facing the dilemma between the slow and sometimes stale traditional opera and the fast and militant revolutionary modern opera, how can Chinese opera be performed by today’s school children and help them maintain national/cultural identity? The answer can be found in the body, which is indispensable in any performance. In the past couple of decades, the body has become an increasingly popular topic in western academia, especially in performance studies, gender and queer theories. In my version of performance studies, social performance studies, focusing on the social dimensions of performance, there is a need for a different type of body theory, one that addresses physical training in general education. I concur with Terry Eagleton’s argument that contemporary cultural theory has ignored the “starving body” in favor of the sexual body. Yet my focus here is not on the “starving body” either. As a matter of fact, it is precisely because the majority of Chinese people have forsaken the starving bodies, that the “performing body” is to be examined. In his book After Theory, Eagleton also says that “the body is a wildly popular topic in US cultural studies - but this is the plastic, remouldable, socially constructed body, not the piece of matter that sickens and dies”5. In fact, the Chinese have also reached a point when they should take a serious look at their “socially constructed body.” This is not necessarily the surgically remoulded, pierced, or tattooed body, but physically trained body. 5 Terry Eagleton, After Theory. London: Basic Books, 2003. P. 9. 4
  5. 5. Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment examines mostly negative examples from prisons and hospitals, etc. that hurt humans’ well beings. But discipline and punishment are not always bad for human development, as we can see in Beijing opera and other traditional Chinese operas. Those who have trained in Chinese opera, be it Beijing opera or other genres, usually look better in sitting, standing, and walking, their bodies engrained with more aesthetic mannerism than most people who haven’t had such training. When I was teaching in the US, one day my students told me that they were amazed at Fan Yisong, a Chinese visiting professor, because they had seen him sit in a beautiful pose, without touching the back of his chair, throughout a three hour rehearsal period while watching them. Fan was completely unaware of the students’ gaze, and was later surprised to hear they call it a miracle. His six years’ training at the Chinese Opera School in Beijing had made disciplined pose part of his “second nature,” even though he had left the Beijing opera circles for almost two decades. And his pose is distinctly Chinese, not that of a ballet dancer, nor of a boxer. Today’s school children across China could all benefit from this kind of operatic manner if they take some body training consistently. Since the May Fourth Movement brought down Confucianism as the dominant ideology, discipline of manners in domestic education, which used to be a crucial part of the Confucian Rites, has lost its ground. The 1949 revolution and the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution have further wiped it out. Without a proper training on manners, nowadays most children get their manner lessons mainly from the ever-changing fashions on television, mostly from the West. British director Peter Brook believes that the body is a very important cultural embodiment. He says: “The instrument of the body is the same throughout the world, what differs are the styles and cultural influences.”6 He particularly admires some traditional Asian ways of training the body: Japanese children have infinitely more developed bodies than those in the West. From the age of two, a child learns to sit in a perfectly balanced manner between two and three, the child begins to bow regularly, which is a wonderful exercise for the body. […] When I took my daughter, then three or four years old, to a dance class, I was appalled by the state of the bodies of the children. I could see children of her age already stiff, without rhythm. […] Today’s children, spending hours motionless in front of a television set, go to dance classes with bodies that are already rigid. The instrument that is the body is not as well developed with us during childhood as in the East.7 Unfortunately, Brook’s generalized and romanticized “East” is not always so good in body training, at least in China now. The lack of body training Brook sees in the West is no less serious in China. Fortunately, however, we still have a living tradition of Chinese opera that can be utilized to help school children regain the cultural instrument of the body. Another advantage the Chinese children have is the 6 Peter Brook, The Open Door, London: Anchor, 2005. P. 20 7 Ibid, P.20-22. 5
  6. 6. 57-year-old tradition of “broadcast exercise,” a unique national physical exercise practiced in all Chinese elementary and secondary schools, usually at the same time of the day when the national radio station broadcasts the music from millions of loud speakers to accompany the standardized exercise. In the past five plus decades this exercise has been used only as a part of the physical education for health reasons, not for cultural and artistic reasons. Therefore its style is neither male nor female, neither Chinese nor western. In other words, it is a ten minute collection of robotic movements of torso and limbs, often boring children because it is mandatory and repetitive. If this exercise is re-choreographed as a work of performing art, not merely a physical exercise, it can not only be more attractive to the dancers, but also carry more cultural meanings that will enrich their spiritual and community life. This artistic work will no longer be a unisexual, unicultual mechanical body exercise, but be in line with a composite style of Chinese opera – including Beijing opera and many other local operas’ movement patterns, and some martial arts style as well. It will be divided into at least two types, for male and female dancers. Is it a utopian fantasy to recreate a nation-wide physical version of Chinese opera for today’s school children? Can the 50+ year old national broadcast exercise be replaced by an artistic one? There is an encouraging case similar to what I propose here. In the Tujia Ethnic Autonomous Region of Changyang, Hubei province, the traditional ritual funeral dance (accompanied by music and singing) has been reformed into an elite aesthetic dance genre called Bashan Dance to be performed on stage by professionals. Then it evolved again into a mass dance/exercise form called Bashan Exercise to be performed in public squares and school playgrounds, where it replaces the standard broadcast exercise. It not only makes the physical exercise much more interesting, often alluring groups of grownups to dance spontaneously and endlessly, but also helps carry on the Tujia cultural heritage in an age of cultural washout.8 What Tujia people have achieved with their ritual dance can also be done with Chinese opera on a larger scale. From today’s perspective, the value of Chinese opera is more in the embodied cultivation than in their arias/stories. When the choice of arias/stories/genres has encountered so much difficulty in terms of ideology and regional preference, it is even more necessary to focus on the physical aspect rather than on the singing of Chinese opera. The 300 plus Chinese opera genres differ greatly from each other in dialect and music pattern. By comparison, their physical movement patterns based on certain character types are much more similar with each other. Focusing on the physical aspect of Chinese opera has another advantage. The stylized movement in Chinese opera is often more expressive than realistic acting originated in Europe, therefore it can be a strong means in rendering certain new stories, including those from the West. It is also easier for Chinese opera’s physical aspect to transcend cultural barriers than the vocal side, as my experiments in a Beijing opera style version of Othello and a Yue opera version of Hedda Gabler have 8 Li Li. Negation of Negation:From Ethnic Tujia People ‘s Funeral Dance to Bashan Exercise. Dissertation, Shangahai Theatre Academy, 2008. 6
  7. 7. demonstrated. 9 Performing Chinese opera with western stories, with or without singing, could be a very effective way of cultivating national identity, and embracing interculturalism in the same time. I believe this argument can also apply to other traditional Asian performing arts. 9 Faye C. Fei and William H. Sun, “Othello and Beijing Opera: Appropriation As a Two-Way Street,”TDR: The Drama Review, 2006, spring. 7