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Boyhood Delight Leads to Opera Revival
Latest Updated by 2004-09-22 10:12:34

In 1946, 9-year-old Bai Xianyong (Pai Hsien-yung) first watched the Kunqu Opera classic Peony Pavilion (Mudan Ting) in Shanghai. The boy would never be the same again after this early theatrical experience.

"I was bewitched from that moment. It must have activated the artistic DNA inside my body," says Bai, today a 67-year-old celebrated writer, who has published dozens of novels since 1958. He earned his reputation as one of the most prominent writers of Chinese literature. In 2000, he was ranked by Aisaweek as the seventh most influential Chinese fiction writer of the century after he published his book Taipei People.

Many believe it was Bai's childhood adulation for the love of classic written by Tang Xianzu, a playwright living in the same period of Shakespeare, which inspired Bai to help revive Kunqu Opera.

The opera form, emerged some 600 years ago, is a combination of songs, dances, poetry and plays, and is considered to be the best representation of Chinese aesthetic ideals. Winning favor of both royalty and lay men, it obsessed the drama fans for several centuries during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).

In its heyday, over 100,000 fans, including performers, men of letters, officials, businessmen, craftsmen and even prostitutes, would gather at Huqiu Hill in Suzhou to spectate.

Such a scene is a long gone. Probably for its over-sophistication in artistic presentation, Kunqu Opera lost most of its attraction during the early 20th century, leaving behind bankrupt troupes and a handful of professionals struggling to keep tradition alive.

It was Kunqu's swansong when Bai saw the act, but it still cast a spell on a child destined to lend a hand in its revival.

Between the lines

Bai went to Taiwan in 1952 with his family and earned his Bachelor's degree there. In 1965, he received a Master's degree in the United States and has since taught Chinese literature at the University of California, in Santa Barbara.

Some critics say Bai's writing has a quintessential Kunqu quality - delicate and vulnerable with raw emotion. But his ambition does not stop there. He wanted to bring his muse back to the spotlight and revived the classic Peony Pavilion.

Written by the most gifted playwright of the Ming Dynasty Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), who died in the same year as the great British playwright, William Shakespeare, the "Peony Pavilion" tells the story of a young Chinese lady's chastened love in an extremely conservative society.

Du Liniang, a young lady closely supervised by her parents, fell in love with a young scholar, Liu Mengmei, whom she had only met once in a dream. Failing to find him in reality and struggling to keep the secret love from her parents, she died from pinning for her ethereal object of desire.

Even in death, she never gave up her love. After defeating conspiracies of the judges in the underworld, who planned to have her as concubine, her ghost found Liu and showed love to him in his dream. Liu dug open her tomb and brought her back to life and the two finally married after these twists and turns.

"The story was a legend of courage and love - courage despising rigid morals and love overcoming the gap between life and death," Bai says.

A Chinese woman's life at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, when Tang Xianzu lived, was ghastly in comparison with the life of today's modern women. Forbidden to appear in public occasions, the woman of that period was kept in house until she was old enough to marry. And then she would rarely know her husband as he would be chosen by her parents. They met on the night of wedding. These were rules that could not be challenged.


But Du Liniang challenged every one of them. She dared to fall in love with a man who was not appointed by her parents and she felt unsatisfied with her love fantasy and wanted it in reality; she even dared to say no to the divine arrangement in death.

"The story is also a perfect representation of the Chinese tradition of spiritual love. Du Liniang dies for a man she only meets once in a dream and is resurrected to marry him," Bai points out.

However, the love legend had 55 acts and took days to perform. It was too slow, complicated and subtle to attract an increasingly impatient audience in the hustling modern world.

Bai's love for the play pushed him to make an adaptation in 2003. He cuts the 55-act original to a 27-act stage version which lasts for nine hours and plays over three nights. While keeping the story's integrity, he uses modern theatre techniques to satisfy a young audience's appetite for visionary excitements. To help them understand the sophisticated lines, he often holds lectures before performances.

Bai has succeeded so far. In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Suzhou, the hometown of Kunqu Opera in East China's Jiangsu Province, tickets were sold out days before performances. Young audience, 70 per cent of whom never watched the opera before, were enchanted just as he had been when he was a child.

Bai believed the young generation's appetite for Chinese classic opera can be, and should be shaped, just like the way they accept R&B and hip-hop and break dancing through the TV and Internet.

Bai's efforts culminated in a protection campaign. His beloved opera was listed as a world Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO in 2001.

In Suzhou, the annual Kunqu gathering at Huqiu Hill has also been resumed. Actors and actresses perform the opera all-day long for tourists. Middle schools and universities have set up Kunqu courses and students have formed their own societies. The government is planning to set up professional schools to train performers. It even wants to build a "Kunqu Block" which imitates the scene from the opera's prime period.

"Western people inevitably mention opera when they touch upon the topic of art. Chinese need a similar cultural identity on the same subject and that should inevitably be talk on Kunqu Opera," says Bai.

Bai's version is going to be on stage in the coming Beijing International Music Festival which will run from October 14 till November 5.
Editor: Catherine

By: Source:China Daily
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