China must make every effort to keep Peking opera alive
The death this week of the iconic Mei Baojiu is a reminder of why younger generations must learn to appreciate this great art form
Two millennia of history ensures that Chinese opera is an inalienable part of the nation’s culture. The death of Mei Baojiu, 82, a leading exponent of the Beijing, or Peking, variety, is therefore a great loss. He dedicated his life to promoting the art form that has been losing popularity to music, film and television. Those efforts, particularly the lobbying of the government to boost interest among younger generations, have given hope that all will not be lost.
Peking opera is one of more than 100 types, but its bringing together of key elements of the major varieties has led experts to consider it the pinnacle of the art. Mei Baojiu, as the son of Mei Lanfang, its most celebrated performer, was imbued with a sense of responsibility to pass on what he had learned to others. Like his father, he played female roles, a practice handed down from an era when women were not permitted to take to the stage. Those times have passed and in schools and youth groups where government-funded public interest programmes are under way, roles are now shared among the sexes.
Traditional opera was banned during the Cultural Revolution in the decade before Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東 ) death in 1976 and performers like Mei Baojiu were forced off the stage. Few survived and it is only through the efforts of a handful of masters that there has been any chance of a revival. But it is not easy to train new performers or attract younger audiences. The art requires years of dedication learning theory, technique and appreciation, with an understanding of the history and legends behind stories a critical element. It is demanding for performers, who have to sing and act and sometimes do martial arts.
Watching performances is equally demanding; it is why audiences are mostly mature. But Peking opera is an indelible part of Chinese history and culture. As Mei Baojiu and his father and other past greats of the art did, every effort has to be made to keep it alive.