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Globalizing Chinese culture has been at the heart of the nation’s soft-power push over the past decade. However, a clear dilemma arises when it comes to promoting Chinese opera overseas. First, folk opera’s appeal is much stronger at home than abroad. Second, new opera lacks outstanding, globally minded works.
Chinese opera can be categorized as either old or new. “Old opera” refers to the traditional forms, such as Peking opera, kunqu opera native to eastern China’s present-day Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, and other regional operas based on local instruments and singing styles. “New opera,” meanwhile, emerged in 1945 with “The White-Haired Girl.” The style largely combines Western compositional structures with Chinese singing and is also known as “revolutionary opera.”
The sharp contrast between old and new opera has much to do with the legacy of the New Culture Movement of the 1910s and ’20s. The left-wing core of the movement, represented by writer Lu Xun and future co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party Chen Duxiu, strongly opposed so-called old opera for the way it celebrated the baseness of feudal ethics. At the same time, as more and more Chinese people were exposed to Western opera, they were left impressed by the powerful and majestic vocals that ran through works by composers like Richard Wagner.
In the 1980s and ’90s, as China’s living standards rose, opera became more accessible and diverse. At that time, it developed along two distinct paths: one that stayed faithful to revolutionary opera and another that attempted to incorporate more innovative forms and techniques. The former includes works like “The Daughter of the Party” and “The Long March,” while the latter includes “The Savage Land” and “Rickshaw Boy.”
The first hurdle to overcome when trying to popularize revolutionary opera is the cultural gap between China and other countries. For instance, in “The White-Haired Girl,” an exploitative landlord wants tenant Yang Bailao, a poor farmer, to repay his debt by giving his daughter to the landlord, to which Yang sings heartrendingly that “the skies had turned a sheet of white from the wind and snow.” However, foreign audiences unfamiliar with themes of socialist revolutionary struggle in China may find it difficult to empathize with Yang’s plight.
Meanwhile, a larger obstacle to building global appeal lies within the musical form itself. China’s new operatic style utilizes folk singing and folk musicians, but Western opera primarily features the bel canto style, made famous by Italian opera singers. Besides this, present-day Chinese works that try to directly emulate Western opera still lack technical ability, making their value experimental at best. As long as audience members remain unfamiliar with Chinese history and unable to connect with the music, Chinese opera will have trouble gaining popularity abroad.
To date, Chinese opera has been promoted abroad in three main ways. First, to spread familiarity with Chinese language and culture, the government has sponsored traditional Chinese artists to perform abroad. Since 2004, these initiatives have regularly been backed by a global network of Confucius Institutes. The government also successfully fought to gain recognition for the privileged status of Chinese opera. In 2001, kunqu was listed by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.