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  • The Emerging Role of the Director in Chinese Xiqu
  • Megan Evans

As with so many traditional performing arts, xiqu (the umbrella term encompassing the more than three hundred regional forms of Chinese opera) and particularly jingju (Beijing opera, the one nationally prominent form of xiqu) is perceived by its artists, scholars, and fans as being in a state of crisis. Owing to a complex web of factors, including interruption of traditional conduits of transmission during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and a massive increase of competing forms of entertainment (both foreign and domestic) beginning in 1976 with the policy of "Reform and Opening Up" (gaige kaifang), audiences for xiqu, at least in Beijing,1 are declining precipitously. At the same time, companies must rely increasingly on box office revenues to support their work (Wichmann-Walczak 2000: 96–98; "Renewed theatre shakes off old image" 2004: 1–3). Thus there has been a general call for innovation in all aspects of xiqu performance to lure back audiences.

Traditionally xiqu did not use a director, and one common tactic employed to facilitate innovation was to bring in directors trained in Western-style realistic spoken drama (huaju). By the early 1990s, this experiment was generally thought to have been a failure, because most huaju directors are simply not fluent in the complex performance language of xiqu, usually marginalizing it from its traditional centrality in the aesthetic event to mere decorative addition to the dramatic text (Wichmann 1990: 158–160). More recently, however, the practice has [End Page 470] reemerged in several high-profile productions. In Zaixiang Liu Luoguo (Prime Minister Hunchback; premiered in 1997, revived in 2000) award winning xiqu-trained director Shi Yukun was assisted by two huaju directors to stage this extravagant experiment in updating jingju for modern audiences (Jiang 2000: 9). In 2003, the National Peking Opera Theatre of China (Zhongguo Jingjuyuan) brought in leading huaju directors Lin Zhaohua for a jingju production of the ancient script Zhang Xie zhuangyuan (No. 1 Scholar Zhang Xie) ("Brushing the Dust off Old Script" 2003: 1–2) and Cao Qijing for a jingju adaptation of Puccini's Turandot. Xiqu-trained company head Wu Jiang stated recently that he is not opposed to huaju directors working in xiqu. Citing Turandot as an example he explained that he himself maintained a level of artistic control sufficient to prevent many of the problems associated with huaju directors leading xiqu productions (Wu 2006). Though the production sparked controversy for its incorporation of nontraditional elements such as pop music and choreography drawn from Western ballet ("Peking 'Popera' Makes Waves" 2004), it continues in the company's repertoire and represents an important adjustment in the pervasive creative authority previously wielded by huaju directors in such projects. Nonetheless, in response to the perception that the use of huaju directors for xiqu productions had been of mixed success, while at the same time accepting the importance of the directorial function to the creation of new xiqu plays, by the mid 1980s xiqu artists generally recognized the need to develop directors specifically trained for work in xiqu (A 1983: 449; Gao 1985: 2).

Throughout this article I am purposefully using the term "directorial function" rather loosely, because what that function is or should be in relation to xiqu artistic practice is still in flux. Particularly with regard to the discussion of pre-twentieth-century circumstances that follows, I am including a broad range of practices that xiqu scholars and artists have identified as precursors to modern conceptions of the director. This approach, while not marking clear boundaries for the functions of a xiqu director, does allow for useful exploration of the strategic gains that may have been made by associating particular activities of past xiqu creative practice with contemporary concepts of the director.

The goal of this article is to examine key phases in the historical development leading to current understandings of the role of the xiqu director. Important staging practices and productions are discussed with special emphasis placed on three artists. First is Li Zigui (1915–), who began studying and performing xiqu as a child and became a famous performer of martial male roles. Because of...


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