- Yuanyang Zhong (Mandarin Duck Tomb)
In the current context of "xiqu (Chinese opera) in crisis," performances are opportunities for diagnostic investigation by xiqu artists and fans who search for signs of artistic health. In late 2006, during a five-week stay in Beijing, the clearest evidence I had that jingju (, Beijing/Peking opera), while certainly not thriving, is far from dead was the performance of Yuanyang zhong (, Mandarin Duck Tomb) starring the National Peking Opera Company of China's (, Zongguo Jingjuyuan) performer of young female roles, Zhang Huoding (b. 1971), at Beijing's Chang'an Grand Theatre in November 2006. One prong of the strategy to attract xiqu () audiences is revivals, directly counter to the more common focus on innovation and importation. Spurred by increasing national and cultural pride engendered by China's phenomenal economic growth and international importance, symbolized most potently by the run up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, xiqu artists have been delving into the rich repertoire of plays with "counter-revolutionary" or "feudal" elements that have not been seen in live performance for decades. Mandarin Duck Tomb is such a play.
When I attended the Chang'an Grand Theatre in 1999, it had barely been open three years but had already become the prominent venue for Beijing opera performance in the city, though this status is being challenged by the recent November 2007 opening of the National Peking Opera Company's [End Page 363] Mei Lanfang Grand Theatre. The Chang'an Theatre staged regular performances by Beijing's major resident xiqu companies as well as presenting troupes from around China required to perform in Beijing to be eligible for prestigious national awards. Housed in a high-rise office building on the multi-lane boulevard due east from Tian'anmen square and a quick walk from the subway station, the Chang'an Grand Theatre is in an excellent location to attract both local and tourist audiences. Unfortunately, in 1999 it shared the building with a bar that pumped rock music at volumes so loud the bass beat was often clearly audible in the theatre during performances. By 2006, the bar had been replaced by a much less aurally intrusive health club and theatre management was working to serve both xiqu fans and tourist audiences with a varied program. (Zhao 2006)
At the performance I attended of Mandarin Duck Tomb, the house was near capacity with Chinese patrons. I was seated in the balcony, able also to view the spectators below. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of "black hairs," a term used to connote younger audience members, and even more delighted to find an older man seated on my right and a young man in his twenties on my left. The older man was a dedicated opera fan, toting a small recorder to tape his favorite arias along with which he hummed quietly during the performance. I recognized a number of the younger people in the balcony as students from the Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (Zhongguo Xiqu Xueyuan), where I was observing classes. It was not surprising to find young people training to become professional performers in the audience. But the young man next to me had no such direct connection. An entrepreneur with his own wedding planning business in the neighboring city of Tianjin, he said that he had never studied xiqu performance. Rather, he was simply a fan—especially of Zhang Houding, having adjusted his business travel to allow him to attend this performance. As the older man on my right repeated the "xiqu in crisis" mantra, that young people are not interested in xiqu, I pointed to the conflicting evidence in the audience surrounding us, and the younger man offered his perception that increasing numbers of his friends were becoming interested in xiqu.
I first saw Zhang Huoding perform in 1996 when jingju companies, motivated by edicts from the central government's Ministry of Culture, were pushing to give young actors substantial performance opportunities as a strategy for reinvigorating the form. At a...