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  • Performing Arts and Cultural Identity in the Era of Interculturalism
  • Sun Huizhu (William Sun) (bio)

In China, 2007 marked the centennial of modern Chinese drama. Since 1907, China has embraced Western-style drama and it has gradually become mainstream. It is usually viewed as more progressive than traditional Chinese opera, which has come to be regarded as a relic from the past. However, in early 2008 China's Ministry of Education announced that selected schools in 10 provinces would implement a pilot project-new curricula including mandatory Chinese opera classes. Why has a nation so eager to catch up with international trends chosen to reinstate traditional opera in its education system?

In fact, facing increasing Western-oriented intercultural fusion, a "National [Chinese] Studies" fever (guoxue re) has taken hold in an effort to counter Western influences that have been wiping out many Chinese traditions. Nowadays, business schools join forces with Chinese classical scholars to teach courses on Confucian, Taoist, and even Buddhist business strategies, on top of their standard Harvard Business School case study textbooks. The popular "Hundred Schools Forum" of China's state-controlled central television station CCTV showcases many well-known scholars' lectures on traditional Chinese classical subjects, such as Yi Zhongtian on the Story of Three Kingdoms, and Yu Dan on the Confucian Analects and Taoist Zhuangzi. Both Yi and Yu became bestselling authors as a result of their TV stardom. In addition to her lecture proceedings, Yu quickly published a book on Kun opera, China's oldest extant opera form whose unbroken history of performances reaches back more than 600 years. However, all this promotion of Chinese classics is more about reading literature than actually performing. Even Yu's book on Kun opera is mainly an expression of appreciation for the elite artistic genre, with little on the specifics of the performance techniques themselves.

After the October 2007 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a Seventeenth Party Congress Reader was compiled by Beijing's top officials to specify decrees in various areas. In regard to education in traditional Chinese culture, the Reader says:

In high schools and elementary schools, education in traditional national culture should be carried out at the highest level. […] There should be more classical essays and poems in the curriculum. School students across the nation should all practice classics recitation

(Yu Qing 2007:295).

In this light, the Ministry of Education's new project on singing Beijing opera is groundbreaking. It shifts the focus from China's conventional means of education-reading and memorizing-to practicing.

When a culture finds itself surrounded by more powerful new cultures, maintaining traditional forms is critical, yet at the same time very difficult. For people to feel rooted in their cultural identity, it is important to find traditional cultural elements that are still relevant and practicable. The key here is practice. Daphne P. Lei in her book Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific states: [End Page 7]

Cultures change, but tokens seemingly don't; tokens offer an imaginary eternity for the culture, which is essential for identity performance. […]

All identities-be they cultural, ethnic or national-owe a great deal to performance. Such staged identity is essential in any "contact zone" of international negotiation or multicultural collision.


Performing traditional arts as a way to maintain cultural/national identity is a common practice for overseas Asians, but far less so for Chinese living in China. In the US, Chinese American and Indian American girls frequent classes on traditional dance forms from their countries of origin, respectively, although mainland Chinese prefer ballet and ballroom dance. Homesick Chinese laborers in the US in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries invited Chinese opera companies to America and even performed it themselves, whereas Chinese intellectuals back home attacked it as stale and dated during the May Fourth New Culture Movement (1915-1921). Mei Lanfang's 1930 tour of the US, an unprecedented success for any foreign performer, was acclaimed there as quintessential Chinese art, while his exquisite dance and singing skills devoid of sociopolitical content were scoffed at in China by progressive literati such as Lu Xun and some Communists.

But times are changing. Now...


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