Guizhou to celebrate its cultural heritage with innovative folk performances

As a guest province of the upcoming Shanghai International Arts Festival, Guizhou is presenting two folk performances to endorse its intangible cultural heritage.
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"Spiritual Charm of Guizhou" displays the tradition, culture and custom in Guizhou.

Home to sheer limestone peaks, dramatic gorges, cascading waterfalls and some 50 ethnic minority groups, Guizhou Province in southwestern China is known for its spectacular natural beauty and mysterious ethnic minority culture.

As a guest province of the upcoming Shanghai International Arts Festival held in October and November, Guizhou is presenting two folk performances to city dwellers to endorse its intangible cultural heritage and unique traditions.

"Spiritual Charm of Guizhou," a singing and dancing performance, displays the tradition, culture and custom in Guizhou. It covers the most distinctive intangible cultural heritage performances from different ethnic minority groups including Miao, Buyi, Shui, Dong and Yi.

Tong Lan, with the Guizhou Performance & Arts Group Co, feels honored to be invited to the Shanghai International Arts Festival.

"My hometown is a cradle of various ethnic arts and we hope to introduce our cultural treasures to both home and abroad via the platform of Shanghai,” she says.

Xu Jing, head of Guizhou Provincial Department of Culture, says the mutual cooperation between Shanghai and Guizhou can be traced back to the 1960s, when Shanghai zhiqin (educated youth) brought their culture to Guizhou.

Historically, in late 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of Shanghai zhiqing were leaving home and flocking to remote areas like Guizhou, Jiangxi and Yunnan provinces during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). So, for many old Shanghainese, Guizhou is their second home. One of the most renowned Shanghai zhiqing to Guizhou is writer Ye Xin.

"For Guizhou, it brought us to the world stage with our culture, while for Shanghai, Guizhou is a good place to expand Shanghai's cultural influence to inland areas," Xu says.

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Shao Zhiqing (center) plays the lead of Liu Hehe in "Maple Forest Wharf in the Moonlight." 

The other Guizhou performance to be presented in Shanghai will be "Maple Forest Wharf in the Moonlight," a traditional Huadeng Opera mixed with modern elements in performing forms. 

Huadeng Opera is a Guizhou folk art form combining singing, dancing and performing.

"Maple Forest Wharf" tells of a woman's selfless sacrifice to her family in feudal China, which is considered as a telescoped view of millions of traditional Chinese women from a bygone era. 

The heroine, Liu Hehe, raised in a winemaker's family in northern Guizhou's Maple Forest Wharf, has an arranged marriage to another winemaker, Lin Yuru, a man she's never met before. Liu's marriage to Lin, who has a daughter from an affair with his maid, Mei Xiang, starts badly and she is treated poorly. 

Eighteen years later, a young lady called Yue Mei appeared in the tiny remote town. She is talented in the art of winemaking and makes a small wine factory popular. Liu finds she looks very similar to Mei and later confirms her identity as Mei's daughter. Liu decides to reunite Yue and her father Lin and live like a hermit in the woods by herself, but the two stop her from going. When Yue calls her "mother," Liu feels really touched and decides to stay.

"I was deeply moved by the script in 2003 when I joined the team. There are no villains or strong conflicts in this play, and everyone in it has his or her own reason for what he or she did and sought," says Pan Weixing, 78, chief director of this play. "It's a story about harmony, love and humanity.  

"In this drama, Liu, who faces unfairness in her life, still has a positive attitude toward life and uses her kindness and tolerance to evoke the tenderness from people's heart. We hope, through our play, the harmony of life can be recalled and the hostility can be conciliated."

The production of this opera took nearly 10 years to make. Its scriptwriter, Zhong Sheng, says the idea of the story comes from a small village where he once lived in northern Guizhou. 

"Winemaking is the pillar industry in this village and an important part of Guizhou's development, which makes me think about a story of the winemakers," Zhong says.

Yang Xiaoxing, the music director, says: "Traditional Chinese operas in different areas differ in music. In this play, we use the specific Guizhou-style tunes but arrange them in a unique way to make it broad, fitting for a grand play. Besides the music, performers' vocal change is another critical part in expressing the mental conflicts." 

Furthermore, before each play, Moutai — a famous brand of baijiu (a strong distilled liquor) in China which is made in the town of Maotai in Guizhou province —  is sprayed around to get the audience to enjoy the bouquet and have a feeling of being in the story. 

For Shao Zhiqing, head of Guizhou Huadeng Opera Theater who also plays the lead role of Liu, this drama almost saved the dying Huadeng Opera in Guizhou.

"Due to the challenge brought by pop music, our team faced a bottleneck after 1993, the year we brought out the opera 'Wujiang Cloud and Bashan Rain,' and halted our performance for seven years," she says. 

At that time, there were many Huadeng theaters, state-run or private. But they all left the market under the great challenge and the loss of audiences. Now Shao's troupe is the only official Huadeng Opera theater in Guizhou.

It took Zhong two years to write the script, which was later sent to Pan in 2003 and attracted him to Guizhou. At the very beginning, the team couldn't afford the facilities on the stage, such as lighting equipment and borrowed around 400,000 yuan (US$59,700). They later raised another 400,000 yuan and then built their own stage.

"We had rehearsals day and night. After 26 days, we appeared on the stage," Shao says.

They got fevered feedback from the audiences, and this play pushed ahead with the development of the traditional operas in Guizhou.

Previously, Shao had played roles where she was a lively lady or a matchmaker. But the character of Liu is a big challenge for her. "I even considered rejecting this role," she says.

However, with the encouragement from the other team members, Shao decided to try it. And after throwing herself into rehearsals, she felt she is Liu and Liu is her.

"What we should do to our intangible cultural heritages is not only protection and inheritance, but innovation and development," says Luo Xinmin, the stage director. "With this play, we made a perfect combination of folk grassroots art and modern stage art."

Shao says last year that a digital film of the opera was made and it will be officially released at the end of this year. So far there are two theater chains who have signed a contract with them on the movie.


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History of Huadeng Opera

In Guizhou Province, there are five major types of Huadeng Opera — east, west, south, north and central. Performers mainly use handkerchiefs and fans in their dancing and can keep the handkerchief spinning on their fingertips for as long as they want.

According to Pan Weixing, 78, chief director of "Maple Forest Wharf in the Moonlight," Guizhou Huadeng Opera has a history of more than 600 years. And its origin can be even earlier.

About over 2,300 years ago, Zhuang Qiao, a general of Chu (current Hunan and Hubei) — a state during the Zhou Dynasty, and his army conquered Qian (Guizhou) and Dian (Yunnan), where he brought in the culture of Chu State and Yangzi River area. Mixing with local folk culture, a kind of singing and dancing has become the most widespread and popular art form in Guizhou since Ming dynasty, which was the prototype of Huadeng Opera.


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