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April 16, 2018

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The young give ancient opera new vitality

In a red robe and ferocious Nuo mask with popping eyes and a long chin, Huang Jinhong moves among a group of dancers to the clanging of gongs.

Huang, 10, is a pupil at the Fengquan Elementary School in Shangli County, east China’s Jiangxi Province.

The Nuo Opera, a religious ritual to ward off evil spirits, has been practiced there for more than 1,000 years. Every week, he practices for four hours.

“We only rest for five minutes before proceeding to the next practice session,” says the boy. “The most difficult part for me is the spinning, because I can never remember how many circles I should spin for.”

Minister of Education Chen Baosheng recently said that the government will bring ancient opera, traditional dance and calligraphy into campuses, and Huang is among more than 170 students in this school who take part in the weekly classes.

The Nuo ritual has been practiced for thousands of years and involves sacrifices and ceremonies in tribute to ancestors, gods and goddesses, while exorcising demons.

It spreads among people of various ethnicities along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and southwestern areas.

Nuo rituals were widely performed during Chinese New Year to expel evil spirits. Accompanied by drum and gong, performers with whips dance in black, white or red masks bearing various expressions: amiable, ferocious or fearful.

In recent decades the ceremony has become little more than a theatrical performance.

Jiangxi is famous for its variety of Nuo Opera. Whenever there is a performance in an outlying village, farmers may trek dozens of kilometers along hillside paths to watch.

Although some elderly folks are still in awe of the Nuo dancing “gods,” few today fully understand the ritual.

The Fengquan Elementary School started teaching its pupils the Nuo dance in 2002.

Teachers have written textbooks about Nuo culture and organized students to make Nuo masks.

They also invested in Nuo costumes, masks and instruments, taking students to museums on the Nuo culture.

Huang started learning the Nuo dance only half a year ago. “I play the Second King in the ritual,” he says, referring to the god in charge of floods. “I mainly dance in the middle of the troupe.”

Huang first got to know Nuo Opera through his uncle, who plays a minor character in a local troupe.

The boy says he loves the dance because “it is very good exercise.”

“I have to squat and put my sword on my shoulder a lot,” he says. “Right now I can only perform with my sword, but I will learn how to use the ax next.”

Xiao Fu, who plays Nezha, the Third Lotus Prince, says they have not only performed locally, but further afield in Jiangxi — in schools, temples and on stage.

“We perform on lunar holidays,” Xiao says. “For example, this year we performed on the Lantern Festival.”

Each performance lasts about three minutes, but it can be a lot of effort for a child.

Huang says he sweats a lot after a performance, but is very happy because “not everyone in the school can perform.”

“Even though all the pupils in the school practice every week, only the 25 best are picked out to perform in front of people,” Huang says proudly.

In the past few years, students at the school have won wide acclaim for their performances.

In 2011, for example, the little performers won an award at an evening gala in Pingxiang City, which administers the county.

In 2013, the school was honored as a pilot area for the “excellent” culture in schools program.

Xu Qifa, school president, says that long practice has instilled Nuo knowledge in students. “I believe that with our efforts, the Nuo culture will be passed on and gain more recognition.”


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