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Singing praises of Puxian Opera

AS a well-known clown of Puxian Opera, Chen Chun performs year-round, except for two or three days during the Chinese Lunar New Year.

"The audience expects to see me," says Chen, 45, who has been an actress since childhood. "If I fail to appear, they'll be disappointed and even reluctant to pay."

Chen is devoted to one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera. Puxian Opera, which originated from puppet shows, is listed as a national intangible cultural heritage item.

This school of opera dates back more than 1,000 years, making it 800 years older than the world-famous Peking Opera.

Puxian Opera has 5,000 traditional plays, which feature exquisite stylized movements. Some of the arias have been passed down through the generations for many centuries.

Two of its plays, "After Reunion" and "Autumn Wind," are included in China's top 10 contemporary tragedies, and one play, "Chuncao Intrudes Upon the Court," is listed among the nation's top 10 contemporary comedies. Thus, Puxian Opera is outstanding among the country's 360 regional operas.

While Peking Opera is known nationwide, Puxian Opera is popular only in Putian, a coastal city of 3 million people in southeastern Fujian Province. Puxian Opera is constrained by the fact that it is performed in a local dialect that can't be understood elsewhere in China.

But that same local popularity has made it prosperous.

Chen is the leader of the 26-member-strong, family-based Nanmendasha Troupe. Founded in 1995, it travels from village to village, earning more than 800,000 yuan (US$17,300) a year.

Weng Ruiying, 46, is more ambitious. She has invested almost 500,000 yuan in four Puxian troupes.

Also well-known as a clown, Weng started her own troupe in 1983. She sold it and went into business in Zimbabwe in Africa in early 2004. After soaring inflation there devoured her funds, she came home and resumed her old profession in late 2005.

Weng is confident about the coming high season. "We're fully booked for performances from October to next February, usually the 'hot' season."

There are more than 120 private Puxian Opera troupes in Putian, employing 3,800 people and taking in more than 50 million yuan a year, according to the Putian Municipal Arts Research Institute.

"These troupes move around the rural and urban areas of Putian every day," says Lin Gonghe, head of the municipal Performing Arts Administration Bureau. They stage more than 60,000 shows for local audiences, adding up to more than 30 million spectators a year.

"In other words, a native of Putian watches 10 Puxian Opera performances a year on average," adds Lin.

Lin says Puxian people have a tradition of celebrating special events and holidays - weddings, births, harvests, ground-breaking, completion of a house, family reunions - with Puxian Opera.

Performances also show respect and gratitude to the gods, the most important being Mazu, a popular Chinese sea goddess whose ancestral temple is in Putian.

"On the 23rd day of the third month and the ninth day of the ninth month in the lunar calendar, Puxian Opera is a must for marking the birth and rise to heaven of Mazu," says Lin.

"People used to celebrate every 10th birthday of their parents with Puxian Opera. Nowadays, some rich people do it every year to please their parents and entertain neighbors and villagers," Lin says.

Most of the spectators are elderly. They enjoy its familiar dialect, harmonious melodies, enthralling plots and endorsement of traditional morality.

"Older Putian people seem to like Puxian Opera. They may not care much about it when they are young. But once they grow old, they naturally join the audience," says Xu Xiangyang, 50, a civil servant and opera buff.

However, experts are not optimistic about its future.

"More than 120 private troupes perform old Puxian Opera everywhere and every day," says Lin Jinbiao, actor-turned-director of the municipal Art Research Institute. "But they bring down the performance quality and lower standards. Some performances are just out of shape. This will eventually lose the audience."

Too many troupes are competing for an audience and have driven ticket prices to new lows. In Putian, a troupe usually presents two shows a day, lasting for about eight hours, and only gets 2,000 to 3,000 yuan.

"We're exhausted with such competition. We have no time and energy to get better trained and improve the performance," says Chen, adding that the economic slowdown had worsened the situation.

"To survive, they have to reduce the number of actors, give up some specialized musical instruments and introduce electronic music," says Li Shangqing, director of the municipal Bureau of Culture, Broadcasting and Publishing.

An advocate of cutting the number of troupes by a third to streamline the market, Li insists it's the government's responsibility to preserve and pass on the cultural heritage.

"Private troupes aim to earn profits and have no such obligations," says Li, a member of the Chinese Musicians' Association. "The government should organize a model troupe to maintain and upgrade the art of Puxian Opera."

A model troupe should have around 100 staff and be totally or partly subsidized by the government, he says. As a first step, the municipal government provided funding to the Putian Art School two years ago to enroll 35 students free of charge.

The Puxian Opera Grand Theater under construction is expected to open early next year. With an investment of 260 million yuan, the theater will include an opera hall and an opera museum.

The municipal government has also sponsored research and preservation, including the publication of books on Puxian Opera.

"More urgent is to preserve the art of the old Puxian Opera masters lest one day they carry away their art with them," says Li.

After recording more than 40 zhezixi (episodes, the opera highlights) staged by more than 60 old masters, they are starting to record the more complicated patterns of body movements.

"I'm still busy rehearsing and recording," says 75-year-old Huang Baozhen, an inheritor of the Puxian tradition. "I hope Puxian Opera will pass down from generation to generation."

The ambitious goal: to list Puxian Opera on the UNESCO list of world intangible cultural heritage. The city launched its bid last year.

"There's a long way to go, but preserving the art is more important than the outcome of the bid," says Li.


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