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June 5, 2011

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Home » Feature » People

Opera prince's peace honor

KUNQU Opera star Zhang Jun was recently designated the UNESCO Artist for Peace.

Following acclaimed film actress Gong Li in 2000 and The China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe in 2007, 37-year-old Zhang is the third Chinese individual or group to receive this honor. The honor is to recognize his long-term commitment to promoting intangible cultural heritage, especially the Kunqu Opera.

Inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Kunqu Opera was almost on the verge of extinction in the 20th century with the boom of new entertainment forms.

As a leading promoter of the opera, the artist has spared no effort to contribute to the revival of the art form, a delicate combination of song, recital and complex choreographic techniques.

One of his most remarkable and innovative efforts is the real garden version of the Kunqu Opera classic "Peony Pavilion" which is performed in the ancient water town of Zhujiajiao every Saturday night.

In late July, Zhang plans to take the garden-version "Peony Pavilion" on an overseas tour.

In addition to his stage career, Zhang has also been engaged in promoting programs such as the Hope Project to build schools and improve education in China's poorest areas.

The artist spoke to Shanghai Daily talking about his new mission and plans after receiving the laureate.

Q: How does it feel to receive the honor of UNESCO Artist for Peace?

A: I feel humble, but at the same time so proud to get this award. It is extremely meaningful to me because this time 10 years ago, Kunqu Opera was proclaimed by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the "Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity," the first-ever Chinese cultural heritage accorded such recognition. The honor also stands for the united spirit in all the 800 Kunqu artists in China even though it just has my name on it. I'd also like to contribute this to the old maestros who taught me the performing techniques and gave me a life in Kunqu Opera.

Q: What kind of new responsibilities will you take? After receiving the laureate, will you make adjustments to your work schedule?

A: While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. I will promote national and international awareness of the importance of intangible cultural heritage and its safeguarding, including Kunqu Opera, work for wider international appreciation of intangible cultural heritage to support its educational and training activities and develop creative approaches for sharing knowledge about intangible cultural heritage.

I think it is also a life-long commitment for me to embrace the world with Kunqu, work with artists in other fields, and devote all my life to promoting and protecting intangible cultural heritages both in China and around the world.

Q: What made you stick to realizing your dream in Kunqu Opera, especially when the ancient folk art was diminishing?

A: Becoming a Kunqu Opera professional was my destiny. Although many of my former classmates quit because of the hardships, I felt I had to stay and thought I might work well when the others were not willing to do it. For years, I had witnessed and experienced those old hard days when there were more people on the stage than in the audience. I felt sad, challenged, but spurred as well.

Since 1998, I have been to over 300 universities and high schools to promote and perform Kunqu with my colleagues. And after over one decade of persistence, you'll see nowadays, two-thirds of the audience in Kunqu theaters are young people below the age of 35. What we've done is just plant a tiny seed for the future. Although tiny, we are making it possible to see the renaissance of the 600-year-old performing art.

Q: I know you are promoting Kunqu Opera not only to the Chinese audience but also to foreigners, are there different processes in approaching the two different audiences?

A: Yes. For the Chinese, Kunqu Opera is also not familiar to them due to the lack of art education in China. So it is quite hard in the beginning to get them interested and become willing to go to the theater. What I've done is try to build a bridge between the modern people with Kunqu Opera, making them feel that Kunqu Opera is not that far away and difficult to understand. Everyone can appreciate it.

As for the foreigners, the start is easier due to Kunqu Opera's recognition as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity and its long history. But they might think Chinese traditional operas are all the same. So making them understand what is special about the opera and how it influences almost all the forms of Chinese opera is a challenging task. To my great satisfaction, foreigners really appreciate the art of Kunqu and respect it heatedly.

Q: In your eyes, what new challenges does Kunqu Opera and other traditional art forms face today?

A: Traditional art forms are facing the same problems and challenges worldwide. I went to a concert in Hamburg last night, it was a really good one but with very few people in the audience and most of them were elderly people. But I don't think traditional art forms are old. With a long history they could remain until now because they are truly classical.

So to meet the challenge is to believe we could make young people love it with proper promotion and stick to the belief for 10 years, 20 years or even longer. It's easier to say than to do. But 13 years ago when I first started to promote and perform Kunqu Opera in schools, I wouldn't have expected to achieve what I have today, although we still have a very long way to go.

Q: As a father, what's your biggest expectation toward your son?

A: Just to be a good man, healthy and decent. Let him develop with his own interests.


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